Our series of looking at backfield situations around the NFL from a fantasy perspective continues with the North divisions. You can also check out the NFC East and AFC East outlooks if you missed them.
Arguably the most wide-open running back competition this training camp will be the one in Chicago between third-year back Khalil Herbert, veteran D’Onta Foreman, and third-round rookie Roschon Johnson. We’ve been impressed with Herbert when he’s played through two NFL seasons, and he somewhat quietly put up 731 yards and four touchdowns on 129 carries last season. While Foreman has shown he can break big plays, it was interesting that GM Ryan Poles noted “explosive speed” as a reason they signed him; perhaps they see him as a change-of-pace option. Out of Texas after playing behind Bijan Robinson, Johnson does everything right and should work his way into playing time as a rookie. Former Seahawks Travis Homer, who has flashed but might settle in as a core special teamer, and Trestan Ebner are also in the Chicago backfield.
The Lions traded away D’Andre Swift (and apparently weren’t hesitant to trade him to an NFC competitor) and did not re-sign Jamaal Williams, but the backfield remains in excellent shape with a new duo of David Montgomery and Jahmyr Gibbs. Detroit’s regime has seen Montgomery up close the past four years after his time with the Bears, and the top-tier blocking the Lions offense line can provide should lead to an increase in production. Meanwhile, the Lions were thrilled when they took Gibbs with the No. 12 pick, as they might’ve just taken him at No. 6 if they didn’t trade back. For Gibbs, you can think of an Alvin Kamara type of player; he’s a superb weapon that offensive coordinator Ben Johnson will want to get the ball to. Craig Reynolds and surprisingly-undrafted rookie Mohamed Ibrahim round out the backfield, but Montgomery and Gibbs are fully expected to lead the way and should both be capable fantasy starters.
Green Bay Packers
Similarly, Green Bay will be a two-headed backfield this season. Aaron Jones has caught six touchdowns and five touchdowns the past two years, and he had a career-high 1,121 rushing yards last season. The rushing touchdown production has gone down since he led the NFL with 16 rushing scores in 2019, but the versatile playmaker remains a major weapon in Matt LaFleur’s offense. AJ Dillon didn’t have quite the breakout campaign many expected last season, but he had over 200 touches—and he should eclipse 200 touches again as a sneaky post-hype breakout candidate. The Packers want more from Dillon this season, so that’s something to note. Green Bay has Tyler Goodson, Patrick Taylor, and seventh-round rookie Lew Nichols behind Jones and Dillon.
One of the mysteries of the offseason has been the status of Pro Bowl running back Dalvin Cook, who is as healthy as he’s been in years after offseason shoulder surgery but has surprisingly been heavily rumored as a trade or cut candidate—which might happen post-June 1. The Vikings even recently added Alexander Mattison to their Twitter banner instead of Cook after re-signing him to a two-year deal earlier this offseason. At the very least, Mattison looks set for more carries (just 74 last season); he should easily lead the backfield if Cook leaves the team. Minnesota drafted DeWayne McBride in the seventh-round this year and also has last year’s fifth-rounder Ty Chandler and top kick returner Kene Nwangwu at the position.
The Ravens underwent major upgrades to the supporting cast on offense this offseason, but that didn’t include the running back position, as Baltimore will again roll with a healthier J.K. Dobbins, Gus Edwards, and Justice Hill. The big change for the Ravens is that they’ll almost certainly be less run-heavy with former offensive coordinator Greg Roman being replaced by Todd Monken. However, Dobbins—who played with a noticeable limp for much of last season—should be better a year removed from the ACL tear and has been expectations for himself. Edwards has been a reliable player that will mix in for carries. And Hill brings another change-of-pace with his acceleration.
The Joe Mixon situation felt somewhat like Dalvin Cook’s earlier this offseason, but it appears clear now that Mixon is locked in as the leader in the Cincinnati backfield after Samaje Perine signed with Denver. Remember, Mixon scored five touchdowns in one game last season, and he’s still the lead back in one of the NFL’s top attacks. We are keeping an eye on former Texas A&M running back Trayveon Williams taking on a role similar to Perine’s from last season. Williams is expecting a bigger role, Zac Taylor has talked him up, and he’s an underrated talent. Chase Brown ran for over 1,600 for Illinois last season and was drafted in the fifth round; he’ll certainly be in the mix for a ton of playing time if Mixon misses any action. 2021 sixth-rounder Chris Evans can potentially win a role on third downs with a good summer.
This has been Nick Chubb’s backfield for years, and he might get his most exciting usage ever with the Browns not bringing back Kareem Hunt—who had at times been a source of frustration for those with Chubb on their fantasy squads. Jerome Ford is set to take on a larger role and will be the direct backup to Chubb after he was taken in the fifth-round last year, but keep an eye on UCLA product Demetric Felton having a role as a receiver especially. John Kelly Jr. serves as depth for now.
Following a healthier second half of last season, Najee Harris again possesses great upside playing for a Steelers team that’s been fantasy gold at running back in the past. Mike Tomlin has no problem feeding Harris plenty of touches, and the Pittsburgh offensive line was boosted with left tackle Broderick Jones (first-round rookie from Georgia) and Isaac Seumalo (free-agent signing from the Eagles). Jaylen Warren flashed as an undrafted rookie last season and will again bring some juice and energy as the backup. Anthony McFarland Jr. has a few years with the organization and is the No. 3 running back entering the summer.