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2023 Undervalued / Overvalued: Running Backs



By Michael O'Hara | 8/16/23 |

The running back position is incredibly frustrating for most fantasy managers. Injuries, timeshares, and plain old busts seem to be an issue for the running back group on nearly every fantasy roster so finding a stud RB (or two) provides enormous value and will certainly lead to success on the fantasy gridiron. To build the best roster possible, have these first two running back values circled on your draft board and avoid the landmines that follow.

Note: ADP based on PPR scoring

Undervalued

Cam Akers

Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams
ADP: 4.11, RB21

The case for Akers being undervalued: Following a strong close to 2022 and little competition, Akers is in line for a bell cow workload and the opportunity to massively pay off his low-end RB2 price.

The case against Akers being undervalued: Akers has had stretches in his career where he was simply useless from a fantasy perspective. Coupled with an offense and team that will likely struggle this season, Akers could easily disappoint those who draft him.

Verdict: Cam Akers: one of the most frustrating players in all of fantasy football. After being drafted in the 4th or 5th round range, Akers was a massive disappointment throughout the majority of last season.

However, he was nothing but dominant after fellow RB Darrell Henderson went down with an injury. From Week 13 on, Akers handled a massive workload, averaging 19 touches per game while scoring 18 PPR points finishing as the RB4 during this stretch. He also proved to be an effective runner on top of a large workload. Akers averaged 4.9 YPA and 50% of his yards came after contact. He ranked 8th in evasion rate, showing that he can create space and big plays for himself. While these numbers come from a small sample, this is very encouraging as to what he can do when handling the majority of the workload.

Kyren Williams and rookie Zach Evans as the primary competitors in this backfield, there is no reason why Akers wouldnít be the dominant ball carrier in 2023. Rams head coach Sean McVay has also shown no issue with giving a single RB massive volume. While Akers isnít the talent that Todd Gurley was, Akers would clearly benefit from holding a bell cow role as Gurley did. With the talent he has shown and the volume he will likely see, Akers is in a position to be a massive value in drafts.

David Montgomery, Detroit Lions
ADP: 7.12, RB31

The case for Montgomery being undervalued: Montgomery has finished as an RB2 or better in each year of his career and has upgraded to the Detroit offense Ė an offense that has been fantasy friendly to running backs.

The case against Montgomery being undervalued: The Lions spent the 12th overall pick on Jahmyr Gibbs. This will eat into Montgomeryís overall usage and severely limits his role as a pass catcher.

Verdict: Throughout his career, Montgomery has been dependable. Even as a rookie, Montgomery finished as the very fantasy-relevant RB24. Following a move to Detroit, Montgomery is being drafted as an RB3, primarily due to the presence of Jahmyr Gibbs, a former Alabama RB who was selected in the first round. Gibbs is an incredibly talented pass catcher and will be heavily used in this capacity for the Lions. However, Montgomery has never needed a large role in the passing game to find success. He has never ranked higher than 12th in target share and has only topped 50 receptions one time in his career. While his lack of receiving volume will certainly cap his ceiling, he does not need this volume to return value on his cost.

Although Montgomery is missing out on these high-value receptions, he is in line to receive the other form of premium opportunities, carries near the end zone. Last season Jamaal Williams led the league with 45 carries inside the 10-yard line. While itís unlikely that Montgomery sees this kind of volume, the Lions still utilize a single RB at the goal line and Montgomery is set to take on this role.

The Detroit offense was able to produce two top-24 RBs last season despite DíAndre Swift missing several games. While Williams was propelled to an RB13 finish by high touchdown numbers, two fantasy-relevant RBs in Detroit are certainly possible once again. Montgomery has a track record of fantasy success and considering his RB3 cost, he is a great target in drafts.

Overvalued

Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
ADP: 1.04, RB2

The case for Ekeler being overvalued: Ekeler has relied on a high target share and touchdowns to produce elite fantasy performances. He will likely take a hit in both areas, making it difficult to reproduce his elite finishes.

The case against Ekeler being overvalued: Ekler has proven to be one of the most reliable fantasy options at running back over the last several seasons and can be an anchor for fantasy rosters given his pass-catching ability.

Verdict: Austin Ekeler has been nothing short of dominant in recent seasons, producing two consecutive top-two running back finishes. There have been two key factors behind Ekelerís success: receptions and touchdowns. Ekeler has combined for 38 total touchdowns over the last two years, by far the most in this span. Although he has put up absurd TD numbers, touchdowns can be highly variant and difficult to project year over year. Considering this, it is more likely that his TD numbers regress and he doesnít put up another 20 TD season. With Keenan Allen and Mike Williams healthy, coupled with the addition of Quentin Johnston, it will be difficult for Ekeler to reproduce what he did the last two seasons.

Ranking top-two in nearly every significant receiving metric, Ekeler was easily the biggest factor in the receiving game of any RB last year. In fact, 33% of Ekelerís touches were receptions, a number seen by few RBs. However, this is likely to change this season due to the presence of three high-quality receivers at the disposal of Herbert. Keep in mind, there were several games last season where Josh Palmer was the top option at receiver, making it inevitable that Ekeler would be heavily relied on in the passing game.

Kellen Mooreís arrival as the Chargerís new OC will hurt Ekelerís use in the passing game. First, Moore prefers to push the ball downfield which lead to more targets for WRs and TEs. In four seasons as the QB in a Kellen Moore led offense, Dak Prescott ranked top ten in air yards per attempt twice, including ranking 5th in 2019. By contrast, running back target rate in the Dallas offense, was never better than 19th and had two seasons ranking 26th or worse. While this will certainly change due to Ekelerís pass-catching ability, it is a cause for concern.

Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars
ADP: 3.07, RB12

The case for Etienne being overvalued: Etienne enters 2023 in a disgusting timeshare with questionable receiving work and may not be in line for goal line touches.

The case against Etienne being overvalued: Etienne is the lead back for an offense that could be one of the best this season. He is also very explosive, with the talent to be a top ball carrier in the league.

Verdict: Etienne’s outlook provides more questions than answers, something that is not desirable in a 3rd round pick. First is Etienne’s overall workload. Jacksonville head coach Doug Pederson has historically preferred to use a running back by committee. He even noted this offseason that Etienne needed a reduced workload following his high usage last year. In Pederson’s time as a head coach, no running back has hit the 14 carries per game mark. Don’t expect Etienne to break this trend.

Tank Bigsby is a 3rd round rookie from Auburn who has been brought in to take some work off Etienne’s shoulders. Not only is Bigsby simply a body to take on touches, but he is very talented as well. Bigsby is a powerful, downhill runner that can handle contact and if he can find success early on this season, he may assume an even larger role in the offense. One role that Bigsby may immediately assume is the goal line role. Last season, Etienne was abysmal near the endzone, finding paydirt just three times on 14 goal line rushes.

When a running back is a part of a significant timeshare, being utilized in the passing game can provide fantasy value. Unfortunately for Etienne, this really isn’t the case. Last season Etienne garnered a 7.8% target share, ranking 31st among RBs. This likely won’t change in 2023. First, Doug Pederson does not heavily utilize RBs in the passing game. Since 2017, a back in a Pederson offense has seen more than 35 receptions just one time. On top of this, the Jaguars welcome Calvin Ridley into the mix. With Ridley, Christian Kirk, Zay Jones, and Evan Engram all commanding targets, a small piece of the receiving work is left for running backs.

There is no doubt that Etienne is a talented rusher. However, there are massive questions surrounding his ability to receive high-leverage touches – receptions and goal line carries. Considering a top 40 pick will likely have to be spent on Etienne, the risk seems to outweigh the rewards.






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