As is usually the case, the chatter coming out of the 2023 NFL Draft focused primarily on the rookies.
That makes sense. They are the new, shiny toys that have all the potential in the world and no pesky past performances for the cynics to attack.
Draft weekend can be equally important for the veterans, however, and this year was no exception, especially at the running back position.
Veteran Winners From 2023 NFL Draft
Geno Smith – Seahawks
Smith already won when he signed a three-year, $105 million contract with $40 million guaranteed earlier this offseason, but the draft also worked out well for him.
Not only did the Seahawks skip picking a quarterback, but they also drafted another high-end receiver, Jaxon Smith-Njigba at No. 20 overall.
They followed that up by spending yet another second-round pick on a running back, so there may be nothing to read into the JSN pick.
Adding another receiver to DK Metcalf and Tyler Lockett, however, suggests Smith will see at least the same volume as he did last year when the Seahawks finished fifth in neutral pass rate (59%) and eighth in pass rate over expected (1.5%).
Regardless of what happens to the volume, Smith-Njigba should ensure the Seahawks use more three-receiver sets after utilizing 11 personnel on just 52.8% of their snaps last season, the seventh-lowest rate in the league.
Rhamondre Stevenson – Patriots
Stevenson is one of many veteran backs who dodged rookie anchors over draft weekend.
Stevenson already dominated the backfield work last season, seeing 61.6% of the backfield touches and 59% of the running back carries.
Some of that came down to Damien Harris missing time, but Harris now plays for the Bills, and there is not a ton behind Stevenson on the depth chart.
James Robinson was brought in this offseason, but beat writers are already leaving him off their roster projections.
Sophomores Pierre Strong Jr. (fourth-round pick) and Kevin Harris (sixth-round pick) did not force their way onto the field as rookies, and they do not appear to be real threats to Stevenson’s claim as the clear lead back.
Looking like the clear lead back in what should be a better offense under an actual offensive coordinator, the sky is the limit for Stevenson.
Tony Pollard – Cowboys
There was some concern Pollard could find himself in a committee with Bijan Robinson following the draft, but Robinson did not even make it out of the top 10, and Dallas’ only addition to the backfield was Deuce Vaughn in the sixth round.
Vaughn is a great story and easy to root for, but it is tough to imagine him meaningfully eating into Pollard’s workload.
Ronald Jones was added over the offseason, but nothing he has done over the last couple of seasons suggests he is going to make a real push for carries.
The Cowboys could add one of the veteran backs still available in the free agent market – they have been linked to Leonard Fournette – but Pollard is sitting pretty right now.
Pollard has seen his touch total climb every season of his career. More importantly, his per-touch efficiency has not fallen off with that extra work.
His 5.9 yards per touch ranked fourth among running backs with at least 100 touches last season.
Touchdown regression will come for him this season – Pollard scored six more touchdowns than expected based on his usage last year – but more carries and targets should help offset that, especially if his efficiency remains high.
Rachaad White – Buccaneers
White’s spot was more tenuous than Stevenson’s or Pollard’s coming off a disappointing rookie campaign, but he also escaped draft weekend without any significant new competition – Sean Tucker, who the Bucs signed as an undrafted free agent, is worth watching.
It is important to note how much White struggled last year. He finished 45th among 51 qualifying running backs in yards per touch (4.3), 41st in EPA per run (-0.12), and 49th in yards after contact per rush.
The reality is he was not any better than Leonard Fournette, who remains a free agent.
Chase Edmonds is not as big of a threat as a highly-drafted rookie would have been, but White will have to play better to establish himself as the No. 1 option.
Still, White’s outlook is rosier coming out of the draft.
Samaje Perine – Broncos
With Javonte Williams’ early-season availability truly up in the air, the Broncos were expected to add to their running back group in the draft.
They did not do that, however, leaving Perine in a great position to open the season as the starter if Williams is unable to make it back in time.
Denver spent heavily on the offensive line in free agency, the offensive environment should be better with Sean Payton calling the shots, and Perine showed well when he was asked to start for the Bengals last season, averaging 5.2 yards per touch on 48 opportunities.
Gabe Davis – Bills
Davis struggled last season, finishing 48th among qualifying receivers in yards per route run (1.44) and logging the fifth-highest unrealized air yards (air yards – receiving yards).
The Bills looked likely to add some receiver help over the offseason, but the only new additions were Deonte Harty – who does carry some sleeper appeal – and fifth-round rookie Justin Shorter.
Buffalo should use more 12 personnel after drafting Dalton Kincaid in the first round, but Davis remains the favorite to be the second receiver on the field in those packages.
Perhaps Harty or 2022 fifth-rounder Khalil Shakir pushes him for that No. 2 spot, but Davis would have been on much shakier ground if the Bills had spent early draft capital on a receiver.
As it stands, his spot looks relatively secure.
Irv Smith Jr. – Bengals
Given how deep the tight end class was, it is surprising the Bengals did not add anyone to compete with Smith.
Even better, The Athletic’s Paul Dehner wrote Smith “looks entrenched as the starter” coming out of the draft.
Smith was limited to eight games last season and did not play at all in 2021 because of a knee injury.
He caught a total of 91 passes over his rookie contract with the Vikings, and his career 1.13 yards per route run would have ranked 38th last season among tight ends.
The Bengals targeted their tight ends on 15.5% of their attempts last season, the third-lowest rate in the league.
There are a lot of reasons to be skeptical about Smith turning into a usable fantasy option, but his spot on the depth chart does not appear to be a concern.
Veteran Losers From the 2023 NFL Draft
Ken Walker – Seahawks
The easiest addition to this list, Walker watched as the Seahawks spent a second-round pick on Zach Charbonnet, generally regarded as the third-best back in the class.
Walker was as boom-or-bust as any running back last season with 12.7% of his carries going for at least 10 yards (9th) and 23.7% of his attempt going for zero or negative yards (2nd).
That is not surprising given what was expected from him coming out of college, but it could explain why the Seahawks were interested in bringing in another option.
Pete Carroll also talked up Charbonnet’s ability in the passing game.
While the rookie’s receiving ability might be overstated given how he was used in college, Walker finished 68th in yards per route run among backs last season and was never expected to be a plus receiving option.
From Week 6 on, Walker averaged 20.5 touches per game last year.
With Charbonnet – and to a lesser extent seventh-rounder Kenny McIntosh – on the depth chart, it would be surprising if he saw that kind of workload again this year.
Raheem Mostert – Dolphins
Mostert is coming off a good season in which he touched the ball 212 times in 16 games and finished with over 1,000 yards from scrimmage.
His role did take a hit after the Dolphins brought in Jeff Wilson, but he still saw 10 touches per game after the trade.
Now, though, he faces additional competition from third-round pick Devon Achane, a player Mike McDaniel reportedly “lobbied heavily” for in the draft room.
Moreover, Achane looks like a younger version of Mostert. Look at each back’s profile coming out of school:
- Mostert: 5-foot-10, 195 pounds, 4.38 40, 1.49 10-yard split
- Achane: 5-foot-8, 188 pounds, 4.32 40, 1.49 10-yard split
Mostert’s playing weight is almost certainly higher now, but Achane fits the mold as an undersized but lighting fast back that should be able to take advantage of the space created by this running game much like Mostert has throughout his career.
15.9% of Mostert’s career runs have been for 10 yards or more, a mark that would have ranked third last season. 20% of Achane’s college runs went for 10 yards or more.
Achane may be just an understudy this year that does not affect Mostert’s touch total, but the Dolphins spending a third-round pick on the same type of back is a concern.
Michael Pittman – Colts
There are two things to be concerned about for Pittman coming out of the draft.
First, the addition of Anthony Richardson adds some uncertainty to the passing game, assuming he starts the majority of his rookie season.
The book on Richardson is he struggles with his accuracy, needs some time to develop, and will be able to create with his legs.
All three of those things are bad for Pittman as they will likely lead to less passing volume.
Second, the Colts added Josh Downs in the third round.
Indy lost Parris Campbell in free agency, so there are 91 targets for Downs to step into, but he still offers stiffer target competition than Pittman faced before the draft.
The glass-half-full view is the quarterback play cannot get any worse, and a better-functioning offense could lead to a better target profile for Pittman.
Pittman was 80th among 87 qualifying receivers in air yards per target last season via TruMedia. He was 69th in intermediate target rate (11-19 yards) and 83rd in deep target rate (20+ yards).
Getting more work down the field could offset any accuracy and volume concerns about Richardson.
Rashod Bateman – Ravens
After playing 18 games in two seasons, Bateman now faces target competition from Odell Beckham and first-round pick Zay Flowers.
Bateman’s small sample efficiency looked good in 2022, but two long touchdowns accounted for 46% of his yards.
As a rookie, he finished 63rd out of 90 qualifying receivers in yards per route run.
Bateman has first-round pedigree and may simply have gotten unlucky with injuries his first two years, but this looks like a make-or-break situation for the third-year receiver.
Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson – Falcons
The Falcons were outstanding running the football last season.
They finished fourth in EPA per rush, fifth in rushing success rate, and ninth in yards before contact per rush.
Allgeier was equally good, finishing first in EPA per rush while averaging 4.9 yards per carry. Patterson was eighth in EPA per rush and averaged 4.8 yards per carry.
Unfortunately for both, none of that matters anymore after Atlanta selected Bijan Robinson with the No. 8 overall pick.
The presence of two good options could be seen as a negative for Robinson, but this feels similar to the situation with the Jets last season.
It was not as good as Allgeier, but Michael Carter had a solid rookie year. Even so, Breece Hall quickly established himself as the lead back before his injury, and he was “just” a second-round pick.
Travis Etienne – Jaguars
Etienne did not take nearly the hit Walker did, but the Jaguars spending a third-round pick on Tank Bigsby is at least worth noting.
Doug Pederson talked about adding people to the backfield ahead of free agency, and Bigsby offers a bit of a different power skill set that matches well with Etienne.
If Bigsby is just a run-of-the-mill complement, then there is nothing to worry about. Still, there has to be at least some concern Etienne could lose some goal-line work.
Dawson Knox – Bills
As mentioned with Gabe Davis, the addition of Dalton Kincaid likely means the Bills will utilize more two-tight-end sets moving forward, and Knox should remain on the field in those looks.
Any kind of competition, however, is bad for Knox, who finished 14th in per-game scoring among tight ends last season despite scoring two more touchdowns than expected given his usage.
Knox has also consistently been inefficient on a per-route basis and finished 22nd among 28 qualifying tight ends in yards per route run last season.
It is difficult to make a case for Knox as draftable in standard-sized leagues.