Fantasy Football: Which backup RBs should you prioritize in 2023 drafts?

What would the world do without the backups? If not for being a Fly Girl, dancing in the background on the show "In Living Color" in the early 1990s, who knows if Jennifer Lopez would have kept on in show business? Jenny may have literally stayed on the block.

In NFL and fantasy football circles, the backup can be the bane of existence for fantasy managers yearly because an increase in production from any understudy — for these purposes, backup running backs — means either injury or ineffectiveness led to the switch. That amps up the frustration level for fantasy managers who often used an early draft pick on a running back and now must dig in their reserve rosters or the waiver wire to find a lesser replacement.

Is that a reason for the rise in popularity of Zero RB or Hero RB draft strategies? Very possible.

Every year players from down the running back depth charts for teams make an impact, if only for a portion of the season. Tony Pollard usurped Ezekiel Elliott last year to pile up 1,007 rushing yards and 371 receiving yards and finish as the RB8 on the season. D’Onta Foreman took over the lead running back role in Carolina after Christian McCaffrey was traded in late October last year. In Weeks 7-18 Foreman was seventh in the NFL with 641 rushing yards.

[2023 Fantasy Draft Rankings: QBs | RBs | WRs | TEs | DEF | K]

This week we’ll look at some of the more valuable backup running backs in the league, so that fantasy managers can keep these players in mind either on draft day, or in some cases, on the waiver wire after the season starts.

What will not be on this list are rookies. They are valuable picks this time of year, so we’re going to give them their own article next week.

Note: Positional ranking and overall Average Draft Position (ADP) are in parenthesis for each player.

Jaylen Warren, Pittsburgh Steelers (RB50, 129.5)

Warren has about as much fantasy buzz as any full-fledged backup in the NFL. My opinion on the Steelers’ running back room is very clear: Najee Harris is one of my guys, and he’ll get fed. That is the MO for Mike Tomlin in his tenure as Pittsburgh's head coach, as Harris has been the clear bell cow with 381 and 313 touches, respectively, in his first two seasons. That said, Warren is as valuable a backup as there is because if Harris were to miss time, a heavy workload will be shifted to Warren, who has utility in the passing game, too. Week 17 of last year showed he can share the load, as he ran 10 routes to 14 by Harris. In that game, Warren touched the ball 15 times for 98 yards, while Harris had 123 total yards and a score on 24 touches.

Antonio Gibson, Washington Commanders (RB34, 114.5)

Gibson is a late addition after his performance with the starters in the preseason tilt against the Ravens Monday night. His second and third effort on a nine-yard touchdown reception from Sam Howell will leave a mark on the coaching staff. With Offensive Coordinator Eric Bieniemy calling plays, Gibson could slot into the Jerick McKinnon role, where the veteran Chiefs running back drew 71 targets and scored 10 total touchdowns (nine via the air).

Gibson’s usage is very close to presumptive starting running back Brian Robinson. Gibson is the 1B running back here with the pass-catching work that is so attractive for fantasy.

Elijah Mitchell, San Francisco 49ers (RB42, 124)

Mitchell has that phrase that tags along with him: if he could only stay healthy. Mitchell has played just 16 of 34 games in his first two seasons. When on the field, Mitchell even shared some of the load with McCaffrey last year. In three of six games in which they were active together, Mitchell received double-digit touches. Included in there is the hard-fought 19-12 49ers playoff victory over the Cowboys, with Mitchell carrying the ball 14 times for 51 yards. McCaffrey, on the other hand, saw 16 touches for 57 combined yards and a score. San Francisco head coach Kyle Shanahan does feature McCaffrey, but that system spreads the carries to Mitchell and others.

Draft and stash Mitchell to see how his touch total is going early on.

Devin Singletary, Houston Texans (RB54, 125.7)

Singletary is going into the same Shanahan system with offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik coming over from San Francisco. With Dameon Pierce carrying the ball 220 times out of 329 total running back carries for the Texans last year, Singletary will lessen the load on the second-year banger. Singletary comes from Buffalo, where he missed just one game in the past three seasons. Last year he totaled 1,099 yards, so he is far more accomplished than anyone in the 2022 Texans backfield.

Cordarrelle Patterson (RB63, 124.9) and Tyler Allgeier (RB44, 127.2), Atlanta Falcons

Patterson is just a season removed from totaling 1,066 yards and 11 touchdowns. That was good for RB12 on the season. With the Falcons utilizing a very narrow tree for touches, Patterson has a decent chance to slot in behind Bijan Robinson for running back targets.

Patterson did suffer an undisclosed injury recently, so fantasy managers will wait at least until the start of the season to see how it impacts his playing time Week 1.

Coming out from the depths of the Falcons’ running back depth chart, Allgeier rushed for 1,035 yards on 210 carries. All that got him, though, was a step down a peg in the Atlanta backfield for rookie sensation Bijan Robinson after the NFL Draft.

Nonetheless, Allgeier is a physical runner who was one of the best at yards after contact RBs in the league, as noted by LaQuan Jones’ tweet below:

Even if Atlanta does not match the league-leading 559 rushing attempts, with second-year quarterback Desmond Ridder at the helm, a solid rushing attack will be important. Allgeier could have 125-150 carries while spelling the more dynamic Robinson on the ground.

Joshua Kelley (RB65, N/A) or Isaiah Spiller (RB80, N/A), Los Angeles Chargers

Both Charger backs are clear projection plays, as Austin Ekeler himself on the most recent episode of Ekeler’s Edge said that the young running backs on the Chargers need to step up to offer some support in the running game.

When I sat down with Chargers beat writer Fernando Ramirez of the Sporting Tribune, he recommended Spiller this year. Kelley has battled injuries and ineffectiveness in his short career, and Spiller is going into his second year when many players reach a new level. Neither player may be draftable, but both must be on the waiver wire radar if one starts to assert himself behind Ekeler.

Ezekiel Elliott, New England Patriots (RB46, 121.9)

Elliott just signing with the Patriots has ruined the mojo for Rhamondre Stevenson’s fantasy managers all around. Stevenson played through minor injuries last year, and from Week 11 forward had just a single game with more than 100 scrimmage yards. Enter Elliott, who still scored 12 touchdowns last year while hardly looking like his prime self. He had a 70.4% success rate inside the 5-yard line, according to Fantasy Points Data. Stevenson will still be the primary back, but Elliott will steal enough carries to be a bench stash just in case.

AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers (RB32, 99.1)

Dillon is more 1B to Aaron Jones’ 1A, though almost 65 spots of difference in ADP show a clear separation between the two. Dillon is the bruising back of the two, and in the back half of last season seized a larger role. In Weeks 11-18, Jones ran 82 times for 383 yards and added 25 catches on 30 targets for 167 yards and two scores. Dillon in the same timeframe ran 75 times for 316 yards and six scores, adding 12 catches for 107 yards. Even if he gets off to a slow start, keep Dillon on your roster.

Jamaal Williams, New Orleans (RB35, 103.1)

The 17-touchdown barrage from Williams was fun, though it is clearly an outlier season that will not be repeated. However, Williams will have an expected large role in the first three games of the season when the Saints’ star running back, Alvin Kamara, is suspended. Williams could be a good pick in a Zero RB build because of that initial bump in touches at the outset of the year. New Orleans’ coaching staff may want to lessen the load on Kamara, which brings Williams and rookie Kendre Miller into the mix for more touches. The veteran, however, will get the edge early.

Zamir White, Las Vegas Raiders (RB52, 130.6)

With so much being made of Josh Jacobs not reporting to camp, White has quietly shown that he is a quality backup who came from a championship program in Georgia. White ran with the starters and scored a touchdown against the Dolphins in the second preseason game. Recent reports state Jacobs is expected to return to the Raiders right before Week 1, and that will make it even harder to replicate the 393 touches and 2,053 total yards from last year.

Yet, should Jacobs miss any time, White will have a large workload waiting for him.

Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens (RB53, 129.6)

Edwards has not played a full season since rushing 144 times for 723 yards and five touchdowns in 2020. A 2021 torn ACL and lengthy recovery that bled into last year have depressed his ADP this year. Edwards slots in behind J.K. Dobbins on the depth chart, though Dobbins’ own extensive recovery from reconstructive knee surgery and subsequent contract squabble have to give Edwards some consideration during fantasy drafts in the coming days. Edwards is the big back like Dillon in Green Bay who could pile up goal-line carries — and even more, if Dobbins’ not-so-public negotiation continues into the 2023 season.