Ignore starting running backs at your own risk (sometimes)

Wednesday, Aug 9, 2023 at 9:00 pm ET

David MontgomeryDavid Montgomery of the Detroit Lions is ranked 26th among running backs in standard scoring by Fantasy Nerds. This may seem like a random point, but he is the first back on that list who is NOT at the top of his team's depth chart. There are 32 'starting running backs' at any given time, but we know some teams prefer time-shares in the backfield while others have unsure pecking orders.

I wanted to look at players who are ranked below Montgomery and in that RB1 spot to see who is worth targeting and will play a key role this season. Opportunity usually means more than anything else in fantasy football, so identifying players in the middle and late rounds of your draft who will touch the ball is a path to finding players who will outplay their ranking.

I focused on touches mainly, with projected carries, receptions, and touchdowns from ESPN, and I only used the standard rankings here. The PPR list is different but similar, with a few players seeing a lot of targets bumped up and those not expected to catch passes dropping a bit. (I looked at major differences in the PPR and standard rankings for running backs and wide receivers previously.) Numbers are correct as of 8/5/2023.

Clear Top Options

These players will more than likely see the main share of touches when they are on the field. Some will cede work in the passing game or near the goal line, and others are new to their role as lead back.

Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints, 27th-ranked RB: Projections: 157 carries, 49 receptions, 6 total touchdowns

Kamara has been suspended for the first three games of this season, so his immediate impact will not be felt. This is a player who has regularly ranked among the top running backs in fantasy drafts in past years, though, and he has a good chance to produce top-10 numbers when he returns.

Alvin KamaraIn Kamara's rookie year, 2017, he had 201 touches. He has not had less than 250 touches in any other season, including 2021 when he missed four games. Kamara is projected for 206 touches this season, which would equate to more than 250 in a full season.Joe Mixon and Aaron Jones fall in that same range, and Austin Ekeler and Christian McCaffrey are only projected for about 260.

The presence of Jamaal Williams, signed from Detroit, will potentially cut into Kamara's work, especially near the goal line. Williams broke out for the Lions last year, scoring 17 touchdowns on 262 carries, averaging 15.4 carries per touchdown. In his five previous seasons, Williams scored only 13 touchdowns on 653 carries, a rate of over 50 carries per touchdown.

Again, opportunities mean more than anything else most of the time. Williams was in advantageous situations, as 13 of his 17 touchdowns came from two yards or less. His touchdown rate will surely decline this season, and he will more likely resemble the middling back he was throughout his career than prime Jerome Bettis.

Kamara is currently being drafted in the seventh round of most drafts, and that might fall as his suspension is now official. It will take a few weeks, but I see him being one of the more productive backs when he returns. The presence of Derek Carr will help, as better passing opportunities will be available, and I see Kamara as a player to snatch up in those middle rounds.

Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos, 28th-ranked RB: Projections: 169 carries, 41 receptions, 8 total touchdowns

Javonte WilliamsWilliams suffered a major knee injury last season, but he says he is ready to go to start the season, and Sean Payton said he will play snaps in the preseason. His effectiveness may be limited as he works back into shape, but Williams should take over the majority of touches as the season progresses.

In his rookie season and while sharing time with Melvin Gordon, Williams carried the ball 203 times for 903 yards and four touchdowns, adding 43 catches and three touchdowns through the air. Expecting to take over full time last season, Williams appeared in only four games before his injury. While he wasn't great in those showings, the entire Denver offense struggled last year, and brighter days seem to lie ahead with Payton taking the head coaching reigns.

Samaje Perine was signed from Cincinnati to share the load, and some see him taking away reps in the passing game as he worked mainly as a third down back for the Bengals. Mixon out-received Perine in each of their three seasons together, though, and Perine is more of a backup option.

The time might be more split early in the season as Williams works his way back, but I see Williams taking over as the bell cow during the season and outplaying his projections. I'm treating Williams closer to a top-15 back, and I am drafting him earlier than his seventh-round projection.

James Cook, Buffalo Bills, 29th-ranked RB: Projections: 158 carries, 44 receptions, 6 total touchdowns

I was initially bullish on Cook, expecting he could break out this season, but I am more hesitant upon further review. The second year back shared time with Devin Singletary last year, and he only had double-digit carries four times during the season.

Singletary is out, but Damien Harris was brought in from New England, and a similar split in carries wouldn't be a surprise this season, even assuming Cook ends up on the higher side. Cook's 21 receptions last year are more than Harris has had in any season, so Cook would seem to see the bulk of the passing game work.

The real culprit holding down the value of these backs is Josh Allen, who is regularly among the top running quarterbacks in the league. Running quarterbacks provide great value in fantasy, as I wrote about previously, but they take away opportunities at touches and touchdowns from their running backs. Allen has carried the ball over 100 times in each of the past four seasons, and he has 38 rushing touchdowns over his career. Cook should improve this year, but the presence of Harris and (especially) Allen will limit his upside.

Brian Robinson Jr, Washington Commanders, 34th-ranked RB: Projections: 195 carries, 26 receptions, 6 total touchdowns

Brian RobinsonOf all the players on this list, I would peg Robinson as most likely to break out and be an impact fantasy player this season. He famously missed the first four games last year after being shot during a carjacking attempt, but Robinson returned to play 12 games, and he only had under 50 rushing yards three times, all coming within the first five games he played.

Robinson is on record saying he finally feels fully healed and ready to show his real ability. Talk during the preseason is just that: talk. Still, it feels realistic to say a rookie who missed preseason and early season reps because of injury was compromised when he finally returned. I expect him to settle in as a top-15 rusher in the league this season.

The rest of the team may hold Robinson back, as second-year quarterback Sam Howell is expected to begin the season as starter, and the offense may struggle to find its footing. Antonio Gibson is still on the roster, and he has been most notorious for his receiving ability during his three-year career. In the 11 games they played together last season, Gibson had double-digit carries only four times while catching 33 passes. Robinson caught only nine passes all season.

Gibson will still make an impact, but I see Robinson taking over the main share of touches and seizing the top role on the team. The struggles of the offense might be his biggest obstacle, but Robinson will get opportunities, and I'm not betting against him (I mean, come on: the dude got shot and still came back to play more games than Michael Thomas has over the last three seasons combined).

Khalil Herbert, Chicago Bears, 35th-ranked RB: Projections: 141 carries, 26 receptions, 5 total touchdowns

Herbert backed up Montgomery for the last two seasons and only had about half as many touches as his lead back, limiting his effectiveness. With Montgomery off to Detroit, Herbert would seem to have the path to major work, but further investigation soured me a bit on that idea, much the same as Cook in Buffalo.

First, Chicago brought in two capable backs to share the load. D'Onta Foreman was signed from Carolina, and he has shown flashes when given the chance. Foreman played 11 games last season after McCaffrey was traded to San Francisco and received double-digit carries in all but one and topped 100 yards five times. He has topped 500 yards in each of the last two seasons (with 914 last year), but Foreman isn't involved in the passing game, never catching 10 passes in a season.

Roschon Johnson was drafted in the 4th round, and even though he backed up Bijan Robinson in college, many analysts see him as a player who can contribute his rookie year. More concerning, like with Cook, is the quarterback handing the ball to these backs. Justin Fields carried the ball 160 times for 1,143 yards and eight touchdowns last season, topping the league in QB rushing. Fields is dynamic with his legs and unlikely to cede many of his runs, and he will likely dominate the carries and touchdowns for this group.

I was tempted to put Chicago in the next grouping, but Herbert seems likely to get a chance to take the bulk of the running back work early. Still, I'm not counting on him as a consistent option.

True Timeshares

These two backfields have a listed starter, but choosing which player will be more effective in fantasy terms seems like a coin flip at this point. An injury might end up deciding who shines in these backfields.

D'Andre Swift, Philadelphia Eagles, 31st-ranked RB: Projections: 124 carries, 40 receptions, 5 total touchdowns

Rashaad Penny, Philadelphia Eagles, 33rd-ranked RB: Projections: 166 carries, 9 receptions, 6 total touchdowns

D'Andre SwiftBoth players were brought in this season to replace the backfield production of Miles Sanders who left to sign with the Panthers. Sanders had 279 touches for 1,337 yards last year, and there should be plenty of opportunities to go around as the Eagles project to be one of the best teams in football again.

Penny is projected to get most of the carries while Swift does more in the passing game, but their touches and touchdowns are seen to be essentially split evenly. Injuries are most likely to dictate who shines most from this backfield. Penny has been effective when on the field, but he has only played 42 of a possible 82 regular season games in his career. Swift's track record is a little better, but he has missed at least three games in each of his three seasons.

The presence of Jalen Hurts diminishes these backs' fantasy value also, as he has run the ball 304 times over the last two seasons for 1,544 yards and 23 touchdowns. That's staggering production. This is a true timeshare situation (Hurts included), and it's hard to choose who to trust. If I was going to take one back, it would be Swift, but I'm not counting on either as a consistent option.

Raheem Mostert, Miami Dolphins, 43rd-ranked RB: Projections: 136 carries, 22, receptions, 5 total touchdowns

Devon Achane, Miami Dolphins, 46th-ranked RB: Projections: 56 carries, 20 receptions, 2 total touchdowns

Jeff Wilson Jr, Miami Dolphins, 54th-ranked RB: Projections: 160 carries, 27 receptions, 8 total touchdowns

Let's finish with a three-headed running back attack that might be the hardest to parse out in the league. Wilson is projected to have the most touches, but he is the lowest ranked out of the backs. He has only played 53 out of 82 regular season games during his career. Mostert has only played 50 in that same span (since 2018). Neither back is easy to trust, as availability has been spotty throughout their careers.

Achane is a rookie, and while he is projected to make an immediate impact in the passing game, he is unlikely to have a large workload while behind the two veteran backs. I don't know which direction to go in this backfield; my compass is spinning. Most likely, injuries will decide who gets the most action, and that's a guessing game.

For fantasy purposes, I will take Mostert or Wilson only at the end of drafts, and only if I feel short on running backs. My mock drafts have generally avoided these players as I loaded up on backs earlier and didn't take this dart throw. You will probably be faced with selecting one of these players in deeper leagues, but I would recommend filling out the position before having to count on any Miami back.

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