Rookie running backs have long been a target for fantasy football coaches, and for good reason. We like youth and advantage in what is the most physically punishing offensive skill position, compared to aging veteran running backs who could be on the brink of collapse due to excessive carries or depth chart personnel changes.
That kind of strategy has often paid off on the stat sheets, with some of the best historical fantasy campaigns coming from rookie running backs. Who can forget one of the greats, Eric Dickerson, who rushed for 1,808 yards and scored 20 touchdowns in his first NFL season? What about Edgerrin James? He was a true superstar in his first year out of Miami (Fla.), scoring 17 total touchdowns with 369.9 fantasy points.
I can go on, but this article would start to look like War and peace!
As far as you want to look in NFL history, you’ll find a rookie running back (and probably several rookie running backs) who made an impact on the stat sheets. last season we saw Kenneth Walker II, dameon pierce and Tyler Allgeier everyone makes noise, ending up with over 150 fantasy points. breece room he was well on his way to a possible top-10 finish before injuring his knee, and Isiah Pacheco was a useful back down the stretch.
Does that mean we’ll see similar results from the running back class of 2023, and is there a player who can reach that level of elite production next season? Well, let’s go even further down memory lane and examine freshman running backs since 2000 to see what trends we can spot that could help us become better draftsmen.
In the past 23 years, seven riders have produced more than 300 points, led by saquon barkleyThe 385.8 points of 2018. ezekiel elliott (2016), alvin camara (2017), Clinton Ports (2002), Doug Martin (2012), Matt Forte (2008) and najee harris (2020) also hit that mark. kareem hunt he came very close, scoring 295.3 points as a rookie (2017).
If we look at the top 20 overall fantasy running backs since 2000, we’ll find that three made their debuts in the past four years. That trio consists of Harris, jonathan taylor (2020) and James Robinson (2020). The rest of the top 20 running backs accomplished their feats in or before 2018, and 10 were before the 2012 season.
That’s not a surprise, as many NFL teams have gone for a more rusher-by-committee approach. That brings me to the next trend I’ve seen among our top 20 fantasy running backs since 2000, and it’s obvious: usage. Of those 20 running backs, all but two (Kamara and Maurice Jones-Drew in 2006) had at least 240 touches.
The remaining players saw between 243 and 398 touches, including 13 who finished with more than 300. Notably, Harris is the only freshman running back to reach that mark in the last four seasons. Again, this has to do with more divided backfields in the league.
Touches, of course, are total carries and sacks, so this upcoming trend is no surprise. Among the top 20 rookie running backs in our research, 17 finished with at least 32 receptions. Additionally, 12 running backs had more than 40 receptions and nine had at least 50.
Another trend to watch out for is that most of the top rookie fantasy running backs have been selected in the first three rounds of the NFL draft. In fact, only three of the top 20 rookies since 2000 fell out of those rounds. Those were Mike Anderson and Alfred Morris, who were sixth-round picks in their respective rookie years, and Robinson, who went undrafted by Illinois State three seasons ago.
Even if I dive a little deeper, only three other riders in the overall top 30 since 2000 were selected outside of the top three rounds in their respective drafts. that trio is jordan howardwho was selected in the fifth round in 2016, Domanick Williams, who was selected in the fourth round in 2003, and Phillip Lindsay, who went undrafted in 2018.
Now let’s take a look at the incoming class of runners and see who might fit the bill for our historical trends. The first name, of course, is Texas running back Bijan Robinson. The top running back in the draft, he’s projected to be a first-round pick in most expert drills.
Robinson averaged 23.1 touches and caught 19 passes in his senior year, during which time he rushed for 19 touchdowns. He’s one of the most NFL-ready running backs to come out of college since Barkley, and he has the tools and trends to make an instant impact. He will be the Dynasty top pick and a potential top 20 pick in redesigns if he lands with a franchise that will feature him from the start.
The next best running back is Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs, who is not 5’9” and 199 pounds, but can be a great PPR option in fantasy land. He caught a combined 103 passes in 31 games between Georgia Tech and the Crimson Tide, including 44 receptions in his final season. Whether or not he can be a true standout backup is in doubt due to his size, but comparisons to Kamara are exciting in fantasy land.
Because of his pass-catching abilities, Gibbs could be the exception to the 240-plus touch trend. He projects as a Day 2 pick and could be a top-60 fantasy option.
The next running back who qualifies to make an impact in Year 1 is Zach Charbonnet. He averaged 23.2 touches in his final season at UCLA, and his pass-catching skills were evident in his 37 receptions (61 receptions in 2021-22). He has starting size and could become a James Conner or AJ Dillon-type running back at the next level.
The rest of the top running backs in this new class include Texas A&M’s Devon Achane, Tulane’s Tyjae Spears, Syracuse’s Sean Tucker, TCU’s Kendre Miller and Mississippi’s Zach Evans. Auburn’s Tank Bigsby and Illinois’ Chase Brown are also notable and could see an increase in value with the right NFL team in 2023.
Based on the trends of the past 23 years, not to mention their immense talent, there’s a good chance Robinson and Gibbs could make an immediate impact. In fact, Robinson could be special as a rookie at the level of Barkley or Elliott. But he would also keep an eye on Charbonnet, Achane, and Spears. All three have pass-catching skills, and Charbonnet could be an NFL Week 1 starter in the right situation.
michael fabiano is a winner fantasy football analyst at Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all of her articles here at SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, Youtubeand instagram For your latest fantasy news and the best analysis in the business to help you win a fantasy championship!