We continue to see many rookie running backs have a huge impact on the outcome of fantasy leagues. Last year we saw Kenneth Walker and Dameon Pierce finish as top-25 RBs. Tyler Allgeier came on strong down the stretch, averaging 107.8 rushing yards per game over the final six weeks. Isiah Pacheco, Brian Robinson Jr., and Rashaad White were also impactful in fantasy leagues.
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In recent years, very few running backs are playing into their thirties and are recycled for newer, younger players. Only the elite running backs are making it to their second contract. This means that rookie running backs often find their way into playing time. Even if guys don’t make an immediate impact, the violent nature of the position leads to many injuries, and the highly drafted players are likely to see the field.
In this article, I’ll look at each rookie running back selected in the top 125 picks of the 2023 NFL Draft. Remember: running backs don’t necessarily need draft capital to have value but it does help them earn playing time.
I’ll use RotoViz’s Prospect Box Score Scout to generate similar comparable players for each running back. If you don’t have a subscription to RotoViz, we highly recommend checking them out.
Bijan Robinson, Atlanta Falcons
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After no running back was selected in the first round of the 2022 NFL Draft, Bijan Robinson became the first Round 1 running back selection since Najee Harris and Travis Etienne in 2021.
Robinson played extensively as a true freshman, finishing with a 56 percent running back dominator rating. Robinson displayed explosiveness, rushing for 8.17 yards per carry, and added 15 receptions for 196 yards through the air. In his sophomore season, Robinson had an excellent 75 percent dominator rating. He capped off his college career with 1,892 total yards and 20 touchdowns.
At 215 lbs., Robinson ran a 4.46 forty at the NFL combine. Robinson combines size, speed, and impressive leaping ability.
Robinson’s most similar comparables are Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley. The three have similar production, athleticism, and draft position.
|89||Todd Gurley II||10||109.5||2.17||911||12||0.56||0.27||4.52||222|
Sim refers to the sim score for how similar each comparable player is. RuYPG is the average per game for each rusher’s career. Recs is the per-game receptions for each player’s career. RuYds and Rec represent each player’s final season. RuYMS refers to the rushing yards market share. TYms refers to each player’s market share of total yards.
As a 21-year-old rookie running back, Robinson certainly has the look of a can’t-miss prospect. The Falcons didn’t draft Robinson 8th overall for him to play behind Tyler Allgeier. Robinson said HC Arthur Smith “uses me everywhere, from receiver to running back” when asked about where he’s lined up in minicamp. Expect a 1st round ADP for this young stud.
Jahmyr Gibbs, Detroit Lions
Like Robinson, Jahmyr Gibbs was also able to slide into the 1st round with the 12th overall selection. At Georgia Tech, Gibbs played frequently as an 18-year-old true freshman, finishing with a 65 percent dominator rating. Gibbs continued to be featured even after transferring to Alabama as a junior. Impressively, he caught 102 passes in 31 career collegiate games.
While Gibbs does weigh just 199 lbs., he ran a 4.36 forty at the NFL combine. He is just 5’ 9” so he still sports an excellent 91st percentile speed score.
It’s clear that Gibbs is an interesting prospect as he’s not too similar to any running backs in the database. It’s clear that he’s an impressive receiver so the question becomes how frequently he’ll be used rushing the ball.
As a 21-year-old rookie running back, Gibbs combines excellent age-adjusted production and explosive athleticism. It’s hard to imagine him being sidelined for David Montgomery, especially with the number of available carries and targets the Lions possess. Of course, we’ve seen this happen before with D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams, but the Lions must be incentivized to feature a player that they spent significant draft capital on. With the pass-game involvement he should command, Gibbs’ upside likely leaves him undervalued in 2023 drafts.
Zach Charbonnet, Seattle Seahawks
There is quite a drop-off from Robinson and Gibbs to Zach Charbonnet. Charbonnet played four college seasons and only topped a 44 percent dominator rating as a senior. He struggled to break away in college, which isn’t a great sign heading into the NFL. With a 93rd percentile college target share, Charbonnet was productive as a receiver.
Charbonnet is an above-average athlete across the board but lacks wiggle with a 26th-percentile agility score.
|83||Duke Johnson Jr.||77||106.64||2.09||1652||38||0.6||0.29||4.54||207|
His comparables highlight Charbonnet’s receiving ability. The issue for Charbonnet is Kenneth Walker is in the prime of his career and was excellent last season, rushing for the 7th most fantasy points over expectation as a rookie running back. I do not expect Charbonnet to be able to overtake Walker as a rusher.
Charbonnet can make a difference in the receiving game, where Walker struggled. Seahawks head coach Pete Carroll said Walker and Charbonnet will “battle” for the team’s lead back role this summer. He noted “And really, we’re gonna find out how far he can take it in terms of the receiving part of it. We know he’s really good at it. But so is Kenneth, so those guys will be battling.”
Kendre Miller, New Orleans Saints
Kendre Miller played as a true freshman but broke out as a 19-year-old sophomore at TCU. He closed his college career with an excellent junior rushing season but was never hugely involved as a receiver.
Miller did not participate in any athletic drills but does deserve credit for his age (just recently turning 21 years old).
Miller has a clear role as an early-round grinder. It’s hard to place him without any athletic testing but it’s apparent that his draft position and production have led to hits in the past.
With Alvin Kamara potentially facing a lengthy suspension, Miller’s primary competition as a rookie running back will be Jamaal Williams. Although Williams is effective, he’s never been an explosive player – averaging 4 yards per carry during his six-year career.
Assistant GM Jeff Ireland said the following about Miller, “It all goes back to height, weight and speed. Loved his running style. He’s a downhill runner, runs with great pad level. He’s got explosive breakaway speed in the open field. He’s creative. He makes people miss … And we just felt like, man, this is too good to be true.”
A Kamara suspension could easily leave Miller as the most explosive player in the Saints backfield. He’s a tantalizing Round 12 rookie running back selection.
Tyjae Spears, Tennessee Titans
A four-year player at Tulane, Tyjae Spears erupted for 1,800+ total yards and 21 touchdowns as a senior. He was also productive in the passing game.
Sharpe tested as a largely below-average athlete except for his leaping ability.
When it comes to comparable players, there aren’t many exciting hits for Sharpe. Most of these players have stuck around as backups and haven’t flashed when given the opportunity.
Titans offensive coordinator Tim Kelly said they are going to give Spears “as much as he can handle.” Obviously, Derrick Henry will continue to carry the mail on early downs but don’t be surprised to see Spears thrust into a pass-catching role early in the season as their lone rookie running back selection.
Devon Achane, Miami Dolphins
Devon Achane was selected 88th overall by the Dolphins. As a 19-year-old freshman, he reached a 55 percent running back dominator rating. As a junior, he reached a 93 percent dominator rating. He was involved in the passing game, catching 60 passes in his final two seasons. Unfortunately, in his final season, his yards per route run dropped to 0.8 on 236 routes run.
Weighing in at 188 lbs., Achane isn’t the biggest – but he did run a 4.32 forty (99th percentile). We would’ve liked to him display a little more athleticism in terms of leaping ability and agility at that smaller size.
|48||Duke Johnson Jr.||77||106.64||2.09||1652||38||0.6||0.29||4.54||207|
Unfortunately, his 10 most similar comparables don’t provide a lot of enthusiasm. But if you include his top-20, players like Jamaal Charles, Jahvid Best, and Tevin Coleman are included.
The landing spot is intriguing as both Raheem Mostert (31 years old) and Jeff Wilson (27 years old) aren’t spring chickens. Both have been productive when on the field but neither have the cleanest bills of health. Neither has excelled in the passing game, a place where rookie running back Achane may be able to gain playing time.
The match with Mike McDaniel is a very fun one. ESPN’s Marcel Louis-Jacques writes McDaniel “lobbied heavily” for Achane. McDaniel, a disciple of the Shanahan coaching tree, is excellent at finding open space for runners. If Achane can read blocks (and pass protect) to McDaniel’s liking, his speed will be an explosive combo within McDaniel’s scheme.
Tank Bigsby, Jacksonville Jaguars
As a 19-year-old freshman, Bigsby accounted for a 55% running back dominator rating. He was productive throughout college and involved in the passing game, catching 62 passes during his collegiate career.
At 6 foot, 210 lbs., Bigsby is big and his 4.45 pro-day forty highlights his athleticism. He didn’t test in any agility drills and lacks leaping ability.
|86||Duke Johnson Jr.||77||106.64||2.09||1652||38||0.6||0.29||4.54||207|
Bigsby looks similar to several well-rounded prospects. Players like Cam Akers, Marlon Mack, Shane Vereen, and David Montgomery provide a reason for optimism.
Behind Travis Etienne, it’s unlikely that Bigsby will be the team’s most talented running back. Jaguars reporter John Shipley believes Bigsby “should have the inside track” to be the No. 2 running back. Michael DiRocco believes the Jaguars “didn’t want to see” Travis Etienne taking 74 percent of the running back carries again. Bigsby will compete with D’Ernest Johnson to form a strong duo with Etienne.
Roschon Johnson, Chicago Bears
With the 115th selection, the Chicago Bears selected Roschon Johnson. As a true freshman, Johnson was very involved, registering a 37 percent dominator rating. Unfortunately, Bijan Robinson joined Texas in the following year so that was the most volume that Johnson received as a collegiate player.
However, when Johnson was on the field, he was effective. As Shawn Siegele points out: “As a senior Johnson generated a 36% evasion rate, gained 4.0 YAC/A, and excelled as a receiver (1.7 YPRR).”
At 219 lbs., Johnson is big but doesn’t appear to be an above-average athlete.
Despite being a college backup, the comparables of Dameon Pierce and Damien Harris are favorable. Sitting behind Bijan Robinson is a reasonable excuse for a lack of college production.
As a rookie running back, his competition includes (per Next Gen Stats) the No. 1 and No. 6 backs in rushing yards over expectation. Khalil Herbert and D’Onta Foreman are both good runners so the passing game is an area where Johnson can potentially gain opportunities. Unfortunately last season the Bears only targeted running backs on 61 pass attempts.