Zach Charbonnet was a player many, myself included, were bullish on heading into the 2023 NFL Draft. Who wouldn’t like a 6-0 214-pound bruiser with juice in the open field and soft hands as a receiver?
We deserved bellcow Zach Charbonnet 😢pic.twitter.com/roQ1Hvoop4
— PlayerProfiler NFL (@Profiler_NFL) May 8, 2023
Charbonnet put up monster numbers in his two seasons at UCLA. He ran for 2,496 yards at Westwood and brought in a whopping 61 receptions in that span. He was expected to go in Day 2 and etched that in stone by going in Round 2. Normally, a running back going in the second round would have everyone extremely excited. This circumstance, however, is different. Let’s dive in as to why that is.
Round 2 Draft Capital
Second-round running backs have been quite successful in their rookie seasons over the past decade. Since 2013, there have been 27 running backs that have been drafted in the second round of the NFL Draft. 14 of those players have averaged at least 11.99 PPR points per game over their rookie season. The fact that 50-percent Round 2 RBs hit this mark isn’t great. However, that still means second round rookie running backs are producing at roughly an RB2 pace in the games they play.
It’s important to consider that rookies typically get eased into action. Luckily, I went through and found out how these rookies fared at the beginning and end of their rookie seasons. I did have to put some caveats in, however. A few of these guys got injured and had to miss a large portion of their rookie seasons. This most recently happened when Breece Hall went down last season. Some just didn’t play a lot, like A.J. Dillon, Christine Michael, and Ronald Jones.
So if you cut it to second-round running backs who played at least 10 games in their rookie season and registered at least 95 touches, our sample goes from 27 to 21. Among those 21 running backs, only three running backs saw the same or fewer number of opportunities in their last five games compared to their first five. Essentially, almost every second-round rookie running back is getting better and seeing more work as the season goes on.
As you can probably gather, this has a positive correlation to scoring fantasy points. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that more chances to score fantasy points mean more fantasy points are going to be scored. The 21 running backs in our sample averaged 8.81 PPR points per game over the first five games of their rookie season. That was basically the RB44 last season in points per game. However, over their last five games? That number shot up to 14.41 PPR points per game. Aaron Jones scored roughly 14.45 PPR points per game last season, which ranked as the RB12 in that scoring format last season.
Of these 21 running backs, 10 of them averaged at least 13.98 or more PPR points per game in the last five games of their rookie seasons. So essentially, while second-round rookie running backs tend to start slow, many of these guys turn the pendulum and become outstanding fantasy producers right in the thick of fantasy title races. This is good for Zach Charbonnet, right?
Charbonnet going in the second round of the NFL Draft was really good for his fantasy upside. However, the team who drafted him didn’t do Charbonnet many favors. The Seattle Seahawks just drafted burgeoning star Kenneth Walker in the second round last year. A franchise using at least a second-round pick on a running back in consecutive drafts doesn’t happen all that often. The only other time it’s happened since 2010 was in 2014 when the Bengals drafted Jeremy Hill a year after drafting Giovani Bernard. It’s only happened two other times since 2000.
Still, there aren’t many examples of teams using second-round or better picks on running backs in consecutive drafts, so I’m going to expand the parameters and look for examples of teams selecting running backs in at least the third round of consecutive drafts. That sample size expands to seven instances since 2010 but drops down to five among the duos to actually play with each other. The data from this group isn’t going to be the most glamorous for the Charbonnet truthers.
First, let me explain this table. The first three columns after ‘seasons played together’ are showing the number of times both members of the running back duo finished as RB1s, RB2s or better, and then RB3s or better in PPR scoring based on last season’s PPR points per game finishes. In 2022, the RB12 averaged 14.4 points, the RB24 averaged 11.9 points, and the RB36 averaged 10 points. That’s fairly explanatory.
Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill
The next three columns illustrate the sheer number of RB1 finishes from at least one member of the duo while playing with their running mate. So on and so forth for RB2 and RB3 finishes. For example, Giovani Bernard and Jeremy Hill both were at least RB2s based on 2022 scoring in 2014. Bernard would’ve been the RB12 and Hill the RB18. So they add a tally to the ‘Both ≥ RB2.’ Bernard adds to the ‘Individual RB1′ column, and Hill adds to the ‘Individual RB2′ column.
As you can see, there is only one instance out of 16 seasons where a running back duo consisting of running backs drafted on Day 2 of consecutive drafts both finishing as at least RB2s in the same season. On an individual level, this would make 32 respective seasons (2 x 16 = 32) of Day 2 running backs playing with fellow Day 2 running backs. Of these 32 instances, there were only two (6.25-percent) RB1 finishes based on 2022 PPR scoring. There were just five (15.6-percent) RB2 finishes.
Before you go writing Kenneth Walker and Zach Charbonnet‘s obituaries, I have to point out some caveats. I think it’s a safe bet to say Kenneth Walker is already better than anybody I just named earlier in that table. Charbonnet is likely just as good or better than anybody as a prospect entering the NFL. We’ve seen both members of talented running back duos be very successful together. The best example I can remember was Mark Ingram and Alvin Kamara both being awesome for fantasy in Kamara’s rookie season.
Two running backs in one backfield both being fantasy relevant has become more of a trend in recent years. Since 2019, six running back duos both finished as at least RB2s in PPR points per game: Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt (2019-21), Austin Ekeler and Melvin Gordon (2019), Tony Pollard and Ezekiel Elliott (2022), and D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams (2022). Chubb and Hunt were a great duo, but Chubb’s ceiling was certainly impacted by Hunt’s presence. He did finish as an RB1 in points per game in all four years he split a backfield with Hunt, but here were his finishes: RB11, RB8, RB12, and RB6. No one is going to complain about an RB11 and RB12 finish, but that isn’t the difference-maker you hope Chubb can be with an early-round draft pick.
The other three instances required outlier touchdown seasons for the runner-up to keep up inside the top 24. Melvin Gordon, Ezekiel Elliott, and Jamaal Williams combined to play 44 games in the seasons listed above. They scored 37 rushing touchdowns in those games (Gordon added a receiving touchdown).
Remember how awesome Austin Ekeler was while Gordon held out? He averaged 26.5 points per game in those games. When Gordon came back? 16.75 points per game.
Tony Pollard scored 33.7 and 21.8 points in the two games Ezekiel Elliott missed last season. That’s 27.75 points per game. That number fell to 13.81 points per game in the games Elliott played.
D’Andre Swift averaged 11.9 PPR points per game despite the Lions not trusting him with a full workload. Imagine if he got half of those 17 touchdowns Jamaal Williams scored. No need, I’ll show you. If you gave Swift eight of Williams’ touchdowns, Swift jumps from the RB16 to the RB6 in PPR points per game in 2022.
The evidence points to the contrary, but it is absolutely possible both Walker and Charbonnet shine for fantasy purposes in the same backfield.
The Seahawks’ offensive DVOA was already No. 14 last season according to Football Outsiders. Then, they added the best wide receiver prospect in this year’s class with the selection of Jaxon Smith-Njigba. There will be plenty of opportunities for Kenneth Walker and Zach Charbonnet to score points.
But when it comes to ceiling, the evidence points to the contrary. There’s no question that both Kenneth Walker and Zach Charbonnet are impacted. If Charbonnet is the primary receiving back and saps a couple of carries away from Walker, it’s just going to make it tougher for Walker to reach the fantasy level compared to his contemporaries. Walker registered only 35 targets in 15 games last season. That number ranked No. 34 among running backs last season.
Charbonnet vs Walker
I’m not telling anybody to fade Kenneth Walker or Zach Charbonnet in 2023. For all we know, both are draftable. Walker might still be the RB1 we thought he’d be coming into the 2023 NFL Draft. Charbonnet is perhaps the new Tony Pollard pre-2022. He could be the very talented running back that goes in the double-digit rounds and has massive contingent value in the event of an injury to the starter. For the 2023 season, that’s about what Charbonnet’s value is, and that could pay dividends if circumstances break right for him. Walker, however, should drop from an unimpeachable RB1 to a borderline one. I’m not sure you’re getting the most bang for your buck drafting him over a wide receiver like Devonta Smith, Tee Higgins, Chris Olave, or D.K. Metcalf.
This current situation in Seattle isn’t very common, and we don’t know yet how it will pan out. The few instances we have of two Day 2, let alone Round 2, running backs sharing a backfield have not frequently amplified both running backs to fantasy stardom. In fact, they’ve mostly dragged both into the mud. Let’s hope that’s not the case with these two.