Perfect 2023 fantasy football draft strategy for picking running backs

2M7AC7F Santa Clara, United States. 08th Jan, 2023. San Francisco 49ers running back Christian McCaffrey (23) runs against the Arizona Cardinals in the first quarter at Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, California on Sunday, January 8, 2023. The 49ers defeated the Cardinals 38-13. Photo by Terry Schmitt/UPI Credit: UPI/Alamy Live News

Christian McCaffrey and Austin Ekeler are the exceptions: Both backs have stood out with their receiving production and rushing touchdowns, and neither of those seems likely to stop this season.

• A few great running backs are falling to Round 2: With wide receivers moving up draft boards this year, players who would typically be picked in the first round have fallen to Round 2.

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The perfect draft by position series looks at the strategies used in my perfect draft strategy by pick series and those used during my personal fantasy drafts.

This article compares how good these players are and when you can get them compared to others. And because picking a running back at any point is a generally fine strategy, this will focus on the five best points to target the position.

This advice primarily applies to 12-team leagues, but similar logic can apply to other sizes, with any significant exceptions noted. To try some of these strategies on your own, check out our new mock draft simulator.

For help on strategy by pick numbers and league sizes, rankings, or more details about the players, check out the rest of my summer content below. For rankings with better filtering along with auction values, check out our draft rankings page.

Check out PFF's 2023 Fantasy Draft Kit for even more content to help you dominate your league.

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Last updated: 7:15 a.m. Thursday, August 31

1. Early First Round

Top Target: Christian McCaffrey, Austin Ekeler
  • While some elite wide receivers will likely produce this season, it’s impossible to replicate the kind of production McCaffrey and Ekeler have become known for. 
  • McCaffrey and Ekeler were the only two running backs to average 21.0-plus fantasy points per game last season. No one else finished above 19.5.
  • The duo has more seasons of 340-plus fantasy points (5) than the rest of the league's running backs combined (3).
  • All other running backs have been more volatile from one season to the next, whereas the top players at other positions have been more dependable.
  • A big reason why they can be trusted is their dependability in the passing game. Targets are worth more than carries in fantasy, and they were the only two backs who saw 100-plus targets last season. They were also the only two running backs with over 30 receptions as the first read on the play.
  • They remain on two of the best offenses in the NFL, so they should each get plenty of opportunities to score. Neither team invested in more running backs in the offseason, so they haven’t added any new competition at the position, either. 
  • As there is with all running backs, there is a chance they get injured. However, that is a risk worth taking, given how talented these two are. 

2. Early Second Round

Top Target: Tony Pollard, Nick Chubb, Josh Jacobs
  • Several running backs who would usually be picked in the first round have fallen to Round 2.
  • Tony Pollard is the best option among this group. He has graded as an elite runner in recent seasons and finally gets a chance to shine without Ezekiel Elliott in the offense.
  • Pollard has been one of the league's best at ripping off big plays in recent years. Last season, he gained at least 10 yards on 16.1% of his carries and averaged 3.8 yards after contact per attempt, both of which ranked first among the 31 running backs with at least 175 rushing attempts. His 0.802 rushing fantasy points per attempt ranked second among the same group of players. 
  • He finished at RB8 last season despite Ezekiel Elliott playing every game and taking 75% of the goal-line carries, which led to 12 rushing touchdowns.
  • If Pollard can take those goal-line opportunities, he should rank even higher than this. However, there is still a chance the Cowboys add a bigger back, limiting Pollard's touchdown opportunities.
  • Chubb and Jacobs are the only two running backs who finished in the top-six in fantasy points last season to not get picked in the first round. They are similarly two of the three with over.
  • There are concerns with Chubb in the new Browns offense with Deshaun Watson and concerns Jacobs won’t get as many touches as last season. It’s fine for those concerns to drive both players out of the first round, but not enough for them to fall any further.

3. Fourth Round

Top Target: Rhamondre Stevenson
  • Stevenson scored the seventh-most fantasy points last season, racking up more than 1,000 rushing yards at 5.0 yards per carry and adding 69 receptions for 421 receiving yards.
  • Stevenson reached these heights despite starting the season as a backup to Damien Harris. Once Stevenson’s role increased in Week 5, he was RB6 from then until the end of the season.
  • Stevenson’s ADP has fallen since New England signed Ezekiel Elliott.
  • Stevenson’s value should still be high despite Elliot's arrival in New England.
  • The path is clear for Stevenson to reach the top 10 once again, while there is a clear drop-off after this to players who are in committees.

4. Sixth Round/Early Seventh Round

Top Target: Alexander Mattison, Miles Sanders, Cam Akers, Rachaad White, James Conner, James Cook
  • In the sixth round, you'll find several available running backs who are clear starters with minimal risk of losing their job or being part of a committee.
  • Alexander Mattison is the top choice here. The Vikings back has consistently been an elite handcuff option, but now he has the chance to prove his worth as an NFL lead back now that Dalvin Cook is no longer on the team.
  • Over the last five seasons, Mattison has averaged 0.228 forced missed tackles per rush attempt, third among 55 running backs with at least 365 rushing attempts.
  • Anytime he’s been given a chance to start, he’s paid off for fantasy managers. His 20.1 PPR fantasy points per start rank fourth out of 81 running backs over the last three seasons.
  • The Vikings' backups of Ty Chandler and Kene Nwangwu are largely unproven.
  • He hasn’t graded as well as many of the backs ranked ahead of him, but he could see as many opportunities as most of them if not more.
  • Miles Sanders, Cam Akers, Rachaad White, James Conner and James Cook are the clear top running backs for some offenses that aren’t expected to rank highly. The thought with picking them here is that they can always go in your starting lineup and not lose your matchup, and then a number of sleeper running backs can be picked later in which potentially one could overtake the player picked here.
  • There is also the chance that the back here breaks out and a sleeper isn’t needed.

5. 12th-13th Round

Top Target: Jaylen Warren, Kenneth Gainwell, Tank Bigsby, De’Von Achane
  • There are plenty of excellent sleeper options who have a chance to put up huge seasons.
  • Jaylen Warren already earned the passing-down role in Pittsburgh and has outplayed Najee Harris in the running game. Warren received opportunities on early downs with the first team in his first preseason game, so there is at least a chance he sees more carries, even if Harris stays healthy.
  • Kenneth Gainwell was among the veterans to rest in the Eagles' first preseason game, and recently he’s seen significant work with the first-team offense behind arguably the best offensive line in the league.
  • Tank Bigsby received 36% of the snaps with the starters in the Jaguars last preseason game, and his snap total should only be increasing from here. He’s also expected to be the short-yardage back which should mean goal-line work.
  • De’Von Achane still needs to work his way up the Dolphins' depth chart, but considering the current starters, he has a path to the starting role if he plays well enough.
  • Most of these players have ADPs even later than that 13th round.

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