Our early outlooks for running backs from a 2023 fantasy perspective concludes with the NFC West and AFC West.
James Conner is one of the clearest starters and potential workhorses in the league, and he’s shown he can do it at a high level. Conner was somewhat quietly top ten in RB points per game both seasons in Kliff Kingsbury’s offense, and he’s an underrated talent that can be an undervalued fantasy asset with a heavy workload—the concern is the Cardinals might be the worst team in the league. Keaontay Ingram, Corey Clement, and Ty’Son Williams will be battling for roles behind Conner.
Los Angeles Rams
The relationship between Cam Akers and the Rams has had its peaks and valleys, but the former second-round pick is another year removed from his Achilles injury and appears set to be the clear lead back in Sean McVay’s offense at still just 24 years old (this June). In his final six games last season, Akers put up fantasy point totals of 18.5, 8.8, 11.5, 33.7, 13.8, and 14.3. Kyren Williams, who looked like he had a shot to lead the backfield as a rookie before injury struck in Week 1, can bring a lot as a receiver especially as he looks to make a Year 2 leap. If the Akers-Rams relationship goes south again, Williams could benefit. Sixth-round rookie Zach Evans feels like a natural fit in McVay’s offense, and he profiles as a potential flier that could pay off for both the Rams and fantasy owners. Ronnie Rivers has a year in the system and will be battling for a roster spot.
San Francisco 49ers
Christian McCaffrey is ultra-talented, doesn’t want to leave the field, plays for a head coach that always goes hard (i.e., doesn’t want to rest players), plays on a top team, and is utilized as both a runner and receiver. It’s a recipe that makes him arguably the top player on 2023 fantasy draft boards. Durability has been the issue for Elijah Mitchell as he enters his third NFL season, but he’s maybe the best handcuff in fantasy and could have solid standalone value with Kyle Shanahan wanting to run the ball a lot. Jordan Mason won a role as an undrafted free agent last year, and he’d be a strong fantasy option with playing time. And we’ll see if 2022 third-rounder Tyrion Davis-Price can have a second-year leap and somehow carve out a niche in the San Francisco backfield.
Second-year back Kenneth Walker III looked primed to be a potential 1,500-yard type of rusher for the Seahawks, but the selection of UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet put a damper on those expectations a bit. That said, head coach Pete Carroll did call Walker “special”, and perhaps they wanted to have superb depth at the position—but they obviously love Charbonnet too and Seattle is all about competition. DeeJay Dallas does a good job of chipping in when called upon, but we’re also keeping an eye on seventh-round rookie Kenny McIntosh for a third-down role at least. Carroll said McIntosh easily could have been a third-round pick (we agree), and there are many examples of late-round guys emerging even in crowded backfields.
One of the big storylines of the summer will be the health of Javonte Williams, who new Broncos head coach Sean Payton said is doing “extremely well” and might be ready for the start of training camp. Still, it was a tough injury for Williams, so his effectiveness will be something to monitor—at least Payton has historically been up front about updates for his players. Samaje Perine is very interesting given the uncertainty around Williams and Payton’s usage of multiple running backs during his time with the Saints. Perine is going to have a notable role. There’s a lot of depth at the position including Jacques Patrick and Tyler Badie, but Tony Jones Jr. was with Payton in New Orleans and has the inside track on the No. 3 job.
Kansas City Chiefs
Isiah Pacheco brought a ton of energy to the Chiefs’ rushing attack last season, averaging 4.9 yards per carry as a rookie (830 yards on 170 carries) following a ton of preseason hype coming from within the building. Pacheco is set to lead the backfield in carries, and more receiving usage can be unlocked. But Jerick McKinnon (56/512/9 receiving in 2022) should again have a major role as a receiver and pass protector. And former first-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire is probably entering this season highly determined to at least carve out a role in Andy Reid’s offense. La’Mical Perine is a 2020 fourth-round pick of the Jets that will look to show he can make contributions as backfield depth.
Las Vegas Raiders
Barring a long-term deal by July 17, reigning league leading rusher Josh Jacobs is set to play on the franchise tag after racking up 393 touches last season. Jacobs is the type of guy that’ll do what it takes for his team to win, but if the Raiders are struggling as a team late in the season there’s a chance that they take it easy on his touches to some extent. Ameer Abdullah and Brandon Bolden are both well-liked by Josh McDaniels but will mostly contribute as receiving options and on special teams. Second-year backs Zamir White (fourth-rounder) and Brittain Brown (seventh-rounder) are two players to watch during camp, as either could potentially become the primary true backup to Jacobs.
Los Angeles Chargers
The contract dispute between Austin Ekeler and the Chargers ended with Ekeler getting around $2 million in incentives available this season, the last year of his deal. The NFL’s leader in touchdowns the past two seasons, Ekeler should again get key touches even in a new offense led by coordinator Kellen Moore. However, Joshua Kelley showed development in 2022 and was already talked up by Moore in his introductory press conference—there’s upside there. And 2022 fourth-round pick Isaiah Spiller was a 21-year-old rookie that couldn’t find his groove last season, but he offers a high ceiling and all-around skillset. Larry Rountree III has been with the team the past two seasons and will also be looking to impress the new coordinator.