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Which RBs will Fall from the Fantasy Top Ten in 2023?

By Joseph Hutchins | 8/2/23

Though I’ve been authoring this Top 10 Dropouts series since 2011, it’s always somehow difficult selecting three representatives from each position (QB, RB, and WR) to wax cynical about. These players are stars! They played amazing football last season! What makes me think they wouldn’t be equally amazing this coming season?! Any psychologist worth his or her salt recognizes this as good ol’ fashioned recency bias, which is more or less what this article is and has been about for over a decade. Last year’s stars won’t be this year’s stars because the math says they won’t but our imperfect brains, mine very much included, can’t comprehend that basic scientific fact. The end. OK, not really ‘cuz that would be a pretty short and uninteresting article. Let’s talk a bit more about WHO is most likely to disappoint in 2023 and, more specifically, why.

Note: All rankings are based on FFToday’s Non-PPR league scoring.

  Top 10 Running Backs - 2021
Rank Player
1 Jonathan Taylor
2 Austin Ekeler
3 Joe Mixon
4 Najee Harris
5 James Conner
6 Ezekiel Elliott
7 Nick Chubb
8 Damien Harris
9 Antonio Gibson
10 Alvin Kamara
  Top 10 Running Backs - 2022
Rank Player
1 Josh Jacobs
2 Austin Ekeler
3 Derrick Henry
4 Christian McCaffrey
5 Nick Chubb
6 Saquon Barkley
7 Jamaal Williams
8 Tony Pollard
9 Dalvin Cook
10 Miles Sanders

Who Missed the Cut in 2022 (8/10): J. Taylor, J. Mixon, N. Harris, J. Conner, E. Elliott, D. Harris, A. Gibson, & A. Kamara

For the fourth time since 2010, 80% of the league’s most productive backs failed to retain Top 10 status from one year to the next. This is not particularly alarming or compelling data as the average turnover percentage during that stretch is just north of 65%. Simply put, no position experiences more turnover year in and year out. Those holding the purse strings, moreover, have obviously caught on if this summer’s incipient running back revolt is any indication.

Jonathan Taylor, 2021’s top dog, is one of those rock-toting revolutionaries, openly warring with Colts’ owner Jim Irsay Jr. on social media as he agitates to be traded or break the bank with his second NFL deal. The former All-Pro’s case wasn’t helped by an injury-plagued 2022 campaign, wherein he missed six games and toppled down the ranks to RB34. Cincinnati’s Joe Mixon must have seen the writing on the wall following a solid but unspectacular season (three DNPs and a slip to RB14), as he worked with Cincy to restructure his contract this past off-season (lowered his own price tag to keep the job). Take away a 153-yard, 4-TD outing v. lowly Carolina in Week 9 and Mixon would have averaged barely 50 yards per game last season.

Najee Harris won’t hit free agency for a couple more years, but had this to say on the topic of running back devaluation recently: “The only time they choose to say it’s devalued is when it’s time to pay the running back.” Should make for a fun contract negotiation in 2027! Harris has a chance to make the Steelers’ brass squirm then (he was still RB12 last year), but I’m doubting Pittsburgh’s former meal ticket, James Conner, will hold the same leverage in Arizona. Conner slid to RB2 status last season when, predictably, he failed to score even half the touchdowns (8) he’d scored in 2021 (18). And he ain’t getting any younger. Neither is Ezekiel Elliott, only two months younger than Conner and the only Top 10 dropout currently unemployed. Elliott wasn’t bad in 2022 for the Cowboys but Tony Pollard was better (and younger…and cheaper). Thanks for the memories, Zeke!

The final three dropouts—Damien Harris, Antonio Gibson, and Alvin Kamara—combined to miss 10 games in 2022, a running back occupational hazard, for sure. They were more likely undone, however, by poor quarterback play and general offensive instability. Kamara’s the most talented of the three (by a lot), but may still be suspended under the league’s personal conduct policy, making it unlikely he’ll regain Top 10 status this coming year.

Most Likely Candidates to Fall from the Top 10 This Year:

Josh Jacobs

Josh Jacobs, LV: If Jonathan Taylor can topple from RB1 to out of the Top 10 in the span of 12 months, so can Josh Jacobs. It works in the other direction too, BTW, as Jacobs demonstrated by vaulting from RB14 in 2021 to the top of the heap last season, edging out Austin Ekeler and Derrick Henry by a touchdown for the crown. Interestingly, he also scored the fewest points by an RB1 (277.3) since Devonta Freeman in 2015 (247.9).

This year-to-year volatility and lowering productivity ceiling may help explain why NFL GMs are reluctant to ink top rushers to big contracts and why Las Vegas, in particular, didn’t pick up the fifth-year option on Jacobs’ rookie contract before last year. They’ve now franchise tagged him heading into 2023 which has, predictably, ruffled feathers and led to a training camp holdout. To be clear, I DON’T think said holdout will last and I DO think Jacobs will play a full slate of games this year, assuming he stays healthy. Will it be for the Raiders, though? There are plenty of rumblings out there.

Uncertainty regarding where Jacobs will play in 2023 is just one reason I think his days in the RB Top 10 are numbered. The other is last year’s workload. His 393 touches led all running backs (11 more than wrecking ball Derrick Henry) and were 87 more than he’d ever compiled in four previous seasons. That’s about four games’ worth of extra mileage and we know what usually happens, Henry notwithstanding, when backs get used that frequently: They don’t the next season and usually because they can’t (read: the injury bug catches up with them). He won people chips last year, but you’re better off drafting the next Jacobs in 2023 than actual Jacobs.

Tony Pollard, DAL: Pollard was Dallas’ best back in 2022, as mentioned above, despite being out-touched by Zeke and also scoring the same number of touchdowns (12) as the Cowboys’ de jure RB1. He accomplished that by being way more efficient than Elliott, to the tune of 410 total yards. Surely he’s capable of even better digits in 2023 now that he has the backfield all to himself, right?

Probably, but there’s something about the situation that doesn’t sit right. For starters, Pollard has never carried the ball 200 times in a season, which is probably understandable since he trends smaller than most meal tickets. Heck, he couldn’t even command a full 50-50 share last season when, to anyone watching, it was clear he electrified the Dallas offense. Is Coach Mac worried he might break the slighter-of-build star if he overuses him? We shouldn’t forget that, despite achieving Top 10 status in the regular season, the last thing we saw Pollard do in 2022-23 is crumple to the turf in the NFC Divisional Playoff v. San Francisco after breaking his left leg.

I’m also concerned that what made Pollard great last season (and to a lesser extent, the year prior) is that he was a perfect complement to his sturdier, stodgier teammate. The lightning was definitely better than the thunder, granted, but what happens when there’s no thunder at all? Unless Dallas adds another body—and they just might now that Ronald Jones is suspended the first two games for PEDs—Pollard is actually the LARGEST running back on the roster. Throwing pure smoke is fun, but mixing in some off-speed stuff can be more effective. He’ll probably make a liar out of me, but I’m not convinced the alpha role will add much more to Tony Pollard’s bottom line in 2023.

Jamaal Williams, NO; Dalvin Cook, TBD; and Miles Sanders, CAR: It isn’t difficult picking three dropout running backs most years and especially not last year when I went three for three (Conner, Elliott, and Harris). What if we made it more challenging and tried to go five for five? These three were terrific in 2022 and their respective employers were so thankful for their contributions that they…didn’t retain their services. Williams signed a FA deal with the Saints, where he’ll play first fiddle if Alvin Kamara is suspended and second fiddle once he returns. Cook is still looking for work, though he’s been most commonly linked to the Jets or Dolphins, depending on the day. Sanders signed a four-year deal with the Panthers, essentially guaranteeing he won’t return to the Super Bowl any time soon.

Of the three, Cook has the best chance of replicating his Top 10 performance from 2022, mostly because he’ll likely sign with a contender, meaning he’ll be surrounded by other great skill position players. It never hurts playing in a versatile offense. Just ask Miles Sanders, who managed to average 11.8 FPts/G despite being the fourth most interesting weapon behind Jalen Hurts, A.J. Brown, and DeVonta Smith in Philadelphia. Williams joins a middling Saints offense that could, in theory, make great strides with new QB Derek Carr under center. However, he plays the same position as the team’s best player, meaning he’ll (eventually?) be thrust right back into the role he played for many years in Green Bay.

Look, it actually IS difficult picking the best running backs before they play the games. I’d suggest prioritizing star WRs and QBs who can run first, then adding value at this position in later rounds or with fewer auction dollars.

Best of luck, folks!

Next: Wide Receivers

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