Fantasy Football: Examining team running back usage and tendencies for 2023

Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA; Tennessee Titans quarterback Ryan Tannehill (17) hands off to running back Derrick Henry (22) against the Philadelphia Eagles at Lincoln Financial Field. Mandatory Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Estimated reading time: 10 minutes

The 300-plus carry running backs are rare in the modern NFL, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t still workhorse roles available in certain offenses. Diving into the data from the previous year's play-calling tendencies, this piece is designed to help fantasy managers get a clearer picture of how each team may deploy their running backs, specifically, their top running back, in order to separate the potential workhorses from those in more of a committee. 

A few notes about this data set:

  • Data is pulled from the currently expected play-caller of each team’s most recent sample in that same/similar role (i.e. Sean Payton’s 2021 season).
  • For those that do not have a history of offensive play-calling in the NFL, data will be pulled from their most recent coaching tree (i.e. Brian Johnson in Philadelphia).
  • Only running back carries are accounted for, leaving out quarterback and wide receiver rushing attempts.
  • RB1, 2, and 3 are meant to highlight what the top running back on each team averaged in carries per week, and are not assigned to one specific player, just the back with the most carries each week.
  • Only rushing touches are accounted for while receiving data will be referenced in a separate article this week on PFF.
  • These are not concrete projections. Due to this being based on each play-callers most recent usage, there should be some expectation that offenses can change and evolve. It is meant as a starting point based on past tendencies.

Tier 1: Greater than 85% of rushing attempts define a workhorse back

TEAM RB1 % RB2 % RB3 % CHANGE IN OFFENSIVE PLAY-CALLER
Las Vegas Raiders 89.6% 9.4% 1.0%
Tennessee Titans 87.6% 10.4% 1.9% Tim Kelly is the new OC. Data is still from 2022 Titans.

Considering the seasons that Josh Jacobs and Derrick Henry had in 2022, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see their respective offenses lean heavily on those top running backs, and they are primed to do so again in 2023. What also shouldn’t come as a surprise is that only two teams in the league averaged a greater than 85% rushing share to their top back on a weekly basis.

Having effective talents like Jacobs and Henry certainly helps a team's willingness to lean into using just one back in a true workhorse role, but not having significant options behind them also plays a part. The Raiders didn’t add to their backfield this season, which should allow Jacobs to remain undisturbed as a top-10 fantasy running back for 2023.

Rumors of Henry being on the trade block this offseason have swirled in and out of the news cycle, but as of right now, he appears to be locked into another workhorse role in Tennessee, making him a top-10 fantasy running back. The Titans did spend a third-round pick in this draft on Tulane's Tyjae Spears and should Henry actually get moved or miss time, he would likely be in for a greater fantasy boost than any other running back in the league. Adding Spears to rosters late in drafts as one of the best handcuff options available is a wise move.


Tier 2: 80% – 85% of rushing attempts are essentially a workhorse role

TEAM RB1 % RB2 % RB3 % CHANGE IN OFFENSIVE PLAY-CALLER
New England Patriots 82.7% 16.2% 1.1% Bill O’Brien is the new OC. 2020 Texans’ data used.
Denver Broncos 81.7% 17.2% 1.3% Sean Payton is the new HC. 2021 Saints’ data used.
Cincinnati Bengals 81.4% 17.7% 0.9%
New York Giants 80.3% 15.6% 4.1%

There really aren’t many better opportunity shares than getting over 80% of a team’s rushing attempts, and these four teams round out the top six in the league that have a recent history of that deployment.

Both the Patriots and Broncos will have new offensive play-callers in 2023, with Bill O’Brien taking over in New England and Sean Payton taking over in Denver. Neither coach was involved in play-calling duties this past season but going back to their previous history in those roles, both leaned heavily on one back on a weekly basis, specifically, David Johnson for O’Brien, and Alvin Kamara for Payton. This bodes well for Rhamondre Stevenson’s RB1 potential after the Patriots deployed closer to a 70-30% split last season. 

News of Javonte Williams’ availability to start the season was most recently positive, giving some optimism that he’ll be ready for Week 1, but this is still far from a guarantee. In the meantime, Samaje Perine has shown he could step into a volume-heavy role when needed, as he did in Weeks 12 and 13 last season during Joe Mixon’s absence in Cincinnati. He is one of the ideal running back depth pieces to target as an RB4 option in drafts, especially if the uncertainty surrounding Williams’ availability continues into draft season.

Joe Mixon and Saquon Barkley are also set to be relied on at a high rate once again on their respective teams. While the RB1 rushing attempt percentage is close, it should be noted that the Giants were above-average in rushing rate last season (40.6%) while the Bengals were closer to the bottom of the league (34.2%), so Barkley’s opportunity to touch the ball should be considered the difference in his top-12 ranking versus Mixon typically being more in the RB2 range.


Tier 3: The comfortable above-average 70%-plus range

TEAM RB1 % RB2 % RB3 % CHANGE IN OFFENSIVE PLAY-CALLER
Seattle Seahawks 79.4% 16.3% 3.6%
Tampa Bay Buccaneers 79.4% 16.3% 3.6% Dave Canales is the new OC. 2022 Seahawks data used.
Carolina Panthers 77.8% 18.5% 3.7% Frank Reich is the new HC. 2022 Colts’ data used.
Minnesota Vikings 76.7% 20.6% 1.8%
New Orleans Saints 74.7% 24.5% 0.7%
Pittsburgh Steelers 74.1% 23.6% 2.4%
Dallas Cowboys 71.2% 22.3% 6.5% Mike McCarthy (HC) to take over play-calling. 2018 Packers data used.
Jacksonville Jaguars 72.2% 23.8% 3.9%
Indianapolis Colts 70.8% 21.5% 7.7% Shane Steichen is the new HC. 2022 Eagles’ data used.
Philadelphia Eagles 70.8% 21.5% 7.7% Brian Johnson is the new OC. 2022 Eagles’ data used.

The Seahawks and Buccaneers are the first teams to share the same usage data from last season as Dave Canales takes over as Tampa’s play-caller coming from the Seahawks coaching tree. This won’t be uncommon in this exercise and is why it should only be considered as one of many tools in preparing for fantasy drafts as we leave room for adjustments in projections through various other tools and rankings. Seattle, specifically, is going to be an interesting backfield to watch play out after it spent its second-straight second-round pick on a running back, adding Zach Charbonnet to Kenneth Walker III and muddying things up a bit. Walker should still be considered the heavy favorite to lead them, but Charbonnet’s presence holds him back from the top-12 running back range in drafts.

Mike McCarthy is set to start the year as the play-caller for the Cowboys with Kellen Moore off to Los Angeles, which creates a more ideal usage, based on his last play-calling stint in 2018 with the Packers. Tony Pollard is set to thrive as Dallas’ clear RB1 for the first time in his career, and fantasy rankings reflect that with him inside the top-12 at his position.

Dalvin Cook, Najee Harris, Alvin Kamara and Jonathan Taylor should have no problem seeing high-end volume once again this season, assuming health and availability. Kamara, specifically, could be facing a suspension that would cause him to miss multiple weeks, and in what was a primarily two-back scheme last season, Jamaal Williams and even undrafted rookie Kendre Miller should be on fantasy managers’ radars for 2023.

Both Miles Sanders and Rashaad Penny join new teams and join this group as potential high-rushing volume backs with a shot to exceed their RB2 draft capital. Sanders becomes especially intriguing on Carolina. Without an obvious passing down back on the roster, he should dominate touches in the run and passing game for the Panthers.


Tier 4: Not really workhorse usage but still plenty of opportunity for a star running back

TEAM RB1 % RB2 % RB3 % CHANGE IN OFFENSIVE PLAY-CALLER
Arizona Cardinals 69.7% 28.4% 1.9% Drew Peltzing is the new OC. 2022 Browns’ data used.
Cleveland Browns 69.7% 28.4% 1.9%
Miami Dolphins 68.5% 29.8% 1.7%
Chicago Bears 67.0% 31.5% 1.5%
Houston Texans 65.1% 29.0% 5.0% Bobby Slowik is the new OC. 2022 49ers’ data used.
San Francisco 49ers 65.1% 29.0% 5.0%
Buffalo Bills 64.9% 30.8% 4.4%
New York Jets 62.4% 30.6% 7.0% Nathaniel Hackett is the new OC. 2022 Broncos’ data used.
Detroit Lions 61.9% 26.8% 11.3%
Kansas City Chiefs 61.7% 29.9% 8.5% Matt Nagy is the new OC. Data is still from 2022 Chiefs.
Washington Commanders 61.7% 29.9% 8.5% Eric Bienemy = new OC. 2022 Chiefs’ data used.
Los Angeles Rams 61.1% 31.7% 7.1% Mike LaFleur = new OC. 2022 Jets’ data used.

The large majority of offenses (12 teams) live in this middle range, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing depending on who that running back happens to be and how often the team will run the ball. 

Thinking about Nick Chubb, Khalil Herbert, Jahmyr Gibbs and obviously Christian McCaffrey, their teams were all top-12 in the NFL last season in run rate so while the percentage of carries is average relative to the rest of the league, the raw volume is enough to prop up their fantasy production further. 

The teams in this range also allow their RB2 options to carry fantasy value in deeper leagues, as they average close to one-third of the carries on a weekly basis. This is where we may see some of them deployed as goal-line backs, which helps their touchdown potential. The Lions and Jamaal Williams were a perfect example of this last year, as he led the league in goal-to-go rushing attempts (38), which helped him lead the league in rushing touchdowns (17). David Montgomery could potentially take over that role in Detroit with Williams off to New Orleans. Montgomery ranked inside the top 10 among running backs in Chicago last season in goal-to-go rushing attempts (17), leaving an opportunity for perhaps, Roschon Johnson or D’Onta Foreman to take over in that regard in 2023.


Tier 5: Sharing the load, but room for improvement

TEAM RB1 % RB2 % RB3 % CHANGE IN OFFENSIVE PLAY-CALLER
Los Angeles Chargers 59.2% 37.8% 3.0% Kellen Moore is the new OC. 2022 Cowboys’ data used.
Green Bay Packers 59.1% 38.7% 2.1%
Baltimore Ravens 58.9% 28.8% 12.2% Todd Monken is the new OC. 2019 Browns’ data used.
Atlanta Falcons 56.0% 33.1% 9.7%

The Falcons had the lowest deployment of a true RB1 last season, partly because there was no clear option to feature in a bell-cow role. Enter Bijan Robinson, who the Falcons selected eighth overall in this year’s draft, making it more than likely those RB1 numbers increase quite a bit this coming season. While it’s difficult to imagine them going from the bottom to top tier in terms of RB1 deployment, the usage doesn’t need to see that much of an increase for a generational talent like Robinson to produce elite fantasy numbers. In the most run-heavy offense in the league and behind one of the best run-blocking offensive lines, a nearly 70% carry share should be more than enough for him to live up to his fantasy RB1 expectations.

Austin Ekeler shouldn’t expect too different of a carry share with Kellen Moore coming in this season. He averaged 60.5% of the team’s running back attempts last season as well and considering his work as a receiver, he shouldn’t be in any danger of a significant drop-off in production. 

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