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The Biggest Fantasy Football RB Busts of 2023

Austin Ekeler - Fantasy Football Rankings, NFL Injury News, DFS Lineup Picks

Once the cornerstone of fantasy football roster building, running backs have fallen by the wayside to wide receivers, and in some rare cases, tight ends. When managers took the gamble on one in the first or second round, it seemed they couldn't miss.

Austin Ekeler, Tony Pollard, and Nick Chubb were all either first-round picks or selected at the top of the second round. A season-ending injury took Chubb out of the conversation. The excuses aren't as prevalent for the other two.

Below, we dive into the biggest running back busts of 2023 and look forward to their chances of bouncing back next season.

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!

 

Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers

  • ADP: RB2
  • 2023 Finish: RB26

The receiving work is and may continue to be there for Austin Ekeler, but his rushing production is slowing down. People may say "age is just a number", but the harsh reality is that 28 and soon-to-be-29-year-old running backs lose a step, especially those who suffer a high-ankle sprain in Week 1.

On five separate occasions, Ekeler failed to reach two yards per carry. Those suboptimal games led to a career-low 3.5 YPC. His previous low mark was 4.2 yards in 2019. He was a whole yard per carry better in 2022. Ekeler's efficiency dip forced the Chargers' coaching staff to rely more on Joshua Kelley (3.6 career YPC) and Isaiah Spiller (2.5 career YPC), two backs that could be out of the league in short order.

Ekeler's route participation stayed mostly consistent (57.9% in 2022 versus 54.3% in 2023) but his target share, yards per route run, and catch rate slipped. His reception total was the lowest since his rookie season but he still averaged the sixth-most receptions per game (3.6) at the position. Receptions provide a decent floor in PPR formats but the days of Ekeler being a top-end, can't-miss fantasy football running back are gone.

"I like Austin Ekeler. We're going to have a huge emphasis on the run game, and we gotta block better up front. He's a tremendous back and we'd love to have him on the team next year." - Jim Harbaugh

New head coach Jim Harbaugh and offensive coordinator Greg Roman are hammering home the idea that the Chargers will be focused on establishing a strong rushing attack. The current roster is not constructed for that game plan. One of two things will happen if they hope to move the sticks with consistency behind the beef boys. Either the team brings in another running back to complement Ekeler's diminishing strengths or they'll move on from Ekeler, a free agent. Ekeler himself cannot fulfill the goals of the coaching staff by himself at this point in his career.

 

Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys

  • ADP: RB5
  • 2023 Finish: RB14

Some running backs just can’t handle the featured role. The belief was that Tony Pollard would be able to do so after his late-season dominant run in 2022. Ezekiel Elliott was let go, leaving Pollard to be the star of the Dallas backfield. Rico Dowdle, who had seven carries heading into the 2023 season, was his primary competition.

While his rushing attempts and receptions predictably increased, Pollard’s efficiency fell off a cliff. Instead of ripping off 5.2 yards per carry, the 26-year-old averaged just four yards per attempt. That was tied for 24th among running backs with Joe Mixon, Jerome Ford, and Rhamondre Stevenson. Despite securing 16 more catches in 2023, Pollard registered 60 fewer yards. His total touchdowns were cut in half.

Pollard did undergo a "TightRope" procedure at the beginning of the calendar year to repair ligaments from a fractured fibula and high ankle sprain that he suffered at the tail end of 2022. He claims he was fully recovered by Week 11 when the Cowboys visited Carolina. The numbers don’t paint the same picture.

His breakaway run rate backs up his perceived lack of explosiveness. Pollard’s 17 breakaway runs (1.1 per game) in 2022 ranked third in the league (8.8% of his runs). Another stat cut in half, the former Memphis Tiger broke away on 4.4% of his runs this last season.

Pollard played on the franchise tag last season, worth nearly 11 million dollars. Turning 27 in April, the Cowboys may not want to commit that much money to him again. He says he wants to be back in Dallas, a sentiment echoed by star pass rusher Micah Parsons. But neither of those men makes the managerial decisions in Dallas.

 

Miles Sanders, Carolina Panthers

  • ADP: RB20
  • 2023 Finish: RB52

Over the offseason, Miles Sanders was one of the most vocal running backs pushing for better pay for the position. While other backs like Pollard and Saquon Barkley were “rewarded” with the franchise tag, the Panthers pounced on bringing in Sanders for $25 million over four years.

By Week 8, they had essentially given up on the experiment. Sanders was inactive in Week 6 due to an injury and returned after the bye week with two carries for zero yards on 18 percent of the snaps. Third-year back Chuba Hubbard was given the lead role. Sanders did not start a game for the rest of the season.

Hubbard was slightly more efficient (3.79 yards per carry to Sanders’ 3.35) but the root of the problem went beyond running backs. Carolina finished last in points, total yards, and passing yards per game. The offensive line was abysmal. Bryce Young struggled through coaching changes and mediocre receiving options in his rookie season. The running game was far down the list of problems in Carolina.

But Sanders still failed fantasy managers who spent a fifth-round pick on him. With a new regime in Charlotte, the veteran back can rebound from his disappointing campaign and win over coaches. If not, Sanders could find his way out of the league quicker than we realize.

 

Dameon Pierce, Houston Texans

  • ADP: RB21
  • 2023 Finish: RB55

Fantasy managers can learn a lot from the draft capital spent on a player. Dameon Pierce was a fourth-round pick in 2022 and rushed for nearly 1,000 yards in 13 games in his rookie season. But it was almost by default. Rex Burkhead, Dare Ogunbowale, and Royce Freeman were the other running backs on the roster. Somebody had to run the football.

When 2023 rolled around, the Texans had a new coaching staff and a new free agent addition in Devin Singletary. Pierce got the first crack at being the starter but didn't average four yards per carry in any of the first seven games. His snap counts were slipping before an injury forced him to the sidelines for three games. By the time he returned, Singletary had taken control of the backfield.

Fourth-round or later running backs can make a splash for a season or two but most flame out fast. (Could Tony Pollard and Rhamondre Stevenson soon follow?) With C.J. Stroud emerging as an elite quarterback, the Texans want to surround him with more weapons. Nico Collins, Tank Dell, and Dalton Schultz (if he re-signs with the team) are a good start. The next logical step is improving the backfield and there happens to be a boatload of running backs without a team.

Singletary is among those running backs hitting the open market. Pierce is halfway through a four-year contract so he could stick around as the backup to whomever the Texans sign, but his days as a full-time starter have passed.



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