Ambiguous Backfields to Target in 2024 Fantasy Football

Who will emerge from some of the league's most intriguing committees?

Last summer, I delved into how the NFL is evolving and why our fantasy football draft strategies must adapt accordingly. One approach that stands out is the Zero RB strategy, which I believe will be highly effective in 2024, especially when targeting ambiguous backfields.

The NFL is changing, and we must keep pace as fantasy drafters.

Bell-cow running backs are hard to come by in the modern NFL. In 2023, just four running backs played 70+ percent snaps, and not a single RB cleared the 80 percent mark. Additionally, the volume of carries for modern running backs is declining, with only three handling more than 60% of their team’s rush attempts.

Contrary to popular belief, this shift towards running back committees can be advantageous in fantasy football. Sure, there won’t be as many juicy bell-cows in the first three rounds. But, the NFL is a passing-centric league, and receivers are more fun to draft anyway.

The BEST Strategy for Drafting Running Backs in 2024 Fantasy Football (& Which RBs to Pick!)

But back to my point, running back committees create a sense of uncertainty about who will get opportunities in a given backfield. If we correctly identify which running back will get the opportunity necessary to succeed in 2024 fantasy football, they can massively pay off on rosters.

Take Raheem Mostert in 2023 as an example. Drafted in Round 12 as the RB47, he finished as the RB5 (PPR) with a league-leading 21 total touchdowns. The uncertainty in the Miami Dolphins backfield led to low prices for their running backs, and Mostert’s emergence helped many fantasy managers to championships.

Now, let’s examine some similar backfields for 2024. These are backfields without a clear RB1, where we can capitalize on cheap draft prices by identifying who might emerge as the lead back.

PITTSBURGH STEELERS

Najee Harris – ADP: 87, RB23 & Jaylen Warren – ADP: 91, RB25

Since losing Ben Roethlisberger, Antonio Brown, and company, the Steelers have undergone a massive philosophical shift to become a run-first offense. This makes sense, given the inferior quarterback play and clear step-down in talent in the WR room.

However, Pittsburgh’s running backs are poised to see more significant roles in 2024. Everyone’s favorite coach, Arthur Smith, is now the Steelers’ offensive coordinator, and he’s going to squeeze every ounce of production out of Najee Harris and Jaylen Warren behind a massively improved offensive line.

Harris has been a mainstay in the post-Big Ben era, and he will have a big role once again in 2024. Najee projects to once again handle the majority of Pittsburgh’s rushing work. In 2023, he was also Mike Tomlin’s preferred option at the goal line, a role he will maintain in 2024.

Najee gets a lot of backlash from NFL fans, some of which may be unwarranted. Several of his peripheral metrics make him out to be better as a rusher than the film shows. Harris ranked fourth in yards after contact and 14th in rush yards over expected. In an Arthur Smith offense, he will get plenty of volume. At a volume-driven position, Harris will have every opportunity to find fantasy success.

While I believe Harris could have a successful season (relative to cost), I will be targeting Jaylen Warren as the running back in Pittsburgh. Warren was incredibly efficient last season and has the pass-catching ability to make a massive impact in PPR leagues.

Let’s take a look at some of Warren’s exciting traits. First, I mentioned efficiency as a rusher.

Warren ranked top-five in just about every relevant rushing efficiency metric: yards after contact per attempt, missed tackles forced per attempt, rush yards over expected, and explosive rush rate (percentage of rushes that go for 15+ yards).

Warren is also highly utilized and effective as a pass catcher. He was targeted on 30 percent of his routes (5th among RBs), resulting in 71 targets (5th).

Even more exciting is that offensive changes in Pittsburgh seem to allow Warren’s role in the receiving game to grow.

Two things can lead to a running back significantly outperforming ADP: efficiency and usage as a pass catcher. Warren checks both of these boxes. It’s hard for me to pass up on Warren in the middle rounds of drafts.

CINCINNATI BENGALS

Zack Moss – ADP: 93, RB26 & Chase Brown – ADP: 121, RB38

The Bengals’ committee is arguably the most intriguing in the NFL, given their mid-round price. We expect this to be a phenomenal offense that should propel one of these guys into having an impactful season in fantasy. This Joe Burrow (while healthy) and Zac Taylor offense has allowed Joe Mixon to finish as a top-ten RB (PPR) in three straight seasons.

Before getting to Moss, let’s discuss why I do not love Chase Brown. The second-year back is an explosive runner but can’t be relied on to consistently produce yardage. Out of 77 RBs with 40+ carries in 2023, he ranked 76th in success rate for zone concept rushes. In man and gap concepts, he ranked 48th in success rate.

He can deliver the big plays, but last season, he struggled to help the Bengals “stay on schedule” offensively, which is something coaches rely on. He also struggled in pass protection last season and received a frightening 26.7 PFF pass-blocking grade. His lack of pass protection chops ultimately kept him off the field in Week 12.

Brown seems to be a change-of-pace back who can come in to provide an offensive spark, not someone who will be a consistent fantasy producer.

On the other hand, Zack Moss is the player I expect to handle the majority of touches on the ground and get the high-value goal-line rushing attempts.

Moss was a quality rusher and delivered multiple fantasy-relevant performances when filling in for Jonathan Taylor last season. In five games as the starter, Moss finished as the RB10 or better in four contests.

Although Moss is not a game-changer out of the backfield, he is reliable and can produce when given starter-level volume. The red flags are too bright with Chase Brown, so I will draft Moss in the Bengals backfield.

WASHINGTON COMMANDERS

Brian Robinson Jr. – ADP: 110, RB33 & Austin Ekeler – ADP: 117, RB37

Austin Ekeler proved to be one of fantasy’s biggest disappointments in 2023. He came off the board as the RB2, going 4th overall in most drafts. He ultimately finished the season as the RB21 in PPG, his worst performance since 2018.

The concerns with Ekeler are legitimate. There is a chance he was simply hampered by a bad ankle all year after suffering a high-ankle sprain in Week 1. However, there is also a genuine possibility that he is washed. We all remember this brutal run from last season where Ekeler burst through a hole and was caught almost immediately.

Personally, I don’t want to find out the answer to the “washed” question with my money on the line. It’s a common sentiment among fantasy analysts and one that I agree with: I’d rather be “out” a year early than a year late. The apparent concerns with Ekeler are real, and I won’t get caught on a sinking ship.

I may be avoiding Ekeler, but I am interested in Brian Robinson Jr. Ekeler has a history of success in the league and will certainly play a role in the Washington offense. However, I only see Ekeler as a true threat to Robinson’s touches in the receiving game. However, fantasy success with limited receiving work is certainly possible for Robinson. B-Rob finished 2023 as the RB21 with 40 targets (30th among RBs).

Like the situation with Zack Moss, I expect Robinson to handle the bulk of rushing work while getting opportunities at the goal line.

Robinson had this role in 2023, which, as previously mentioned, resulted in a RB21 finish. However, I expect this offense to make progress in 2024. Jayden Daniels will be under center, Kliff Kingsbury is the offensive coordinator, and things are looking up for the Commanders’ offense in 2024.

I expect Robinson to benefit from an improved offensive environment and pay off his RB33 price tag.

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