*** Rankings below based on 0.5 PPR leagues
Updated August 31, 2023
1. Christian McCaffrey, SF
2. Austin Ekeler, LAC
3. Bijan Robinson, ATL
Christian McCaffrey is one of the rare RBs who navigated two straight years of serious injuries (2020-2021), only to come back and regain his footing an elite RB. The trade to Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers’ offense consummated the perfect marriage for his skillset, returning McCaffrey atop the perch as this year’s RB1.
Austin Ekeler has scored 36 TDs over the past two seasons, contributing heavily in both the rushing and passing game. Expect another consistent, excellent season for Ekeler.
The final spot in tier 1 goes to a player who has yet to play an NFL down. But don’t worry – Bijan Robinson will look like a multi-year veteran starting in week 1. Robinson will be deployed in similar fashion to his tier 1 mates, and he’ll be vying for RB1 overall status in 2024.
This elite troika of RBs can go as high as the top 3 overall picks, and in no event should any of these players drop past the mid-first round.
4. Saquon Barkley, NYG
5. Tony Pollard, DAL
6. Nick Chubb, CLE
7. Josh Jacobs, LV
Saquon Barkley had a sensational rookie season in 2018, only for injuries and disappointing stats to mar his 2019 through 2021 seasons. Barkley experienced rejuvenation in Brian Daboll’s offense last season, rushing for 10 TDs and more than 1,300 yards. He’s back, and you should buy his revival.
Cowboys’ owner Jerry Jones finally ceded to the fantasy community’s wishes and removed Ezekiel Elliott from the Cowboys, allowing Tony Pollard to finally get a chance to cook in 2023. Expect a monster season from Pollard.
Browns’ RB Nick Chubb may be the best pure rusher in the NFL, and his minimal role in the passing game is all that keeps him from tier 1. With Kareem Hunt no longer in Cleveland, sounds like Chubb will get a few more touches in the passing game - so there's upside still.
Josh Jacobs has long displayed top rushing skills, but he broke out to another level last year in Josh McDaniels’ offense. Jacobs surpassed 1,600 rushing yards to go along with 12 rushing TDs, but he quietly also caught 53 balls for 400 yards. McDaniels will continue to heavily rely on Jacobs with new QB Jimmy G in town.
The tier 2 RBs should fly off the board starting with the back half of round one, and wrapping up by the first half of round 2.
8. Derrick Henry, TEN
9. Rhamondre Stevenson, NE
10. Joe Mixon, CIN
11. Aaron Jones, GB
12. Jahmyr Gibbs, DET
13. Najee Harris, PIT
14. Travis Etienne, JAC
15. Dameon Pierce, HOU
Derrick Henry’s ranking here comes in lower than you’ll find on other boards, as many would argue that he belongs in tier 2. The actuarial hat goes on here, looking at a stud RB, but one who is 29 years old with plenty of wear and tear. Hence, Henry lands atop tier 3 here. Still a fantastic NFL player and fantasy option, but forecasting a small drop in production. With Damien Harris departing the Patriots’ this past offseason, Rhamondre Stevenson officially has the bell cow role to himself. Look for another huge season.
Joe Mixon remains the unquestioned bell cow in the Bengals’ potent offense, and he’s another safe (as RBs go) option. Aaron Jones will continue to lead the Packers’ backfield, but with AJ Dillon continuing to be a timeshare partner. The Packers will lean on the rushing game to break in new starting QB Jordan Love, so Jones' value remains high.
Jahmyr Gibbs checks in as the second highest ranked rookie RB. With D’Andre Swift jettisoned to the Eagles, the Lions have a key role contemplated for Gibbs - he’ll split carries in the running game while also playing a substantial role in the passing offense. He’s ranked here for 0.5 PPR, so bump him up a few spots for full PPR leagues, and down a few notches if standard scoring.
Najee Harris had a nice rookie season in 2021, but followed with a disappointing sophomore campaign. He still averages under four yards per carry in his career, so we are looking at a volume king as opposed to an electric gamebreaker. Volume remains king in fantasy, however. The hope here is that with an improved offensive line and ascending QB opening up the passing game, Harris will get more room to run.
Travis Etienne has received a lot of love in 2023 drafts. But he’s coming off a season with only 5 TDs and underwhelming receiving stats in light of his reputation. The Jaguars also added Auburn’s Tank Bigsby through the draft, and he’ll factor into the running game. So…proceed with caution with Etienne and don’t overpay.
The tier 3 group finishes with Dameon Pierce, who had a nice rookie season amongst a barren Texans’ offense. The offense should take a step or two forward with CJ Stroud at QB, and Pierce can be counted on for 1k yards and 6 - 8 TDs. Safe pick, if not with a high ceiling due to low volume in the passing game.
The tier 3 group should come off the board starting around the middle of round 2, with the group gone by the end of round 3.
16. Alexander Mattison, MIN
17. Breece Hall, NYJ
18. Miles Sanders, CAR
19. Kenneth Walker, SEA
Alexander Mattison takes over for Dalvin Cook in Minnesota. If Mattison gets the same usage that Cook had, then he has an RB1 ceiling as a top 10 option. The lack of confirmation as to the Vikings’ plan at RB keeps Mattison’s value in check for now.
Speaking of Dalvin Cook, as he joins the Jets, RB Breece Hall drops a few slots in the rankings...but not too far. Hall will have a central role in the team’s now buoyant offense, which as a do-it-all player, gives Hall a high floor as long as he remains healthy.
Miles Sanders left the friendly confines of the Eagles’ offense for the upstart Panthers. The Panthers figure to lean heavily on their RBs in both the run and pass games, due to the presence of a rookie QB and the lack of shiny weapons at their WR and TE positions. He’s a high floor, lower ceiling option.
We finish up with Kenneth Walker, who also possesses RB1 traits, but faces a few headwinds on the climb to his ceiling. The Seahawks added Zach Charbonnet from UCLA in the draft, who figures to get some rushing sets. Also Walker currently tries to make each carry a home run, which leads to some monster scampers…but also many 0-2 yard gains. He’ll need to be more efficient per carry in order to bump up to a higher tier.
Round 4 through early round 5 make sense for this quartet.
20. Cam Akers, LAR
21. Jonathan Taylor, IND
22. James Cook, BUF
23. James Conner, ARI
24. Isiah Pacheco, KC
25. James Cook, BUF
26. David Montgomery, DET
27. Rachaad White, TB
28. D'Andre Swift, PHI
Cam Akers kicks of tier 5, with the lead Rams’ RB gig in hand. Kyren Williams will fight for carries as well, but otherwise Akers doesn’t face much competition. Meanwhile, Jonathan Taylor drops all the way to tier 5 given his expected absence through the team's first four games - and lessened confidence of his overall health.
If swinging for the fences, James Cook could be your guy. While facing competition from Damien Harris and others, Cook is positioned to be in the mix for carries while having the sole passing down RB gig to himself.
While playing in a rebuilding offense, James Connor should continue to be the bell cow for the Cardinals – that’s enough to land him as a low end RB2 / high end flex. Isiah Pacheco wrestled away the starting RB job from Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and Pacheco has no interest in giving it back. His ceiling is limited as the lead rusher in a Mahomes offense without also having lead passing RB duties, but he’s also got a high floor.
The next RB has RB1 talent but has to share the load with a top rushing QB in Lamar Jackson, plus fellow RBs Gus Edwards and Justice Hill. Dobbins remains the top Ravens’ RB to own. The Bucs will certainly look different without Tom Brady at the helm, but with Lenny Fournette also gone, Rachaad White will be the primary back for the team. Volume / targets alone makes him fantasy relevant.
David Montgomery serves as the thunder to Jahmyr Gibbs’ lightening for the Lions, and he also falls into the non-exciting-but-steady category. And we end with an injury prone, high upside player in D’Andre Swift. His talent jumps off the screen when you watch Swift play, but he has just not been able to stay healthy. A full season healthy Swift has RB1 potential, especially with what he can provide in the passing game. When you drop down to this phase of the draft, an upside player like Swift should be your target.
Rounds 6 – 7 make sense for the tier 5 group.
29. Javonte Williams, DEN
30. Khalil Herbert, CHI
31. Dalvin Cook, NYJ
32. AJ Dillon, GB
33. Antonio Gibson, WAS
34. Alvin Kamara, NO
35. Jerick McKinnon, KC
36. Brian Robinson, WAS
We’ll take a quick look at each of the final tiers. Javonte Williams (health), Khalil Herbert (lead Bears' rusher) Dalvin Cook (Jets' offense) and Alvin Kamara (quick assimilation following suspension) each have large upside as tier 6 options. AJ Dillon, Antonio Gibson, Jerick McKinnon and Brian Robinson share RB duties for their respective teams, with flex level floors and high ceilings in the event of an injury to their backfield colleagues.
These RBs should be targeted in the mid part of your fantasy drafts (rounds 8 and onward).
37. Jamall Williams, NO
38. Rashaad Penny, PHI
39. Samaje Perine, DEN
40. Zach Charbonnet, SEA
41. Raheem Mostert, MIA
42. Damien Harris, BUF
43. Jaylen Warren, PIT
44. D'Onta Foreman, CHI
45. Elijah Mitchell, SF
46. Tank Bigsby, JAC
47. De'von Achane, MIA
48. Devin Singletary, HOU
49. Kendre Miller, NO
50. Tyler Allgeier, ATL
Jamaal Williams has a shot to take over the lead rushing duties in New Orleans, inversely impacting Alvin Kamara’s value. Rashaad Penny has RB1 potential himself (career 5.7 YPC!), but sadly he can’t stay healthy. The rookie quartet in tier 7 – Zach Charbonnet, Tank Bigsby, De'Von Achane and Kendre Miller provide upside lottery tickets, which are what you should shoot for as you make later round picks. Otherwise at this stage of the draft, you’re looking at second seats at teams’ RB functions, or backups who are injury dependent in order to make a fantasy impact.
I’ve noted above the general rounds in which the RBs in each tier should be drafted, so I won’t regurgitate that information here. But taking a macro level view of the situation, you should target at least 1 RB from within the top 3 tiers, with your second RB coming from no lower than tier 5…and ideally by tier 4. From there, target a few RBs among the tier 6 and 7 groups who have upside – either injury prone players with massive upside or backups who are an injury away from bell cow status. The theme here – draft solid, safe RB options as your starting anchors, then shoot for upside at RB with your mid to later round picks.
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