It’s important to have a core set of beliefs in anything, fantasy football included. Just as important, though, is a willingness to reevaluate those beliefs when presented with new information. That’s what we’ll be doing this week, looking at what changed and what we learned for fantasy football in the 2023 NFL season that we can apply going forward.

 

Today, we tackle the running back position. 

(Follow along with the rest of the series: QB | WR | TE)

What Changed in 2023: Running Backs

Father Time Has Entered the Chat

While two older backs – Christian McCaffrey (27) and Raheem Mostert (31) – made for some of the biggest fantasy storylines this year, Father Time wasn’t so friendly to the rest of the running backs. Fantasy mainstays like Derrick Henry (30), Austin Ekeler (28), Dalvin Cook (28) and more all underperformed relative to recent seasons. 

Let’s take a look at the 2022 vs. 2023 finishes (0.5 PPR) for these guys:

  • Henry: RB4 to RB8
  • Ekeler: RB2 to RB29
  • Cook: RB12 to RB79

While it’s tempting to look at some of these high-profile names on draft day and select them based on past performance, that’s not a wise strategy for selecting future championships. The 27/28 age range is where running back decline starts to drop off and drop off suddenly, and simply put, age is a data point that can’t be ignored when drafting running backs.

The Bell Cow Back Is (Surprisingly?) Re-Emerging

Saquon Barkley New York Giants Fantasy Football What Changed in 2023 Running Backs

From 2020 to 2022, we saw just two instances of a running back logging at least 80% of his team’s backfield snaps (when healthy). In 2023 alone, four backs — Saquon Barkley, Rachaad White, Kyren Williams and Christian McCaffrey — hit that mark.

At a macro level, the NFL has become fonder of the backfield-by-committee approach, thus making bell cow running backs harder and harder to find. 2023 marked a bit of a change in that regard, and what’s interesting is it came from all different angles. McCaffrey was a top-three pick in most leagues, Barkley was a first- or second-rounder, White was a mid-round guy, and Williams was either a late-round pick or scooped up off the waiver wire. 

A bell cow can truly come from anywhere, and obtaining one for your fantasy roster in 2024 will go a long way toward improving your championship odds. In order to predict who those guys might be next season, it’s important to analyze key variables such as coaching staff preferences (think Williams and Sean McVay), draft capital (Barkley, McCaffrey) and (lack of) other competition in the backfield (White). There’s no perfect formula for identifying these guys, but we have enough data available to help you increase the odds of finding them come draft season.

Double Dipping in Detroit

For years the Lions have tried to make a dominant two-headed backfield a focal point of their offensive approach, but the D'Andre Swift/Jamaal Williams combination never quite reached the ceiling many hoped for. In 2023, we finally got to see what this vision looks like when things are clicking. Jahmyr Gibbs (RB10) and David Montgomery (RB13) both finished the season as top fantasy backs and helped lead the Lions to their first division title in 30 years. 

Come season’s end, the backfield split in Detroit was split down the middle as both backs received more or less 50% of the backfield snaps. Much of Montgomery’s fantasy production came near the goal line as the veteran back finished 4th in the league in attempts inside the 5-yard line (19). Meanwhile, Gibbs emerged as an explosive playmaker who can rack up fantasy points in bunches – particularly in the passing game where he finished 8th amongst all RBs in targets.

Due to the passing game upside and late-season surge he experienced, Gibbs will likely be drafted highly in 2024, and this will likely push Montgomery further down draft boards than he should be. It’s still early, but I’m already expecting Montgomery to be a great value in 2024 drafts. Even with the emergence of Gibbs, he should once again have a great opportunity to finish the season as a rock solid RB2 with plenty of touchdown upside.

Pittsburgh Broke the Trend

Jaylen Warren Pittsburgh Steelers Fantasy Football What Changed in 2023 Running Backs

While the Lions have been trying to get a two-headed backfield to work for years, the Pittsburgh Steelers have always been a team that relied heavily on just one back… until this past year. 

One of the main appeals of Najee Harris entering draft season was his perceived volume. Mike Tomlin & Co. have always fed their No. 1 RB heavily, thus making Harris an appealing fantasy asset (and also making Jaylen Warren one of the league’s top handcuffs). What happened in 2023 was a major trend breaker, as Harris logged just 53% of Pittsburgh’s offensive snaps while Warren picked up 48% himself. 

Unfortunately, the outcome here was very different from what we saw in Detroit. The Steelers’ offense simply didn’t have the juice to support two backs in the same manner, and both Harris (RB20) and Warren (RB25) had respectable fantasy finishes, but neither offered the game changing production needed to help fantasy managers win championships. Had the Steelers not broken their trend and stuck to a one back approach, Harris (or Warren) likely would have finished the season inside the top 15 – or maybe even top 10 – backs with the additional volume. Unless something drastic changes this offseason though, the backfield split in Pittsburgh will drastically limit the ceiling of both backs once again in 2024.