Is 2023 the Year of Three-Down Running Backs in Fantasy Football?

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Football is an ever-evolving sport. Changes in strategy and how players are deployed constantly shake up the fantasy landscape.

One of the biggest shifts over the last decade is the way franchises utilize running backs. Teams have gone from every down running backs to committees: an RB for first and second down, a different RB for passing situations, and a third RB for goal line work or pass protection.

The first and second rounds of fantasy drafts used to be dominated by running backs. If you were able to get your hands on one of those prized three-down RBs, it was like cashing in a winning lottery ticket. Now, wide receivers are flying off the board in the early rounds, and even well-established backs are being pushed to the end of the line.

But that could all change again based on what happens this season. With training camps fast approaching, there are opportunities galore for a handful of running backs to take the reins in their backfield and become a linchpin for their teams and for fantasy football rosters.

Let’s take a look at which players could solidify themselves as three-down running backs this year.

The Usual Suspects

These running backs have proven year after year that they are the presiding ball carrier for their respective backfields. Yes, their backups will come in and spell them from time to time, but barring injury, these RBs are going to rack up rushing attempts and dominate snap counts this season yet again.

Christian McCaffrey – There is a reason he is the consensus number-one running back and the only RB that Andy, Mike, and Jason agree upon in their rankings. After being traded to the San Francisco 49ers halfway through the 2022 season, CMC took over the backfield to the tune of 159 rushing attempts for 746 yards along with 52 receptions for 464 yards, scoring 10 touchdowns in the process. He was the number-three running back in snap count percentage (including his first six games in Carolina) and will once again flourish in San Francisco’s run-heavy scheme. More importantly, he was able to stay healthy after two seasons that were cut short due to injury, quelling any concern that he is injury-plagued.

Austin Ekeler – Much like McCaffrey, Ekeler is a target monster coming out of the backfield. He’s never actually rushed for over 1,000 yards in his six-year career, but his target and reception numbers are nothing short of incredible for a running back.

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Year Receptions Targets Receiving Yards Receiving Touchdowns
2019 92 108 993 8
2020 (10 games) 54 65 403 2
2021 70 94 647 8
2022 107 127 722 5

After a contract dispute earlier in the offseason, the Chargers and Ekeler agreed to a revised contract with extra incentives to keep the star RB in Los Angeles. The Chargers did not add any RBs through the draft or free agency, solidifying the veteran’s spot as the do-it-all RB for at least another year.

Jonathan Taylor – After a jaw-dropping 2021 season, Taylor came into last year as the clear number-one fantasy draft pick. Like CMC before him, Taylor disappointed fantasy players after playing through a shortened, injury-riddled season. Now the 24-year-old star is back with a rookie head coach and a rookie quarterback. That’s a recipe that calls for a lot of handoffs to number 28. And with Nyheim Hines gone, that recipe could call for a lot of checkdowns as well. Assuming he stays healthy, Taylor should slide back into his workhorse role with little competition behind him. Yes, the Colts drafted a pass-catching back in Evan Hull, but a fifth-round draft pick should do little to impact Taylor’s snap count.

Nick Chubb – Since entering the league in 2018, Chubb has compiled 6,341 rushing yards and 48 rushing touchdowns. The majority of first and second downs plus goal line work have belonged to him, but he’s never been a true three-down back. With Kareem Hunt now gone, could passing downs become a part of his repertoire? He is so dominant on the ground that he wouldn’t need McCaffrey or Ekeler-type targets. Imagine if he saw just 50 targets – that could pave the way toward an overall RB1 season.

Derrick Henry – The Yeti would have been omitted from this group if it hadn’t been for his receiving work in 2022. Henry saw 41 targets last year, which resulted in 33 receptions for 398 yards, all career highs for the seven-year veteran. Like Chubb, his superiority in the ground game is never in question, but can he become a reliable pass-catcher? Tennesse drafted Tyjae Spears in the third round, but he wasn’t a prolific pass-catcher in college. And if the Titans want any chance at success this season, it would behoove them to keep Henry on the field as much as possible.

Saquon Barkley – No running back saw more snaps than Barkley did last season, a whopping 80 percent. He played over 90 percent of snaps in three games last year. As far as true workhorse backs go, Barkley takes the cake. The Giants’ offense has always run through Barkley when healthy, and it will do so again this season. All that remains is contract negotiations that will hopefully get squared away with training camp on the horizon.

Josh Jacobs – Second in the league in RB snap count percentage was Jacobs, who was on the field for 75 percent of the Raiders’ snaps. He finished as the RB3 in fantasy with 1,653 yards and 12 touchdowns on 340 carries, adding 53 receptions on 64 targets for 400 yards. His career year was rewarded with the franchise tag, which he has yet to sign in hopes of receiving a new contract. If he’s back with the Raiders and ready to go for Week 1, he will slide right back into his every-down role. There was talk of Ameer Abdullah and Brandon Bolden, even Zamir White taking snaps away from Jacobs last year, but that wasn’t the case. It won’t be the case this year either.

Najee Harris – Harris has been the do-it-all back for the Steelers in his first two seasons in the league. The Jaylen Warren hype is real, but because Harris played in all 17 games last season, it’s generally forgotten news that he played the majority of the year hurt. Head coach Mike Tomlin would prefer to stick to one running back, and Harris is that player as long as he can stay healthy. He’s logged 579 rushing attempts in his first two seasons and seen 147 targets. These are the type of numbers you want to see when drafting an RB you can trust week in and week out. Even if his yards per attempt average has room for improvement, Harris will volume himself to RB1 numbers.

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Joe Mixon – The wildcard in this group of running backs, Mixon could see north of 250 carries, or be off the Bengals entirely. The winds are blowing in the direction of Mixon retaining his spot in Cincinnati, and with Samaje Perine in Denver, he could see even more work than he has the last couple of years, particularly in the passing game. With Perine on the roster last year, Mixon still saw 75 targets, a career-high by a 20-target margin. Imagine if he gets 20 more targets, he could put up elite numbers. The Bengals drafted Chase Brown in the fifth round and Trayveon Williams is a name that’s floated around dynasty circles for the last couple of years, but bet on the team squeezing out every ounce of what’s left of Mixon. The veteran RB can be found in the fourth round of fantasy drafts, a great spot for a potential three-down back.

From Backup to Bell Cow

A couple of these players already put up RB1 numbers last season, despite technically beginning the season as the reserve running back. A couple have been perennial backups who suddenly see themselves in the spotlight in 2023. The path to three-down status feels pretty secure for the following batch of backs.

Tony Pollard – The RB7 in fantasy last season, Pollard technically started just four games. He’s been a backup his entire career, showcasing his speed and receiving chops whenever he got on the field. Ezekiel Elliott is gone (Dallas could still bring him back but in a lesser role), so it’s Pollard’s backfield entirely now. He racked up 1,007 rushing yards and nine touchdowns on just 193 attempts in 2022. Zeke saw 231 carries last season, so if you only tack on half of those for Pollard, he would have rushed for over 1,600 yards on 308 attempts at a clip of 5.2 yards per carry. He still continued to excel on third-down work too, catching 39 passes on 55 targets for 371 yards and three touchdowns. The consensus number seven ranked RB by The Ballers, Pollard has top-three RB potential this season with a bell cow role in sight.

Rhamondre Stevenson – Though technically the backup last season, Stevenson outplayed his counterpart Damien Harris, and it wasn’t even close. Stevenson started to see more snaps as the season progressed, logging three games with over 90 percent of the snaps, including a whopping 98 percent in Week 12. He saw the 10th most running back snaps in the league despite starting only seven games. He garnered the third-most RB targets with 88, behind only McCaffrey and Ekeler. Harris is now in Buffalo and the Patriots replaced him with absolutely no one. First and second down work? Check. Pass protection and receiving ability? Check. Goal line work? Check. Stevenson checks all the boxes of a workhorse running back.

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Travis Etienne – Remember when James Robinson began the season as the Jaguars’ starting running back? Etienne only had 54 rushing attempts during those first six weeks while Robinson trudged straight into opposing defenses. He logged 166 rushing attempts the rest of the season after taking over the starting job. However, there are concerns about how much of a workload Etienne can shoulder. Affectionally called the work pony by Andy in the past, he has the draft capital, the talent, and the connection with his college quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Yes, the Jaguars spent a Day 2 pick on Tank Bigsby, retained JaMycal Hasty, and brought in D’Ernest Johnson, but all three RBs feel like fill-in pieces. The uncertainty of his role as a full-time RB will make his ADP fluctuate as the regular season nears, but if the chips fall as they should, Etienne could be a steal in fantasy drafts.

Alexander Mattison – When Dalvin Cook was released in June, Mattison truthers like The Fantasy Hitman were finally able to rejoice. It was a long four-year wait, but it should pay off this year for dynasty owners who remained faithful. Mattison performed admirably whenever he got the starting nod due to a Cook injury, carrying a 4.1 yards per rushing attempt average with just over 400 rushing attempts in four seasons under his belt. His receiving work is iffy and could be the deterrent that keeps him out of a true bell cow role, but then again, there isn’t much depth behind him. Ty Chandler and Kene Nwangwu have a combined total of 15 rushing attempts and two targets in their careers, and seventh-round draft pick DeWayne McBride caught five passes total in college. Fullback C.J. Ham is probably the only real receiving threat, which is probably too strong a word to use with just 92 targets spanning a six-year career.

Samaje Perine – Perine makes this list for two reasons – the uncertainty of Javonte Williams‘ injury recovery and new Broncos head coach Sean Payton’s history of utilizing the running back position. I promise this isn’t Andy’s influence landing Perine in this category. In all seriousness, the veteran RB had a solid season last year in Cincinnati, catching 38 passes on 51 targets for 287 yards and four touchdowns. He saw the second-most rushing attempts of his career (95), after logging 175 attempts in his rookie season. Tony Jones Jr. aka Tony Tony Brooks James Jones Jr. and Tyler Badie are no threat. The biggest question is when Williams will return to action. The Broncos will want to bring him back slowly, so will it be the halfway mark of the season before he is able to handle the bulk of the workload? There is a real possibility that Perine is the clear leader in the backfield to start the season. You’re looking at a potential three-down RB for at least a few weeks to start the season, being drafted in the ninth round.

Top of the (Depth) Charts

Not to take away from the skills within this group of running backs, but their road to three-down relevance is clearly due to the lack of talent behind them on their respective depth charts. They’ve had success in the past but could reap more rewards this year with little competition behind them.

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James Conner – With Kyler Murray‘s injury, DeAndre Hopkins‘ departure, a new coach, and a new general manager, it’s clearly a rebuilding year for the Arizona Cardinals. That’s probably why the team didn’t bring in a running back to take over for the 28-year-old Conner. Corey Clement, the second RB on the depth chart, had 15 total carries last year. Keaontay Ingram ran the ball 27 times. Ty’Son Williams played two total snaps on offense. Simply put, Conner is going to get the ball a ton this year. It helps that he’s a talented runner around the goal line and is a capable receiver. The team might be rebuilding, but there is still tremendous value to be had with Conner, especially considering he has three-down potential.

Miles Sanders – Sanders had a career year with the Philadelphia Eagles last season and got paid for it, deservedly so. You’d think with a rookie quarterback and a team with a rebuilding mindset, the Carolina Panthers wouldn’t be an ideal spot for Sanders. But the Panthers have a better-than-expected offensive line, and more so, there really isn’t any competition behind Sanders to take the ball out of his hands. Chuba Hubbard has underwhelmed in his first two seasons in the league and Raheem Blackshear isn’t a threat to steal touches. Sanders saw only 26 targets last season with the Eagles, but that was due to the team’s offensive game plan and use of other pass-catching backs. He saw 115 total targets in his first two seasons, so he’s more than capable in that role. With the hefty contract he received, expect Carolina to utilize the 26-year-old RB as much as possible.

Rachaad White Leonard Fournette and Giovani Bernard are both gone, enter Chase Edmonds, who could barely stay rostered between two different teams last year. Ke’Shawn Vaughn and all 17 of his rushing attempts last season are still on the team. Long story short, this is White’s backfield in both the ground and air games. He made his mark as a receiver last year, catching 50 passes on 58 targets for 290 yards while adding 481 rushing yards on 129 carries. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers are also predicted to have a top-15 offensive line by Pro Football Focus. The quarterback position remains the wildcard, whether it ends up being Baker Mayfield or Kyle Trask. Will the team find itself having enough scoring opportunities? Either way, White should be the beneficiary of a lack of depth behind him.

Cam Akers – What a whirlwind the past three seasons have been for Akers, a former second-round draft pick who has dealt with his fair share of chaos in his first three years in the league. From a subpar rookie campaign to a devastating injury that cost him a season, to being benched and rumored to be traded only to end the year as one of the best running backs in football – there’s more drama surrounding Akers than an episode of The Young and the Restless. But alas, the young RB is still with the Rams, and head coach Sean McVay is already hyping him up. McVay loves to stick with one running back, and the Rams didn’t bring in much competition for Akers during the offseason. They recently re-signed Sony Michel and drafted Zach Evans in the sixth round. Kyren Williams is still on the roster but his ability is relatively unknown after suffering an injury in Week 1 last season. If McVay is true to his word and Akers can continue where he left off in 2022, his path to being an every-down RB is wide open.

Youth Movement

The future is bright for this duo of young RBs.

Breece Hall – Lightning struck to start the 2022 campaign for Hall, who was on a record-setting pace before tearing his ACL in Week 7. The good news is that he is reportedly on track with his recovery and could be ready for the season opener. The bad news is that Dalvin Cook has been linked to the Jets as of late. If the backfield stays as it is and Hall is able to get back to his old self after healing from his injury, the sky is the limit for this dynamic rusher. Michael Carter, Zonovan Knight, and rookie Israel Abanikanda pose no threat to Hall’s workload if he’s back to 100 percent to start the season.

Bijan Robinson – The Atlanta Falcons and head coach Arthur Smith both love to run the ball. It doesn’t matter if they’re down three scores or have a lead, they are going to run the ball. The Falcons led the league with 559 rushing attempts as a team last year, with the majority of carries going to Tyler Allgeier, Cordarrelle Patterson, and Caleb Huntley. All three players remain on the team and will still see work, but Robinson was drafted as the eighth overall pick with one thought in mind, to give him the ball. It’s yet to be seen if Robinson will be featured on third downs, but he’s more than capable and his draft capital says he should be.

In Conclusion

These are not far-fetched scenarios for this group of running backs. Are all 20 of the RBs listed above going to be three-down backs? No. But the route to get there is alive and well for all of them. If a handful of these running backs can stay healthy and excel, we just might see RBs move back to the front of the pack in 2024 drafts and beyond.

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