During the 2023 season, fantasy football analyst Jorge Martin will provide weekly analysis of some of the muddiest fantasy RB situations while looking ahead to future matchups.
Fantasy football managers, we’re through Week 4. One quarter of the way through the season — sort of. Why does it feel like we’ve been beat up alongside the players who play the most physically punishing position in the NFL?
It only seems that way, because trust me, even football players don’t want to get hit by Aaron Donald.
Anyone with the foresight or good fortune to draft Christian McCaffrey, take a bow. He’s on a heater that hasn’t been seen since … he did it in 2019. Or LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006.
The D’Andre Swift drafters are feeling like their wildest dreams have come true with him playing like a bell-cow back since Week 2.
Practically all other fantasy managers are making tough lineup decisions on a weekly basis.
This week’s Running Back Report is going to have a different look. The running back rooms are going to be divided under three headings:
Clear as mud: Please help us make sense of these backfields!
Less muddy backfields: Those that show a glimmer of having clearly defined roles
Used to be muddy: These had many questions entering the season, but those have been answered
As always, a quick breakdown of each backfield will be provided, with a look ahead to at least the upcoming opponent and how to handle start/sit decisions. In one important instance, the next several opponents are taken into account. This will hopefully clear up the picture for several of these groups to help fantasy football managers make winning decisions.
Clear as mud
The four-game wait for Jonathan Taylor to return from the PUP List is finally over.
Or is it? Jonathan Taylor will have his 21-day practice window open up on Oct. 4, which does not guarantee that he’s going to be on the field for Week 5. So, don’t go dropping Zack Moss just yet.
Moss has 66 of the Colts’ running back rush attempts since Week 2, with just eight going to Trey Sermon in that timeframe. Moss has been a more than adequate substitute, with a pair of top 10 running back finishes, and an RB21 finish the third week he started. It’s hard to imagine that he’s going to head to the bench immediately after Taylor is activated to the 53-man roster. More than likely, the pair will split carries early on. Keep in mind, the last time that Taylor took a hit in an NFL game was on Dec. 17, 2022. He hasn’t even been hit in full pads in practice. There will be some transition time for Taylor, so Moss figures to remain a part of the offensive game plan for the Colts.
Fantasy managers who drafted Taylor, no matter what round, are likely needing to play him right away when he’s active. That’s just the state of the running back position. He is still 24 and just two years removed from an 1,811-yard season where he was the rushing champion.
While both backs may be startable, the upcoming schedule is rough. Tennessee, at Jacksonville, Cleveland and New Orleans are the next four opponents, and all are top 11 in fewest rushing yards allowed. Welcome back to the NFL, Mr. Taylor.
Surely, fantasy managers didn’t expect eight touchdowns every week from De’Von Achane and Raheem Mostert. Achane got halfway to his previous week’s performance, though, hitting paydirt twice in the 48-20 loss to the Bills.
The Dolphins’ running backs split the touches almost evenly — Achane (11) and Mostert (10) — yet Achane is gaining an advantage in time on the field. The rookie had 38 snaps to Mostert’s 24, and had almost double the routes run (25-13). The kid is taking a slight lead, but both are startable with favorable matchups against the Giants and Panthers coming up.
New York Jets
With every long run like the 43-yarder that Breece Hall unleashed on Sunday night against the Chiefs, fantasy managers are getting more vocal wanting to see the second-year player to become a bell-cow back. He has double-digit rushing attempts in just two of four games thus far. Hall is still getting more touches than Dalvin Cook, but at just a 45.6% snap percentage he has yet to take a clear lead over the veteran.
Hall is nearing the one-year anniversary from his ACL surgery. That mark is usually when players are closer to full health, so possibly in the coming weeks we’ll see Hall assert himself even more. If Robert Saleh is to be believed, that could happen this week. Hall has the Broncos on deck this week, so don’t be surprised should he break off another big run or two — or has the big game fantasy managers have been waiting for.
Miles Sanders and Chuba Hubbard were even in touches (16-16) last week. Is this now a timeshare? Coming into the season, Sanders was a dark horse, Dead Zone RB who looked like he would be the clear leader in touches. A groin injury coming into Week 4 may have played a part, as in Week 3 Sanders had almost twice the number of snaps that Hubbard had, 48-26.
Follow the injury reports to see if Sanders is trending into limited practices or DNP. This could lead to fewer opportunities. The Lions are up next, and they are second in the league in fewest rushing yards allowed on the season.
Here we go with another week where the Steelers are splitting the touches between Najee Harris (15) and Jaylen Warren (14). Harris put up 10.80 fantasy points in Week 4, good for RB17, while Warren was the RB23 with 8.5 points. Neither player is moving the needle very much for fantasy managers, with both hovering in that RB2/possible flex play range.
With quarterback Kenny Pickett potentially heading toward sitting this week with a bone bruise on his knee, there will be extra defensive attention paid to the Steelers’ running backs. AFC North rival Baltimore is up next, and the Ravens allowed 122 rushing yards to Moss in Week 3, though no other running back has more than 59 yards rushing against them.
It’s hard to sit Harris, but starting him comes with the hope he scores a touchdown. Warren’s utility in the passing game makes him more palatable as a start. With the bye week following the Baltimore game, this backfield has a true committee feel for the foreseeable future.
Less Muddy Backfields
There were several question marks going into Week 4’s Thursday Night Football centered around whether David Montgomery would play after suffering what appeared to be a serious thigh injury in Week 2. He missed Week 3, and on a short week fantasy managers openly wondered if Montgomery would play just four days after being inactive.
Did he ever play.
Montgomery answered the questions with 32 rushing attempts for 121 yards and three touchdowns for 33.10 fantasy points and RB2 status. How many fantasy managers left him on the bench? (*raises hand*) He caught both of his targets for another 20 yards. So much for easing him back in.
Montgomery led in snaps, 51-28, over rookie Jahmyr Gibbs, who had his normal workload. With eight rush attempts and five targets that he turned into four catches for 11 yards, Gibbs is settling into a role where he gets 10-15 touches on a weekly basis. With his breakaway ability, Gibbs can pop long runs at any time. Montgomery is going to get most of the early-down work and carries in positive game scripts.
The Panthers are on deck for a trip to Detroit, and they have given up consecutive big games to running backs Kenneth Walker III (156 total yards) and Alexander Mattison (95 yards).
Montgomery is a definite start and Gibbs is still a flex play on the fast track at Ford Field.
The touch advantage was clearly in Khalil Herbert’s favor this week (22-6) over rookie Roschon Johnson. It may be time to pump the brakes on the Johnson hype for now. D’Onta Foreman being inactive a third straight game means he should be dropped if he’s still on the end of fantasy rosters.
The Bears’ drive late in the fourth quarter, right after the Broncos tied the game, 28-28, is key. Herbert got the ball nine times on what turned out to be an 11-play drive. Two plays were nullified by penalties. This says all that needs to be said about the state of the Bears’ backfield as currently constituted.
Herbert is the leader of the pack until further notice.
The Commanders are in 22nd place with 490 rushing yards allowed on the season, so Herbert is a fantasy starter in Week 5, especially with four teams on bye. Johnson is a sit for the time being.
Used to be muddy, clearing up
D’Andre Swift went from a single carry in the opener to 28-175-1 a week later. He hasn’t looked back since. He gashed the Buccaneers for 16-130-0 in Week 3, and has taken over the backfield for the Eagles. He’s the RB9 overall. Swift took 43 snaps for a 64.2% share last week, making him an every-week starter.
So right now Kenneth Gainwell is just a bench stash. Rashaad Penny is droppable.
Kansas City Chiefs
When Clyde Edwards-Helaire had his number called on the first two plays of the Chiefs’ opening of their title defense, the fantasy community went loco. Patrick Mahomes even led the team in rushing with 45 yards that night. Regardless, Isiah Pacheco has risen to the top of the pile of Chiefs running backs, returning to his New Jersey roots in Week 4 for 158 total yards on 23 touches.
He easily led the Chiefs in routes run (16) and snap share (65.2%). He’s the Kansas City back to start.
Remember how Tank Bigsby was supposed to eventually work into a split role with Travis Etienne Jr.? Best laid plans. In the 23-7 victory over the Falcons in London, Etienne paced the backfield by being on the field for 54 of 64 total Jacksonville snaps.
He gobbled up 20 carries to just three for Bigsby. Etienne even has a pair of games over 100 total yards. He’s the leader of the Jaguars’ pack.
Brian Robinson Jr., who was expected to be on most fantasy teams’ benches as a stash for injuries or bye weeks, has jumped to the head of the Commanders’ class and to RB6 overall through four games. He’s dominated the touches, 66-21, over Antonio Gibson, who was presumed to be the passing-game back.
Up next on Thursday night, the Bears and their No. 18 defense in rushing yards allowed. Robinson will be ready to roll up some yardage.