Fantasy Football: Breakout candidates at running back for 2024

2TB6C9W Indianapolis Colts running back Zack Moss (21) runs the ball during the second half of an NFL football game against the Tennessee Titans, Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/George Walker IV)

• Two new team RB1s share similar paths to success: Both Zamir White and Zack Moss are set to become full-time starters in 2024, and maintaining those roles will be crucial to their fantasy success this season.

• Envisioning the unlocked potential of Tyjae Spears: Is there more meat on the bone than just being a receiving down back for Spears after an encouraging rookie season?

• Get a head start on fantasy football: Use PFF's fantasy football mock draft simulator to create real live mock draft simulations to get ready for your live draft!

Estimated reading time: 13 minutes

For the running back position, volume is king and these breakout candidates are all expected to see a larger workload in 2024, which should put them on a path to fantasy success. There are also a few others who were considered, but calling them a “breakout” didn’t quite feel right and will be highlighted at the end.

A few qualifiers before diving into this year’s candidates

  • Running back must not have exceeded 200 PPR fantasy points – finished as an RB1/high-end RB2 in any previous season.
  • A significant jump in overall fantasy finish or fantasy points per game is expected, not just an incremental improvement.
  • We’re looking for at least 200 PPR fantasy points/12.5 PPR points per game in 2024.
  • No rookies. Let’s make things more challenging than that. A list of rookies that will make a fantasy impact in Year 1 can be found here (spoilers: there are no rookie running backs on that list either).
Here is a list of players over the past decade who fit the above criteria before delivering their breakout season:
Player (Breakout Season) Pre-breakout Year Fantasy Points Pre-breakout Year Fantasy PPG Breakout Year Fantasy Points Breakout Year Fantasy PPG
Isiah Pacheco (2023) 139.0 7.9 215.9 15.4
James Cook (2023) 107.8 6.3 228.6 14.3
Rachaad White (2023) 144.8 8.2 258.6 16.2
Kyren Williams (2023) 30.5 3.4 257.0 21.4
Rhamondre Stevenson (2022) 116.9 9.6 251.2 14.7
Tony Pollard (2022) 156.6 10.8 248.8 15.6
David Montgomery (2020) 174.4 10.7 264.8 17.7
Aaron Jones (2019) 173.4 14.3 319.8 19.7
Dalvin Cook (2019) 156.0 13.8 296.4 20.9
Nick Chubb (2019) 194.5 12.2 261.2 15.9
James White (2018) 134.0 9.6 276.6 17.3
Joe Mixon (2018) 145.3 10.1 243.7 17.4
Carlos Hyde (2017) 196.1 11.6 235.8 14.6

Volume matters more than all else for the running back position in fantasy football. The opportunity to touch the ball must be great in order to produce, which is one of the more obvious statements to make, but one that remains important as a reminder when talking about potential breakouts.

Here is what past recent breakout running back’s workloads looked like before their breakout year, and during their breakout season:
Player (Breakout Season) Carries per game pre-breakout Breakout year carries per game Targets per game pre-breakout Breakout year targets per game
Isiah Pacheco (2023) 10.0 14.6 0.7 3.6
James Cook (2023) 5.6 14.0 2.1 3.1
Rachaad White (2023) 7.6 15.8 3.3 4.1
Kyren Williams (2023) 4.4 19.0 1.4 3.9
Rhamondre Stevenson (2022) 11.1 12.4 1.4 5.1
Tony Pollard (2022) 8.7 12.1 2.9 3.1
David Montgomery (2020) 15.1 16.5 2.1 4.2
Aaron Jones (2019) 11.1 14.7 2.7 4.2
Dalvin Cook (2019) 12.1 17.8 4.0 4.4
Nick Chubb (2019) 12.0 18.6 1.7 2.8
James White (2018) 3.1 5.9 4.8 7.3
Joe Mixon (2018) 12.7 16.8 2.4 3.8
Carlos Hyde (2016) 16.4 16.7 2.0 2.5

Zamir White, Las Vegas Raiders

2023 fantasy points (PPR RB rank) 2023 PPR points per game (RB rank) 2023 carries per game 2023 targets per game
62.8 (RB60) 4.5 (RB60) 5.6 1.1

The Raiders went from relying on Josh Jacobs for 21.9 opportunities (carries plus targets) per game in 2023, right into relying on White for 23.8 opportunities per game to close out the last four games of the season when Jacobs was injured. The Raiders have already shown confidence in White to handle a significant workload, and that confidence appears to have been solidified by not drafting or signing any significant competition for touches this offseason. The only notable additions to the running back room this offseason have been Alexander Mattison — one of the league’s most inefficient backs from 2023 — and Dylan Laube, a sixth-round rookie pick, who is a fine rookie sleeper, but far from the favorite for playing time at this point.

Of course, 23.8 opportunities per game is a high number for someone like White to maintain across an entire season. That mark would rank as the best rate in the league last season, over Christian McCaffrey, Kyren Williams, Saquon Barkley, and even Jacobs who he’s replacing — some of the top workhorses in the league. That being said, the Raiders are set to rely on him pretty heavily where coming in just under 20 opportunities per game wouldn’t be a surprise, and that alone puts him comfortably in the weekly fantasy starter range by default.

Hold the starting job

The Raiders' lack of depth at the position really keeps this from being too complicated for White to break out as long as he sits atop the depth chart, but as an inexperienced NFL starter, he still comes with risk should he underwhelm in that role. Josh Jacobs had a down year in 2023, averaging 3.5 yards per carry that ranked 34th among 38 qualifying running backs and still, this Raiders team stuck with him for a significant workload every week. However, Jacobs comes with more pedigree and NFL success than White, so the leash may not be nearly as long if White delivers similar inefficiency.

Luckily, White looked decent in his limited starts in 2023, averaging 4.7 yards per carry across four games (tied for 15th) and earning a 73.9 rushing grade over that stretch (tied for 18th). White ranked as the overall PPR RB9 over those final four games, without even posting league-leading efficiency metrics. White isn’t an exceptional NFL running back, nor was he an exceptional prospect coming out of college but considering the expected workload, he doesn’t need to be exceptional to find fantasy success. Of course, every little bit helps but just being good enough to maintain his spot atop the depth chart and the potential workload that comes with it puts him well within breakout consideration for 2024.

Zack Moss, Cincinnati Bengals

2023 fantasy points (PPR RB rank) 2023 PPR points per game (RB rank) 2023 carries per game 2023 targets per game
164.5 (RB29) 12.7 (RB25) 13.7 2.7

Moss, much like the previously mentioned White, replaces a workhorse running back without significant competition for touches. Moss will step in for Joe Mixon as Cincinnati’s lead back in 2024, inheriting a likely similar role that led to no worse than a PPR RB13 finish in five of the last six seasons for Mixon. Moss, also like White, doesn’t come with the NFL pedigree as his predecessor, but the concept is the same — his team might not have much more of a choice but to rely on him in a similar manner, which ultimately correlates to startable fantasy production.

Moss also had stints as a starter in 2023 where he was able to provide encouragement that he can be an effective fantasy producer. He started six games with the Indianapolis Colts and averaged 23.7 opportunities per game, delivering 16.8 PPR fantasy points per game over those starts, which includes two top-five weekly finishes at his position. Moss shouldn’t be expected to carry that same workload in 2024 with a new team after Mixon averaged 18.9 opportunities per game last season. Around 15-16 opportunities per game should be enough to help him outperform his current ADP as RB32 and break out in 2024.

Become Joe Mixon-lite

Mixon has been one of the most solid and reliable fantasy assets for the running back position these past several seasons and has almost always finished as a PPR RB1 by season's end. Nobody is expecting Moss to necessarily finish as a top-12 fantasy running back, especially considering his ADP, but by making the most of his opportunities with the Bengals and leading that backfield in carries and even targets, he’ll have a shot to get there on any given week.

Moss has flashed potential in limited opportunities throughout his career, earning a solid 83.3 career rushing grade, which ranks 25th among 46 qualifying running backs over the past four years, and not too far off from Mixon’s 86.0 (20th). Of course, Mixon accomplished this on double the workload, but Moss has at least shown an ability to be effective with his touches, having also earned 0.20 missed forced tackles per attempt (12th) and a 23.3% first down/touchdown rate (20th) over that span among the same qualifying running backs.

Inherit and convert Mixon’s goal-to-go opportunities

The Bengals are expected to be one of the top offenses in the NFL this coming season with Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase and Tee Higgins set to lead the way once again for an entire season. Because of this, the touchdown potential in this offense will be above average for players like Moss, who is projected as the team’s lead running back. 

Last season, Mixon led all running backs in goal-to-go carries (31), converting eight of those opportunities into touchdowns, which ranked 20th in first down/touchdown rate (min. 10 carries). The conversion rate bar isn’t set that high for Moss, with leading the NFL in those opportunities being the more difficult feat to replicate. Because of that, Moss will have to prove worthy of those opportunities early in the season so he can continue to be trusted in those situations for the rest of the year. Last season, Moss was given 16 goal-to-go carries and converted three touchdowns, so the hope will be that with more offensive weapons for defenses to hone in on, he’ll find more success than that in 2024. With those high-value fantasy opportunities combined with his overall opportunity to touch the ball, Moss has potential weekly RB2 value in Cincinnati, in line for a clear breakout season. 

Tyjae Spears, Tennessee Titans

2023 fantasy points (PPR RB rank) 2023 PPR points per game (RB rank) 2023 carries per game 2023 targets per game
132.1 (RB35) 8.3 (RB44) 6.1 4.0

Among these three breakout running back candidates, Spears has arguably the most difficult path to touches after the team signed Tony Pollard to a healthy three-year contract this offseason. However, there is a path for Spears to break out in a similar way as James White back in 2018. White, much like Spears, was averaging between four and five targets per game and only around three carries per game prior to his breakout season. White increased his carries per game closer to six, which is where Spears already was as a rookie in 2023, but his targets per game increased significantly, which would be the biggest benefit for Spears in delivering breakout fantasy production in 2024.

Spears has a shot to increase his carries this season because Pollard isn’t the competition for touches that Derrick Henry was for an unproven rookie, which would lead to the greatest breakout outcomes for Spears in Year 2. Getting to, or close to, double-digit carries per game and an increase in targets would move Spears from locked-in flex territory to a weekly RB2. While this is the more difficult outcome to achieve considering Pollard’s contract and history of being a good running back, it’s also not impossible.

Maintain his strong level of play into Year 2

Spears has competition for touches in the Tennessee backfield and one of the ways that he can improve his chances of getting to the top of the depth chart, is by not just performing as well as he did as a rookie, but by taking another step and being even more effective with the ball in his hands. Even without the ball in his hands, Spears proved himself as a rookie, earning a 79.6 pass-blocking grade, which ranked second among all running backs.

As a runner, Spears earned a top-five mark (min. 100 carries) in missed tackles forced per attempt (0.26) and ranked 11th in yards after contact per attempt (3.1). He provided similar effectiveness as a receiver, ranking second (min. 100 routes run) in missed tackles forced per reception (0.52), and 11th in yards after contact per reception (3.7). He also earned a top-10 receiving grade (74.6) and a top-25 rushing grade (77.8). He has a great shot to keep that going into Year 2, which would help him achieve the next step needed to break out this season…

An increase in opportunities, either as a runner or receiver (but preferably both)

Spears could very well just maintain his 6.1 carries per game from last season, but as discussed earlier, performing well only helps his case for more carries. Ultimately, it may come down to more targets and receptions as the offense finds more success in the passing game, specifically an improvement from quarterback Will Levis, as highlighted in breakout quarterbacks.

Part of the belief in Will Levis breaking out and improving in Year 2, comes from him being coached toward more high-percentage throws, and there isn’t anything more high-percentage than the low ADoT targets of a running back. Levis already showed a top-three tendency to target the running back position last season (20.4%), so leaning into that more in order to cut down on the many deep throws would be crucial for a jump in Spears' fantasy production.


De’Von Achane, Miami Dolphins

Achane broke out as a rookie in 2023. He didn’t finish with more than 200 PPR fantasy points, but averaging 18.0 points per game across 10 games is a large enough sample and a strong enough output that he shouldn’t, in good conscience, be on any 2024 breakout list. The argument will be that there is room for him to get more carries and touch the ball more in general across a full season, which by itself is fine. But again, after RB1 points per game numbers across more than half a season, he far exceeds any of the previous qualifying breakout candidates listed at the top, where fantasy managers won’t need help with that low-hanging fruit. And, if anything, he is poised for regression in his efficiency, even if/when he does increase his workload.

Kenneth Walker III, Seattle Seahawks

Walker will have a new coaching staff this coming season, with new offensive coordinator Ryan Grubb coming over. Given Grubb’s history, the Seahawks still project as a pass-heavy offense. Grubb’s Washington Huskies ranked well above average (53.4%) in the FBS in pass play percentage (61.1%) across his two seasons there (2022-2023), which helped lead the team to a national championship appearance this past season. Given Walker’s lack of usage on passing downs where he averaged just 2.3 targets per game last season, his overall opportunity for touches may not increase enough to provide that significant production boost to be considered a breakout in 2024.

There is certainly room for improvement in Walker’s fantasy finish and points per game totals, but after an already decent-sized workload in 2023, averaging 16.7 opportunities per game, and finishing as the PPR RB20, the projection for improvement isn’t significant enough to be considered a breakout. He also had 202.5 PPR points in 2021 so he didn’t technically qualify.

Jaleel McLaughlin, Denver Broncos

McLaughlin was great in small spurts last season, earning some very strong PFF grades as both a runner (82.8) and a receiver (85.2); however, it’s difficult to believe he’ll step into a significantly larger role this season considering some of Sean Payton’s other options out of the backfield. 

Payton has historically relied on bigger, thicker running backs as his team leads, all being at a minimum of 215 pounds, whereas McLaughlin doesn’t even crack 190 pounds. Both Javonte Williams, who is coming off a down year recovering from an ACL injury, as well as Audric Estime are in the 220-pound range. It would be surprising to see McLaughlin absorb goal-line opportunities given this discrepancy, which takes away significant value from his fantasy potential. While he can earn a larger role as a receiving back, on what may be a below-average offense, there isn’t too much more to get excited about for McLaughlin in 2024, but well worth a shot to outperform his current ADP (RB53) at the very least.


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