Fantasy football: How to value Barkley, Mixon, Jacobs and other RBs on new teams (2024)

  • Fantasy football: How to value Barkley, Mixon, Jacobs and other RBs on new teams (1)

    Liz Loza, ESPNJun 25, 2024, 11:00 AM ET

Youth versus experience. It's a conundrum that extends beyond fantasy football. When it comes to the running back position, however, the debate cools with the majority of managers favoring fresh legs over technical savvy. But outliers have always emerged to buck conventional thought, creating -- at a minimum -- the whisper of doubt in the minds of virtual fans.

A handful of elite RBs have thrived beyond their theoretical primes, repeatedly posting top-15 positional fantasy numbers over the past five years. Interestingly, a number of those tried-and-true starters are set to debut for new squads this fall, kicking up a maelstrom of conversation about RB value and potential staying power.

There exist numerous widely held and fervently believed tropes about the "Running Back Cliff." Given that six of the league's most respected producers are pushing 30 and have each logged north of 1,400 career touches, a review of the data seemed well-timed.

Since 2000, running backs who registered at least 12 rushes per outing experienced a steady decline in efficiency and PPR points per game after the age of 26. Those stats underwent an additional dip at 29 years old, with qualified RBs recording 4.1 YPC, 4.5 YPT and 13.8 fantasy points per game just before celebrating their 30th birthdays.

It's not stunning to discover that overall opportunity shrinks as players age, allowing a select few to commandeer the bulk of the volume after the length of a rookie deal expires. What is compelling, though, is the rate at which production decreases across the board, even for the few who manage to receive meaningful touches as they approach 30 years of age. It's also, then, fair to ask if the virtual game's most established ball carriers -- all of whom fared well in free agency -- will continue to defy the odds or, instead, transition into the twilight of their fantasy stardom.

Looking for more numbers? Check out the 2023 fantasy football scoring leaders or look ahead at our 2024 fantasy football projections and outlooks.

Saquon Barkley, RB, Philadelphia Eagles: Barkley served as the Giants' offensive engine, motoring his way to 1,489 total touches during his six seasons in New York. That volume buoyed Barkley's fantasy stock, as he managed nearly 16 fantasy points per game (RB13) despite averaging only 3.9 yards per carry in 2023. Efficiency woes weren't new for Barkley (he hasn't averaged more than 4.5 yards per carry since his second season in the league), but they do figure to dissipate given his upgraded landing spot.

The 27-year-old, who has been saddled with subpar QBs and some truly poor offensive lines, figures to regain and more regularly showcase the trademark explosiveness that made him a first-round pick in 2018. Despite being on the edge of his prime, Barkley should continue to rip off long runs (he was eighth among RBs with 26 runs of 10-plus yards in 2023) and evade tackles while working behind the Eagles' top-five-ranked O-line (yes, even sans Jason Kelce).

That boost in efficacy is likely to offset any dip in volume, especially considering D'Andre Swift's departure, which opens up 229 carries (14.3 per game) and 29 catches (2.4 per game). That realistically paves the way to at least 17 touches per game for Barkley. He's also likely to see an increase in goal line work, as the Eagles recorded the seventh-most touchdowns last season -- and in the event that the "tush push" is curtailed this coming season. Barkley may no longer command first-round fantasy consideration, but he projects to be a solid (early) second-round pick for managers seeking a capable anchor at the position.

Derrick Henry, RB, Baltimore Ravens: Henry addressed Titans fans in early January, transparent about his relationship with the club and plans for the future. Fantasy's favorite anomaly inked a two-year deal with Baltimore just two months later. While a player of Henry's stature doesn't normally fly, he absolutely could as a member of the Ravens' flock. That's not to say, however, that his fantasy stock will continue to soar.

A perennial top-10 producer, Henry has averaged at least 12 fantasy points per game every year since 2018. He regularly evades tackles and rips off big gains, with more than 8% of his total runs going for 10 yards or more last season (13th among RBs). While a comparison to Henry's combination of size and skill simply does not exist, it is worth noting he's coming off of his fewest rushing yards per game (68.6) since 2018. That average may have been down, but Henry's total rushing attempts were sky high (280). In fact, the 30-year-old has registered the most carries at the position in four of the past five seasons, indicating a clear connection between his workload and fantasy output.

Baltimore led the league in rushing attempts (541) in 2023, but quarterback Lamar Jackson accounted for 27% of them (148). The team's RB1, Gus Edwards, who has since signed with the Chargers, logged 198 carries, accounting for 37% of the team's totes. That's 82 fewer carries than Henry (whose rushing opportunities made up 63% of Tennessee's total ground attempts) managed in 2023. A powerhouse like Henry, of course, figures to command more volume than Edwards, but he's not going to exceed (or even match) his touches from a season ago. And while Jackson's prowess as a runner should open up lanes for the former Titan, it's unlikely those aforementioned big runs will be plentiful enough to thrust the 30-year-old into top-seven fantasy football RB territory.

Henry landed in the best spot possible, for both his legacy and fantasy production, but don't expect a late-career surge from the King. He projects to, once again, deliver low-end RB1 fantasy numbers and is deserving of second-round consideration.

Joe Mixon, RB, Houston Texans: Mixon emerged as a fantasy star even before Joe Burrow arrived in the Queen City, finishing inside the top 15 fantasy producers in four of his past five campaigns. A well-rounded player with substantial burst, elusiveness and pass-catching prowess, Mixon has thrived as an every-down option for the bulk of his seven-year career. After signing a three-year extension worth a reported $27 million ($13 million guaranteed) with the Texans, that could be the case into the former Bengal's 30s.

Mixon averaged 18 touches (14-15 carries and 2-3 receptions) over the past two seasons in Cincinnati. His efficiency metrics as a rusher have never popped, as he has managed no more than 4.1 YPC since 2019. He has, however, shone as a receiver, recording a catch rate above 80% for four consecutive seasons. Mixon figures to resume his role as a three-down producer in Houston, particularly with Devin Singletary off to the Giants and Dameon Pierce as the lone threat to meaningful touches.

Pierce flashed as a rookie but woefully struggled in his sophom*ore effort, posting 2.9 YPC in 2023. The Florida product averaged 15.6 carries per game from Weeks 1-8 before spraining his ankle and losing the starting gig to Singletary, who registered 16.7 attempts per contest from Weeks 9-18. The extent of Pierce's involvement remains to be seen, and head coach DeMeco Ryans has mentioned Mixon and Pierce working as a "one-two punch," but 18 touches per game feels like a reasonable expectation for Mixon.

Noting his presence in an ascending offense, the 27-year-old should post low-end RB1 numbers for at least one more season. He's an interesting value pick for managers waiting beyond the first two rounds to draft their team's primary ball carrier.

Josh Jacobs, RB, Green Bay Packers: Jacobs faced the most stacked boxes (even more than Henry) among starting running backs in 2023, seeing an average of 7.2 defenders in the box. He was also coming off of a career-high 340 carries in 2022, so it makes sense that his rushing efficiency (3.5 YPC) and subsequent production (805 rushing yards and six ground scores) would plummet. Despite the downturn, however, Jacobs managed to finish inside the top 20 fantasy backs in terms of PPR fantasy points per game (13.9), just behind Bijan Robinson and ahead of Tony Pollard.

A move from the desert to the tundra could create a bounce back for the 26-year-old. Still in his prime, Jacobs doesn't just figure to fill the Aaron Jones role in the offense, he's likely to boost the entire backfield. Head coach Matt LaFleur has always been transparent about employing a platoon of backs, as evidenced by Jones' and AJ Dillon's respective snap shares (roughly 60/40 in healthy campaigns) over the past three seasons.

Dillon had a massive opportunity to take over the lead role while Jones was hobbled in 2023, but he failed to capitalize, posting career-low numbers (3.4 YPC) and recording just a single run of 20-plus yards. Green Bay let him test the market in free agency, but when he couldn't find a suitor, Dillon signed a team-friendly deal worth $2.7 million in 2024. Simply put, he's not that dude. The Packers' third-round rookie from this year's draft may be, however. I am skeptical, though.

MarShawn Lloyd is a polarizing prospect. When he booms, he booms hard, as evidenced by his ability to regularly rip off long runs, clearing 10 yards on nearly 21% of his rushes (12th among FBS backs) in 2023. Unfortunately, ball security has been an issue for the former USC Trojan, who recorded eight fumbles on 289 career carries. There is nothing "economical" about Lloyd's playing style, but his diverse skill set (which includes pass-catching potential) is abundant with upside. He has an opportunity to learn and bring the juice to the Green Bay backfield, but the learning curve appears too steep for that to happen immediately.

Jacobs could fade down the stretch. Still, he figures to start the season as an integral part of an up-and-coming offense while running behind an upgraded offensive line. I'll buy the dip on the vet, since the risk is lower due to his fourth-round ADP.

Aaron Jones, RB, Minnesota Vikings: Jones underwhelmed during his final season in Green Bay, hobbled by a pair of lower-body issues for the bulk of 2023. It wasn't until Week 16 that the 29-year-old appeared back to form, lighting up stat sheets with five consecutive 100-yard efforts from Week 16 through the divisional round of the NFL playoffs. After refusing a pay cut offered by his old team, Jones opted to sign a one-year, $7 million contract with the Vikings. Entering his age-30 season, Jones is set up to share the backfield with Ty Chandler.

Speaking of Chandler, the 26-year-old is a fascinating study. He began 2023 behind Alexander Mattison (who was released by Minnesota this past February) before snatching the RB1 gig down the stretch. The speedster out of North Carolina turned on the jets over the final five games of the regular season, averaging 13 carries and 2.3 receptions from Weeks 14-18. Interestingly, Mattison managed 13 attempts and 2.3 grabs during Weeks 1-12 before being supplanted by Chandler after Minny's Week 13 bye.

For his part, Jones has never averaged more than 14.5 carries per game during his career. In fact, he has managed fewer than 13 carries per contest for three straight campaigns. Jones' fantasy upside has, instead, long existed in his prowess as a pass-catcher. He has hovered around 3.0 catches per game for the majority of his time as a pro and finished inside the top 15 fantasy RBs in total receptions in four of his past five seasons.

Given the Vikings' change under center, it's reasonable to believe Jones will be leaned on in the passing game, emerging as a safety value for Sam Darnold and/or J.J. McCarthy. Regardless, he's not going to see more than 12 rushing attempts per contest. In fact, he's likely to top out at 15 total touches per game. Noting the former Packer's advanced age, his recent durability issues, the manner in which Chandler has impressed and the team's downgrade in QB talent, Jones projects as a low-end RB2 for fantasy purposes. This is not a bounce-back to buy.

Austin Ekeler, RB, Washington Commanders: It's a running back reunion. Ekeler penned a two-year deal with the Commanders after an underwhelming final season with Chargers, in which he averaged a career-low 3.5 YPC and recorded just a single receiving score. Anthony Lynn (who was named Washington's RBs coach this past February) was the Bolts' head coach when Ekeler entered the league in 2017. Lynn, a former running back himself, was instrumental in Ekeler's ascent from undrafted free agent to fantasy superstar. It remains to be seen if the duo can once again catch lighting in a bottle.

Ekeler won't shoulder the load in Washington. Rather, the 29-year-old figures to work as a complement to Brian Robinson Jr., who should continue to thrive on early downs and in a short-yardage capacity. Given that the Commanders' offense is very much a work in progress, fantasy managers shouldn't expect Ekeler's rushing efficiency to immediately skyrocket, though an improvement on 2023 is probable. His pass-catching prowess should also be on full display, as he emerges as a safety valve for rookie QB Jayden Daniels.

While it's unlikely that Ek will post the monster numbers he logged in 2021 and 2022, it is my belief there's still plenty left in the tank to deliver low-end RB2 fantasy numbers. After all, Ekeler spent much of last season limited after sustaining a high-ankle sprain in L.A.'s season opener versus the Dolphins. Prior to the injury, which occurred in the second half, he rushed for an electric 117 yards on 16 attempts while also converting four of five targets for 47 receiving yards. Nearly a full season removed from the lower-leg issue, Ekeler should debut in Washington healthy, regaining his speed and burst as a runner.

His volume figures to dip, but with Washington likely to be playing from behind, Ekeler should easily log double-digit touches, padding his stats with grabs. Assuming a return to health, the 29-year-old is on track to flirt with 500 rushing yards as well, making him a top-25 fantasy contender at the position. Value-seeking managers who are willing to look beyond the disappointment of last year can target Ekeler in the ninth round of 12-team leagues.

Follow Liz on social @LizLoza_FF.

Fantasy football: How to value Barkley, Mixon, Jacobs and other RBs on new teams (2024)
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