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RB Index: Bills' James Cook among six running backs I was wrong about in 2023

We are just days away from Championship Sunday, when the final four remaining teams battle it out for a spot in Super Bowl LVIII. Three of the teams still in contention -- the Baltimore Ravens, Detroit Lions and San Francisco 49ers -- feature top-five rushing attacks, so we can expect plenty of backfield action.

Before we enjoy what should be two epic clashes, though, it's once again time for me to acknowledge my mistakes.

Back in August, I ranked all 32 RB1s heading into the 2023 regular season. As I've done for the past few years, I went back and reviewed that list (and compared it to my end-of-season ranking). Six months after compiling it, I feel decent about my preseason assessment. However -- and as always -- I made several big whiffs.

Here are six running backs I was wrong about in 2023 (excluding guys who missed a good portion of the season due to injury):

Austin Ekeler
Los Angeles Chargers · Year 7

Preseason RB ranking: No. 4  | Postseason RB ranking: No. 29

The Chargers had a poor offensive campaign in Kellen Moore’s first year as coordinator. What was surprising was Austin Ekeler’s lack of production. Injuries decimated the Bolts, who lost quarterback Justin Herbert (he missed four games) and receivers Mike Williams (14 games) and Keenan Allen (four games). The veteran running back missed three games of his own early in the season and was often banged up. The going was definitely not easy, especially toward the end of the year, when Easton Stick was at QB and there was a dearth of other skill-position players to command the attention of opposing defenses. Even so, Ekeler hit an alarming new career low in yards per touch (4.6). More glaring was his reduced impact in the passing game; he finished with just 51 receptions, 56 fewer than last year’s total, despite all those injuries limiting the number of viable targets on the field. Ekeler needs a change of scenery in 2024.

Dameon Pierce
Houston Texans · Year 2

Preseason RB ranking: No. 12 | Postseason RB ranking: Unranked

At the beginning of the season, it looked like Dameon Pierce was poised to build on a promising rookie year in which he gained close to 1,000 rush yards as part of a poor Texans offense. Unfortunately, Pierce underperformed early on, failing to crack 4.0 yards per carry in his first seven starts before an ankle injury sidelined him for three games in November. Devin Singletary started in Pierce’s place and never gave up the starting job, providing Houston’s offense with a more balanced attack and even, at times, a spark (which is why he replaced Pierce in my end-of-season ranking). Pierce logged more than 10 carries in a game just once from Week 12 on, including in the Texans' two playoff games, during which he recorded just three attempts for zero yards combined

Raheem Mostert
Miami Dolphins · Year 9

Preseason RB ranking: No. 25 | Postseason RB ranking: No. 4

Raheem Mostert always had the ability to show out (SEE: his 2019 campaign in San Francisco, when he logged 952 scrimmage yards), but I based my preseason ranking on two things: The Dolphins ranked 31st in rush attempts and 25th in rush yards in 2022, and Mostert was sharing the backfield with a cluster of running backs, including the ever-dynamic De’Von Achane, Jeff Wilson and Salvon Ahmed. But to my delight, Mike McDaniel actually leaned into the rushing attack, a move I didn’t see coming. The Dolphins ranked 15th in rush attempts and sixth in rush yards, and Mostert led the way as Miami's lone 1,000-yard rusher. The veteran also posted 21 scrimmage touchdowns (18 rush, three receiving) in 2023. And honestly, I thought he could’ve done more. Year 10 looks promising.

Cam Akers
Minnesota Vikings · Year 4

Preseason RB ranking: No. 28 (with Rams) | Postseason RB ranking: Unranked

There are two parts to this one. First, I thought Cam Akers would continue the success he had with the Rams late in the 2022 season, despite his rocky relationship with the team. However, Akers managed just 29 yards and a TD on 22 carries in Los Angeles' season-opening win, and then, after he was a healthy scratch in Week 2, the team traded him to the Minnesota Vikings. Akers logged 138 rush yards and a touchdown in six games for Minnesota before sustaining a season-ending Achilles injury in early November. (The Vikings were represented on my end-of-season ranking by Alexander Mattison at No. 32.) 

The Rams turned the backfield over to second-year pro Kyren Williams. He quickly emerged, posting his first 100-yard rushing performance in his third career start. Despite missing a month of action, Williams finished the season tops in the NFL with 95.3 rush yards per game and third with 1,144 rush yards while adding 15 total touchdowns (12 on the ground). When Williams came into the league, I knew he had traits that would carry over from college, but I didn’t expect him to become a top-tier rusher (he was No. 2 on my end-of-year ranking), let alone a focal point of an offense so early on in his career. Williams was so good that Sean McVay leaned on the run game down the stretch to propel his team into the postseason. I love that it happened this way; I just didn’t see it coming.

James Cook
Buffalo Bills · Year 2

Preseason RB ranking: No. 31 | Postseason RB ranking: No. 5

I had reason to believe the Bills wouldn’t lean on new RB1 James Cook and the run game in 2023. After all, they hadn't had a balanced offense for much of the Josh Allen era. But Buffalo replaced Ken Dorsey with Joe Brady as offensive play-caller midway through the season, and Cook began to get his due, in turn helping power a run at the AFC East title. The second-year back recorded 17-plus touches in seven of nine contests (including playoffs) under Brady; he reached that total in just three of 28 games (going back to last season) with Dorsey. In related news, Buffalo went 7-2 when Cook reached 17-plus touches this season (the Bills were 5-5 in all other games). 

After posting pedestrian numbers as the team's RB2 in his rookie season, Cook broke out to the tune of 1,122 rush yards in 2023 -- far and away the most by a Bills running back since Allen was drafted in 2018. His effort earned him a top-five finish in my year-end list.

James Conner
Arizona Cardinals · Year 7

Preseason RB ranking: No. 32 | Postseason RB ranking: No. 7

I'm taking an L for ranking James Conner dead last in my preseason rankings, despite his consistency in Arizona in 2021 and 2022. With the Cardinals splitting the season at QB between solid backup Joshua Dobbs and Kyler Murray (coming back from a torn ACL), they wisely leaned on the Conner-led rushing attack in 2023. And despite Conner missing four games to injury, he had his best campaign to date, reaching career highs in rush yards (1,040), rush yards per game (80) and yards per carry (5), leading to his top-10 year-end RB1 ranking. That efficiency is what helped Arizona surprise some people down the stretch, and it will be a huge building block heading into next season. Back at the end of September, I promised to stop underestimating Conner, and I will stick to that promise.

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