Oh, those fantasy rookie outlier seasons sure are fun when they happen. The 2016 season was fun when Ezekiel Elliott came in like a supernova with 1,631 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns on his way to RB2 status that season. 2018 was a blast for fantasy managers who took a chance on Saquon Barkley and the Giants’ star rookie delivered 2,028 total yards and 15 touchdowns to finish as the RB2.
Those incredible rookie seasons happen, though they are far from the norm. Last year brought us Kenneth Walker III and Tyler Allgeier, opening in backup roles only to take advantage of opportunities to finish with 1,000-yard seasons. Dameon Pierce rose from fourth-round pick to falling short of that yard benchmark because of an ankle injury. Breece Hall seemed destined for a special season before a torn ACL cut short his rookie year after seven games. Isiah Pacheco jumped into action in the late season to grind out important yards for the Super Bowl champion Chiefs.
This year saw a pair of running backs selected in the first round of the NFL Draft, with Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs taken in the first 12 picks. Could they be headed for outlier seasons? We’ll let the season play out for them.
This article is going to focus on the “other” rookie running backs, those taken in the second round and beyond. None of them appears to have a starting role set for them, but there is every possibility multiple players below could be helping fantasy managers win championships when the weather is bitter cold. Additional analysis is provided by Fantasy Points’ Brett Whitefield, who is a leading tape grinder for college and NFL players. We talked about landing spots for rookie running backs who have a chance for significant playing time.
Zack Charbonnet, Seahawks (Current Yahoo ADP: 119.8)
Fantasy football aficionados had visions of Charbonnet landing with a team where he could be a lead back. Those dreams were deflated when he was selected to join Kenneth Walker III in the Seahawks’ backfield. Pete Carroll apparently is still more interested in Seattle winning football games than helping fantasy teams.
Last year in Week 13, Walker was taken out of the game due to injury and DeeJay Dallas had to re-enter the game, even though he was battling an ankle injury. You just can't have too many running backs some weeks. Enter Charbonnet, who’s a complementary player to Walker. In his rookie year, Walker was second with 481 yards on explosive runs, good for second in the league, according to Fantasy Points Data.
He was also stuffed on 55.3% of his carries. Charbonnet is a 6-foot, 214-pound north-south grinder who averaged 4.2 yards after contact per carry at UCLA.
Charbonnet is also good in the passing game, catching 37 passes for 321 yards. “He's a pass-game specialist, like a phenomenal route runner,” Whitefield said. “Really, really good hands … I think the best projection for these guys right now is early season last year when you saw Walker kind of trying to work his way in and then Rashaad Penny was that lead back. I think Walker's now in the Penny roll and Charbonnet comes in as that change-of-pace back, pass-game specialist because he's really good in pass pro.”
— Dugar, Michael-Shawn (@MikeDugar) August 20, 2023
As the RB38 overall, Charbonnet is about a third or fourth running back on fantasy rosters who may help in the back half of the season if his passing-game work does earn him extra snaps.
De'Von Achane, Dolphins (ADP: 127.8)
The landing spot could not have been more enticing for fantasy. Achane was the fastest running back at this year’s combine at 4.32 in the 40-yard dash. At 5-8, 188 pounds, he’s a blur on the field and hard to find because of his stature. He’s joining a running back room that appears to have a three-headed attack with Jeff Wilson Jr. and Raheem Mostert. That could limit his opportunities, but when he’s on the field, he could join speedy receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle in electrifying the crowd.
Achane was a sprinter on the Texas A&M track team, and Dolphins head coach Mike McDaniel’s offense is built for a player like the Miami rookie: “If you're trying to project Achane to the NFL, what would be the best system for him is the Kyle Shanahan, outside-zone-heavy scheme because of that speed, because of that cutback ability,” Whitefield said.
A shoulder injury in the preseason may slow Achane at the beginning of the season, but when he gets healthy and has his fleet feet under him, he will complement Wilson and Mostert. Look for the Dolphins to use him as a hybrid back, seeing some work in the passing game — he caught 36 balls for 196 yards last year.
— Pro Football Network (@PFN365) August 19, 2023
Don’t expect a high carry count though, so maybe 10-12 total touches per game. He’s RB52, with weekly volatility based on whether he breaks a long run or two for a score.
Tyjae Spears, Titans (ADP: 131.6 last seven days)
After playing Superman in the New Year’s Day Cotton Bowl, a 46-45 Tulane victory over USC where he rolled up 205 yards and four touchdowns, Spears appeared headed for big things in the NFL Draft. Instead, he appeared to land in running back Siberia: backing up Derrick Henry in Tennessee.
Henry ran the ball an astounding 349 times for 1,538 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. He did miss a game late in the season, as the Titans tried to get him fresh for a finale against the Jaguars. Henry is the clear lead back as long as he’s healthy, so Spears will be left looking for scraps.
However, talent does get players on the field, and Spears showed his talent during the preseason on this run:
I’m sorry, Tyjae Spears, I didn’t know your game. You don’t need two ACLs, young stud.
— Jeff Mueller, PT, DPT (@jmthrivept) August 20, 2023
Spears is the RB53, so low on the running back totem pole that he didn't have an early ADP. He should get some more touches as the season progresses if only to take some of the heavy load off Henry. It’s hard to see Spears being much more than one of the last players on fantasy benches, one who could get cut in a waiver-wire pickup. But if Henry were to get hurt or traded, Spears is a player who would be the target of several FAAB dollars thrown at him.
Tank Bigsby, Jaguars (ADP: 128.2)
Is Bigsby more than Travis Etienne insurance? Could Bigsby eat into Etienne’s total carry total? One look at head coach Doug Pederson’s history says the latter might be the case.
In 2019, Miles Sanders ran the ball 179 times to Jordan Howard’s 119 carries. A year later, Sanders toted the rock 164 times, while Boston Scott lugged it 80. Seems that Pederson likes to share the ball among his top running backs.
Etienne caught 35 of 45 targets in 2022, yet after Week 7 he drew a high of three targets in any game. That was after James Robinson was shipped out of Jacksonville, so there should have been less competition for touches for Etienne. Could this mean an open door for Bigsby to get some work at the very least in passing situations?
Bigsby was clearly in the backup role during the preseason, following Etienne into the one game both appeared in for the Jaguars. The rookie did rush the ball 28 times for 159 yards over the three preseason games, so he’s gotten acclimated to NFL speed:
Tank Bigsby ran angry after his fumble. Nice bounce back pic.twitter.com/AwOcxE9TY3
— John Shipley (@_John_Shipley) August 26, 2023
Whitefield was high on Bigsby’s three-down potential coming into the draft in an offense where touches may end up being shared if Pederson’s track record is any indication.
"If you were looking for a guy who profiles as a potential bell-cow after Bijan, Tank Bigsby was the next guy up,” Whitefield said. “Really good in the pass game, really tough runner. He checks the three premium trait boxes, which are: vision, ability to make you miss and burst acceleration. Those are my three premium traits when scouting running backs, and he checks all three of those boxes with flying colors.”
Roschon Johnson, Bears (ADP: 129.5)
During the Senior Bowl and NFL Scouting Combine process, Johnson was getting hype for being a 6-foot, 210-pound battering ram with great burst and low mileage on the odometer. Possibly this year’s Dameon Pierce. now he goes into a Bears backfield with a pair of talented veteran runners in Khalil Herbert and D’Onta Foreman, and let’s not forget that Justin Fields is pretty good when he’s carrying the football, too.
Like many rookies, Johnson is going to have to earn his time on the field. Herbert has the most experience in the offense, and from the amount of time he got with the starters during preseason, he’s going to get the nod early on for the Bears. Foreman has come on and played well the past two seasons as an emergency substitute for the Titans and Panthers.
Where Johnson can earn playing time comes in pass protection, where Whitefield and The Athletic's Dane Brugler both sang his praises.
Whitefield drew a comparison to the since-departed David Montgomery, who was the lead back, did the dirty work in the passing game and was utilized more in the red zone, where he drew 34 carries for 120 yards and five touchdowns. Herbert saw 19 carries for 66 yards and four scores in that area.
SIX notable rookies with some IMPRESSIVE stats from the 2023 NFL Preseason:
ROSCHON JOHNSON | RB | CHI
💨 8 missed tackles forced rushing (2nd) on just 28 attempts
💪 3.64 Yards after contact per rush attemptpic.twitter.com/GQanIeJqPn
— Matt FF Dynasty 🏈 (@MattFFDynasty) August 29, 2023
Johnson will likely wrestle with Foreman early on for the “big back” duties in short yardage, and if he does he could outperform his ADP. However, fantasy managers will have to be patient to see if Johnson delivers in the back half of the season.
Kendre Miller, Saints (ADP: 129.2)
Miller fought through a knee injury in the preseason opener to play all three games and had some runs that reminded fantasy managers of the 1,399 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns that the TCU product posted in his last year in college. He also had a highlight-reel catch that had fantasy managers drooling with anticipation:
My most drafted player for a reason. Remember when Kamara was RB3 as a rookie behind Adrian Peterson and Mark Ingram…
Yeah… he went on to finish RB3 that season. Draft Kendre Miller
— Deep Dive Fantasy Football (@deepdiveff) August 21, 2023
The problem for Miller is that at best he’s third on the Saints’ depth chart behind Alvin Kamara and Jamaal Williams. However, Miller will have three games to show what he can do in tandem with Williams as Kamara serves a suspension. Miller will have opportunities in those first three games, but Williams is expected to be the primary back at the outset.
Miller is in the same ADP range as Johnson. Unless he establishes himself in those first three weeks, Miller will have a tough time getting on the field when Kamara is back as long as all three backs are healthy.
Evan Hull, Colts (ADP: N/A)
Hull is a wild card after the announcement that Jonathan Taylor would start the season on the PUP list and miss at least the first four games of the season. Hull turned 55 receptions into 546 yards in addition to 913 rushing yards for Northwestern. He may have to contend with Zack Moss if he returns from a broken arm to start the season, along with Deon Jackson. Passing-game work may have to be Hull’s calling card for playing time.