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2023 NFL season: Which RBs could break out in Year 2?

Running backs have been in the eye of the NFL storm in recent weeks amid discussions surrounding teams' reticence to shell out top-of-market long-term contracts for players at the position.

While it's a passing league, rushers still play a vital role, generating key first downs, picking up blitzes and even hitting the occasional home run.

The 2022 running back class, which didn't have a first-round selection, was highlighted by two 1,000-yard rushers and included several others who played vital roles for their clubs as rookies. Let's look at how those players could progress in Year 2, with an eye on who has the best chance to make a giant leap in 2023.


Can two 1,000-yard rookies repeat the feat in Year 2?

Kenneth Walker III
Seattle Seahawks

2022 stats: 15 games | 228 att | 1,050 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 9 rush TDs | 27 rec | 165 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 0 fumbles lost

After a slow start to his rookie campaign, Walker hit the gas, zooming past defenders and generating five games of 100-plus rushing yards, including three consecutive such contests to close the regular season. Walker owns the strength to blast through arm tackles and the speed to pedal past defenders, making him a true home run threat. He was the only running back in the NFL with three carries of 50-plus yards in 2022.

To breach the 1,000-yard plateau again, Walker must be more efficient, hitting the hole and not trying to turn every carry into a big play to avoid regression. Last year his 23.7% stuffed rate was the worst among all backs with at least 115 carries, per Next Gen Stats. There were also injury issues that kept him out two games and hindered the back in several others. An early camp groin issue is concerning. Then there is 2023 second-round pick Zach Charbonnet (himself dealing with injury), who could siphon off some of Walker's production.

Tyler Allgeier
Atlanta Falcons

2022 stats: 16 games | 210 att | 1,035 rush yds | 5.0 ypc | 3 rush TDs | 16 rec | 139 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost

The fifth-round pick was a gem for the ATL ground game last season, owning the vision and burst to hit the hole and pick up chunk gains. Of his 1,035 rushing yards, 825 came after contact, per NGS. The BYU product fits well in Arthur Smith's run scheme, and the Falcons' ground-first approach should keep his production from falling off a cliff.

Unfortunately for Allgeier, Atlanta used a first-round pick on Bijan Robinson. You don't use a top-10 selection on a running back to sit him behind a fifth-rounder. Robinson's ability to split wide could lend to two-back sets in Atlanta, getting Allgeier additional reps. Still, he's unlikely to see enough touches, barring injury, to start his career with back-to-back century-mark seasons.

Good to great?

Who can break through and make the leap in Year 2?

James Cook
Buffalo Bills

2022 stats: 16 games | 89 att | 507 rush yds | 5.7 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 21 rec | 180 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 1 fumble lost

Cook offered glimpses of his ability as a rookie, rushing for 5.7 yards per attempt as a power slasher. However, he took just 89 totes in Year 1. The Bills replaced Devin Singletary with veterans Damien Harris and Latavius Murray, but expect Cook to be the primary back. OC Ken Dorsey recently described Cook as an "every-down back":

"Good to have an every-down back that has versatility. He's in there consistently, and it doesn't put the defense antenna up (indicating run/pass). Showed ability to lower his pads, get tough yards."

The Bills will still be a pass-first offense, but Cook provides upside to the rushing attack that they haven't had in years.

Dameon Pierce
Houston Texans

2022 stats: 13 games | 220 att | 939 rush yds | 4.3 ypc | 4 rush TDs | 30 rec | 165 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 2 fumbles lost

Pierce would have hit the 1,000-yard plateau if not for an ankle injury that ended his season after 13 games. The Texans' back displays power, great balance and vision. He might not have blazing speed, but his power through arm tackles allows him to pick up chunk gains. Pierce had 62 forced missed tackles on runs in 2022, fourth most in the NFL, per PFF, and his 28.2% forced missed tackles rate led the NFL.

Pierce's lateral agility should fit perfectly in the scheme OC Bobby Slowik brings from San Francisco. The Texans added Devin Singletary and Mike Boone to the backfield this offseason, but Pierce is a class above. With rookie QB C.J. Stroud under center, expect Houston to turn to Pierce a lot, particularly early in the campaign.

Isiah Pacheco
Kansas City Chiefs

2022 stats: 17 games | 170 att | 830 rush yds | 4.9 ypc | 5 rush TDs | 13 rec | 130 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 2 fumbles lost

Last year's training camp darling took time to find his footing. But when he did, Pacheco blasted off. In the final 12 games, including three in the postseason, he rushed for 830 yards and five TDs on 163 attempts. The bruising runner became what Andy Reid termed the club's "Energizer Bunny." Expect him to get more run in Year 2. Yes, Jerick McKinnon and Clyde Edwards-Helaire are back, and rookie Deneric Prince has received some camp pop, but Pacheco should get most of the early-down and red-zone duties. If he improves in pass protection in Year 2, he should also siphon off some of McKinnon's reps.

Pacheco brings a bully element to the Chiefs' finesse offense. While K.C. will always be a pass-first club with Patrick Mahomes under center, Pacheco can provide a changeup and take advantage of light boxes.

Brian Robinson
Washington Commanders

2022 stats: 12 games | 205 att | 797 rush yds | 3.9 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 9 rec | 60 rec yds | 2 rec TD | 0 fumbles lost

After missing the first four weeks of last season while recovering from gunshot wounds to his hip and leg, Robinson became the Commanders' workhorse. He rushed for 86-plus yards in five of his final seven outings. The 24-year-old power back recently noted he did so without ever feeling fully recovered.

Now nearly a year removed from the injuries, Robinson enters as Washington's clear top back. It’s clear he wants to be more than just a volume runner in 2023 after averaging 3.9 yards per carry as a rookie. The big question is how Robinson's power game fits into OC Eric Bieniemy's system -- something we'll be tracking once preseason action begins. Improving his pass-catching ability would keep him on the field more this season.

Rachaad White
Tampa Bay Buccaneers

2022 stats: 17 games | 129 att | 481 rush yds | 3.7 ypc | 1 rush TD | 50 rec | 290 rec yds | 2 rec TDs | 1 fumble lost

White is primed for a workhorse role following the release of Leonard Fournette this offseason. The Bucs’ only notable addition at the position was low-cost veteran Chase Edmonds, paving the way for White to be the feature back.

Like the entire Bucs' run game last year, White was inefficient and struggled to evade tackles. However, he has the size, at 6-foot, 214 pounds, and solid speed to turn that around. White also boasts good-pass catching ability that should help him be a three-down back in OC Dave Canales' offense. Projected to get the lion's share of the backfield work, White has the chance to stack numbers.

Breece Hall
New York Jets

2022 stats: 7 games | 80 att | 463 rush yds | 5.8 ypc | 4 rush TDs | 19 rec | 218 rec yds | 1 rec TD | 1 fumble lost

Hall was a dynamic dual-threat force through seven games as a rookie until an ACL tear wiped out the rest of the season. When healthy, he flashed jitterbug agility and afterburner speed in space. He's a threat to score from anywhere on the field. The looming question is how he'll return from the knee injury. We've seen backs take time to fully recover from such injuries, notably Saquon Barkley and J.K. Dobbins, in recent seasons. Hall's 2023 season could be a slow-go early as he's eased back in and ramps up. If he's healthy, Hall has extreme upside in the Jets’ offense, particularly as an outlet for Aaron Rodgers, but my expectations are tempered at this point. Then there is Gang Green's dalliance with Dalvin Cook, who, if added, would take pressure off Hall to return quickly and potentially curtail the Year 2 back's production.

Wild cards

Backups who could play a pivotal role, especially if injury strikes.

Malik Davis
Dallas Cowboys

2022 stats: 12 games | 38 att | 161 rush yds | 4.2 ypc | 1 rush TD | 6 rec | 63 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 0 fumbles lost

After cutting Ezekiel Elliott this offseason, the Cowboys only signed veteran Ronald Jones -- who is suspended for two games to start the season -- for a low price in free agency and drafted Deuce Vaughn in the sixth round. Depending on how Tony Pollard returns from his injury, Davis could carve out a role early in the season. He showed some flashes in limited work as a rookie. Assuming Pollard won't get all the reps vacated by Zeke, Davis could be in line for a sizable uptick. Improving in pass protection might also lead to more playing time. Of course, things could change if Dallas adds another veteran rusher between now and Week 1.

Jaylen Warren
Pittsburgh Steelers

2022 stats: 16 games | 77 att | 379 rush yds | 4.9 ypc | 1 rush TD | 28 rec | 214 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 0 fumbles lost

After going undrafted, Warren earned a spot as Najee Harris' backup last season, showing he can be a tough runner with some juice. Warren's play down the stretch (6.2 yards per carry in the final two games) portends an uptick in usage in 2023 behind Harris, especially if Pittsburgh attempts to curtail the wear on its top runner. While Warren's upside is capped as the backup right now, should injury strike Harris, Warren would be in line to become the team’s primary ball-carrier.

Zamir White
Las Vegas Raiders

2022 stats: 14 games | 17 att | 70 rush yds | 4.1 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 0 rec | 0 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 0 fumbles lost

White seemed like a perfect fit in Josh McDaniels' offense as a gasher who can run between the tackles, but he barely saw the field as Josh Jacobs rumbled his way to the rushing title in 2022. White's 2023 outlook all comes down to Jacobs, who has not reported to training camp after he and the team did not work out a long-term contract prior to the July 17 deadline for franchise-tagged players. If Jacobs decides to sit into the regular season, it would open the door for White. Of course, the former fourth-round pick must prove to McDaniels that he's more reliable than veterans Brandon Bolden and Ameer Abdullah. White is a true wild card at this point after flashing last preseason but essentially redshirting his rookie campaign. There is an upside to his game, but he has to see the field first. If Jacobs returns in full form for Week 1, White could be seeing a lot of the bench once again.

Kyren Williams
Los Angeles Rams

2022 stats: 10 games | 35 att | 139 rush yds | 4.0 ypc | 0 rush TDs | 9 rec | 76 rec yds | 0 rec TDs | 0 fumbles lost

Sony Michel's retirement puts Williams in a position to earn the No. 2 role behind Cam Akers. First, he'll have to beat out sixth-round pick Zach Evans, a bigger back, for the gig during camp and preseason action. Williams earned praise last year, but the 5-foot-9 back dealt was plagued by injuries. Sean McVay mentioned Williams as "one of the bright spots" earlier this offseason. Given the youth-movement across the Rams’ roster, it wouldn't be stunning to see Williams get a shot at a more significant role, presuming he can stay healthy. 

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