Fantasy Football: Examining running back target tendencies for each NFL team

Paradise, Nevada, USA; Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) celebrates after scoring a touchdown against the Las Vegas Raiders during the first half at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

  • Much to the surprise of no one: The Los Angeles Chargers and Austin Ekeler set the bar high for the ideal PPR running back situation.
  • Teams with elite receiving backs will go out of their way to feature them: Christian McCaffrey is the prime example as the Carolina Panthers and San Francisco 49ers tendencies change drastically with and without CMC on the team.
  • A lot changes in Tampa Bay: Despite a new quarterback and coaching staff, Rachaad White still figures to be in a great position to become a PPR fantasy star in 2023.
Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

PPR scoring has become the norm for fantasy football leagues, so finding running backs who catch passes out of the backfield is one of the greater advantages to lean into during draft season. It also helps to understand which quarterbacks and offenses have a tendency to target running backs as part of their passing attacks, and while fantasy managers should always expect variance from year-to-year, finding past year’s data to work off of and build expectations and/or projections from is a solid starting point to get where we need to be for the 2023 season.

A few notes about this data set and how the tiers work:

  • Tiers are only ordered based on expected starting quarterback’s tendency to target the running back.
  • As a result, expected starting quarterbacks with limited or no NFL experience are in the bottom tier, but that doesn’t automatically mean a poor situation, as evidenced by Christian McCaffrey being there for the 49ers.
  • Expected pass-catching back is based on which running back logically makes the most sense to see the majority of passing down snaps/targets in 2023.
  • Expected starting quarterback is focused on who makes the most sense to start Week 1, so with Kyler Murray not expected to be back from injury by then, Colt McCoy will be his replacement, for example.

Tier 1: The ideal combination of quarterback tendencies and running back target hogs

Team (Expected Starting QB) QB’s RB Target Frequency (2022) Expected 2023 Pass-catching back (2022 TGT RATE)
Los Angeles Chargers (Justin Herbert) 22.6% Austin Ekeler (30.6%)
New England Patriots (Mac Jones) 22.6% Rhamondre Stevenson (24.7%)
Cincinnati Bengals (Joe Burrow) 20.3% Joe Mixon (23.4%)
Denver Broncos (Russell Wilson) 20.0% Javonte Williams (30.4%)
Tennessee Titans (Ryan Tannehill) 20.0% Derrick Henry (19.8%)

Austin Ekeler led all running backs in receptions by a decent margin last season (107), so the Chargers and Justin Herbert leading the league in running back target frequency isn’t Earth-shattering news to anyone.

While the Patriots often get a (deserved) bad reputation for deploying a committee at running back and making it difficult for fantasy managers to trust one specific player, last year saw them with a typical RB1 rushing deployment of about 67% of carries on average each week. Now, with Bill O’Brien expected to take over play-calling duties, there’s optimism that it could even improve based on his history. Adding to the optimism is Rhamondre Stevenson, who dominated the running back target share for New England in 2022, as the closest player on the team was Damien Harris, who is now off to Buffalo. Stevenson’s stock has remained high this offseason, with well-placed optimism that he can finish in the RB1 range for the second-straight season.

The Broncos offense is expected to look very different under Sean Payton, and depending on Javonte Williams’ availability to start the season, there could even be some shift in expectations for Samaje Perine’s fantasy outlook, at least to start the year. With the assumption that Williams will be ready to start the season, as the most recent update would suggest, it’s still important to note that his target frequency was very skewed based on Week 1 and then only a four-game sample size before getting hurt. Williams saw 12 targets in Week 1 and then just five total in the three weeks that followed, whereas even Melvin Gordon saw a higher rate of targets after Week 1. It’s very possible that Perine becomes the receiving back in Payton’s offense, but Williams certainly has the capabilities to be deployed as such, which should allow him to push for weekly RB1 finishes once he’s back in the lineup.

Tier 2: Backs who command targets regardless of QB tendencies

Team (Expected Starting QB) QB’s RB Target Frequency (2022) Expected 2023 Pass-catching back (2022 TGT RATE)
New York Jets (Aaron Rodgers) 19.9% Breece Hall (28.8%)
New York Jets (Daniel Jones) 19.5% Saquon Barkley (21.5%)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers (Baker Mayfield) 19.1% Rachaad White (20.6%)
Detroit Lions (Jared Goff) 18.1% Jahmyr Gibbs (24.0%*)
New Orleans Saints (Derek Carr) 17.7% Alvin Kamara (24.7%)
Pittsburgh Steelers (Kenny Pickett) 17.2% Najee Harris (16.4%)

*= 2022 college numbers used

Breece Hall emerged as one of the most explosive playmakers at the running back position last season before tearing his ACL, and while his status for the start of 2023 is still up in the air, optimism suggests he could be ready for Week 1. Whether that is true or not, once he is back in the lineup and fully healthy, he should still garner enough targets out of the backfield to be a top-tier fantasy option, even with his offense expected to look very different with a new quarterback and offensive coordinator taking over. 

Saquon Barkley had a resurgent year in 2022, regaining his workhorse form and finishing as the RB5 overall. Nothing has drastically changed for the Giants’ offense heading into 2023, which is great news for Barkley’s expectations and why his consensus ranking is consistently within the first round. 

Rachaad White sees the most drastic shift in this grouping from last season to this season, with a quarterback change and a new offensive coordinator coming in, but he also doesn’t have nearly the level of competition for touches as he did in 2022. With Leonard Fournette’s release, White moves into the top position for carries while also boasting a strong receiving profile that should allow him to potentially dominate touches if he can maintain a gap between himself, Chase Edmonds and the rest of the Bucs’ backfield. Should Baker Mayfield win the starting job, it’s important to note that across two teams as a starter in 2022, he finished above average in targeting running backs out of the backfield, which should still bode well for White’s PPR potential.

Jahmyr Gibbs should take over the bulk of receiving duties in Detroit after being the 12th overall pick in this year’s draft and with D’Andre Swift off to Philadelphia. His receiving profile coming out of Alabama was among the best in this year’s class. Gibbs’s 24.0% target rate comes from his 2022 season at Alabama, an elite rate that will allow him to take over that same role in the Lions’ offense as a rookie. If Gibbs is able to lead the Detroit backs in carries as well, he should have one of the more ideal weekly fantasy floors for running backs in 2023.

Tier 3: Closer to league-average tendencies

Team (Expected Starting QB) QB’s RB Target Frequency (2022) Expected 2023 Pass-catching back (2022 TGT RATE)
Buffalo Bills (Josh Allen) 16.9% James Cook (28.2%)
Kansas City Chiefs (Patrick Mahomes) 16.1% Jerick McKinnon (21.0%)
Cleveland Browns (Deshaun Watson) 15.9% Nick Chubb (13.9%)
Chicago Bears (Justin Fields) 15.4% Khalil Herbert (13.1%)
Las Vegas Raiders (Jimmy Garoppolo) 15.0% Josh Jacobs (17.4%)
Dallas Cowboys (Dak Prescott) 15.0% Tony Pollard (19.7%)

James Cook stands out amongst this tier of running backs with a very high 28.2% target rate when he was on the field in 2022, which trailed only Austin Ekeler (30.6%) and D’Andre Swift (28.5%) among backs who had at least 100 touches last season. He also stands out due to his sample size of 110 total touches in 2022 being among the smaller samples to pull from, so expectations on a larger workload should be expected to come back down to Earth. The good news is that he is expected to see a larger workload in Year 2 with the Bills and with promising underlying numbers, he could be one of the better values versus his ADP, which has him well outside the top-24 running backs. 

Jerick McKinnon’s return to Kansas City is key, as he dominated the backfield target share for the Chiefs, which suppressed Isiah Pacheco’s PPR value enough that McKinnon eventually finished as the better fantasy option. He was also able to double (10) Pacheco’s touchdowns total (five) thanks to his heavy involvement in the passing game, which was by design, as he was far and away the Chiefs running back snap leader in goal-to-go situations last season, out-snapping Pacheco 61 to 27.

Chicago’s backfield is one of the more ambiguous situations heading into the new league year, but as of right now, Herbert makes the most sense as the lead receiving back, even if he does have to share rushing touches with D’Onta Foreman or Roschon Johnson. Herbert saw just 11 targets last season with David Montgomery in the mix, but now with him off to Detroit, Herbert is expected to take on a bigger role. Even in a very low-volume passing offense, Montgomery saw a target on about 18% of his pass-down snaps, which was well above average for the position, and a nice boost for Herbert, assuming he takes over that role.

Tier 4: Below-average RB target tendencies

Team (Expected Starting QB) QB’s RB Target Frequency (2022) Expected 2023 Pass-catching back (2022 TGT RATE)
Seattle Seahawks (Geno Smith) 14.2% Zach Charbonnet (20.0%*)
Jacksonville Jaguars (Trevor Lawrence) 13.0% Travis Etienne (13.3%)
Arizona Cardinals (Colt McCoy) 12.9% James Conner (16.7%)
Miami Dolphins (Tua Tagovailoa) 12.0% Raheem Mostert (14.0%)
Philadelphia Eagles (Jalen Hurts) 11.3% D’Andre Swift (28.5%)
Minnesota Vikings (Kirk Cousins) 10.4% Dalvin Cook (11.9%)
Los Angeles Rams (Matthew Stafford) 10.2% Cam Akers (10.8%)
Baltimore Ravens (Lamar Jackson) 9.8% J.K. Dobbins (10.4%)

*= 2022 college numbers used

The Seahawks spent a second-round pick on Charbonnet in this past year’s draft, and some of the thought process behind that decision could be to provide an upgrade in their pass-catching back over Kenneth Walker III, who led the Seattle backs in targets and receptions in 2022. Walker did not have much of a receiving profile coming out of college and actually posted more receiving yards with Seattle last season (165) than he did for his entire college career (127). He also posted just 0.67 yards per route run (47th among running backs) and a 56.0 receiving grade (37th), meaning he was below average in that role. Charbonnet recently posted a 1.31 YPRR at UCLA last season on 44 targets for 320 receiving yards and a 77.2 receiving grade, so he figures to come in and replace Walker in obvious passing situations. 

D’Andre Swift arrives in Philadelphia with one of the best target rates (28.5%) among running backs in the league last season, but the Eagles offense just didn’t rely on running backs in the passing game, ranking tied for 29th in targets to the position (60). There’s a lot of optimism about Swift on his new team, represented by his current ADP, which has him within the top-24 running backs off the board, but at that price, he could be worth fading, especially if Rashaad Penny is healthy to start the year for those rushing opportunities.

Tier 5: The Rookies and the Unknown

Team (Expected Starting QB) QB’s RB Target Frequency (2022) Expected 2023 Pass-catching back (2022 TGT RATE)
Atlanta Falcons (Desmond Ridder) 23.5% Bijan Robinson (13.0%)
Indianapolis Colts (Anthony Richardson) 7.3%* Jonathan Taylor (14.4%)
Houston Texans (C.J. Stroud) 4.1%* Dameon Pierce (17.1%)
Green Bay Packers (Jordan Love) 19.0% Aaron Jones (23.5%)
Washington Commanders (Sam Howell) 15.8% Antonio Gibson (26.5%)
San Francisco 49ers (Trey Lance) 9.7% Christian McCaffrey (27.1%)
Carolina Panthers (Bryce Young) 18.2%* Miles Sanders (10.8%)

*= 2022 college numbers used

This last tier deals with a lot of unknowns, predominantly at the quarterback position, as there either isn’t an NFL sample to work off of, or not enough of one to trust. 

Christian McCaffrey is in no real danger of being an elite receiving back, no matter who is at quarterback for the 49ers in 2023, as offenses often scheme up more than enough targets his way to keep him relevant, evidenced by the 49ers going from last in the league in targets to the position (13) prior to acquiring him to top-12 in the league the rest of the way. The Panthers coincidentally went from eighth in the league in that category (42) to 28th from that point on after trading away McCaffrey.

For the rookie quarterback starters, both Jonathan Taylor and Dameon Pierce saw above-average target rates for the position, which was in line with the Colts and Texans being top-10 teams in the league at targeting running backs. This was far from the norm for both Anthony Richardson and C.J. Stroud last year in college, and with new offensive coordinators for both teams, these will be worth monitoring as we get closer to the season and early in the year. Bryce Young, Miles Sanders and the coaching staff are all new to the Panthers’ organization this season and though Sanders didn’t command a high target rate in Philadelphia, Young had no trouble getting the ball to Jahmyr Gibbs at Alabama. Although Sanders isn’t at that level of pass-catcher, there still may be a tendency to lean on him as Young acclimates to the NFL.

As far as the other new starters who have minimal NFL experience, Desmond Ridder targeted the running back position at the second-highest rate in the league during his limited opportunities last season, which will surely only fuel the Bijan Robinson hype train even further.

Jordan Love and Sam Howell are true question marks at the position, but both have obvious and capable pass-catching backs to rely on in Aaron Jones and Antonio Gibson, respectively, it will just depend on how often they look their way. The Packers and Commanders both ranked inside the top 10 in targets to the running back position last season as well, in large part because of strong receiving backs like Jones and Gibson.


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