There's a reason this site is called Legendary Upside.
Two years ago, I published an article on Rotoworld titled Don't Draft an Early Round RB Without Legendary Upside. The article made the case for strongly prioritizing RB upside if diving into the high-risk early-RB waters.
To summarize, I found that RB bust rates were worse in the first two rounds than in Rounds 3-6. This seemingly ran counter to the idea of the RB dead zone, which identified this general range as a place to avoid RB selections. But the dead zone effect isn't created by a spike in bust rates; it occurs because massive RB upside is typically not available outside of the first two rounds.
That lack of upside is a real problem because bust rates are devastating at the RB position.
Running back bust rates are bad in rounds 3-6, but they’re actually worse in rounds 1-2. These running backs are busting 40% of the time, compared to a bust rate of just 19% in rounds 3-6.
If your argument for taking a running back boils down to safety, you're probably better off taking a wide receiver. Although WRs rarely provide earth-shattering fantasy scoring, it's easier to stack wins together at the position, which is why zero RB has emerged as a tournament-winning strategy.
But while WRs offer more safety than RBs, they're less likely to produce truly dominant fantasy seasons, as shown in the charts below.
Seasons like Todd Gurley's 2017 and Christian McCaffrey's 2019 can singlehandedly deliver fantasy championships. And that level of scoring, the type of scoring that a select few RBs hit each season, is the main reason to take early cracks at the position.
To its credit, the market has historically been good at pricing up this upside. If you want an RB who scores like a high-end QB, you generally need to spend a 1st-or 2nd-round pick.
But given the risks involved, if you're looking for early-round RB upside... you want to maximize your odds of landing on that year's legendary RB.
To help us do that, I examined 36 RB seasons from 2000-2020 in which a running back hit 23+ PPR points per game, with 12+ games played. These seasons generated a profile to help us predict future legendary seasons.
Legendary RB Target Profile
- A path to 4+ receptions per game.
- A path to 2+ green-zone (inside the 10) opportunities per game.
- Strongly prioritize versatile running backs with paths to high-volume receiving and goal-line roles.
- A path to good, ideally elite, offensive line play.
- A path to an efficient passing offense—unless the passing offense can run through the running back.
- Be skeptical of running backs who entered the NFL below 210 pounds—unless the running back has a clear lock on goal-line duties.
- Apply extra scrutiny to running backs 26 and older.
- Excluding rare prospect profiles, remain very price-sensitive on rookies.
- Prioritize second-year players and be skeptical in assuming significant role increases for non-second-year players.
- Prioritize running backs who have flashed the elite talent required to deliver high-end efficiency.
- Strongly prioritize running backs who have flashed elite receiving ability.
This profile sets a very high bar... but that's part of the point.
From 2000-2020, we saw just 1.7 legendary RB seasons per year. And since writing the article, we've had only two legendary seasons.
Jonathan Taylor hit 22 PPR points per game in 2021, with 23 ppg from Weeks 1-17. It wasn't a McCaffrey-level mega-season, but Taylor was still a legend. Last year, Austin Ekeler also averaged 23 ppg from Weeks 1-17 and dropped 32.1 in the fantasy championship... we're counting it.
It's possible we won't get a legendary RB season this year. That's exactly what happened in 2004, 2008, 2012, and 2015. If that happens, zero RB teams could dominate for the second year in a row. Becuase the issue with RBs isn't just that they bust; they can turn in fully healthy seasons that poison your fantasy teams.
I'll refer to this type of outcome as a silent killer scenario.
Najee Harris was the best example of this last year. Harris played 17 games, yet he was still a huge drag on rosters. In Underdog's Best Ball Mania, 2-of-12 teams advance from the regular season. This means that a perfectly average player should advance 16.7% of the time. But Harris teams made the playoffs at just an 8% rate. Things were even worse in full PPR. On FFPC, Harris had just a 3% win rate, about 1/3 of expected. Even though Harris scored 225 PPR points in a 17-game season, selecting him still crushed the value of fantasy teams last year.
Dalvin Cook was a similar story. On Underdog, Cook's advance rate was 41% below expected. And on FFPC, his win rate was 40% below expected. Cook played 17 games, totaling 243 PPR points.
243 PPR points is a lot! For reference, Fantasy Life has just eight RBs projected for more than that this season.
But this highlights why drafting to bank "safe" projectable volume rarely works at RB. Projections are inherently conservative, as they are forced to balance injury risk, usage uncertainty, efficiency, and a number of other factors into a single output. But ultimately, early-round RBs are likely to score less than the WRs drafted around them or... much more.
If spending an early pick on a high-risk position, at least swing for the fences. Your early RB picks are by far your best chance at finding league-winning upside. And if you don't find that upside... one or two of your league-mates probably will.
Managing to Win Your Managed Leagues
Prioritizing RB upside is crucial for best ball tournaments. Top-heavy payout structures demand ridiculous upside outcomes.
But this legendary RB analysis was initially intended for managed PPR leagues.
Hitting on legendary seasons is vital for any fantasy format, including best ball. But in managed leagues, silent killers are even deadlier.
In best ball, health is vital to the success of a roster. When a star RB suffers an injury, that represents a huge loss because the options for replacing that production are limited to the originally drafted players. In managed leagues, injuries still hurt (a lot), but they can be overcome more easily.
For example, in 2021, Derrick Henry averaged 23.4 PPR points per game in eight games. Ezekiel Elliott averaged 14.5 ppg in 17 games.
In 2021 best ball leagues, drafting Zeke wasn't helpful, but it wasn't devastating. He stayed healthy and provided usable scores, which is useful on a locked roster. But Henry drafters were in rough shape when he was injured. Despite Henry's far superior per-game scoring, Zeke (7.2%) finished with a better win rate than Henry (6.9%).
But Henry's managed league drafters had more options at their disposal. They still lost a locked-in RB1. But they could find RB production on the waiver wire—starting production they did not originally draft. And they rostered that production by dropping Henry, something best ball drafters couldn't do.
Meanwhile, Zeke drafters were left with the uninspiring reality of inserting Zeke's mediocre production into their starting lineup for 17 endless weeks. If you think an NFL season is short, talk to someone who's spent a 1st-round pick on Zeke in the last few years.
Managed leagues also create additional risks for early RB drafters compared to best ball. For example, in traditional fantasy leagues, early-round WRs provide a big edge as locked-in starters over non-elite RBs. Although those WRs are unlikely to score as highly as legendary RBs, their scores can be combined with cheap RB production, which can be more predictably started week-to-week than cheap WR production.
We don't want to be stuck with a 2022 Najee Harris when we could have had a 2022 Davante Adams. And we especially don't want to be in that position if hits like Tony Pollard, Josh Jacobs, and Rhamondre Stevenson are again available outside of the top six rounds.
To help us select RBs who will deliver on the huge opportunity cost of a 1st-2nd round pick, I will take my annual summer trip... into the future.
I'll then travel to a different future to observe a silent killer scenario for each RB.
Shoutout to the multiverse.
Brock Purdy's Week 1 debut following elbow surgery is a statement game.
He smoothly operates the Shanahan offense, quickly getting the ball into his playmakers' hands before T.J. Watt has a chance to get anywhere near him. McCaffrey sees eight targets, including a 12-yard TD scamper. His 24 PPR points set the tone for a dominant season.
Purdy's play isn't quite up to 2022's shocking level – when Purdy finished QB4 in EPA per play – but he keeps the offense humming all season.
McCaffrey regularly cedes rushing work to other backs, but when out on the field, he is an absolute force. The defense is unable to account for him while also dealing with Deebo Samuel, George Kittle, and an ascendant Brandon Aiyuk. Even better, the 49ers' elite weaponry keeps them playing aggressively. McCaffrey sees just half of the 49ers' rushing attempts but more than makes up for it with a 24% target share. He is the only RB in the league to hit 20%+. McCaffrey records 88 receptions, hitting 5+ receptions per game... as he has done in every single season of his career.
McCaffrey doesn't have total control of the goal-line workload, but with the 49ers putting up 26 points per game, he is a scoring machine. CMC racks up 21 total TDs, besting his previous career high of 19 (2019).
In combination with 1,900 yards from scrimmage, McCaffrey totals 404 PPR points. Although he falls 65 points short of his legendary 2019 campaign, there are no complaints from his fantasy managers. McCaffrey's 23.8 points per game and second career 400+ point season lead to massive win rates.
And McCaffrey doesn't let up in the fantasy playoffs. He puts up 33 PPR points in a Week 16 shootout with the Ravens, then in Week 17, scores three TDs against the floundering Commanders.
Absurdly, 2023 becomes McCaffrey's fourth career legendary season.
The fantasy industry spends two days in January reflecting on how a Mount Rushmore fantasy RB spent the entire summer outside of the top two picks. But the discourse quickly shifts to whether Caleb Williams is already better than Patrick Mahomes.
Silent Killer Scenario
The 49ers' offense is not in sync to begin the season. It's not an outright disaster, but Purdy doesn't have the same magic he did as a rookie.
After some up-and-down performances, Purdy melts down in an interception-laden Week 8 blowout loss to the Bengals. Kyle Shanahan's crotchety-meter goes to 11 in the post-game press conference, leading to Sam Darnold rumors as the 49ers head into their bye week.
Darnold remains on the bench when the 49ers take the field in Jacksonville two weeks later. But it's clear that some changes have been made; the Purdy honeymoon is over.
The 49ers' "new" approach is a return to the run-heavy days of 2019. For the rest of the season, Shanahan's offense pounds the rock whenever possible. And with an elite defense on the other side of the ball, this approach works. But it's a bummer for fantasy managers, who have invested in a far smaller offensive pie than they anticipated.
This run-heavy approach would normally be an exciting development for a starting RB. But McCaffrey is not a normal RB. And Shanahan is wise enough to keep his 27-year-old receiving weapon fresh for the playoffs. There's also the issue of McCaffrey's rushing efficiency, which falls below 4.0 yards per carry for the third time in his career. This exacerbates a lack of opportunities in obvious rushing situations.
The 49ers' depth chart behind McCaffrey is a bit chaotic, but the one constant is that other backs are involved, with Elijah Mitchell, Jordan Mason, and Tyrion Davis-Price all getting run throughout the year.
McCaffrey still sees 204 carries – just 40 fewer than in 2022 – but it's a very frustrating outcome with the reduced volume of the 49ers' passing game. McCaffrey's receiving efficiency holds steady, but there just aren't as many routes for him to run. With 77 receptions, he easily clears 4+ receptions per game, but his 4.5 per game still sets a new career low. And McCaffrey's goal-line role is inconsistent, with the 49ers sometimes bringing in a bigger back. And I know you don't want to hear this, but by the end of the season, Kyle Shanahan is using Trey Lance in a Taysom Hill role.
McCaffrey totals nearly 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 12 total TDs. His 17.3 points per game don't look like a disaster on paper... but his fantasy managers are lapped by drafters who were able to pair elite WR scoring in the 1st round with similar RB production available later.
McCaffrey's 2024 ADP briefly dips into the 2nd round. But following San Francisco's signing of Kirk Cousins (two years, $80 million fully guaranteed), McCaffrey's ADP jumps back into the 1st round.
How To Play It
This year's extremely WR-heavy ADP has made selecting McCaffrey a bit scarier than it otherwise ought to be. McCaffrey looks like a great bet in a vacuum, but selecting him means forgoing an opportunity to get a difference-making WR in an environment where scoring at the position dries up faster than ever.
We also have to deal with the issue of McCaffrey's age. Since 2010, only Jamaal Charles (age 27) and Austin Ekeler (27) have delivered legendary seasons after turning 26.
McCaffrey's age isn't a big concern for his ability to churn out a productive season. But when considering his ability to turn in a ceiling outcome, it's not ideal.
Then again, McCaffrey is an exceptional receiving talent. And in the modern NFL, receiving ability is the most reliable path to a legendary season. Since 2010, 16-of-18 legendary seasons have come with 4+ receptions per game.
McCaffrey's 22% target share easily led the RB position last year, and his elite 1.83 YPRR indicates that he still has plenty of receiving ability left in the tank. Even in a down year, he's likely to hit 4+ receptions per game.
McCaffrey won't be the every-down workhorse he was as a young RB, but his workload should be well-curated by Kyle Shanahan and include a high rate of high-value touches.
As I shift from WR-heavy best ball ADP to more RB-heavy managed league rooms, I plan to prioritize McCaffrey's immense upside.
Managed League Recommendation: Target
In 2022, Austin Ekeler turned in a legendary season by putting a flailing Chargers offense on his back. In 2023, he hitches a ride with an elite passing game.
Keenan Allen and Mike Williams are healthy and productive, and the addition of explosive YAC plays from Quentin Johnston makes the offense unstoppable at its best. With Kellen Moore calling the plays, the Chargers' offense operates quickly, putting up totals that would have made Mike McCarthy physically unwell.
The Chargers show off their high-scoring ability right away, dropping 35 points on the Dolphins in Week 1—immediately besting their highest output of 2022. Brandon Staley feels just fine about that.
Under Moore, the Chargers aren't quite as pass-heavy as the Chiefs, Bengals, or Bills. Instead, they operate more like the 2022 Vikings. They keep defenses honest by running the ball but are still solidly pass-first.
However, the Chargers are extremely pass-heavy on 1st down, returning to Moore's 2021 playcalling style before McCarthy had his say.
This approach facilitates a bounce-back season from Justin Herbert, who captains a highly efficient offense.
In this high-scoring environment, Ekeler rocks out. He rushes for 13 TDs, tying his 2022 mark, and catches eight more, matching his 2021 total. He delivers a second straight 20+ TD campaign with a career-high 21 total TDs.
Ekeler also sets a career-high with 221 rushing attempts. He's hardly an early-down grinder, with only 13 carries per game, but he helps salt away several lopsided wins before giving way to Joshua Kelley for the final couple of drives.
But the Chargers' 1st-down passing tendencies keep Ekeler heavily involved as a receiver, despite playing with the lead more frequently than in 2022. Ekeler adds 100 receptions to his career-high rushing workload, allowing him to total 1,770 yards from scrimmage and 21 TDs.
His 23.7 PPR points set a new career high and win leagues for the second consecutive year.
Silent Killer Scenario
The Chargers' offense takes a step forward in 2023 by attacking downfield far more aggressively than they did under Joe Lombardi.
Herbert is still happy to throw underneath, and his 8.0 average depth of target falls well short of Dak Prescott's 8.6 mark in 2022. Still, Herbert's aDOT is a new career high, thanks to a full season from Mike Williams and some deep crossing connections with Quentin Johnston.
Johnston's late-season emergence helps free up Keenan Allen underneath, who feasts on shallow targets. The 31-year-old can still get open quickly, and Herbert leans on him throughout the season.
Better play and better health from the Chargers' receivers create some disappointing box scores for Ekeler. But the Chargers don't forget about their weapon in the backfield. In Week 6, Ekeler sees 12 targets as part of a quick passing attack that decimates the Cowboys.
But Kellen Moore's revenge victory is the only time Ekeler sees 12+ targets after hitting that mark four times in 2022. His receiving contribution is still critical to the team's success, but his 75 receptions are much closer to 2021's 70 than 2022's 107.
Ekeler remains solidly productive. His rushing efficiency falls slightly, but he still manages a respectable 4.2 YPC. And he produces efficiently as a receiver, allowing him to hit 1,365 scrimmage yards.
As part of a high-powered offense, Ekeler racks up 11 TDs, the third most of his career. But Ekeler's 16.3 points per game are a letdown, with several WRs taken near him easily beating that mark.
How To Play It
Ekeler's advanced age has made him a difficult click for me in the mid-1st round, where his ADP has settled since he sorted out his contract with the Chargers. But if the Chargers' offense takes a step forward this season, he could easily finish as the RB1.
Although Ekeler is unlikely to match last season's 107 receptions, he will remain a vital piece of the Chargers' passing attack. And Ekeler has demonstrated a high-value role at the goal line over the last two seasons.
Even under a new offensive coordinator, Ekeler should retain strong usage near the end zone. The Chargers' potential to score more frequently creates upside for even more TDs than last season's 18. After all, Ekeler scored 20 in 2021.
Ekeler's profile is largely excellent... except for the fact that he is 28 years old. If he turns in a legendary season this year, he will be the oldest RB since 2007 to do so. Since 2000, only Marshall Faulk (2001), Priest Holmes (2002 and 2003), Shaun Alexander (2005), LaDainian Tomlinson (2007), and Brian Westbrook (2007) have produced legendary seasons at 28+.
Fortunately, four of these six seasons included heavy receiving usage. Holmes saw 4.6 and 5.0 receptions per game, Faulk was at 5.9, and Westbrook 6.0. Betting on a 28+ year-old back to hit an elite ceiling has been a losing bet for 15 straight years. But... if we're going to make that bet anyway, it would be on a back like Ekeler, who is an elite receiver with an established goal-line role on a high-powered offense.
But although Ekeler has a surprisingly strong range of outcomes for his advanced age, he still looks like a worse bet than the top four WRs this season. I'm willing to draft him, but not until they are off the board.
Managed League Recommendation: Target in the back half of 1st round
In 2023, the Falcons double down on their run-based identity, but the results are much more fun.
Tyler Allgeier frequently spells Bijan Robinson... but only because there's only so much work a rookie RB can reasonably handle. Robinson handles 55% of team attempts, the 10th-highest rate in the NFL. But the Falcons run the ball so frequently that Robinson immediately sees massive rushing volume. Since 2020, only Derrick Henry (378 and 349), Josh Jacobs (340), and Jonathan Taylor (332) have logged more carries than Robinson (330) does in 2023.
As they did in 2022, the Falcons pair rushing volume with rushing efficiency. And Robinson lives up to lofty expectations as a rusher, delivering 4.9 YPC and 1,617 rushing yards. Behind one of the league's best offensive lines – and one constructed specifically to run the ball – Robinson's 14 rushing TDs tie him with Nick Chubb on the 2023 leaderboard.
And while the Falcons' offense continues to run through the backfield, their passing game takes a step forward. Desmond Ridder has an up-and-down sophomore campaign, but he's still a big upgrade on Marcus Mariota. And critically, Ridder's play is good enough for the Falcons to drop back at a reasonable rate. After attempting just 415 passes in 2023, the Falcons hit 515 with Ridder under center, in line with their pace to close the 2022 season and Arthur Smith's 2020 pace with the Titans (30.3 attempts per game).
The Falcons remain a run-heavy team, but their willingness to occasionally lean on the passing game allows Robinson to rack up 65 catches on a 15% target share. He falls well short of the 91 receptions Saquon Barkley posted in his 16-game legendary rookie season, but Robinson's receiving ability still impresses. As his prospect profile suggested he would be, Robinson is an efficient pass catcher, posting 1.73 YPRR, 583 receiving yards, and four receiving TDs.
His position-leading 23.1 PPR points per game, available in the back half of the 1st round, power fantasy teams to the championship game. In Week 17, his spinning one-handed catch becomes the stuff of legend after he gathers himself and sideline dashes 66 yards for a fantasy-championship-sealing TD.
Silent Killer Scenario
After the draft, the Falcons talked a big game about Robinson being a receiving weapon. But a few weeks into the season, it's clear why Arthur Smith wanted to draft a star running back... he wanted to run the ball.
It's not that Robinson is uninvolved as a receiver. His 50% route participation matches Joe Mixon's 2022 rate, and he posts a respectable 12% target share. But Cordarrelle Patterson sees some passing-down snaps, and Tyler Allgeier regularly mixes in throughout the season.
Robinson posts 40 receptions for 308 receiving yards. His receiving contribution is very encouraging for a rookie RB but falls short of the fantasy community's optimistic expectations.
As a rusher, Robinson is heavily involved. On 272 attempts in a full 17-game season, Robinson posts 1,224 yards. But frustratingly, Allgeier snipes the occasional TD. And with Ridder playing like a future backup QB, there aren't many TDs to go around. Even still, Robinson runs for eight TDs, adding two more as a receiver.
Robinson's 14.9 points per game are solid results for a rookie, but he becomes a drag on rosters when he can't keep up with the breakout WRs selected just behind him.
How to Play It
Since 2000, only one rookie RB has produced a legendary season: Saquon Barkley. And to get there, Barkley racked up 121 targets. Only Austin Ekeler (127) topped that mark in 2022.
Even in rosy target scenarios, Robinson would do well to approach 80 targets; topping 120 isn't on the table.
However, Barkley averaged just 15.3 carries as a rookie... and Robinson will easily beat that if he stays healthy.
In Desmond Ridder's four 2022 starts, Tyler Allgeier averaged 20 carries per game while handling just 56% of the team attempts.
Robinson could beat Barkley's 261 rookie carries by handling just half of the Falcons' RB carries this season. If he handles more like 60% of team attempts, we're likely talking about a 400+ touch rookie season.
Even in the legendary scenario above, I didn't go there. In that universe, Robinson only saw 395 touches (330 carries and 65 receptions). But we are talking about a star RB who Arthur Smith just took 8th overall. Things could get nutty.
And Robinson really does profile as an elite prospect. He has the potential to combine Javonte Williams-level tackle shedding, Kenneth Walker-like breakaway ability and early-career Saquon Barkley-esque receiving versatility.
Robinson now gets a coach who is virtually guaranteed to build his offense around his backfield. Thankfully, Robinson brings enough receiving ability to the table that Smith's plan of attack should include plenty of targets for the rookie, in addition to a healthy dose of carries.
Robinson will need to be a special rookie to handle the type of workload that Smith may plan to throw at him. But he profiles as one of the best RB prospects of the modern era. Betting on him to be immensely talented doesn't feel like much of a leap.
Managed League Recommendation: Target
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Daniel Jones takes a step forward as a passer in his second season in Brian Daboll's offense and with better receiving weapons. This allows Daboll to call more passing plays and leads to a more efficient offense overall. And although Jones is still willing to take off and run, he's also more comfortable going through his reads and checking down to Barkley as needed.
Barkley thrives in this environment, posting a 72/612/3 receiving line on 90 targets. His output isn't quite to the levels of 2018 when he went for 91/721/4 on 121 targets, but it's easily Barkley's best showing since his rookie year.
But Barkley is even more impressive as a rusher. He posts his best rushing efficiency since his rookie year, at 4.7 YPC, and runs for a career-high 1,457 yards. And as part of a surging Giants offense, he shatters his previous career-high TD total (11) by punching in 16 scores. Barkley is the Giants' clear lead back in all situations, but his hold on goal-line work is absolute, with Matt Breida and Eric Gray seeing nonexistent usage near the end zone.
Three of his scores come against the Rams in Week 17. On the opposing sideline, Sean McVay wistfully pines for Todd Gurley's prime.
Silent Killer Scenario
With backfield competition from only Breida and Gray, Barkley continues to dominate the Giants' backfield. He hits 300 attempts for the first time in his career and adds 58 receptions, besting 2022's 57. His 358 touches are a new career high.
But Barkley's performance on his elite workload is uninspiring. First of all, most of his work is as a rusher, which just isn't conducive to PPR scoring. And his rushing production isn't efficient.
Things aren't as bad as in 2021 when he averaged just 3.7 YPC. But he falls off from 2022's 4.4 mark to just 4.0. His 1,200 rushing yards are good for RB5, but his inefficiency feels like a waste of his elite workload.
Barkley continues to be a boom/bust runner. But 2023 has more blown up runs than usual behind an offensive line that struggles for consistency all year, outside of LT Andrew Thomas. The issues are especially frustrating at the goal line, with Daboll resorting to trick plays and gadgets to get the ball into the end zone. Barkley runs in seven TDs, which, despite being the third-highest mark of his career, is a disappointing total on his 300-carry workload.
And Barkley's efficiency issues extend to the passing game. Like in 2022, he averages just 5.9 yards per reception and fails to score a receiving TD.
Barkley maintains a solid passing-game role, but his 58/342/0 receiving line is a far cry from the 91/721/4 line he posted in his legendary rookie season.
With an elevated ADP after his bounce-back 2022 campaign, Barkley's 15.0 points per game are a major disappointment for fantasy managers who selected him in the late first round.
How to Play It
Projectable volume is often a myth at the RB position, but Barkley really does look locked into a huge workload this season. Health is his biggest impediment to a career-high in touches.
But it still matters what type of touches Barkley sees... and what he does on them. As a rookie, Barkley was a force in the receiving game; in 2018, only Christian McCaffrey (107) bested Barkley's 91 receptions. But since then, Barkley hasn't been close to that mark. Last year's mark of 57 catches is the second-highest of his career. Part of that is injury-related. But after averaging 5.7 receptions per game as a rookie, Barkley hasn't had more than 4.0 per game.
And Barkley's efficiency hasn't been impressive in a long time. Last year's 4.4 YPC wasn't terrible, but he's never repeated the 5.0 YPC that made him so special as a rookie. And Barkley is coming off a career-low 5.9 YPR, which is especially concerning in combination with his suboptimal receiving volume.
And, although Barkley isn't old, he's no longer young by RB standards. When profiling previous legendary seasons, I was surprised by how many of them were from extremely young backs. Since 2010, only Jamaal Charles and Austin Ekeler have produced legendary seasons at 26+ years old. Charles saw 4.7 receptions per game in 2013, and Ekeler saw 6.3 last year. Barkley averaged 3.6 receptions per game last year.
This year, it's easier to look past McCaffrey and Ekeler's age because of their receiving production. But although Barkley has the reputation of a high-end receiving back, he hasn't been in a McCaffrey-style role since 2018.
Barkley's goal-line role has also been disappointing of late. As a rookie, Barkley saw 2.2 green-zone opportunities per game, but he was at just 1.4 last season, and his career mark is down to 1.5. As a reminder, we're looking for RBs with a path to 2+ green-zone opportunities per game. Barkley has a path to that level of TD upside. But even with a massive projected workload, his goal-line usage looks somewhat shaky. This concern is magnified by the potential for weak offensive line play and his inconsistent success rate as a rusher.
Since 2000, Barkley is one of just 25 RBs to deliver a legendary season. These 25 backs have produced 38 legendary seasons. So when a former legend is in line for an elite workload, we definitely want to pay attention. These guys tend to repeat.
But although Barkley will be fed touches this year, he could be on a junk food diet. PPR legends are raised on a diet of receptions and goal-line touches. Barkley's workload looks to be lacking in both respects. Barkley's declining efficiency doesn't look strong enough to deliver a legendary season without a heavy helping of high-value touches.
Managed League Recommendation: Fade
With Kareem Hunt no longer in Cleveland, it's the Nick Chubb Show in 2023. Chubb sets a career-high with 323 carries and remains the best pure rusher in football. For the third time since 2020, he hits 5.5 yards per carry, rushing for a ridiculous 1,777 yards and 16 TDs—crushing his previous career highs of 1,525 and 12 behind an elite offensive line.
And Chubb carves out a meaningful role in a revived Browns passing game. Chubb sees more screens than in years past, helping to punish defenses who refuse to let Deshaun Watson beat them deep. Chubb posts a 51/449/4 receiving line on 68 targets. He crushes his previous career highs in targets (49), receptions (36), receiving yards (278), and receiving TDs (2), demonstrating that his game-breaking ability isn't limited to handoffs.
In Week 17, Chubb sets new career highs with 180 rushing yards and 60 receiving yards. With five receptions and two TDs added to the mix, his 40 PPR points are indisputably what you need.
After the season, Aaron Rodgers receives an offer to join the Pat McAfee Show, which he leverages into officially replacing Joe Douglas as the Jets' GM. His first order of business: acquiring Nick Chubb in exchange for the Jets' 2025 2nd, 3rd, and Breece Hall.
Silent Killer Scenario
With Jerome Ford as his only real competition, Chubb is the clear leader in the Browns' backfield.
But the Browns shift their focus toward the passing game as they desperately try to get Deshaun Watson on track in his second year with the team.
As a result, Chubb runs the ball 47 fewer times than in 2022. In addition to a slightly smaller rushing workload, he's slightly less efficient. His yards per carry drops for the fourth consecutive year to a career-low 4.8. Chubb remains impressively efficient, but he averages less than five yards per attempt for the first time in his career.
As his backers hoped, Chubb sees more receiving work than in 2022. But Ford takes over enough of the Hunt role to cap Chubb's involvement below his 2019 receiving highs.
Chubb's 44 targets and 33 receptions aren't quite to his 2019 highs, but he is more efficient than he was as a second-year player. This allows him to set a new career high with 290 receiving yards. He also ties his 2018 career high with two receiving TDs.
But with 14.9 PPR points per game, Chubb isn't a difference-making player in PPR leagues. With an early 2nd-round ADP, he does major damage to fantasy rosters.
How to Play It
Chubb has been one of the best pure rushers in football since entering the league. In NFL Next Gen's rush yards over expected metric, he's finished third, second, second, second, and first. Coming off an RB1 finish in the metric, it's hard to bet against his ability to produce efficiently on the ground.
However, Chubb's ability to produce outside the running game is definitely in question. In 45 games under Kevin Stefanski, Chubb has averaged just 1.5 receptions per game. And remember, we're looking for a path to 4+ receptions per game.
Since 2010, only Dalvin Cook (3.1) and Jonathan Taylor (2.4) have produced legendary seasons with fewer than 4.0 receptions per game. And even Taylor's 2021 mark of 40 receptions would be a career-high for Chubb.
The fantasy market has become optimistic that Chubb will see an uptick in receiving work with Kareem Hunt off the roster.
I share that optimism.
However, the market looks to have forgotten just how uninvolved Chubb has been as a receiver. As his silent killer scenario outlined, Chubb can set a career-high in receiving yards and still fall well short of league-winning scoring levels.
The other issue is that while Chubb's consistent rushing efficiency makes him feel like a safe pick, he is not. That is the unfortunate truth about the position. Chubb is an NFL RB. He turns 28 before the end of this year. There is nothing safe about that, regardless of how amazing Chubb has been to begin his career.
I get it; it feels like Chubb is a lock to be incredibly efficient again this season. And he probably will be. But if he fails to deliver elite efficiency at 28 years old, it's on us if we're shocked.
More importantly, to fully pay off on his early 2nd-round ADP, Chubb needs to add a key element to his game at an advanced age. That's possible, but it's not an outcome I'm willing to bank on this year. As fun as it would be for Chubb to emerge as a versatile playmaker, he will likely continue to post sub-elite PPR scoring.
Managed League Recommendation: Fade
With Ezekiel Elliott finally out of the picture, Pollard consistently operates as a true lead RB for the first time in his career.
But the Cowboys understand who Pollard is—an explosive rusher and receiver, not an every-touch workhorse. Pollard is frequently spelled by a rotation of backups. And this is occasionally frustrating.
But the Cowboys aren't afraid to lean on Pollard in most high-leverage situations. And with a good defense and a productive passing game, they frequently play from ahead. Pollard doesn't get every opportunity, but there are plenty to go around in this backfield.
Pollard's 275 carries smash his previous career high of 193. More importantly, Pollard is a featured part of the Cowboys' goal-line offense.
Despite being in clear decline, Ezekiel Elliott averaged 1.8 green-zone opportunities per game in 2022; Pollard saw just 1.0. But with Elliott off the team, Pollard's goal-line usage spikes. He punches in 15 rushing TDs behind a top-10 offensive line.
On his larger workload, Pollard can't quite hit his 5.5 YPC from 2021, but he matches his 5.2 mark from last season, rushing for 1,430 yards.
Pollard sets career highs as a receiver, replacing many of Zeke's pass-blocking snaps with electric yards-after-catch highlights. Pollard's 15% target share ranks RB5 behind only Christian McCaffrey (20%), Austin Ekeler (18%), Saquon Barkley (16%), and Jahmyr Gibbs (16%).
Pollard's electric 8.9 YPR is somehow worse than in 2022, but his fantasy managers are still delighted with his 71/628/4 receiving line. With over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 19 total TDs, Pollard's 23 points per game are an absolute smash in the 2nd round.
In Week 17, Pollard totals 211 yards and 39 PPR points. The best ball community's takeaway is to target RBs playing in a dome.
Silent Killer Scenario
Tony Pollard is incredibly productive to start the season, but in Week 3, it all comes crashing down after the suspension is lifted on Ronald Jones.
But Pollard really does lose work to his backups, even if it's mostly Rico Dowdle and not Jones taking the work.
The big issue facing Pollard is that he doesn't have complete control of the goal-line work. And when he doesn't run as hot on long TDs, Pollard actually scores fewer TDs than in 2022. Pollard continues to be explosive; he just doesn't run pure on long TDs like in 2022. In combination with some, but not all, of the Cowboys' goal-line rushing work, he totals just nine TDs. He runs in eight (down from nine) and only catches one (down from three). By Week 6, the Internet is awash with victory laps from "X"'s highest-T checks, who gleefully assert that the 209-pound Pollard was a change-of-pace back all along.
As a receiver, Pollard delivers a career-high 12% target share. But Pollard isn't a feature of the passing game like the elite receiving weapons at the position. Instead, he's used more like peak Dalvin Cook. And like Cook was for much of his career, Pollard is stuck on a conservative offense.
Pollard sets a career-high with 60 targets, but as part of a slower, more run-heavy Cowboys offense, he sees only five more than in 2022. His 45/387/1 receiving line contributes to just 14.9 ppg, which is a major disappointment for drafters who saw him as the next three-down superstar at the position.
How to Play It
Pollard's season is likely to come down to his goal-line role. The importance of his green-zone usage is being covered up a bit by his extreme TD efficiency last season.
In 2022, Pollard totaled 12 TDs. But only 3-of-9 rushing TDs were on carries inside the 10. And only 1-of-3 receiving TDs was within the 10.
Fortunately, Ezekiel Elliott's absence opens up a lot of goal-line opportunities. Zeke saw 1.8 green-zone opportunities per game last year and 1.3 in 2021. Pollard saw 1.0 green-zone opportunities per game last year and just 0.2 in 2021. Put differently, Zeke has played just one more game than Pollard over the last two seasons but has 54 green-zone opportunities to Pollard's 21.
On the one hand, this gives Pollard quite a bit of upside. But on the other hand... Zeke has been bad for the last two years, yet Mike McCarthy still strongly preferred him over Pollard near the end zone.
The Dallas backfield now has goal-line opportunities up for grabs, but Pollard won't necessarily soak up a huge share of them. He's an undersized speed back, the type of RB coaches have historically shied away from in close.
But it's important to note that while Pollard is an electric rusher, he is not a boom/bust runner.
Last year, Pollard finished RB3 in NFL Next Gen's rush yards over expected. He was RB6 in 2021. That indicates elite explosivenes.
But whereas some explosive rushers – like Saquon Barkley and Kenneth Walker – struggle with consistency, Pollard does not. As I covered in RB Success Rate Stars, Pollard has been impressively consistent over the last two years.
Pollard's consistency should make us more confident that the Cowboys will lean on him at the goal line, given the positive relationship between success rate and future goal-line opportunities.
Ultimately, Pollard is an explosive rusher and versatile receiver who just needs to stay healthy to set career highs in usage. At 26 years old, Pollard is actually slightly older than we'd prefer. But he's also running behind an offensive line that is highly ranked by Matthew Freedman (4th), Brandon Thorn (6th), Sam Monson (6th), and Justin Edwards (7th). He also has a path to 4+ receptions per game and 2+ green-zone opportunities per game. With a high-value role and a multi-year résumé of elite efficiency, Pollard is the type of 26-year-old I'm happy to bet on.
As Pollard's price increases, he becomes an increasingly fragile bet. If his efficiency drops on an increased but sub-elite workload, it'll hurt. If he's also pulled at the goal line, it'll be a dagger. But if Pollard is simply the Pollard we've been watching the last few years, and his coaches give him the star treatment he's earned, he can win leagues from the second round.
Managed League Recommendation: Target
Derrick Henry takes the field in 2023 and does exactly what he has done in 2019, 2020, 2021, and 2022. He carries the load for the Tennessee Titans.
Rather than easing up on their veteran RB, the Titans press the pedal to the floor, knowing it's Henry's final year with the team. After averaging 21.8 carries per game in 2022, Henry hits 23.5 in 2023, reaching exactly 400 carries in Week 18, three days after his 30th birthday.
Henry's 400-carry mark is a career-high... although it wouldn't be if he had finished all of 2021 when he was on pace for 465 carries. The Titans don't take things to that extreme, but they're happy to get Henry rolling again.
Henry's workload is supported by a Titans team that is more consistently in positive game script. Unlike in 2022, their defense isn't circled on opposing passing-game coordinators' schedules all season. They aren't particularly good at stopping the pass, but their run defense also falls off from 2022, and teams are more willing to play balanced against them.
This suits the Titans just fine, who are happy to play in as many one-score games as possible. And that plan works out pretty well because the Titans are far more competent on offense in 2023. Ryan Tannehill stays healthy and gets strong contributions from DeAndre Hopkins, Treylon Burks, and Chig Okonkwo throughout the year.
But best of all, the Titans' offensive line isn't a disaster. To be clear... the line is not good. But 11th overall pick Peter Skoronski lives up to his billing as an instant stud, and the unit as a whole isn't a major liability.
The Titans' unexpectedly competent blocking allows Henry to rush more efficiently than he has in years. He doesn't return to the glorious days of 2020 when he posted 5.4 YPC. But after being at 4.3 in 2021 and 4.4 in 2022, his 4.8 YPC feels vintage.
In Week 17, Henry averages 7.6 YPC for 220 yards. Somehow, that's 30 yards short of a career high. But with the help of a 25-yard screen TD, Henry also adds 45 receiving yards. His 265 yards from scrimmage set a new career high and, paired with four total TDs, resoundingly win fantasy championships.
The following week, scores of fantasy managers flood bars around the country to root for the Titans in one of the most complicated tie-breaker scenarios of the last decade.
But there's nothing complicated about what is driving the allegiance of these newly-minted Tennessee fans. They are decked out in Titans gear, purchased with fantasy winnings from Henry's fifth career 200+ yard rushing performance against the Texans.
In Week 18, the Jaguars rest their starters for the playoffs, and the Titans cruise to victory. But the Bills also rest their starters, allowing the Dolphins to secure the final Wild Card. It's a sad note for the season to end on, but Henry's close to his Titans career will long outlast the disappointment of missing the playoffs. The franchise back runs for 1,920 yards and continues building on his late-career receiving production with career highs in receptions (40) and yards (440). He also totals a career-high 20 TDs. Once again – seriously, how many times does he have to do this? – he makes the faders look ridiculous.
Silent Killer Scenario
The Titans roll out their classic playbook in 2023, but it's not 2020 anymore. Arguably, the biggest issue is the offensive line. Widely ranked among the league's worst entering the season, the line plays as poorly as feared.
Peter Skoronski flashes strong potential, but he plays like a rookie at times as well... and he's by far the biggest bright spot on the line. This leads to a career-low 4.1 YPC for Derrick Henry, whose rushing efficiency declines for the third straight year.
And after years of leaning on Henry as a workhorse rusher, the Titans begin to ease up on his workload down the stretch. Tyjae Spears isn't capable of handling the punishment that Henry can, but he's impressively explosive on limited work, and he eventually begins to eat into Henry's carry total.
Henry still racks up carries, finishing with 306 at an 18-carry per-game clip. And he continues to be the feature back at the goal line, punching in 12 TDs. But his rushing line of 306/1,255/12 can't support his ADP on its own.
And with Spears immediately flashing, Henry's receiving work dips to 2020 levels. He posts 20/176/0 in 17 games, returning to the pure rushing role he had for the majority of his career.
With just 13.8 points per game, even drafters who grabbed him in the early third of best ball drafts feel the pain. And Henry completely sinks teams who paid up for him in the mid-2nd.
How to Play It
Find Henry in your favorite projections provider, and divide his carry total by 17 games. It's gonna work out to less than 20 carries per game. Divide by 16 games. It's gonna be less than 20. Divide by 15... and it'll still probably be less than 20 per game.
For reference, here's Henry's projection at Fantasy Life.
His carry total isn't meaningfully higher at Draft Sharks (312) or PFF (309), and it's lower at 4for4 (260).
And yet, Henry averaged 21.8 carries per game last year; he averaged 27.3 in 2021; 23.6 in 2020; 20.2 in 2019.
Henry hasn't averaged less than 20 carries per game since 2018.
Let's cut the projections some slack. They are trying to bake in injury risk and a number of other important factors. But the averaging of all possibilities hides the specifics of those discreet outcomes.
And in Henry's case, he'll likely crush his projected carry total... provided he's still explosive enough to overcome poor offensive line play on a massive workload.
If he's not that guy... then I really don't want him on my teams. Although Henry is coming off a career-high 33 receptions, the addition of Spears makes it hard to believe Henry has a receiving role to fall back on.
Don't get me wrong, Henry's receiving usage over the last two seasons (2.1 receptions per game) is intriguing as part of his ceiling projection. But if Henry cedes significant work to Spears, his pass-catching work will likely be the first thing to disappear.
Essentially, we need things to play out in a near-ideal way for Henry to deliver elite value. And we're talking about a two-down running back who is nearly 30 years old, plays behind what may be the worst offensive line in the NFL, and is not supported by a high-end passing game. His path to hitting an elite ceiling is a tightrope walk, and it's getting pretty damn windy in Tennessee.
Managed League Recommendation: Fade