Under Pressure – 3 Running Backs in 2023
With teams becoming increasingly wary of deploying significant capital to the running back position, several key names may be in a more perilous position than we previously considered. So which running backs may be under pressure to deliver and could see their role diminish in 2023?
Najee Harris – Pittsburgh Steelers
One of the most obvious candidates is Steelers starter Najee Harris. The former first round pick has commanded the lion’s share of work in the Pittsburgh backfield since his arrival in the NFL but recent inefficiencies, the emergence of Jaylen Warren, and the impending contract discussions after this year put all this into question.
Harris has dominated touches in his first two years, commanding just over 85% of carries in his rookie year and 71% in 2022. In total he has recorded a staggering total of 579 carries and an additional 115 receptions across his first two years. As a result he leads the league in rushing attempts over the past two seasons combined.
With that workload, however, has come inefficiency and a clear lack of explosiveness. Harris ranked fourth-last in breakaway percentage amongst running backs with at least 100 rushes last season, per PFF. This resulted in the former Alabama back hitting just 3.8 yards per carry in 2022, fifth-lowest amongst the same cohort.
His consistency has also been lacking. Harris ranked 38 out of the 42 running backs with at least 100 carries in Football Outsiders’ rushing success rate metric.
In terms of fantasy this volume resulted in a finish of RB3 in PPR scoring in 2021 per FantasyData, largely due to an immobile Ben Rothlisberger providing 74 receptions. Harris then lumbered to RB14 last year.
Bolstered line leaves little room for error
Patience may be starting to wear thin with fewer excuses given the team’s recent investments. The Steelers sought to improve a weak offensive line which has been plaguing the offense in recent years. Former Eagles guard Isaac Semualo joined in free agency before the team moved up to take tackle Broderick Jones in the first round of the draft.
This comes at a time when this year will prove pivotal for Harris’ long-term future. The team will have to decide after this season whether they will pick up his fifth-year option. And while the team may not have spent any draft capital on the running back position, the emergence of Jaylen Warren provides ample competition for Harris.
The former undrafted free agent has been receiving plenty of praise in training camp and produced effectively in both the ground and pass game last season. Warren hit 4.9 yards per carry and 1.24 yards per route run last season, according to PFF, versus Harris’ 3.8 and 0.79 respectively. Should this continue, Harris’ sky-high volume may be at risk.
Travis Etienne Jr. – Jacksonville Jaguars
Another former first round pick looking over his shoulder is Travis Etienne. Despite a promising season, the team’s investment in the draft, plus the coach’s prevalence for a committee approach may provide us with a warning.
The Jaguars running back entered the 2022 season after an injury-plagued start to his career in the NFL, coming off a Lisfranc injury curtailing his rookie season before it even began.
Etienne amassed 1,125 rushing yards and five touchdowns across 220 attempts, representing a healthy 5.1 yards per carry. He added a further 316 yards through the air from 35 receptions (45 targets).
Etienne demonstrated the explosiveness which pushed him into the first round of the 2021 NFL draft, rushing for at least 100 yards in five games. The former Clemson back finished fifth in missed tackles forced last year and fourth in breakaway percentage amongst running backs with at least 100 carries, according to PFF.
So after a successful season, why he could he be a running back under pressure? First and foremost, head coach Doug Pederson’s offenses have long utilised a committee approach. During his time in Philadelphia, no player topped more than 180 carries in a season.
Jacksonville subsequently spent a third-round draft pick on Tank Bigsby, who has impressed both in camp and in the preseason. The Auburn bruiser arrives with plenty of pedigree, having accumulated just over 2,900 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns across his three years in college.
The fear for Etienne is that Bigsby may not only eat into his early down work, but also into high-value redzone touches and some receiving work. There were also reports following the second preseason game that Bigsby could see his role develop as the season progresses.
While Etienne doesn’t need a huge workload to be successful in fantasy given his explosiveness, the possible shift is worth bearing in mind. At present, Etienne appears to be a high-risk selection with a wide range of potential outcomes.
Cam Akers – LA Rams
Cam Akers’ 2022 was bizarre to say the very least. After a miraculous recovery from an achilles injury, Akers suffered from inefficient play and spent time away from the team before his production skyrocketed through the final few weeks of the year. As he enters a contract year, which version of Cam Akers we’re going to get is a puzzling question.
Part way through the 2022 season it appeared that Akers may not play another snap for the Rams. The team was reportedly fielding trades for the running back after Akers and head coach Sean McVay reportedly having “philosophical and football-related differences”.
Even when he was on the field, his production was severely lacking. Prior to week 13 Akers scored double-digit PPR points just once, according to FantasyData. Over that period he rushed for fewer than 50 yards in six of his nine games.
He subsequently exploded down the stretch once he returned to the starting lineup, including rushing for a staggering 345 yards across the final three games of the regular NFL season. Whether he can replicate this production consistently remains to be seen.
There also may be more competition than ADP would suggest. Last year’s fifth round pick Kyren Williams has impressed in camp, with reports Williams and Akers could split work depending on the opposing defence. “Williams could have a bigger impact in the passing game, where he truly excelled throughout camp”, The Athletic reported.
The former second-round pick now enters the 2023 season going into the final year of his rookie contract. After the last two years, Akers has a point to prove that he can provide reliable production that pushed him up draft boards in 2020. The way the market has shifted has shown even elite production will not guarantee a long-term deal.
Meanwhile, the Rams are a team in transition, reevaluating their roster construction after their all-in ‘f— them picks’ phase. Spending significant money on a running back may end up being a lesser priority when there will likely be several more pressing positions which will need focus. Akers will need to prove to the Rams, or someone else, that his injury issues are fully behind him and he can consistently shoulder a significant workload.