Fantasy Football Fact or Fluke: How have running back draft strategies fared so far?

Christian McCaffrey is fantasy's top overall scorer through four weeks, but running back as a whole has offered few right answers. (AP Photo/Josie Lepe)

Nearly a quarter through the season, we should be reflecting a bit on our draft strategies and how they served us. We’re at a point where the season isn’t won or lost, but we’re getting close. Running back is arguably the most controversial draft strategy position in fantasy: Zero RB, Hero RB (aka Anchor RB) or traditional RB-heavy drafters love to argue over whose plans will yield the best results come the fantasy playoffs. With several interesting RB performances in Week 4, I thought we could check in through the lens of draft strategy to see which is winning so far.

Hero RB or RB-heavy drafters

Christian McCaffrey, San Francisco 49ers

If you drafted a running back in the first round, it had better have been McCaffrey. With a Week 4 stat line of 106/3 rushing and 7/71/1 receiving, he truly is two fantastic fantasy players in one. He leads not only all running backs, but all players in fantasy scoring so far with 27.8 fantasy points per game. I won’t say these numbers are sustainable every week, but as long as he’s on the field, he is the highest floor/ceiling combo player in the game.

Bijan Robinson, Atlanta Falcons

After a very even timeshare in Week 1, where Tyler Allgeier was looking like a Zero RB fantasy god with two touchdowns, Robinson has assuredly pulled way into the lead of this committee. In rushing attempts (43) and targets (16), he’s dominated Allgeier the last three games (30 carries, five targets), but the main difference is in productivity over that time. Robinson has turned his opportunities into 262 rushing yards and 107 receiving yards, while Allgeier has only managed 89 inefficient combined yards. Neither has scored in the last three games for a Falcons’ offense that ranks in the bottom third of the league in most metrics, but I can no longer advise starting Allgeier in 10-12 team leagues. Robinson drafters are winning this one.

Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys

After a super Week 1 in which the Cowboys demolished the New York Giants before a national audience, Pollard’s numbers have been in steady decline. Game script isn’t to blame: He was the lone bright spot in the loss to Arizona, the Cowboys’ most competitive game, where he managed 122 yards on 23 carries (5.3 YPC), and has had mixed results in the team’s three blowout wins. He hasn’t scored since Week 1, but most concerning is that he had only 11 carries and three targets in Week 4, yielding only 60 total yards. He could have had a touchdown early in the New England game, but Dak Prescott literally stood him up and blocked his momentum in a baffling botched opportunity. There are rumblings of limiting Pollard’s workload to keep him fresh, and as long as the Cowboys’ defense is doing the heavy lifting in getting victories, it’s a genuine concern. On the bright side, he does lead the league in rushing attempts inside the five-yard line. As a Pollard drafter, I’m not sitting him ever, but in a familiar refrain when it comes to Pollard, I sure wish things were different.

Other Round 1 RBs

If instead you selected Austin Ekeler, Nick Chubb or Saquon Barkley to solidify your RB1 slot you probably aren’t doing so well. All three were injured early, missing part or all of Week 2’s action, with Chubb's season unfortunately over. We expect Ekeler back after the Chargers’ Week 5 bye, and Barkley is getting closer, so maybe you can salvage the position before the playoffs are out of reach. Or maybe you were immediately desperate enough to win the FAB wars over sensations like De’Von Achane or Kyren Williams … here’s hoping!

Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders

Last year’s rushing champ is starting to show signs of his prowess and go figure, all it took was a meeting with the Chargers. Jacobs is not very efficient this season, with high marks of about 3.6 YPC on the ground but made a huge impact for rookie QB Aidan O’Connell in the pass game, catching eight of his 11 targets Sunday. I know there was plenty of panic about him, but he’s not a player you can bench. Here’s hoping bigger things are ahead for Jacobs as he heads into a mostly good schedule (keep expectations in check in Week 6 vs. the Patriots).

Derrick Henry, Tenneesee Titans

The second-round running backs took their time rounding into shape, but Henry also had a vintage game for Week 4, scoring a touchdown and rushing for 122 yards vs. Cincinnati. Henry had his second-best game in Week 2 against the aforementioned Chargers. Henry had some red flags coming into the season due to age and the inevitable decline in production running backs experience after about age 28. So far, he looks less matchup-proof than he used to, but still able to take advantage of the good situation. He hasn’t been helped by Ryan Tannehill and Tennessee’s pass game, which has yielded only three rushing attempts inside the five-yard line. His schedule also offers some challenges in October.

Other Round 2-3 RBs

With Henry and Jacobs being overall disappointing but showing signs of life in Week 4, let’s check in on the other options people looked to as their anchor or heavy-RB strategy. Joe Mixon, Breece Hall and Jahmyr Gibbs have been terrible letdowns. Each is in a slightly different bin of woe, with Mixon’s Bengals looking like an amateur team most of the time. Mixon is coming off his worst fantasy game (67 rush yards, nine receiving yards), and has yet to exceed 100 total yards and only scored in Week 3 vs. the Rams. That was the team’s only win, and Mixon’s only contest with 20 touches. His efficiency isn’t bad on the ground, but his role in the receiving game is shrinking (three targets in the last two games).

Gibbs should have at least been great in David Montgomery’s absence, but it turns out the Falcons have turned their run defense around, now ranking as the third-least-generous RB opponent. This is not the 1-2 split we were expecting, but it is what it is. If you're in a shallow league, Gibbs is a bench candidate as long as Montgomery is active or we see a significant workload shift.

Hall was a big reason the Jets beat the Bills in Week 1 (season-high 127 rushing and 20 receiving yards), but when Zach Wilson took over in earnest, it got ugly fast. Garrett Wilson (14 targets) and Hall both showed some signs of potential in Week 4, with Hall averaging 9.3 yards on six carries and catching three of four targets. This is to say that Hall is still the player we drafted, but he’s on a different team. Maybe it's taken a few weeks, through some truly difficult matchups, to get their act together. I’m betting on fantasy gold for Hall vs. Denver in Week 5.

Zero RB drafters

David Montgomery, Detroit Lions

As a former Montgomery fan and current Gibbs drafter, it pains me somewhat to watch Montgomery run all over the field scoring at will. Not much to say here … he’s getting his job done, making the most of his opportunities and is looking like one of the best draft values at RB. Well done if he’s on your roster.

Khalil Herbert, Chicago Bears

One thing you can say about the Bears, they’re uniformly good or bad. Week 4 was good, but only 18% of Yahoo managers started Herbert. I admit I had to in the Scott Fish Bowl, so his 103 rushing yards and four catches for 19 yards and a score were welcomed relief. I’m not going to pretend that everything is fine in Chicago now (fantasy-wise at least), because Denver is the solution to a lot of fantasy problems this season. I’m more pessimistic than optimistic at how Herbert will turn out, but so far, he’s at least keeping Roschon Johnson at bay. With bye weeks looming, more of us will have to rely on Herbert, but there are some bright spots ahead (Vikings, Chargers).

Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

Week 4 held a lot of surprises, but none so unexpected as Kamara’s 14 targets in his return from suspension! Catching 13 of them made him a PPR beast, even if they only went for 33 total yards. He also averaged 4.6 YPC on the ground against Tampa Bay, no small feat. If this keeps up, he’ll be in the best value conversation for sure. I’m not full throttle on Kamara, just because he was showing signs of decline in the second half of the 2022 season, but start him if you’ve got him.

Isiah Pacheco, Kansas City Chiefs

Welcome to the season, Mr. Pacheco. He’s scored in the last two weeks, and even with Jerick McKinnon and Clyde Edwards-Helaire still involved, Pacheco is the clear lead back in KC. You must accept McKinnon vulturing touchdowns and CEH being brought in for garbage time, but Pacheco is quietly the RB12 in half-PPR scoring. With the Vikings, Broncos, Chargers, then Broncos again on the schedule, the future looks very bright for Pacheco.

Brian Robinson Jr., Washington Commanders

Speaking of value, Robinson is the RB7 right now for fantasy, with 15 fantasy points per game on average. That’s only 0.2 points fewer than Bijan, but of course Brian was drafted about eight rounds after. This is great news for Brian Robinson believers and in general a great comeback story for the second-year player. He put up decent numbers and scored against the Eagles (12.1 half-PPR points), which is itself an accomplishment against the league’s second-best run defense. He gets the Bears Thursday night, which could yield a fantasy-matchup-tilting performance.

Other late-round RBs

There have also been some late-round misses, of course. AJ Dillon, Zach Charbonnet and Jamaal Williams haven’t been worth the pick they cost you, for various reasons. The nice thing about these players is that they’re easy to drop for the latest emerging RB. Any good late-round RB strategy should focus on quantity in lieu of quality for just this reason: you don’t get attached. When you invest little, it’s easier for your brain to accept the failure and move on. When you invest a lot (of draft capital), that’s a much harder step to take.

So far, the percentage of "hits" say waiting on RB was the right choice unless you had an early enough pick to get McCaffrey. Though not singled out here specifically, other mid-round RBs like D’Andre Swift, Travis Etienne and James Conner are getting the job done, averaging double-digit fantasy points per game, while guys like Dameon Pierce might be heating up for a surprisingly good Houston team. It’s really the undrafted players (in managed leagues) like De’Von Achane (RB3) and Kyren Williams (RB4) who are taking the position by storm and advocating for a strategy that says keep your RB options open. The next big thing? Perhaps it’ll be Jaleel McLaughlin, who wowed with 7/72 on the ground and 3/32/1 receiving after Javonte Williams was injured in Denver’s exciting Week 4 win in Chicago.