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A depressed market marking a marked change in the way the running back position is being valued isn't just a big story in the NFL. Running backs of all kinds - elite, second tier, dead zone - are falling farther in drafts than they ever have before. While this should change how you approach the position in your draft, you still need to have a clear idea of where the tiers break, who is overvalued and undervalued at current ADP, and just how this year's crop of backs fits in your draft plan. Let's dive in.
TARGET AT ADP: Chubb, Pollard
CONSIDER AT ADP: McCaffrey, Ekeler, Robinson, Barkley
The top tier of running backs is cheaper than ever this year. The RB1 overall this year is going to come from this group. If you get one in the first or second, you can ignore running back until the 6th-7th round. All are worth at least considering at ADP, but a few stand out as values at their current price.
The opportunity to start your draft with Chubb and Pollard if you draw a pick near the 1-2 turn may be too good to pass up. Both are in line to get the largest workloads of their careers in what should be good running games and at least average offenses. McCaffrey will cost a top-five pick, but with news out of San Francisco camp that the team has been stressing running backs as receivers, he can be worth that and then some. Ekeler proved his 2021 touchdown spike wasn't a fluke and posted a career-high 107 receptions, there's nothing wrong with using a mid-first on him. Robinson should get as much work as he can handle in a good running game, but he'll likely cost a first, and Barkley is also in an offense on the rise, and he might be available in the second round.
TARGET AT ADP: Gibbs
CONSIDER AT ADP: Henry, Jacobs, Taylor, Mixon, Harris
The members of this group could make your draft by hitting as a strong RB1 available outside of the top 15-18 picks or make you wish you had a do-over when the reasons they are available outside of the top 15-18 rear their ugly heads.
Gibbs is the headliner here as the potential next McCaffrey/Ekeler, a player who can be a strong fantasy RB1 while getting 10-15 carries a game. His offense should set him up for success, and the Lions obviously have a plan for the #12 overall pick. If you can get him in the fourth, it's worth taking the chance on the rookie. It's understandable why the rest of this group might tempt you. Fantasy players have made a lot of money betting against the doubts that plague Henry and the fate of Mike Vrabel's team, but wow, the offensive line is brutal. Jacobs and Taylor are proven talents. But their contract situations present a lot of uncertainty, and both have shown signs that they are willing to take a stand on behalf of their position. Mixon looked like a running back starting to decline last year, but he'll get the bulk of the work in a great offense's backfield. Harris was unimpressive for most of last year, but his foot issue that got better as the year went on might have been a factor. He finished 2022 with his most productive stretch of the season.
TARGET AT ADP: Montgomery, Pierce
AVOID AT ADP: Stevenson, Hall
This tier and the next blur together, as a veteran signing or two (or a team getting through camp/preseason without signing a veteran) will shift some players. This group has three players who are very likely to be the clear lead back in their backfield (as of now), plus one who is in an extremely fantasy-friendly role.
Montgomery is the top target here, as he is inexplicably going in the sixth round or so, even though he is inheriting a role that a lesser talent who contributed almost nothing in the passing game turned into the RB22 season in PPR leagues. There's a lot of upside here to harvest. Pierce's outlook is bright enough to consider taking him in the sixth and hoping Montgomery falls to the seventh. He has improved his passing game abilities, and this Texans offense should be competent with a new quarterback and offensive coordinator, which represents a material improvement from last year. Stevenson had a good fantasy season by collecting a lot of short receptions in a limited offense, and he is playing for a team that has been sniffing around veteran running backs all summer. Hall could hit if he has a strong recovery from an ACL tear. But Dalvin Cook or another veteran looms, and the cautious approach of the Jets should be making us more reluctant to take him in the third round. Hall could still make people look very smart if he returns to form sooner than later.
HIGH FLOOR RB2
TARGET AT ADP: Sanders, Akers
CONSIDER AT ADP: Etienne, Jones, Walker, Mattison, Conner, White
There's a lot of guaranteed volume in this tier. Just who maximizes the value of that volume and how much volume there will be is yet to be seen. The tier should yield a discount fantasy RB1 or two, but also some backs that show why this guaranteed volume is coming at a discount. This group corresponds with the typical "dead zone" for running backs, but that part of the draft is later than usual and presents a lot more appeal in drafts than it has in recent years.
Sanders and Akers are moderately priced as sixth-round picks, and they are the best targets at cost. We know Sanders is talented, and his new team might not be as committed to an RBBC as his old team was. The Panthers offensive line is a good run-blocking unit, and that should be a focus of the offense. Sanders could also get more pass-catching opportunities as a running back (Jahmyr Gibbs, actually) was his top target last year at Alabama. Akers finished strong, and the Rams did little to shore up their backfield behind him. He should be a lead back. None of the other backs in this tier are avoids, but they all have questions when you look at their price tag. Tank Bigsby could take work away from Etienne, but Etienne's offense is going to improve, and he should still lead the backfield in touches. Jones could be the most reliable target for Jordan Love, but the Packers offense will be limited and they are still trying to make AJ Dillon a thing. Walker's offense could also improve, but he's sharing with a rookie who should take passing down work. Mattison could be sharing with a veteran if the backs behind him don't step up soon in camp. Conner and White are clear lead backs in bad offenses, which usually costs a 4th-5th, but only costs about a 7th this year.
HIGH CEILING RB2/FLEX
TARGET AT ADP: J.Cook
CONSIDER AT ADP: Williams, Kamara, Pacheco, Swift, Gibson, D.Cook
There's some upside in this group to outperform draft cost, but chances are no one in this tier is going to make your draft. Still, they can provide strong flex plays or become an every-week RB2 that helps you in team builds that mostly ignore running back.
James Cook is the most intriguing at a reasonable cost of an 8th-round pick or so. He has had a good summer and should lead a very good offense's backfield in touches. The rest of the group is priced about right but could still be key parts of winning fantasy teams. Taking Williams at ADP is betting on Sean Payton to get this running game on track and Williams to complete his ahead-of-schedule comeback without incident. Kamara only having a three-game suspension makes him attractive at ADP, and there's buzz out of New Orleans camp that he has regained form. Still, he has a lot better running mates than he had last year. Pacheco will share the backfield with a passing down back, but his results last year are hard to ignore. His role might not be that different than Walker's in Seattle. Swift is going to be used a lot as a receiver, and he's in an ultra-productive backfield - albeit one that will use four backs. There's hope that Gibson will be used in a way more befitting his versatile talents under new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy. Dalvin Cook doesn't have a team as of this writing, but wherever he goes, the expectation will be that he's, at worst, a 1A in his backfield. That he has been available this long isn't a great sign for his ceiling this season.
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