Fantasy Football: Ambiguous backfields to target in 2024

2T23H61 Denver Broncos running back Jaleel McLaughlin runs during an NFL football game against the Kansas City Chiefs Thursday, Oct. 12, 2023 in Kansas City, Mo. (AP Photo/Ed Zurga)

Denver Broncos: The competition for head coach Sean Payton’s fantasy-friendly running back roles runs five-deep heading into training camp.

Chicago Bears: Chicago’s presumed starter may struggle to fend off his teammates and their specialized skill sets. 

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Ambiguous NFL backfields frequently offer fantasy managers high-volume running backs at discounted average draft positions (ADPs) thanks to the wide range of potential outcomes. Correctly identifying fantasy-friendly fantasy assets in these murky situations gives fantasy managers a significant depth advantage over fearful league-mates who opt to play things safely by drafting known commodities with lower ceilings. The article below breaks down three ambiguous NFL backfields rife with easily available running backs possessing high-scoring fantasy football potential. 

Denver Broncos

The Denver Broncos running back corps quietly comprises the NFL’s deepest backfield, giving fantasy managers exciting opportunities to select productive players well into the late rounds. Head coach Sean Payton historically features two dual-threat running backs via high-volume, fantasy-friendly workloads — one being a thickly-built punisher while the other an agile pass catcher sometimes referred to by Payton as the Joker. Payton is reportedly hosting training camp competitions for both roles in 2024. Last year’s No. 1 running back Javonte Williams is the only Denver running back currently drafted inside the top 150 picks on Underdog Fantasy.

Payton’s 2023 backfield diverged slightly from his typical one-two-punch operation, featuring Williams as the lead rusher and part-time pass catcher while asking veteran running back Samaje Perine and the agile undrafted free agent (UDFA) running back Jaleel McLaughlin to split the lead pass-catcher and part-time rusher role. The backfield’s overall regular season workload held true to Payton’s New Orleans Saints tactics though, totaling the 22nd-most rushing attempts (346), the most targets (144) and the seventh-most first-read targets (37). In Payton's five prior regular seasons serving as head coach, his backfield averaged roughly the 13th-most rushing attempts, the seventh-most targets and the sixth-most first-read targets.

Williams (5-foot-10, 220 pounds) struggled to return to form last year, following his Week 4, 2022 combination ACL, LCL and posterolateral corner injury. He must now fend off prolific fifth-round rookie running back Audric Estime (5-foot-11, 227 pounds) for the run-centric backfield role. 

Williams’ offensive data among 31 and 38 NFL running backs with at least 180 rushing attempts and at least 35 targets, respectively, plus Estime’s offensive data among 31 and 76 Power Five running backs with at least 170 rushing attempts and 17 targets, respectively:
Primary Rusher Candidates Javonte Williams Audric Estime
PFF Rushing Grade 64.9 (No. 31) 94.0 (No. 1)
MTF/Rush Att. 0.16 (T-No. 21) 0.31 (T-No. 6)
YAC/Rush Att. 2.8 (No. 24) 4.3 (No. 1)
1st-Down &/or TD Conversion Rate 19.4% (No. 23) 33.0% (No. 2)
Target Rate 32.4% (No. 2) 15.6% (No. 32)
YPRR 1.34 (No. 9) 1.30 (No. 18)

McLaughlin (5-foot-9, 187 pounds) earned every snap he took last season, forcing his way onto the field despite Perine’s (5-foot-11, 236 pounds) exceptionally efficient play. Per Payton, former Memphis UDFA running back Blake Watson’s (5-foot-9, 195 pounds) elite dual-threat college productivity makes him a Year 1 contender for the starting Joker role though.

McLaughlin and Perine’s offensive data among 69 and 38 NFL running backs with at least 50 rushing attempts and at least 35 targets, respectively, and Watson’s offensive data among 48 and 33 FBS running backs with at least 30 targets and 190 rushing attempts, respectively:
Primary Receiver Candidates Jaleel McLaughlin Samaje Perine Blake Watson
PFF Receiving Grade 85.2 (No. 3) 81.0 (No. 4) 77.8 (No. 6)
Target Rate 36.7% (No. 1) 24.3% (No. 7) 18.8% (No. 20)
YPRR 1.63 (No. 5) 2.09 (No. 1) 1.51 (No. 10)
Catch Rate 86.1% (No. 8) 94.3% (No. 1) 88.3% (No. 7)
MTF/Rec. 0.52 (No. 2) 0.38 (No. 6) 0.43 (No. 8)
Explosive Pass-Play Rate 6.5% (No. 29) 16.0% (No. 6) 13.2% (No. 33)
Yards/Rush Att. 5.4 (No. 2) 4.5 (No. 21) 6.0 (No. 10)

Neither role owns rights to the primary pass protector and scoring position roles though, all regular contributors are expected to handle both responsibilities competently. All three incumbents earned sub-35.0 PFF pass-blocking grades. The big-bodied Estime profiles as the best candidate, whose 63.6 PFF pass-blocking grade ranks 10th among 52 Power Five running backs with at least 385 offensive snaps. The diminutive Watson earned a 48.6 PFF pass-blocking grade.

McLaughlin’s phonebooth quicks resulted in two missed tackles forced on four green zone rushing attempts and his 25.0% green zone rushing conversion rate closely tailed Williams’ 29.4% rate. Estime’s 54.2% green zone rushing conversion rate ranks second among 19 Power Five running backs with at least 20 such rushing attempts. Watson’s 44.0% likewise commands respect.

Williams’ knee injury remains a factor, Perine turns 29 years old in September, McLaughlin and Watson register sub-29.0 on the body-mass index (BMI) and Estime underwent a May cleanup procedure following an organized-team-activities knee sprain. Injuries are common at the position so fantasy managers should diversify portfolios by drafting all five backfield members at their convenient ADP. 

All backfield members have their strengths but the three youngsters, McLaughlin, Estime and Watson, likely comprise Payton’s long-term trio. Fantasy managers should rotationally draft all five while maximizing their exposure of the latter three. 

Chicago Bears 

The Chicago Bears front office heavily invested in free agent running back D’Andre Swift ($24 million over three years) this offseason despite incumbent running backs Khalil Herbert, who is in the final year of his sixth-round rookie deal, and Roschon Johnson, who is in the second year of his third-round rookie deal, out-playing Swift in their respective roles. While Swift’s contract undoubtedly holds sway with the coaching staff, the situation is murkier than it appears at first glance. Swift’s mid-eighth-round Underdog Fantasy ADP is hardly cost-prohibitive but both Herbert and Johnson are affordably available well outside the top 150 picks, giving fantasy managers an easy means of gaining leverage on the field. 

Herbert (5-foot-9, 212 pounds) soundly out-played Swift (5-foot-9, 215 pounds) on the ground while also beating out Swift’s lone special pass-catching trait; his ability to work downfield. 

Swift, Herbert and Johnson’s offensive data among 55 and 51 NFL running backs with at least 80 rushing attempts and 25 targets, respectively:
Chicago Bears RBs D’Andre Swift Khalil Herbert Roschon Johnson
PFF Rushing Grade 71.6 (No. 37) 79.4 (T-No. 15) 67.9 (No. 47)
MTF/Rush Att. 0.19 (T-No. 24) 0.25 (T-No. 6) 0.15 (T-No. 39)
YAC/Rush Att. 2.4 (No. 50) 3.0 (T-No. 14) 2.4 (T-No. 51)
Explosive Run-Play Rate 9.6% (No. 29) 9.9% (No. 26) 10.0% (No. 25)
PFF Receiving Grade 53.5 (No. 43) 67.5 (No. 20) 60.7 (No. 34)
Target Rate  16.9% (No. 32) 17.8% (No. 27) 22.1% (T-No. 11)
YPRR 0.82 (T-No. 36) 0.92 (T-No. 30) 1.10 (T-No. 23)
aDot 0.5 (No. 17) 1.5 (No. 5) -1.0 (T-No. 39)
Yards/Rec. 5.7 (No. 43) 6.7 (No. 27) 6.2 (No. 36)
MTF/Rec. 0.23 (No. 28) 0.3 (No. 16) 0.29 (No. 18)
Explosive Run-Play Rate 4.7% (No. 44) 15.0% (No. 12) 5.9% (T-No. 40)

Johnson (6-foot, 225 pounds) proved himself as an NFL-ready passing-down running back in his 2023 rookie season, out-classing both players with reliable per-route efficiency and shining as a pass-protector. He crucially demonstrated rushing-lane discipline in scoring position en route to a top-12 positional conversion rate.  

Swift, Herbert and Johnson’s green zone rushing data among 63 NFL running backs with at least five such attempts and the trio’s pass-protection data among 60 NFL running backs with at least 25 pass-protection snaps:
Green Zone Rushing & Pass Protection D’Andre Swift Khalil Herbert Roschon Johnson
PFF Rushing Grade 63.1 (No. 31) 69.4 (No. 14) 68.5 (No. 17)
Conversion Rate 25.9% (No. 42) 20.0% (T-No. 48) 42.9% (No. 11)
Attack-Point Change Rate 25.9% (No. 53) 20.0% (T-No. 40) 14.3% (T-No. 28)
PFF Pass-Blocking Grade 55.0 (No. 38) 53.3 (T-No. 40) 64.8 (No. 18)
PFF Pass-Blocking Grade in True Pass Sets 61.6 (No. 17) 35.0 (No. 47) 68.5 (No. 16)
Pass-Block Efficiency 92.9 (T-No. 38) 94.4 (No. 25) 94.9 (No. 20)

Swift’s salary gives him the first crack at the starting role, but he generally profiles as a fantasy-unfriendly between-the-20s rotational player when compared to the agile Herbert and Johnson. Herbert’s explosive, tackle-breaking traits allow him to maximize a mild-to-moderate workload while Johnson has a chance to monopolize the high-value work found on passing downs and in scoring position. 

Fantasy managers should exploit Chicago’s ambiguous backfield situation for as long as ADP allows. 

Cleveland Browns

The Cleveland Browns enter 2024 with three running backs capable of handling fantasy-friendly weekly workloads. Fantasy managers should bypass nominal starter Nick Chubb, currently recovering from a combination ACL, MCL and meniscus injury, in favor of the three veteran running backs lined up behind him. Chubb produced a career-low 81.6 PFF offense grade in 2023 and ESPN’s Stephania Bell recently stated on the Sharp Angles Podcast that Chubb is unlikely to return before mid-season, if at all in 2024.

As detailed in Best Values in Rounds 11-20 on Underdog Fantasy, running back D’onta Foreman makes for an excellent value pick as the latest available backfield candidate for the team’s lead rusher role. Also covered in the piece, speedy running back Jerome Ford’s per-play efficiency was neck-and-neck efficiency with Foreman’s, and Ford is likewise available outside Underdog Fantasy’s top 125 picks. Among 59 NFL running backs with at least 250 offensive snaps, Foreman’s 74.0 PFF offense grade ranks 27th while Ford’s 68.3 PFF offense grade ranks 39th. Chubb (54 offensive snaps) earned an 81.6 PFF offense grade. 

Both Foreman and Ford are smart late-round options, as is pass-catching and return-game specialist Nyheim Hines. Hines’ special teams involvement could be pivotal in 2024, with the NFL implementing new returner-friendly–and potentially fantasy-friendly–kickoff rules. Hines sat out the 2023 NFL season following a July 2023 ACL tear but his 76.7 PFF receiving grade in 2022 ties for fifth among 33 NFL running backs with at least 35 targets that year. His 1.73 yards per route run (YPRR) average ranks second and his 27.4% target rate ranks first. Hines could walk into a sizable role operating as quarterback Deshaun Watson’s safety blanket check-down option, with Watson returning a throwing-shoulder glenoid fracture. Watson’s 66.8 PFF passing grade ranks 26th among 39 NFL quarterbacks with at least 200 dropbacks

Both Foreman and Ford should be treated as weekly best ball RB2 contenders with Hines potentially operating as a points-per-reception (PPR) flex option. Cleveland’s ambiguous backfield is one to target.


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