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Running back is the most difficult position to project beyond one season. While injury is a concern for all players, it’s undeniable that the running backs take the most damage. They average the lowest salaries of any position excluding special teams, which makes them easily replaceable. The NFL’s recent shift to the two-back system has made running back projections doubly bleak. While we’re now able to find value later in our drafts due to the number of productive backs, we’re also more likely to get duped by seemingly enticing situations.
Here are the top five running backs you should worry about.
5. Rashaad Penny, Philadelphia
Rashaad Penny’s profile begins with the low-hanging fruit. While “injury prone” is a term often overutilized when referring to players, Penny’s career may lend credence to keeping the term around. He’s been active for just over 50% of the games played since being drafted by the Seahawks in the first round of the 2018 draft. He’s suffered from a fractured finger, multiple torn hamstrings, multiple knee strains, a torn ACL, and a fractured leg. When healthy, though, Penny showed he was deserving of his No. 27 selection. In 2022 Penny rushed for 346 yards and two touchdowns on just 57 carries. He averaged 3.1 yards after contact per attempt, which would’ve been top in the league had he qualified for the cutoff on attempts. In 2022 He played 69% of the snaps in three of his five games active, even with the talented rookie Kenneth Walker waiting in the wing. With the departure of Miles Sanders via free agency, the Philadelphia Eagles signed Penny to a one-year, $1M contract. While he is currently considered the starter in one of the league’s best offenses, his salary does him no favors in guaranteeing opportunity.
For reference, Kenneth Gainwell, who was a fifth-round selection and is currently considered Penny’s backup, is making nearly $1M himself. Gainwell has also been productive for Philadelphia in his two years with the team. Most notably, his 12 rushes for 112 yards and a touchdown in the divisional round of last year’s Super Bowl run. Gainwell isn’t the only incumbent Penny will have to fend off, either. Boston Scott has spent five years with the team and is the highest-paid back of the bunch. He reached an agreement on a one-year, $1.8M deal to return this season. Last year Sanders was considered the starter but played over 60% of the snaps just five times. In the last five games, including the postseason, Sanders did not handle more than 40% of the snaps a single time. He handled fewer snaps than Gainwell in each of the last two games when it mattered most. Penny’s advanced metrics are eye-popping when healthy, and you could paint a picture that his injuries have been extremely unlucky, but he’s still got a difficult backfield situation on a short contract with a very low salary to contend with. He will be 28 years old when he enters free agency next season.
4. Austin Ekeler, LA Chargers
Austin Ekeler is a difficult situation to get a handle on as he is one of fantasy football’s most productive backs. He will be 28 entering the 2023 season and has been permitted to seek a trade by the LA Chargers. He has played six seasons with the team and has been their lead back since the departure of Melvin Gordon. Last season Ekeler finished with just under 1,000 rushing yards to go along with a whopping 107 receptions and 18 total touchdowns. Hanging our hats on touchdown production is typically frowned upon, but Ekeler has scored 38 times in the past two seasons. He and his representation have been seeking a long-term contract, to no avail. He has had permission to speak with teams for months now but has not generated much buzz before the draft.
There is potential for a team to reach out about a trade once the draft is complete, but it’s unlikely. Ekeler is likely to play out the final year of his contract with the Chargers and enter free agency at 29 years old. He has already passed the age at which most elite backs tail off. He’s now playing with borrowed time. The thing that makes it so difficult to avoid Ekeler’s situation is that he will be one of the most productive backs in fantasy once again this season. If he were an affordable option in Dynasty, he would be worth trading for in hopes to get one push at a title, but he is still valued by many to be a premium back. Our consensus rankings have Ekeler ranked 26th overall, even with the strong possibility that he is not in a featured role with another team next season. This is two spots ahead of Jahmyr Gibbs who I’d much prefer at this point in their respective careers. The Chargers are ironically in a prime position to draft Gibbs with their 21st overall pick should they feel the need to sure up the position for the future.
3. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati
Joe Mixon has faced multiple legal issues over the last year. The details of those incidents have no place in this piece beyond mentioning they exist. For the legal jargon behind those concerns feel free to read the opinion of our Drew Davenport. Mixon’s long-term concerns were evident independent of his off-field concerns. In 2022 Mixon handled the fewest carries through at least 14 games since his rookie season. He rushed for less than 1,000 yards for the first time since his rookie year, sans his injured 2020. Through his final eight active games, he only played over 60% of the snaps once. By the end of the season, Samaje Perine was playing on crucial downs. Even two seasons ago in the Super Bowl, Perine was in the lineup on the most important play of the decade for Cincinnati. He allegedly ran the screen to the wrong side, but he was the back they trusted nonetheless.
Rumors were swirling about potentially trading Mixon before his off-field incidents this spring. Recently there have been talks of cutting him outright before the 2023 season. The Bengals could save $10M by doing so. The problem with his long-term outlook is two-fold. First, he will be 27 before 2023 kicks off. Secondly, he was already struggling to maintain control of his backfield with Perine as his only competition. He’s currently on one of the most productive offenses in the NFL. If he leaves the Bengals he is very likely to find himself in a worse situation. There aren’t many scenarios in which Mixon pays off at his current value even this year, let alone during his age-28 season. We’ve done a good job of dropping him down to RB34 already, but by this time next season, he could be struggling to find his way into the top 50.
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