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Breakout Fantasy Football Running Backs From The 2023 Season

Kyren Williams - Fantasy Football Rankings, Draft Sleepers, NFL Injury News

The running back position is no stranger to random breakout performers. It seems every single year, NFL fans and fantasy managers alike are treated to a breakout season from a player who was viewed as fairly insignificant to start the season. Last year, there was Jamaal Williams, who had 1,139 scrimmage yards and 17 touchdowns, and also Tyler Allgeier, who had 1,174 scrimmage yards and four touchdowns. The year before, it was Damien Harris with 1,061 scrimmage yards and 15 touchdowns. In 2020, James Robinson finished with 1,414 scrimmage yards and 10 touchdowns. Before that, it was Phillip Lindsay who had back-to-back seasons from 2018-2019 with 1,200+ scrimmage yards and seven or more touchdowns. The point is, there’s always somebody and this year was no different.

For breakout performers, we’ll be looking at both their fantasy football value and their real-life value. Certainly at the running back position, volume is king, but we’ll look at efficiency metrics as well. Rookies are eligible for this distinction, but to qualify, they need to have significantly outperformed preseason expectations.

Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs both had great rookie seasons. Robinson finished with 272 touches, 1,463 scrimmage yards, and eight touchdowns. He did that in 16 games since he hardly played in Migraine-gate. Gibbs had 234 touches, 1,261 scrimmage yards, and 11 touchdowns. Both were excellent seasons. Both were expected to have excellent seasons. We’ll focus on six other running backs, five of whom fully broke out and another who earned an honorable mention. Let’s get started.

Editor's Note: Our incredible team of writers won two writing awards and received 12 award nominations by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association. A big congrats to our very own Byron Lindeque (Golf) and Jordan McAbee (NASCAR) for both winning Writer Of The Year awards! Be sure to follow RotoBaller's analysis and advice all year long, and win more. Win More With RotoBaller!


Kyren Williams, Los Angeles Rams

Williams is our random breakout running back of 2023 and can lay claim to being the breakout player of the season. Williams was closer to Christian McCaffrey in half-PPR PPG than Raheem Mostert, the RB3, was to Williams. That’s wild! CMC was at 22.4 PPG, Williams was at 19.9, and Mostert was at 17.0. Williams finished with nine top-12 weeks out of 12 games. He finished as the RB1 two weeks and had three other top-five weeks. He had nine weeks with 15 or more half-PPR points and four weeks where he scored over 25. As far as the fantasy football breakout performance goes, Williams certainly checks off that box.

Williams was a difference-maker for the Rams, too. He averaged 4.8 true yards per carry, which ranked eighth among running backs. He was also 13th in yards per touch at 5.2 and averaged 3.60 yards created per touch, which was 17th. He was also very elusive in the open field, generating a broken tackle on every 10.4 attempts, which was the eighth-best mark in the NFL.

He had nine games where he generated 100 or more scrimmage yards. Williams scored a touchdown in nine games this past season. He averaged 95.3 rushing yards per game, which was the best per-game average in the NFL. His 59.6% rushing success rate was the third-highest. Despite missing five games, Williams still finished with 62 rushing first downs, which was the fourth-most.

Ultimately, Williams finished the 2023 season with 1,350 scrimmage yards and 15 touchdowns. Based on his per-game averages, had he played all 17 games, he would’ve finished with 1,913 scrimmage yards and 21 touchdowns. That’s a breakout, ladies and gentlemen. The Rams are likely to add to their backfield this offseason, but Williams has earned the opportunity to lead the backfield again in 2024. He should be viewed as a top-five running back going into next season.


Rachaad White, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

White had his share of issues last year as a rookie. He averaged just 3.7 yards per attempt and just 1.3 yards after contact per attempt. Both were incredibly low for a starting running back. That lack of efficiency caused a lot of fantasy managers to be out on White. There were a good number of fantasy managers who even took a dart throw on undrafted rookie, Sean Tucker, believing he had a good shot to unseat White as the starter in Tampa Bay. That certainly did not happen.

White finished as the RB9 in half-PPR with a 14.0 PPG average. He finished with seven top-12 weeks and another four weeks in the top 24. White started the season off slowly, averaging just 9.9. half-PPR PPG in the first four weeks of the season. However, after the team’s Week 5 bye, White went on a tear. From Weeks 7-16, White averaged 17.3 half-PPR PPG, which was RB4. From Weeks 13-16, White finished as the RB10, RB6, RB6, and RB9. He carried many fantasy teams to the playoffs with his play during the second half of the season.

White still struggled as a runner. He finished with a 3.6 yards per carry average and 1.4 yards after contact per attempt average. Both numbers are dreadful. White made up for his rushing inefficiency in other ways. He finished ninth in targets (70) among running backs, fourth in receptions (64), and third in receiving yards (549). He had the fifth-highest yards per reception average (8.6) and the 13th-highest yards per route run average (1.43). Although he may have struggled to create yardage after contact per rushing attempt, he was elite in yards after contact per reception, averaging 9.55. This was the sixth-best mark among running backs with at least 35 targets.

He finished the 2023 season with 1,539 scrimmage yards and nine touchdowns. While White may not be a great runner, he is an elite pass-catcher. That skill set will continue to pay dividends for the Buccaneers and fantasy managers. He had a true breakout campaign and cemented himself as a top-10 running back entering 2024.


Isiah Pacheco, Kansas City Chiefs

Pacheco was drafted in the seventh round of the 2022 NFL Draft but still managed to make his mark as a rookie. He finished with 960 scrimmage yards and five rushing touchdowns. He should’ve received more fanfare entering the 2023 season, but Jerick McKinnon went on a tear to end the 2022 season, which caused a lot of people to forget or overlook Pacheco’s very impressive rookie campaign.

Pacheco missed three games this past year, but he still managed to finish with 1,179 scrimmage yards and nine total touchdowns. He averaged 66.8 rushing yards per game, which was the 11th-highest. His 5.4% breakaway run rate (rate of carries that gained 15 or more yards) was 11th-best among running backs. He also created 3.59 yards per touch, which was 18th. Many were concerned about Pacheco’s role in the passing game, but he performed well there, too.

He finished with 49 targets (22nd-most), 44 receptions (17th), and 244 receiving yards (22nd). Those numbers would’ve been even better had he not missed three games. He was on pace to have 60 targets, 53 receptions, and 296 yards. That would’ve been very similar to Jahmyr Gibbs, who had 71 targets, 52 receptions, and 316 yards.

Pacheco finished as the RB12 in half-PPR with a 13.7 PPG average. He finished as a top-15 running back in eight out of 14 games. While he missed Weeks 14 and 15, he had some of his best performances down the stretch. He finished with 23.4 half-PPR points in Week 12, which was good for RB4. In Week 13, he had 19.8 half-PPR and finished as the RB8. He scored 26.0 half-PPR points in Week 17 en route to finishing as the RB2 in championship week. He’ll enter 2024 as a high-end RB2.


James Cook, Buffalo Bills

Cook was one of the most efficient backs in all of football in 2022. The Bills brought in Damien Harris, whom a lot of fantasy managers flocked to thinking he had a shot of unseating Cook or having a Jamaal Williams-like 2023 season. In the end, neither occurred. Harris was mostly an afterthought until an injury ended his season. Cook was fairly up and down to start the season until a midseason offensive coordinator change sent Cook’s value skyrocketing and when all was said and done, no one could deny his breakout season.

While Josh Allen’s propensity for stealing rushing touchdowns held Cook back from a truly elite season, he was still incredibly productive. Only McCaffrey and Breece Hall finished with more scrimmage yards than Cook did (1,567). Despite a massive uptick in volume, going from 110 touches in 2022 to 281 this past season, Cook still maintained very good efficiency.

His true yards per carry average of 4.5 ranked 12th among running backs. He also averaged 5.6 yards per touch, which ranked fifth. In the passing game, his 10.1 yards per reception average was second among running backs and his 1.67 yards per route run average ranked sixth. Oftentimes when a player sees a massive increase in touches, their efficiency declines, but that wasn’t the case for Cook. His rushing success rate was 55.7%, fifth-highest in the NFL.

He finished RB17 in half-PPR with a 12.8 PPG average. The Bills made an offensive coordinator switch following their Week 10 loss to the Broncos. From Weeks 1-10, Cook had averaged just 10.6 half-PPR PPG. Joe Brady, the team’s offensive coordinator from Week 11 onward, unlocked Cook. From Weeks 11-17, he averaged 16.4 half-PPR PPG and was RB5 during that stretch.

Like White, Cook carried fantasy managers to the playoffs off the back of a very strong second-half surge. He had weekly finishes of RB9, RB17, RB3, and RB2 from Weeks 11-15 (Week 13 bye). From Weeks 1-10, he had two top-12 finishes and three top-24 finishes. Unfortunately for fantasy managers, Cook disappeared in the playoffs. He scored just 9.9 half-PPR in Weeks 16 and 17 combined, ending the season with weekly finishes of RB44 and RB47. That shouldn’t diminish his 2023 breakout campaign, however.

His value is higher in full-PPR after finishing with the 19th-most targets (54) and 17th-most receptions (44), but unfortunately, Josh Allen and his rushing prowess will continue to limit his touchdown upside. Despite finishing with the 10th-most touches (281), he had just the 24th-most touchdowns (six). Regardless, Cook should be viewed as a high-end RB2 entering the 2024 season, especially if Joe Brady maintains the OC role.


Travis Etienne Jr., Jacksonville Jaguars

Etienne may be somewhat of a controversial pick. After all, he had 1,441 scrimmage yards in 2022 and 1,484 scrimmage yards this year, which included him having 117 fewer rushing yards this season. Still, I think he’s a deserving candidate for several reasons. The first, as far as fantasy football goes, he was the RB24 in half-PPR in 2022 with an 11.5 PPG average. This past season, he finished as the RB5, averaging 15.1 half-PPR PPG. That’s a significant increase, going from a backend RB2 to a top-five RB with a 3.6-point increase in PPG average.

He also had a much larger role in the passing game. His targets increased from 45 to 73. His receptions increased from 35 to 58. He had more receptions this past season than he had targets in 2022. His receiving yardage increased by 160, going from 316 to 476. For fantasy purposes, this development was what helped unlock his breakout campaign.

The other significant development was touchdowns. He scored just five touchdowns in 2022 on 255 touches but scored 12 this past year on 325 touches. He scored one touchdown per 51 touches in 2022. This past year, he scored a touchdown on every 27 touches, another major improvement. Put those things together and you have the reason for Etienne’s breakout from a fantasy perspective.

He wasn’t the most efficient running back, but that wasn’t his fault. The Jaguars offensive line was one of the worst units in the NFL this past season. Etienne tried to overcome the struggles, but it was difficult. He averaged a broken tackle every 8.6 attempts. This was the fourth-best rate in the NFL. According to PlayerProfiler, he had 69 evaded tackles, also the fourth-most.

He averaged 8.2 yards per reception, the ninth-highest among running backs, and had a 1.42 yards per route run average, which was 15th. He was much more efficient in 2022, but again, the Jacksonville offensive line did him no favors. Still, Etienne improved what he needed to improve. He got more involved in the passing game and found the end zone more regularly. Hopefully, an improved offensive line, which will surely be a priority for the team’s offseason plans, especially considering the injuries Trevor Lawrence dealt with, should help Etienne be more explosive in 2024. He’s a top-10 running back heading into 2024 with top-five upside again.


Honorable Mention

De'Von Achane, Miami Dolphins

Did Achane do enough as a rookie to be recognized as a true breakout? That’s debatable. Certainly, his efficiency metrics and fantasy performances say yes, but he missed six games and played just 27.3% of the team’s offensive snaps this season. Outside of games and snaps played, nothing is keeping Achane from being a 2023 breakout performer.

If you read the previous quarterback edition, which you can find here, Anthony Richardson also missed breakout status due to injury. Of course, Richardson only played four games, so this isn’t apples to apples. I fully understand people arguing that Achane should be a breakout, but availability matters. Regardless, let’s talk about what he did to deserve breakout status because it’ll be the reason he’ll be the feature back of this article next season.

Achane’s 2023 stats are almost impossible to believe. Check this out…

  • Second-highest true yard per carry average (6.6)
  • Highest yard per touch average (7.7)
  • Highest breakaway run rate (12.1%)
  • Seventh-best broken tackle rate (Broken tackle every 10.3 attempts)
  • 2.9 yards after contact per attempt
  • Fourth-highest yards created per touch (4.62)
  • 11 total touchdowns on just 130 touches (TD on every 11.8 touches)
  • 16th-highest yard per reception average (7.3)
  • 17th-highest yard per route run average (1.36)
  • 29th in scrimmage yards, 44th in touches

He was able to accomplish all of that despite Miami constantly shuffling their offensive line. The Dolphins' most frequent offensive line combination played just 16.9% of their snaps together this past season. This was the second-lowest percentage in the NFL, second to only the New York Jets. To be able to have the kind of efficiency Achane displayed despite the revolving door across the entire offensive line is special.

Achane finished with a 16.5 half-PPR PPG average, which was the fourth-highest. He had five top-10 finishes but did not have a single top-24 week. Of his 164.6 half-PPR points, he scored 30% in Week 3 when he finished as the RB1 with 49.3 points. He was inactive in Week 1 and scored just 1.4 in Week 2, which meant Achane’s huge performance in Week 3 came on the vast majority of people’s benches.

Following Week 3, Achane played in eight more fantasy-relevant games (excluding Week 18) and had four games where he failed to score 10 half-PPR points. This is another argument for why he did not garner true breakout status. Achane was a bit of a boom-or-bust performer. Scoring 30% of your points in one game certainly qualifies as such.

Achane’s ceiling is worth chasing, however. He has week-winning potential. Going into 2024, a season where the Dolphins may decide to move on from Raheem Mostert, Achane will be a highly sought-after running back. He should be viewed as a high-end RB2 with top-12 potential. It’ll be interesting to see what the Dolphins decide to do at running back.

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