It’s here! Real NFL football is happening this week for the first time since that electrifying Super Bowl. No more hyperventilating over routes run in preseason games. No more wondering if camp reports of breakouts are going to carry over into the season.
The games count, so we’re going to get answers to a lot of questions about how we think players are truly going to be utilized in the regular season. In a series of features dating back to when training camps started, I’ve focused on the running backs, still such an important position to fantasy football, but one that needs to be reevaluated with the rise of committees.
This article is going to look at five backfields worth watching for Week 1. The matchups were definitely taken into account, as some of the backfields are going against defenses that were among the bottom of the barrel in stopping the run. One defense was one of the best. So we’ll start to get a picture of how these backfields are shaping up, and how we can recommend them to fantasy managers.
During the season, I’ll provide a weekly look at some of the muddiest backfields, looking ahead to future matchups. For now, let’s look at five intriguing backfields for Week 1 of the 2023 season.
The anticipation for the first NFL game in almost seven months is going to be at 11 (Spinal Tap fans will get that). In one corner, the Super Bowl champion Chiefs and reigning NFL MVP Patrick Mahomes. In the opposite corner are the kneecap-biting, high-scoring Lions. Last year the Lions were fifth in scoring at 26.6 ppg, with the Chiefs leading the way at 29.2.
With Kansas City favored by 6.5 and an over/under of 54, this game should see some offensive fireworks.
My eyes are going to be on the usage of the Lions’ running backs, especially if All-Pro defensive tackle Chris Jones is out for this game. With David Montgomery signing as a free agent and Jahmyr Gibbs eliciting a war-room celebration when he was selected 12th overall in the NFL Draft, this is a new group in the backfield. Montgomery is a favorite to go into the Jamaal Williams role, as Williams rang up 17 touchdowns last year on a league-high 29 carries inside the five-yard line. That is not something that could be predicted to repeat, though if Montgomery gets any short-yardage role he could be quite valuable behind one of the best offensive lines in the game.
Gibbs is going to have a lot of my attention, as his usage in the first few games will tell if he delivers on his 35.8 ADP. While some are wish-casting Alvin Kamara and Austin Ekeler comps, I’m looking at Todd Gurley in 2017. That year, aside from rushing for 1,305 yards and 13 touchdowns, Gurley also caught 64 of 87 targets for 788 yards and six touchdowns.
His quarterback? Jared Goff.
If Goff can at the very least target Gibbs anywhere near the 70 times that D’Andre Swift drew passes last year, Gibbs could be incredibly valuable.
With this game having the makings of a track meet, Gibbs should see a healthy number of looks through the air. Jameson Williams is serving a six-game suspension, so Gibbs appears to have a shot along with rookie tight end Sam LaPorta as the second target in the Lions offense.
The Commanders plan to feature two running backs — Brian Robinson Jr. and Antonio Gibson — who may be used in very different roles, but similar to those of Isiah Pacheco and Jerick McKinnon last year for the Chiefs with then-Offensive Coordinator, Eric Bieniemy. Robinson projects as the early down grinder, and looking at Washington’s Week preseason game against the Ravens may offer some intel. The Commanders started the day with a 15-play drive that ended in a field goal, with Robinson getting four carries and one reception on the drive, while Gibson got a single carry.
The way the Commanders divide the touches will be very telling early because as seven-point favorites they figure to be in a positive game script. This bodes well for Robinson, if that preseason work is any indication.
Last year, Robinson was no stranger to yards after contact, as 567 of his 797 total rushing yards came after hitting defenders. He doesn’t figure to be part of the passing game, though, as he caught just nine of 12 targets on the season. The passing-game work should go to Gibson, who caught 46 of 58 targets for 353 yards last year. Maybe he won’t be needed as much this week, but Gibson should eventually be a great safety valve for first-year starter Sam Howell.
Opposing them is an Arizona defense that is very much in flux. Last year, the Cardinals gave up 2,016 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns. They just traded linebacker and 2020 first-rounder Isaiah Simmons, and the defense could be in for a makeover with first-year Head Coach Jonathan Gannon.
The Commanders should win this game fairly easily, with Robinson leading the running back room. It’ll be interesting to see how much work Gibson gets in the passing game if the Commanders are melting the clock and protecting the lead. In the preseason game against the Ravens that they played together, Gibson ran 14 routes, while Robinson ran 10.
There may have been more talk and intrigue about the Eagles’ backfield in the days leading to roster cutdown. Was Rashaad Penny potentially going to get cut? Had Trey Sermon surpassed Penny on the depth chart? The different scenarios that were supposedly sure things to happen for the Eagles were amazing.
Sermon was, eventually, cut, and Penny did make the team. As did Swift, Kenneth Gainwell and Boston Scott. Now, how are the carries and targets going to be broken up? Swift should see the bulk of the targets, as he drew 70 last year and caught 48 for 389 yards and three touchdowns. Quarterback Jalen Hurts will have to look for him more than he did with running backs last year, as only 61 total targets went to the position in the 2022 season. Will Hurts run less this year and dump it off to Swift in space? We did not get a glimpse of this in preseason, as Hurts did not take any snaps in games.
Swift has an ADP of 85.7, while Penny’s is 110.9. If Penny gets the bulk of the early down work, he could become quite valuable to fantasy managers. Running behind one of the best offensive lines in football, and with one of the premier running quarterbacks in Hurts, whoever totes the ball for the Eagles will have light boxes and plenty of room to operate.
The line will need to be up to midseason form, as the Patriots were seventh in rushing yards allowed in 2022. Head Coach Bill Belichick is famous for trying to take out a team’s best player, who is easily Hurts. This game is a good challenge for the revamped Philly running game, which could struggle because it’s the first time the running backs are in game situations with Hurts.
Penny is one to watch here because he is more of a pure runner. Last year, 10.5% of his rushing attempts were explosive runs of 15 yards or more (Fantasy Points Data). Even though he was healthy for just five games, he totaled 176 yards on those runs. Swift had 218 yards on explosive runs, though in 14 games.
Also looming is Gainwell, who along with Scott has the most familiarity with the offense. Gainwell got looks in last year’s most important games, as he drew 13, 16 and 11 touches in three postseason games, including the Super Bowl. It’ll be interesting to see if he siphons off any carries/touches from Swift and Penny this early in the 2023 season.
When Jeff Wilson Jr. went on IR last week, I was bracing for a roster move where the Dolphins added a running back from the free agent stable like Leonard Fournette and/or Kareem Hunt. When Labor Day Weekend came and went without another transaction, all signs point to Miami rolling with Raheem Mostert and De’Von Achane as the primary ballcarriers.
You then look at the Chargers, Miami’s Week 1 opponent, whose run defense last year was 28th in the league with 2,478 yards and 17 touchdowns allowed. Last year the Chargers gave up 11 100-yard games to opposing running backs. That bodes well for the speedy Mostert, first, as he should draw the bulk of the carries on the fast track of SoFi Stadium. He also did well in yards after contact with 594 yards, which was just one less than Austin Ekeler.
Achane just shed the non-contact jersey in practice, which is a good sign after he’d been battling a shoulder injury of late. How much he’s involved in the offensive attack for the Dolphins in this game may not tell the whole story about how he’s used this season, as teams sometimes ease rookies into their in-season roles. Especially those coming off injuries.
For this game, I’m looking for Mostert to be in the lead-back role. He has multiple seasons with Head Coach Mike McDaniel back in their 49er days and is the healthiest runner on the squad. The Chargers did direct resources to the defensive line in the offseason, but very few teams go from the depths of run defenses one year to becoming the ’85 Bears the next. Mostert should get some run early, with Achane working in a mix of touches in the passing and running game.
While there is a temptation to look at both backfields in Seattle’s matchup against the Rams — remember the Seahawks were one of the worst run defenses last year and Cam Akers had one of the hottest finishes to the season — the primary focus will be on the Seattle running backs. How the carries and targets are broken up between Kenneth Walker III and Zach Charbonnet has been intriguing fantasy football managers since the UCLA running back was selected in the second round of the recent NFL Draft.
Does Walker handle the early-down work with Charbonnet coming on the field on passing downs? Walker was one of two rookies to surpass 1,000 rushing yards last year (with 1,050 total), though this year he’ll be the lead back from the start of the season, with Charbonnet as more of the understudy.
Both running backs should have room to maneuver, as the Rams’ defensive line is completely new aside from the all-world Aaron Donald. Jourdan Rodrigue of The Athletic noted in her Aug. 20 feature, “The defensive line is still a major concern, certainly on passing downs but most glaringly against the run.”
This kind of information really seems to point in the favor of Walker in this game. The Seahawks are 5.5-point favorites, so they could be salting away a victory by just handing the ball to Walker again and again in the late stages.