.The 2023 fantasy football season is here, and one of the most divisive strategies over the past few seasons has been the practice of utilizing the Anchor Running Back strategy. While we always want to draft like it’s a new year and not pin our fantasy football championship hopes on banking on a repeat of the previous season (as we painfully learned in 2022 by drafting Jonathan Taylor at the 1.01), these trends that we can follow from year-to-year help us draft the best team. Over the past few years, Anchor RB is one that has proven to work. 

Anchor RB can be a little scary to some who have never used it or those of us who still live by the Robust RB approach, so let’s dive in and look at some of the pros and cons of using this strategy and how you can best utilize it to come out on top in your fantasy football leagues. 


What is the Anchor Running Back Strategy?

With this approach, you target an elite back within the first two or three rounds of your drafts (and the way draft boards are falling this year, getting one in the third round is definitely possible), then focus on other positions until the later mid-rounds, usually around round 8, where you can start filling in your RB2 spot with high-upside players who are either in ambiguous backfields, have a pass-catching role, or who are high-upside handcuffs. 

Benefits of Using Anchor Running Back Strategy

The fact is that running backs experience injury much more frequently than other positions on the field as a whole. Using high draft capital on a position that has a higher chance of getting injured damages your overall roster build and weakens your team. For example, last year, the running backs who went in the first three rounds missed an average of 2.125 games, and if you removed Javonte Williams from the equation who missed 13 games, that average goes down to only 1.31 games. Compare that with the running backs who went in the next three rounds, and they had an average of four games missed. Why would you draft from the running back “dead zone” when you could fill out your roster with high upside wide receivers, tight ends, or quarterbacks? 

I know it can feel uncomfortable waiting on your second running back, but the fact is, the RB2 is not nearly as important as it used to be with the shift in the way running backs are utilized in the NFL. So many backfields are utilizing committee approaches that it takes away the valuable snap share that we need out of high draft capital, and you’re not losing out on that many points. In fact, the difference in PPR points between the RB13 and RB24 spots through Week 17 last year was only 37.9 points. The difference between RB13 and RB36? 87.9. To put that in perspective, that’s a smaller difference than the one between Travis Kelce, the TE1 and T.J. Hockenson, the TE2, which was 93.7. Running backs are a dime a dozen after you get out of the top tier, and the Anchor RB approach allows you to maximize your return on investment at other positions.

Which Backs Should You Target After Your Elite Back?

Not to sound wishy-washy to answer this question, but it depends. If you’re in PPR or half PPR formats, you want to target pass-catching backs, as they can return dividends on even a small snap share. Look at Jerick McKinnon, for example. While he ranked 57th in carries, he ranked ninth in targets, raising his ceiling to the top floor of the Eiffel Tower compared to other running backs in this range. He was drafted as the RB64 overall and finished as RB20; I don’t know about you, but I’d call that a win. 

If you’re in standard leagues, you want to target the backs who get the goal line carries. This can be a little tougher to research and figure out who will get the call, but using historical data can certainly give you an insight into who will get the rock inside the 20s. Jamaal Williams lived inside the red zone last season, seeing a league-high 60 carries in that range. Tyler Allgeier also dramatically returned his draft capital, partly due to the injury to Cordarrelle Patterson, but he also had 33 red zone carries on a fairly inefficient offense that boosted him to a finish of RB28 in standard leagues.

You can also swing for the fences and find high-upside handcuffs who have a chance of taking over lead back duties due to injuries. Kenneth Walker is a great example of this last year after Rashaad Penny went down. He was drafted as RB32 but finished as RB19 in PPR leagues because he became the bell cow back in Seattle’s offense from Week 6 on. Although you never want to predict or wish for injuries, these are safety strategies you can use; while everyone else is scrambling through the muddy waiver wire pool, you’ve already got yourself a replacement. It may be a slow start to the season, but you have the ability to have a solid roster down the stretch.

Effectiveness of Anchor Running Back Strategy

Okay, now here’s where we may get a little buried in numbers, but bare with me. Once we get through the data, it will make sense.

Of last year’s running backs drafted in the top three rounds, aside from a couple of outliers who suffered injury (Jonathan Taylor and Javonte Williams), there was very little average deviation in ADP versus where they finished. Excluding the players who missed five or more games, these 14 running backs finished on average of -1.92 spots outside their drafted ADP overall and -1.07 outside their ADP in fantasy points per game. If D’Andre Swift hadn’t completely tanked at his ADP, finishing 16 spots below where he was drafted, that overall average would have been a variation of only -.78. With the injury rate of running backs, especially high volume backs, this is exactly what you want to see; yes, there is risk in these higher-ranked running backs, but there are so few players who are in a high volume situation that if everything goes right (i.e. no injuries), they will pay off and provide solid RB1 value.

If you chose to wait until the dreaded running back “dead zone,” oof, things did not go nearly as well. Out of ten running backs drafted between the fourth and seventh rounds, the straight return in ADP was -1.83. That doesn’t sound that bad, but when you look at the variation in ADP versus fantasy points per game finish, there was a DRASTIC drop off, with the average variation being -5.14. As bad as this sounds, if you remove Josh Jacobs from the equation, who finished 18 spots ahead of his ADP, the variation would have been -7.71! Why would you take running backs in this range when you could load up on upside wide receivers, quarterbacks, and tight ends to complete your roster?

So if you avoid the running back position until Round 8, where do you stand? Surprisingly, you’re a lot better off than you’d think. Several of the running backs who finished in the top 36 came from this area. Again, removing outliers who missed five or more games (because you can never account for injury), the ten running backs who met the criteria in Rounds 8-10 finished at an average variation from ADP of +8.3! Sure, there were busts in these rounds, like Chase Edmonds, Melvin Gordon, and Kareem Hunt, but Miles Sanders(RB13), Tony Pollard(RB7), Kenneth Walker(RB19), and Rhamondre Stevenson(RB9) were all going in this range. If you drafted your RB2 on your fantasy team here, you likely had a huge success rate.

What Could Your Anchor RB Teams Look Like in 2023?

So let’s put this strategy into practice. What could your team look like utilizing the Anchor RB strategy? I tried three best ball drafts at an early, middle, and late pick on Underdog Fantasy and put the results together for you. There were some similar players you could get in the 8-10 range that all have huge upside in half PPR and full PPR formats that allowed you to build a juggernaut wide receiver room and/or solidify other very important positions. 

For more information on the Anchor Running Back strategy, check out last year’s article from Kevin Tompkins here and make sure you check out the Dynamic Tier Running Back Rankings from Andrew Cooper as part of the 2023 Fantasy Football Draft Guide!