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Winners and Losers: 2023 Free Agent Running Backs

Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, and Tony Pollard will, as of now, play the 2023 season under the franchise tag for their respective teams. They were the first dominoes to fall in the running back free agency market. Since then, some of the most notable, available names on the market have made decisions about where to play ball this season and beyond.

This article will break down the movement of the 2023 free agent running backs. I will declare each of them winners or losers based on their landing spot. Of course, there are still a few significant names still available, so be sure to check back as I update this piece accordingly!

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Running Back Winners and Losers Following 2023 Free Agency

Free Agent Running Back Winners

Miles Sanders, Carolina Panthers

It’s a four year/$25 million deal for free agent running back Miles Sanders to head to Carolina. Based on money alone, he figures to play a significant role on this rebuilding Panthers team. Though minor injuries have caused him to miss time here and there, he showed what he can do last year in a full 17-game slate. Sanders’ 259 carries for 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns are all career highs. Those numbers are that much more impressive considering his quarterback, Jalen Hurts, led all quarterbacks in rushing with 165 attempts of his own. Sanders boasts a career average of 5.0 yards per carry on just 739 attempts over four seasons, too.

Nearly half of Miles Sanders’ career, regular season receptions are from his rookie season. The Eagles’ wide receivers were far less impressive then than as of late, none of whom recorded 500 receiving yards in Sanders’ rookie season. That said, Sanders could see a higher volume of targets in Carolina this season, especially with a rookie quarterback and lack of receiving talent.

Miles Sanders is a major winner as a result of this landing spot. He will reunite with Duce Staley, the current running backs and assistant head coach in Carolina, which is the same role he held in Philly during Sanders’ rookie and sophomore seasons. If no other running back of note is added into the mix, Sanders is going to be on the field a ton making him a rock-solid, volume-based RB2 with RB1 upside if he can carve out a role in the passing game.

Rashaad Penny, Philadelphia Eagles

One of the best landing spots for any 2023 free agent running back is with the Philadelphia Eagles. They have arguably the best offensive line in the league and are one of the highest scoring offenses with no significant changes to the personnel this off-season. Rashaad Penny is in the right place at the right time as the Eagles have holes to address on defense, through the draft and what money they have to spend in free agency, limiting their options in the free agent running back market.

Penny’s is joining the Eagles on a prove-it deal. He’s getting just $660,000 in guaranteed money on a one-year, $1.35 million deal. He has just 337 total rushing attempts since 2018, but has a ridiculous 5.7 yards per carry average. It’s no secret injuries have plagued the 27-year old back, but when he is on the field, he’s an explosive runner who does have break-away speed. In 42 regular season games, Penny has 100 yards or more in seven of them. Some fantasy managers may recall his 2021 late-season heroics when he rushed for 495 yards and four touchdowns over the final three games of the season for the Seahawks.

Miles Sanders, now of the Carolina Panthers, leaves behind 47.6% of the Eagles’ rush attempts from last season. Penny won’t see much action as a pass catcher, as he never has, so I expect him to get first nod on the early down carries. Sanders rushed for a career-high 1,269 yards and 11 touchdowns with just 20 receptions last year. He is the RB18 from the 2022 fantasy football season. Jalen Hurts will still present a threat in the run game, and Kenneth Gainwell will have a larger role, but a healthy Penny has a pathway to RB2 production on the Eagles.

Jamaal Williams, New Orleans Saints

In one of the more surprising free agent running back signings, Jamaal Williams is heading to New Orleans on a three-year deal with the Saints. I thought for sure he would be back with the Detroit Lions after such a strong showing last season, and as a team captain. If not Detroit, following Duce Staley to Carolina seemed like a logical alternative, as well.

The elephant in the room here is whether or not Alvin Kamara is set to serve a suspension during the 2023 NFL season. If so, Williams is that much more of a winner for fantasy football. In 2022, Williams proved he could lead the Lions backfield with D’Andre Swift in and out with injuries all season. Williams’ 262 carries last season are 109 more than his previous career-high. The 2022 season is also the first time he rushed for over 1,000 yards.

Williams adds little to nothing as a pass catcher. I don’t expect that to change much in New Orleans. Instead, he should be the primary option in the red zone. That’s more likely than not after rushing for a league-high 17 touchdowns last season; 15 from inside the seven-yard line, and eight from one yard out. Even then, though, Williams is just the RB18 on a points-per-game basis from last season. He is a fine option as an RB2 for fantasy teams in 2023 made better by any sort of absence of Alvin Kamara.

Samaje Perine, Denver Broncos

The Denver Broncos currently have the most available carries (86.9%) and touches (85.8%) amongst the running back position as they relate to players returning in 2023 from last season. Javonte Williams’ status is up in the air as he continues to work back from a significant knee injury suffered in Week 4 of last season. Other than Williams, this group needs an overhaul anyway.

Enter Samaje Perine.

Though he’s not the biggest name amongst the free agent running back group, he may turn out to be the biggest winner. Perine is entering his seventh NFL season and has just 531 career touches, including playoffs. Though we’ve never seen a full season of significant touches for Perine, he has shown his dependability when given the opportunity as of late. In three starts last season for the Cincinnati Bengals, Perine averaged 21 touches and 110 total yards per game.

Denver seems to be approaching this off-season with the intent to run more in 2023. Offensive tackle Mike McGlinchey, former San Francisco 49ers, and offensive guard Ben Powers, former Tennessee Titan, are two of the Broncos’ most significant free agent signings. Both players come from offenses with highly efficient run games.

If the rumors that the Broncos are taking calls on their wide receivers are true, add that to expectations of a more run-heavy approach next season. Perine’s contract suggests he could be a Bronco for just one of the two seasons he signed for. The Broncos will continue to revamp their running back depth, but Perine has a shot to lead them in touches in 2023. This will be a situation to continue monitoring, but he will likely be a mid-to-late-round target of mine in redraft leagues next season.

Devin Singletary, Houston Texans

The Houston Texans are retooling their offense as they prepare for the arrival of a rookie quarterback with the second-overall pick. In the last week, they’ve added wide receiver Robert Woods, tight end Dalton Schultz, and running back Devin Singletary. Additionally, with a new regime under head coach Demeco Ryans, this offense is going to look at lot different in 2023.

As a result, Devin Singletary is a winner for fantasy football purposes on this new-look Texans team. Singletary has a career average of 4.7 yards per carry and joins second-year back, Dameon Pierce, who has a 4.3 average of his own after one season. With a rookie quarterback under center, both Singletary and Pierce could be busy. Pierce led the team with 220 carries last season without any other Texan player logging more than 42 carries.

Singletary’s career-high in rush attempts is just 188. That’s as the lead back on a Bills offense with Josh Allen rushing an average of 114 times per season with Singletary on the team. I don’t expect Singletary to take over Houston’s backfield, but he should see somewhere between 150-200 carries alongside Pierce.

More importantly, Singletary should see a nice-sized role as a pass catcher out of the backfield. He’s seen 50 or more targets in each of the last three seasons with the Bills. Singletary should be a safety blanket for whichever rookie quarterback needs to dump off the ball. That said, Singletary’s value should remain the same, if not increase, in PPR formats, on volume alone. The quality of his touches won’t be nearly what they were in Buffalo, but he should maintain solid flex value on most 2023 fantasy rosters.

Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings

If not for anything else, Alexander Mattison is a free agent winner after signing an almost fully guaranteed two-year, $7 million deal to remain in Minnesota. He will be an even bigger winner if   a possible Dalvin Cook trade does in fact occur.

Until then, though, Mattison’s role is pretty straightforward. He is a strong runner who seamlessly rotates in behind Dalvin Cook to keep the Vikings’ offense moving. Cook’s availability is no sure thing each season, so we have seen Mattison perform in a big way as the starter, too. In games where he’s seen 10 or more carries, Mattison averages nearly 70 rushing yards on an average of 15.9 attempts. More importantly, he averages 14.1 PPR points per game in said games.

If Cook is on the move, Mattison now has a deal in place that suggests he would see a heavy workload. Minnesota likely looks to add depth behind him in the draft in such a scenario. For years, Mattison has been a must-have handcuff for fantasy football. Landing back in Minnesota, given the circumstances, only solidifies the case to having him on your roster once more.

Free Agent Running Back Losers

Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr., Miami Dolphins

Raheem Mostert will be 31-years old by the start of this season. He has a lengthy injury history and no more than 181 carries in a season, which he achieved last year. Wilson, who’s 27, has no more than 176 carries in a season, something he’s done twice, but neither he nor Mostert has ever really commanded a backfield.

When both backs were available to the Dolphins last season here’s how things shook out:

Additionally, Miami is bringing back Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed, too. They, Mostert and Wilson, account for 87% of the running back carries in Miami from last season. The Dolphins rank 31st in rush attempts, 27th in rushing yards, and 27th in rushing touchdowns per game last season. Dolphins running backs scored just nine total rushing touchdowns in 2022.

It’s hard to imagine trusting either of Mostert or Wilson to take over the Miami backfield in 2023. That said, it unfortunately takes an injury to one or the other to become relevant. Mike McDaniel has a history with both Mostert and Wilson so there’s really no telling who has the upper hand. For now, they are both losers for fantasy football purposes. They can both ride the bench until it’s clear which one, if ever, is worth starting week-to-week.

David Montgomery, Detroit Lions

From one NFC North team to another, David Montgomery gets a three-year, $18 million deal to join the Lions after spending the beginning of his career with the Chicago Bears. David Montgomery is a slight upgrade over Jamaal Williams in this backfield. Montgomery can churn out yards after contact and has had plenty of success behind a poor Chicago Bears offensive line. He should be efficient behind a stronger Lions line.

Almost everyone’s initial reaction to Montgomery’s deal is to bid farewell to D’Andre Swift’s value for the 2023 season. I’m not quite in agreement. D’Andre Swift averaged more points per game (13.5) than Jamaal Williams (12.9) last season despite scoring seven less touchdowns. Why? Because he averaged 5.5 yards per carry and 8.1 yards per catch, both the best averages of his short career. Swift is an obvious play-maker…when healthy. That’s obviously the key here as he’s played just 40 of a possible 50 games over three seasons.

Swift and Montgomery will be thorns in each other’s sides. Signing Montgomery is a better move for the Detroit Lions than it is for fantasy football. With Swift entering the final year of his deal, it’s hard to imagine he doesn’t at least get the chance at a sizeable role for this team. He has much higher upside than Montgomery as a pass catcher, too, which caps Montgomery’s ceiling.

Montgomery’s best shot at putting up RB1 numbers is to be effective in the red zone. Jamaal Williams leaves behind a significant 87.8% of the Lions rush attempts inside the five yard line. If Montgomery gets a healthy dose of those opportunities, he could be a big winner for fantasy football. Until then, though, figuring out who to start between Swift and Montgomery could be taxing on fantasy managers.

Damien Harris, Buffalo Bills

Even after scoring 15 rushing touchdowns in 2021, Harris finished as just the RB18 in fantasy football. He has only 40 receptions in 38 games over four seasons. Harris is a winner for the Buffalo Bills in free agency, but a loser for fantasy football. I think he fills a very specific need for the Buffalo Bills’ offense, but his value is capped on this team.

Devin Singletary is heading out of Buffalo to sign with the Houston Texans as a free agent. He leaves behind 789 snaps and 177 carries from the Bills’ 2022 offense. That’s 64% of the snaps at running back and 41% of the team’s rushing attempts. While Josh Allen is going to get his fair share of run, averaging 114 carries per season since 2019, I do think Harris will see the majority of the team’s rushing attempts in 2023, specifically over James Cook.

Harris has a career average of 4.7 yards per carry. He’s a strong downhill runner who is excellent in the red zone. During his 15 touchdown season in 2021, he scored 12 of his 15 touchdowns inside the 20-yard line, 10 of which inside the 10, and eight inside the five.

I expect him to have a similar role on the Bills. Given the vacancy of red zone rush attempts left behind by Singletary, it’s quite possible Harris fulfills those expectations:

However, while the Bills are one of the higher scoring offenses in the league, they don’t rely as much on the run game to do so. Just 31% (51/162) of their offensive touchdowns over the last three seasons are rushing touchdowns. Just under half of those (41.1%) belong to Josh Allen.

If Harris isn’t scoring touchdowns, it’s going to be hard to rack up worthwhile fantasy points without receiving work. James Cook’s 38 receptions in his rookie season nearly match Harris’ career total of 40. Overall, Harris is a strong addition for the Bills to help churn out yards, but he doesn’t see an increase in fantasy value as a result of this landing spot.

James Robinson, New England Patriots

Hopefully, it’s understood that when I declare a player a “loser”, I am in no way taking a jab at their ability to play the game or at them as a person. I’m merely looking at context clues to further an opinion on what I expect from them for 2023 fantasy football.

So, James Robinson is not a loser himself, especially given his return from a 2021 torn Achilles. He is a loser for fantasy football though since he’s joining the Patriots backfield as a free agent. Bill Belichick has a history of making running backs on his roster expendable. Consistency in production season-to-season from any one player is hard to come by as of late.

Robinson is a rotational player in a backfield that I expect Rhamondre Stevenson to dominate the workload in once again. Stevenson is the Patriots leading rusher and passing catcher from last season. With Damien Harris likely to move on as a free agent, Stevenson should have a firm grasp on that role in 2023, as well. Robinson likely just rounds out their backfield depth. Knowing Belichick, he may not even be on the team by Week 1. If he is, he’s no more than a possible waiver wire add during next season if an opportunity to start becomes available.

D’Onta Foreman, Chicago Bears

At 27-years old and after a career year with the Carolina Panthers, it may be surprising to see D’Onta Foreman as a free agent loser amongst the running backs. First, let me say that Foreman is the exception, not the rule, to players, especially running backs, returning from Achilles tear injuries. After suffering the injury as a rookie in 2017, it’s hard to believe he’s still playing in 2023.

Foreman also deserves his flowers for carrying the load in the Panthers’ 2022 backfield, especially after the departure of Christian McCaffrey. With an expanded role, he rushed 203 times for 914 yards and five touchdowns, all the best numbers of his career.

Now, though, he’s heading to the Chicago Bears backfield on a one-year, $3 million deal. He will join Khalil Herbert, Travis Homer, and Tristan Ebner, as of now. Quarterback Justin Fields will also account for a good percent of the team’s rush attempts in 2023. His 160 carries last year ranked second amongst quarterbacks, but his 1,143 rushing yards rank seventh amongst all positions.

The Bears’ league lowest 22.2 pass attempts from the 2022 season is sure to increase. In addition to Fields running himself, Khalil Herbert is an excellent runner and should have a nice-sized role. Foreman is a strong downhill runner, but his workload is sure to decrease from his time in Carolina to now in Chicago.

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