Running back regression in fantasy football is a tale as old as fantasy football itself. Because of the high injury risk, dependence on team performance, and goal-line luck, the yearly turnover of top-15 fantasy football running backs is very high. The likelihood of repeating high touchdown totals as a running back is difficult enough when returning to the same situation, let alone when going to a new and often worse team. Which old faces in new places are due for regression?
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- Miles Sanders played on a 2022 Eagles team that was loaded at the skill positions and offensive line and had the luxury of running the ball with a lead in most games. The 2023 Panthers are a downgrade in every aspect.
- Alvin Kamara will continue to dominate passing down work, leaving touchdowns as Jamaal Williams’ only way to contribute for fantasy teams. Williams had the most carries inside the five-yard line in NFL history – something he won’t repeat.
Running Back Regression Candidate: Miles Sanders
After a fantastic RB15 finish on the juggernaut Philadelphia Eagles, Miles Sanders reunites with old running backs coach Duce Staley in Carolina. Obviously, the Panthers cannot be expected to provide as good of a situation for running backs as Philadelphia. But how steep is the dropoff?
The 2022 Eagles: A Running Back’s Dream
|1st Half PPG||18.5 (1st in NFL)||9.1 (24th in NFL)|
|2nd Half Time Of Possesion||53% (5th)||45% (32nd)|
|2nd Half Carries||310||234|
|Offensive Rushing DVOA||1st||17th|
|Rushing TDs||32 (1st)||16 (t-11th)|
|Run Blocking Win Rate||2nd||15th|
|PFF O-Line Ranking||1st||15th|
It’s widely known that the Eagles have arguably the best offensive line in the NFL, so any other team would lead to a downgrade. The larger concern is going from an elite offense that consistently played with a lead (and thus allowed a lot of running back opportunities) to one that is going to be starting a rookie quarterback with precious few offensive weapons.
When Jalen Hurts wasn’t opening up rushing lanes for running backs with his own elite running ability, defenses also had to concern themselves with A.J. Brown, DeVonta Smith, and Dallas Goedert. It’s going to be a different story for Miles Sanders running behind Bryce Young/C.J. Stroud and defenses only having to “worry” about D.J. Chark and the calcified husk of Adam Thielen.
Passing Game Involvement
We know that it is a near certainty the scoring chances and clock-killing carries will diminish from his 2022 breakout, but can Miles Sanders make it up in the receiving game?
|Year||Targets||Receptions||Rec. Yards||Rec. TDs|
His role in the passing game has diminished every year of his career, culminating in a nearly non-existent role last season. It is certainly possible that Duce Staley (part of the Eagles’ coaching staff for Sanders’ first two years in the league) can utilize Sanders in the passing game, but he would need to return to at least his rookie-year statistics to make up for the transition from an elite to likely below-average offense.
Potential Running Back Committee
In terms of pure opportunity, Sanders’ ceiling in that arena is likely lower than anticipated as well – another reason to expect major running back regression. After being hired by Carolina this winter, Duce Staley made the following comment:
Duce Staley says he believes in using three running backs. Adds the position is still like being in “a car wreck.” pic.twitter.com/bMRPHg2YW6
— Joe Person (@josephperson) February 23, 2023
We know he means it, as well. After leaving the Eagles following the 2020 season, he spent the past two years in Detroit. Here are the snap shares of the Lions’ running backs for the past two seasons:
|Player||2021 Snap Pct.||2022 Snap Pct.|
Although D’Onta Foreman has since left for Chicago, Chuba Hubbard and Raheem Blackshear remain in the fold. Sanders will play this season at age 26 (in terms of peak ages for running backs, he is already on the decline) and wasn’t exactly paid like a true alpha running back (his average annual salary is 12th among NFL running backs despite having one of the newest contracts). Thus, it is entirely possible the Panthers add another running back in the draft or as training camp nears – further muddying the waters.
Luckily, his current price is not prohibitive. His current ADP is near the beginning of the 7th round – nearing the end of the “running back dead zone” and late enough for Zero RBers to snag him as one of their starting running backs. If his ADP climbs any higher, you’ll likely want to eschew his services – his major team downgrade and potential lack of both receiving and opportunity ceiling make him a major question mark for fantasy football teams heading into 2023.
Running Back Regression Candidate: Jamaal Williams
How does a player who finished 10th in rushing yards and t-70th in running back receptions finish as the overall RB13 in PPR leagues? Simple: rush for 17 touchdowns.
Jamaal Williams had a shocking 28 carries inside the five-yard line in 2022, which is the most since at least 1993 (1994 is the earliest year red zone carries are counted on Pro Football Reference).
Williams proceeded to sign with the New Orleans Saints this offseason but faces similar difficulties to Miles Sanders above.
Jamaal Williams goes from a prolific offense (2022 Lions: 23 rush TDs, 3rd in NFL) to a questionable one (2022 Saints: 12 rush TDs, t-22nd). He also goes from PFF’s 8th-ranked Lions offensive line to the 29th-ranked Saints offensive line.
Passing Game Involvement
In terms of passing game involvement, Williams has a similar career trajectory to Sanders. He started off his career with decent receiving work, but that tailed off when he joined D’Andre Swift and the Lions:
|Statistic (Avg. Per Year)||Packers: 2017-2020||Lions: 2021-2022|
Considering Alvin Kamara is still going to be a significant piece of the offense, it would be unwise to expect Williams to return to Green Bay-level production in the passing game.
The Fit With Alvin Kamara
Rather, the Saints are likely to be returning to the old one-two punch of running backs as the aging (will play this season at 28) Kamara has worn down:
|Statistic (Avg. Per Year)||2017-2020||2021-2022|
|Yards Per Carry||5.0||3.9|
Williams was brought in the play the old “Mark Ingram” role that allowed Kamara to stay fresh for his elite passing game role, and will once again be touchdown-reliant for fantasy purposes. Kamara, meanwhile, is likely to see plenty of targets but likely far less goal-line work.
Interestingly enough, both are currently going in the 9th round of early drafts. This is certainly not a prohibitive cost, especially considering the massive upgrade Derek Carr’s signing means for the offense. Hopefully, this means a more stable diet of targets for Kamara – whose ADP has not been outside the top couple of rounds since his rookie season. Williams will still see plenty of goal-line chances but his 2022 smells like 2016 LeGarrette Blount, the king of running back regression who proceeded to score a whopping 3 touchdowns the following season.