How to Spot a League Winner in 2023: RBs (Fantasy Football)
The phrase “league winner” gets bandied about a lot in fantasy football circles, often carelessly. Sometimes, analysts use this phrase as nothing more than an attention-getter to hype some mediocre player they love. But when used properly, there is truth to this concept – the idea that one single player can dominate for your team enough to nearly guarantee, on his own, a championship for your fantasy team.
Of course, no player can truly win a fantasy championship alone. Even Christian McCaffrey’s historic 2019 season, where he scored a ridiculous 413.2 fantasy points, was only enough to get 48% of his managers into fantasy championships (still an absurd number, by the way). So, fantasy managers still must put together a solid team around a “league winner,” work the waiver wire, and play the matchups. Nevertheless, rostering some players undoubtedly gives fantasy teams an increased chance at a fantasy championship, just like McCaffrey nearly gave his managers a 50-50 shot in 2019.
The last two years, I wrote this series and got a lot of great feedback. I am happy to append my research from last year with 2022’s numbers. Rather than re-post all the numbers in the previous article’s tables, I will simply provide the link here, which you can use to look at it again.
Redefining an RB League Winner
From my analysis, league-winning players typically separate themselves from the pack. That means that the top one to three players each year, at any given offensive position, generally score at least 30 points more than their next closest competitor, where the end-of-year rankings start to bunch up. That’s good! We want our “league winner” not just to score a few more points than RB3 or WR2, we want them to score way more points. That means these types of players really do have “league-winning upside.”
Last year, we set an arbitrary 300 fantasy point threshold to determine which running backs were league winners. That resulted in fourteen league-winning running backs from 2016-2021 (see the list here and then it appended here). In 2022, three more names eclipsed 300 fantasy points: Austin Ekeler, Christian McCaffrey, and Josh Jacobs. The top three didn’t quite separate themselves as much as in previous years because Derrick Henry was close behind. In fact, had he played 16 games, he probably would have exceeded 300 fantasy points (he sat out Week 17 because that game weirdly didn’t matter for playoff purposes). Nick Chubb and Saquon Barkley weren’t far from 300 either, with Saquon also notably missing a meaningless Week 18 game.
All-in-all, the 300 fantasy point threshold still seems like a fine place to define our league winners. The gap between our league winners and our next cluster of running backs wasn’t quite as large as it was in previous years, but a noticeable gap still exists exactly at this threshold. I see no reason to redefine a number that has worked for nearly 10 years of data based only on a single-year sample. Thus, just like the previous two years of writing this article, we are trying to find RBs in 2022 who will score 300 fantasy points. We aren’t so concerned about ADP and beating the market at the RB position because we need volume at the RB position to find a league winner, and high-volume earners typically have high draft costs already baked in. Last year, both Ekeler and McCaffrey were first-round draft picks, and they still won many leagues. In fact, league winners coming after pick 20 are an anomaly because the average ADP of an RB league winner was 1.05.
Previous instances of this article made some very important discoveries:
- A league-winning running back is going to be a heavily targeted, pass-catching running back (80+ targets, 65+ catches) who still manages to touch the ball around 320+ times.
- A league-winning running back is going to be drafted in the top eight picks, but likely within the top five.
- A league-winning running back is usually younger than 26, and probably in his 2nd or 3rd year. Rookies have been league winners, but it’s a rare occurrence.
- A league-winning running back will be on the field about 67% of the time.
- A league-winning running back plays with a good QB, from a fantasy perspective, and plays for a team likely to win more games than they lose.
There is far more discussion in the 2021 article that resulted in these summary bullet points. I encourage you to read it again because the discussion was really important to understand how to spot a league-winning running back. You may not like my picks at the end of this article, but you can still use my findings to find someone else who fits the bill.
That crazy, in-depth analysis from last year will not be necessary again here because 2022 simply confirmed my previous findings. Austin Ekeler perfectly fit most of those bullet points (with the exception of age). Meanwhile, McCaffrey fit the model perfectly, especially after he was traded to San Francisco. In fact, McCaffrey was a player this article picked as a league winner last year. You may scoff at that “victory lap,” but Christian McCaffrey was not seen as this “sure thing” by everyone in 2022. He was coming off an injury history, and he was not the first running back drafted (that was Jonathan Taylor). You need to look no further than the comments of last year’s article to see that many were skeptical that McCaffrey could hold up.
The model also gave you a very solid option with Saquon Barkley last year. Barkley didn’t quite hit 300 fantasy points in 2022, but he was still RB6.
Josh Jacobs is the surprise. All the buzz around Jacobs during draft season was negative, especially after it seemed like he was playing for his job after appearing in the Hall of Fame game – a game that almost never features starting-caliber NFL players. Still, we can’t just throw away Jacobs’ appearance in this elite group of running backs. Josh Jacobs saw 64 targets in 2021 and he saw 64 again in 2022. Also, he scored 12 touchdowns in both 2020 and 2022. So, some of the numbers he produced in 2022 were foreseeable. 2022 was simply the year he finally “put it all together.”
What we didn’t see coming though was a career-high 340 carries – more than 70 over his career high. Of note, 2022 was also the first year Jacobs played under offensive-minded Head Coach Josh McDaniels. A new, offensive-leaning coach on a new team with a solid running back can apparently get us to league-winning status under the right circumstances. That’s good to remember, as we might need to cast a wider net moving forward (could this impact Jonathan Taylor? Miles Sanders?). Regardless, we don’t need to completely rethink our process from last year or even tweak our definitions. We simply need to apply what we learned from last year to again correctly pick one of the league-winning running backs.
Who is the 2023 League Winner?
I know that I basically pick him every year, but Christian McCaffrey meets all the criteria year after year. He is a bit on the older side (27), but Austin Ekeler taught us that year 27 isn’t the steep cliff we expected it to be last year (a big reason I was wrongly out on Ekeler last year), especially for backs heavily involved in the passing game. You cannot go wrong drafting a do-it-all running back on a Kyle Shanahan team.
Also, I really want to be in on Bijan Robinson, but I just can’t pull the trigger to pick him as my 2023 league winner. He clearly fits the age criteria, we know he has pass-catching chops, and rookies have been league winners before (Saquon in 2018 and Zeke in 2016). But here’s the problem: Bijan plays for the Falcons, who project to be a below-average offense, starting a below-average quarterback, in a run-heavy scheme. I needed to remind myself of what I wrote in 2021 to cross Bijan off the list:
- Team wins and QB teammate fantasy finish correlated surprisingly well, particularly QB teammate finish (R2 .435!). I assumed that a teammate throwing a lot of touchdowns wouldn’t bode well for a fantasy running back. Instead, having a strong performing fantasy QB as a teammate is a big indicator of league winning upside. We also prefer running backs who play on NFL teams who are going to win nine or more games (probably 10 in the 17-game season).
- Team offensive plays had almost no correlation with fantasy points scored among our league winners, but the run-pass ratio did have a strong correlation – in the opposite sense that you’d expect. Fantasy points for league-winning running backs actually correlate positively with teams that pass more heavily.
So, yeah, Arthur Smith is going to “run the p*ss out of the ball” again, especially with his new weapon. But the problem is that run-heavy teams with bad quarterbacks just don’t get it done. Our brains can tell us a story that running backs on run-heavy teams are a great fantasy investment, but the numbers do not support this narrative. We need our league-winning running back to get near the end zone often and to stay on the field, and they need a good quarterback teammate to accomplish those feats. Running backs cannot do that alone; they need quality teammates surrounding them, most importantly, at the quarterback position. I just can’t get myself to believe in Desmond Ridder. If you do, then maybe my criteria above will give you the confidence to draft Bijan. But for today, he’s not making my list.
Tony Pollard meets every one of these criteria. Pollard is 25 years old and entering his fifth season, which is a little late for a breakout, but he fits the Austin Ekeler mold (dynamic timeshare guy who is finally getting the chance to lead a backfield). In addition, Pollard plays for a good offense with a good quarterback. There are some concerns about the loss of offensive coordinator Kellen Moore, and replacing him with known failure, Brian Schottenheimer. I don’t love these facts, but I think Schottenheimer is more of a figurehead, since Mike McCarthy plans to call all the plays in 2023. Regardless, Dallas has a good quarterback and a strong offense, which shouldn’t completely change just because of the removal of Kellen Moore and Ezekiel Elliott. Also, Dallas has a great defense, which should mean even more offensive opportunities for Pollard.
Pollard is also a strong pass catcher. Pollard has seen his target and catch numbers go up every year. Last year, he saw 55 targets and 39 receptions on only 204 routes (27% TPRR!). Pollard’s one nitpick is that he’s never played more than 53% of the snaps, which occurred last year. But that 53% was a significant increase over his previous career high of 35%. Given the deduction of Ezekiel Elliott and the lack of any other real threat to take major playing time away from Pollard, Tony Pollard should easily see 65-70% of the snaps in Dallas, which will bloat his targets above 70.
Pollard fits every criteria we look for in a league-winning running back. And the best part? His current ADP is 23 on Sleeper (2.11)! You have the opportunity to draft the clearest instance of a league winner (other than Christian McCaffrey), according to my model, for a late second-rounder. I don’t really care where you draft in the second round of a 1-QB league, you should be drafting Tony Pollard.
Okay, right off the bat, let’s just say it. Nick Chubb is, and probably has been, the best runner in the NFL. He’s incredibly effective at receiving handoffs. He scores from all distances, he’s tough and gritty; he’s just a great running back. But he’s always been part of a timeshare. Well, not anymore. Kareem Hunt is gone, and the Browns have every intention of trying to replace the RB2 on the roster with Jerome Ford. The Browns are truly handing the reins to Nick Chubb.
Of course, we need to talk about Nick Chubb the pass catcher. As I have highlighted about 15 times in this article, we need our running backs to catch passes to go from good to elite. Historically, that hasn’t been Nick Chubb‘s game. His career high in targets and receptions is 49/36 in 2019. That’s a nice number, but nowhere near league-winning status.
Still, when we look at the numbers, Nick Chubb is actually pretty effective as a pass catcher. He has caught 75% of his targets and averaged 8.3 yards per reception. Both of those numbers are actually better than Saquon Barkley‘s. Based on these numbers, it would seem that Nick Chubb could become a solid pass-catching running back, the Browns just simply elected to primarily rely on Kareem Hunt in that role. Perhaps not anymore.
All reports from the Browns camp, including statements by the head coach himself, suggest that Nick Chubb’s role is about to expand, not stay stagnant as primarily a rusher. Unlocking Chubb as a pass catcher is what is necessary to get him to league-winning status.
If Chubb can see 70 targets (21 more than his career high), he’s ready to be a league winner. The average rushing projection for Chubb on the UDK is 288 attempts, 1,424 yards, and 11 touchdowns (210 fantasy points) If you add 55 receptions at his historical 8.3 YPR, that’s nearly an extra 75 points. Assuming he can score twice or more on those 55 passes (a safe assumption), he cracks 300 points. Andy already has him in his top three at the RB position, even without my optimistic pass-catching role expansion.
Chubb is 27 years old and he plays on a decent offense with a quarterback who has performed well in the past (although not very well last season). He provides a fantastic base in his rushing. So, we just need the Browns to be true to their word in getting Chubb the ball more regularly through the air.
The team’s actions suggest this isn’t just lip service. The Browns did not draft an RB or sign any impact veterans. It sure feels like the team is intent on trying this experience. So will Chubb deliver? I am willing to bet on one of the best players in the NFL.