It's running back week here at CBS Sports, and we're taking a deep dive into the position. While wide receivers have become the dominant players for Fantasy managers, especially in PPR, we know running backs still matter in a big way.
Here, we're looking at breakout running backs, and we'll focus on sleepers and busts this week as well. For this column, we'll look at 10 running backs being drafted in the first six rounds who have the chance to exceed expectations this year and break out as league winners.
These are running backs I want on my roster, and hopefully many of them will turn into superstars this season.
I have Robinson as the No. 3 running back this season behind Christian McCaffrey and Austin Ekeler and the No. 6 overall player. Robinson, the No. 8 overall pick from Texas in the NFL Draft, has the chance to be special this year, and he could be the best rookie running back of all time. He landed with the right team in Atlanta since the Falcons led the NFL in rushing attempts in 2022, and he's already looking like a special talent in the passing game as well in training camp. Robinson profiles like other rookie running backs who have dominated recently in their first NFL season, including Ezekiel Elliott (No. 4 overall pick in 2016) and Saquon Barkley (No. 2 overall pick in 2018). Both of them finished top 3 in PPR, and Robinson has the chance to follow suit this year.
We keep waiting for the Cowboys to add another running back, and that could certainly happen prior to Week 1. But even if Ezekiel Elliott comes back or another veteran joins the team, Pollard should be the leader of the backfield and a No. 1 Fantasy running back in all leagues. We saw last season, even when Elliott was healthy, Pollard was great and averaged 14.8 PPR points per game, which was good enough to be the No. 9 running back. But more could be in store for Pollard this year. Elliott missed two games in 2022 with a bad knee in Week 8 against Chicago and Week 10 at Green Bay. In those two games, Pollard combined for 54 PPR points and looked dominant. It was amazing production and actually two of six outings that Pollard had with at least 19 PPR points. He has star potential, and I plan to draft him at the end of Round 1.
Stevenson still might get competition prior to Week 1, and the Patriots have already hosted Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette for workouts and reportedly are looking into signing Dalvin Cook. But if Stevenson remains the lead running back in New England then he has the chance to be a star. He had a mini-breakout in 2022 when he averaged 13.8 PPR points per game, but he can be even better in 2023. With Damien Harris gone, Stevenson could be looking at 300 total touches, which could lead to a top-five Fantasy finish in all formats. He proved himself as a receiver out of the backfield in 2022 with 69 catches for 421 yards and a touchdown on 88 targets, and he averaged 5.0 yards per carry. He only scored five rushing touchdowns, and New England had just 10 rushing touchdowns from its backfield in 2022, but in 2021 the Patriots running backs combined for 24 rushing scores. I'm expecting a better offensive performance from New England this season with Bill O'Brien as the offensive coordinator, and Stevenson should be the team's best offensive player. I plan to draft him toward the end of Round 2 in all leagues.
The Gibbs highlights in training camp have been fun to watch, and it appears like the Lions are going to give him plenty of chances to succeed. That should be the case after Detroit selected Gibbs at No. 12 overall in Round 1 of the NFL Draft. He should be a significant factor in the passing game, and he just led Alabama in receptions in 2022 with 44. Last season, D'Andre Swift was No. 10 in running back targets and No. 12 in running back receptions despite missing three games and parts of others, and Gibbs should prove to be a better version of Swift, especially if Gibbs stays healthy. And if he can prove that he's a better rusher than David Montgomery then Gibbs has top 15 upside in all leagues. I like Gibbs as a No. 1 running back in PPR, and I would draft him at the back end of Round 3.
While I do like the addition of Tank Bigsby in Jacksonville, he's more of a lottery ticket this year as the backup to Etienne. Etienne has the chance to be a top-10 Fantasy running back in all leagues, and he's a steal if he falls to Round 4 based on his Average Draft Position in early August. Last year, in the 11 games after James Robinson was traded to the Jets, Etienne had some great moments. Taking out Week 12 when he was injured, Etienne averaged 13.7 PPR points per game, but he did that with just five rushing touchdowns and a limited role in the passing game. He spoke to the media in training camp about being a more complete running back, and Doug Pederson said Etienne being fully healthy this offseason is a big plus after he was returning last year from the foot injury that kept him out as a rookie. This Jaguars offense should be explosive in 2023, and Etienne will play a vital role. You won't be disappointed if Etienne ends up on your Fantasy roster this year.
Dobbins is someone I would target as early as Round 4, but his ADP puts him in Round 6 while he remains on the PUP list. While there could be a legitimate injury that he's dealing with after battling knee problems in 2022, the thought is Dobbins is sitting out because he's unhappy with his contract. If he's able to play in Week 1 then I'm expecting a big year, especially since he's two years removed from the torn ACL he suffered prior to the 2021 campaign. He returned last year and struggled for most of the season, but he closed the year on a high note with at least 93 rushing yards in three of his final four games. He averaged 6.9 yards per carry over that span, and I love his upside in new offensive coordinator Todd Monken's system. Having a healthy and rejuvenated Lamar Jackson will help also, but Monken should help Dobbins have a career season in the passing game. I'm counting on Dobbins to perform like a top-15 Fantasy running back in all leagues.
Pierce had a solid rookie campaign in 2022 before missing the final four games of the year with an ankle injury. He fell 61 yards shy of 1,000 rushing yards, but he had six games with at least 13 PPR points in the 13 outings he played. While he does get tougher competition this year with the addition of Devin Singletary, everything around Pierce should also improve. New coach DeMeco Ryans brought offensive coordinator Bobby Slowik over from San Francisco with designs on running the Kyle Shanahan system, which has been amazing for running backs. C.J. Stroud should provide better quarterback play. And the offensive line should be better with the addition of right guard Shaq Mason. Pierce is a tough runner, and last year he had 62 forced missed tackles, which was fourth in the NFL, according to Pro Football Focus. His 28.2 percent forced missed tackles rate last season led the NFL. If he can improve in the passing game (30 catches on 39 targets) then Pierce could be a top-10 Fantasy running back. But let's be realistic and just root for a top-15 finish, and he's an excellent pick as early as Round 4 in all leagues.
I think everyone is excited to see Mattison have a healthy season as the new lead running back in Minnesota now that Dalvin Cook is gone. He'll face competition from Ty Chandler, Kene Nwangnu and DeWayne McBride, but Mattison will hopefully be the best of the bunch. Mattison has 14 games in his career with at least 10 carries, and he scored at least 15 PPR points in seven of those outings. He's averaging 13.4 PPR points over that span. In seven games in his career where he's played at least 48 percent of the snaps, he averaged 19.5 carries, 84 rushing yards, 3.7 catches and 34 receiving yards, along with five total touchdowns. Over a 17-game season, that puts him on pace for 332 carries, 1,430 rushing yards, 63 catches, 583 receiving yards and 12 total scores. We'll see how much the Vikings put on Mattison's plate, and if he can handle being the full-time guy for an entire season. I'm surprised his ADP remains in Round 6 in early August, and most Fantasy managers will likely select him as early as Round 4.
The biggest positive for White is the lack of competition he should face in Tampa Bay with Leonard Fournette gone. His backups are Chase Edmonds, Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Sean Tucker, and most likely those guys aren't taking White off the field for any significant amount of time. White also proved himself as a receiver last season, as he was one of 11 running backs in the NFL with 50 receptions. Now, the downside for White is Tampa Bay might be a terrible team, but the Buccaneers offensive line should be improved. Pro Football Focus actually has Tampa Bay's offensive line ranked No. 14 going into the season, and the Buccaneers should be much better at running the ball in 2023 after having the fewest rushing yards in the NFL in 2022. Tom Brady's retirement will definitely hurt, but Baker Mayfield might actually surprise you with how much he'll use White in the passing game. I'm not sure White has top-10 upside this season, but he could be a top-20 running back in PPR, which is why you're drafting him in Round 6.
Most Fantasy analysts were already excited about Cook this season prior to the start of training camp. But then Bills offensive coordinator Ken Dorsey fueled the fire when he said Cook can be an "every-down back." As Dorsey said, "we're really excited about him and what he can do." Cook didn't do much in his rookie campaign in 2022 when he played in tandem with Devin Singletary. While he averaged 5.7 yards per carry and 8.6 yards per catch, he only had 110 total touches. He had four games with double digits in carries in 2022, and he scored 16 PPR points in two of them. He'll compete with Damien Harris and potentially Latavius Murray for touches, but Cook should prove to be more versatile than both of them. And Harris is also already dealing with a knee injury in camp. While the Bills don't typically involve their running backs in the passing game -- Singletary's best season was 40 receptions in 2021 -- that could change with Cook this season. It's easy to draft Cook in Round 6 in all leagues, and he has the potential to be a top-20 running back in 2023.