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Early Running Back Sleepers for 2023 Fantasy Football

Jerick McKinnon - Fantasy Football Rankings, Waiver Wire Pickups, Draft Sleepers

As NFL offenses and how coaches divvy up their team’s touches change, new fantasy football strategies emerge. Sometimes these changes can cause less popular strategies — like Zero-RB — to become increasingly more used and this is something we’re seeing this year.

As more and more fantasy managers become concerned with the increase of the dreaded running back by committee (RBBC) approach across the league and the non-stop injuries to this position, wide receivers have begun to look more and more appealing.

The strategy is a sound one, but it does have a trade-off. It can often lead to a less-than-ideal group of running backs. Since teams are targeting pass-catchers early, the options at running back can dissipate quickly. We’ll be identifying some sleeper picks at the running back position who have some very cheap ADPs relative to the value they could provide in 2023, making them optimal targets for fantasy managers choosing to load up on receivers early. Let’s dive in and please be sure to use promo code "BOOM" for 10% off of any premium purchase.

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David Montgomery, Detroit Lions

Underdog ADP of RB27

David Montgomery may not seem to fit the bill as a “sleeper” pick with an ADP of RB27, but he has a lot of value at this cost. Yes, the Lions selected pass-catching phenom Jahmyr Gibbs in the first round, but so what?

Last year, the Lions running backs totaled 426 carries, 1,801 rushing yards, 23 rushing scores, 115 targets, 81 receptions, 679 receiving yards, and 4 receiving touchdowns. Trust me, there is plenty to go around for Gibbs and Montgomery to eat.

In fact, the split shouldn’t be too much different than the one we saw last year between Jamaal Williams and D'Andre Swift. Fantasy managers should be expecting Montgomery to handle 60% of the rushing volume, while still chipping in modestly in the passing game.

While fantasy managers mostly recall Montgomery as an inefficient player in Chicago, he often times managed to get the job done. Since being drafted in 2019, Montgomery has never had a single season with fewer than 25 receptions, 1,070 scrimmage yards, or 6 touchdowns. In fact, across his four seasons in Chicago, he’s averaged 39 receptions, 267.5 touches, 1,212 scrimmage yards, and 7.5 touchdowns. During that time he was often the focal point for a bad offense running behind a terrible offensive line, but it didn’t stop him from being a valuable fantasy asset.

As a rookie, he finished RB31 in half-PPR PPG average. He followed that up with finishes of RB7, RB18, and RB25 in half-PPR PPG. In three out of four years, he’s finished with a higher finish than his current ADP indicates and he’s going to be entering the best scoring situation of his career.

In Detroit, he’ll be running behind a top-three offensive line in the NFL and a top-10 scoring offense. If you wait on running back and are able to draft Montgomery as an RB3, you should be happy about that. He seems like a very good bet for RB2 status and if for whatever reason Gibbs struggles as a rookie (which could happen), Monty could be even better.


Antonio Gibson, Washington Commanders

Underdog ADP of RB41

Antonio Gibson has gotten a bad rep the past few years as fantasy managers and analysts have driven the hype train on him to astronomical levels. It didn’t help when Gibson’s name was mentioned just in connection to Christian McCaffrey by head coach Ron Rivera and since that time, he’s been viewed as a massive disappointment. If that’s your viewpoint, the problem isn’t with Gibson’s performance, but with the unrealistic expectations.

As a rookie, Gibson finished with 206 total touches, 1,042 scrimmage yards, and 11 touchdowns. He followed that up by handling 300 touches and finishing with 1,331 scrimmage yards, and 10 touchdowns. Pretty, pretty good!

The wheels fell off a bit this past season as the team opted to use Brian Robinson Jr. as their primary rusher once he returned from his terrible and very unfortunate off-season incident last season. In 2022, Gibson finished with just 195 touches and 899 yards, the worst statistical season of his three-year career. However, Robinson did very little to show that he deserves more work this season.

The one area Gibson has continued to shine is in his role as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. In back-to-back seasons, he’s finished with 50 or more targets and 40 or more receptions. Just this past year, he had a 1.66-yard per route run average, which ranked ninth among all running backs. He also averaged 7.7 yards per reception, which was 12th-best among RBs.

Despite this high-level efficiency, he ran just 213 routes and had a route participation rate of just 42.0%. This ranked 25th and 24th respectively among running backs. Both numbers should be expected to climb, possibly considerably, this season with J.D. McKissic no longer on the roster.

Gibson was a high-efficiency receiver in 2021, as well. He finished with 7.0 yards per reception, 21st among RBs, and a 1.63 yards per route run average, 10th-best. Don’t be surprised if Gibson takes on a bigger role in the passing game with McKissic gone.

Another reason for optimism is the hire of new offensive coordinator, Eric Bieniemy, formerly of the Chiefs. They used Jerick McKinnon a lot and very creatively out of the backfield last year and if the team is looking to use someone in that manner, it’s going to be Gibson.

Don’t be surprised if Gibson winds up with 200 carries and over 50 receptions in 2023. With that volume and that level of utilization in the passing game, Gibson should smash his current RB41 ranking in any PPR scoring league.


Jerick McKinnon, Kansas City Chiefs

Underdog ADP of RB43

Jerick McKinnon is one of the best values right now that can be had in the RB4 range of your fantasy drafts. He finished as the RB26 last year in half-PPR PPG. If you’re waiting on running back, McKinnon is one heck of a target late. That’s because he’s guaranteed to reprise his role as the Chiefs’ primary pass-catching back.

The team has elected to run their backfield back and that’s great news for McKinnon’s fantasy value. Last year, he finished with 71 targets (ninth-most among RBs), 56 receptions (ninth), and 512 receiving yards (fourth).

He had a stranglehold on the pass-catching and third-down role in Kansas City and that’s going to continue in 2023, as well. He ran the seventh-most routes with 306 and had an 11.5% target share (15th).

Those numbers could actually go up, believe it or not. That’s because, from Weeks 1–6, Clyde Edwards-Helaire was still being routinely used. He averaged a 43.9% snap share during that time compared to McKinnon’s 41.3%. However, from Weeks 7–11, before CEH got hurt, those snap shares changed drastically. During this period, McKinnon’s snap share climbed to 50.4% and CEH’s dropped to 15.1%. From Weeks 7–17, McKinnon was the RB17 in half-PPR PPG.

McKinnon was one of the most efficient pass-catchers on top of it all. As if we needed any more reason to buy in. He finished with a 1.67-yard-per-route run average, which ranked eighth among RBs, and had 9.1 yards per reception, which was fourth-highest.

With the loss of JuJu Smith-Schuster, who operated as the team’s No. 2 target, if Skyy Moore, Kadarius Toney, and rookie Rashee Rice struggle to provide consistency, McKinnon could yet have an even bigger role in the passing game!


Khalil Herbert and Roschon Johnson, Chicago Bears

Underdog ADP of RB39 and RB45, respectively 

The Chicago backfield is the definition of an ambiguous one and their draft prices indicate as such. Khalil Herbert is being drafted at RB39, Roschon Johnson at RB45, and D’Onta Foreman at RB49. How this backfield and workload distribution gets split up is anyone’s guess.

However, Herbert was not drafted by the current regime and Foreman signed a very cheap free-agent deal, and is 27 years old. If you’re going to throw a dart at this backfield, and you very well should, Johnson seems to be the best bet, followed closely by Herbert, who shouldn’t be ignored either.

The Bears running backs finished last season with 368 rushing attempts, 1,650 yards, and 9 touchdowns. Due to Justin Fields’ tendency to run himself, they were rarely used in the passing game. They combined for just 61 targets, 46 receptions, 414 yards, and 2 touchdowns. Overall, we’re looking at 414 total touches, 2,064 scrimmage yards, and 11 touchdowns. There’s value to be had here and it’s cheap. Very, very cheap.

On an efficiency basis, Herbert was one of the best pure rushers in the NFL last season. The Bears should be expected to have a strong run game, which could get even stronger with the selection of right tackle Darnell Wright early in the first round of this year’s NFL Draft.

One area Herbert and Foreman have struggled with has been catching the football and that’s a skillset Johnson displayed at Texas. Even though this isn’t something the offense asked of their running backs very often, it could become an edge for Johnson to see the field more frequently on passing downs.

Herbert and Johnson could return RB3 value despite their RB4 price tags. There’s an even higher upside for both players in the event they’re able to distance themselves and become the primary option out of the backfield, which cannot be ruled out for either player. That is, after all, part of the ambiguous backfield appeal.


Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr., Miami Dolphins

Underdog ADP of RB48 and RB54, respectively 

Here we have another ambiguous backfield. The Dolphins elected to mostly maintain the status quo, re-signing both Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr. They also selected Devon Achane out of Texas A&M who is an exciting, young player who should be expected to work his way into the backfield rotation. That’s evidenced by Achane’s current RB35 price tag. However, he’s a 190-pound rookie, so value-wise, fantasy managers might be better at taking their swings on the cheaper veterans.

Last year, despite what appeared on the surface to be a ragtag group of running backs, they still managed to produce 1,493 rushing yards and 9 touchdowns on 329 carries. They also combined for 90 targets, 58 receptions, 428 receiving yards, and 4 receiving scores. Once again, there’s value to be had here, and the Dolphins’ should be one of the better offenses this season.

Player Half-PPR PPG Targets Receptions Receiving Yards Carries Rushing Yards Total TDs
R, Mostert 9.33 2.86 2.43 12.14 9.00 43.29 0.41
J, Wilson 9.56 3.00 1.57 11.57 10.14 50.43 0.43

This table illustrates their per-game averages following Wilson’s trade to Miami. You can see that both players were fantasy relevant and made fine RB3 starters in half-PPR scoring with averages of 9.33 (Mostert) and 9.56 (Wilson). However, they are currently priced as RB5s.

Both players have struggled with injuries in the past, which creates RB2 contingency value for either player in the event that the other misses time. Achane is likely to handle most of the receiving work as a rookie, but if he struggles early or the team opts to use the veterans, Wilson and Mostert could both have RB3 value on a weekly basis.


Zach Evans, Los Angeles Rams

Underdog ADP of RB61

Cam Akers played well to finish the 2022 season, but there’s very little behind him on the depth chart. That includes Kyren Williams and Ronnie Rivers, not exactly an imposing situation that Zach Evans is walking into.

Evans was incredibly effective in college, finishing his college career with a 6.9 yards-per-carry average. In 2022, he had 17 carries that went for more than 15 yards. He accomplished this on 11.8% of his carries. Akers’ breakaway run rate was 4.3%, which ranked 32nd. Certainly, we need to be careful comparing college vs the NFL, but Evans appears to have a gear Akers just cannot get to.

While Akers may be best as an early-down grinder and in short-yardage situations, Evans could be used as a change-of-pace back and a player who can hit that home run.

Last year, the Rams' running backs combined for 320 carries, 1,310 rushing yards, and 11 touchdowns. They also had 63 targets, 49 receptions, and 361 receiving yards. If Evans is able to operate as the team’s No. 2 running back behind Akers, he could finish with around 150 touches. If he’s able to bring some of his big play ability from college to the NFL, he could return RB4 value despite an RB5 price tag.

It also cannot be ruled out that Evans eventually draws even with Akers or even moves ahead of him entirely. Akers is not the future in Los Angeles and if their season goes south, like it very well may, the team may elect to see what they have in Evans in more of a lead-back role.

If this happens, Evans could become an RB3 with some upside. This is another fairly ambiguous backfield and while we should expect Akers to lead this group early in the season, there’s no guarantee that’s a role he’s able to hang onto all year. It was just last year he was on the chopping block and he’s a free agent after this season. Don’t be surprised if Evans gets some legit work in the second half of the season.

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