Fantasy Football 2021: Running Backs

There are many ways to win in fantasy football, but the most tried and true template for success is drafting 1-2 RB in the first two rounds and then drafting WR over the next few rounds. The position I don’t like to find myself in is where I feel forced to go RB in round three. This year, and every year, the WR available between 20-35 in ADP are pretty much guaranteed points. They’re number one receivers who are locked in to receive the lion’s share of targets on their teams. The only real obstacle to a good season for one of these guys is injury. This is not the case with these third tier running backs. The runners still available between 20-35 start around RB13. The backs in this range are extremely talented, but they tend to be in time shares which can negatively impact their numbers or they’re getting solid opportunities in bad offenses. If you want a Clyde Edwards-Helaire, D’Andre Swift, or JK Dobbins, you pass up the likes of Justin Jefferson, Terry McLaurin, and Keenan Allen. I can see these runners losing opportunities for any number of reasons, but the only way these wideouts don’t produce is personal injury or their quarterback going down. Otherwise, they’re going to see well over 100 targets each year and they’re immune to game scripts and backfield committees. I’m not saying never take a running back in this range, but history shows the bust rate is higher than it is for a legit WR1.

Christian McCaffrey Seems practically unstoppable in a fantasy football sense. The Bucs held him to 22 touches and 88 total yards and he still managed to score 24.8 points in their match-up last season. After 724 touches in 2018/19, last year’s injury may have been a small blessing. Tanned, rested and ready to assume his place atop fantasy football again. In over 850 NFFC drafts, he hasn’t gone lower than third and he’s been the top pick overwhelmingly.

When healthy, like he has been the last two years, Dalvin Cook is the best pure runner in the NFL. He’s also in the perfect scheme for his skill set. Elite receiving options make it hard to stack the box on him. Schedule suggests he will get off to a blazing start. I wouldn’t strongly consider anyone else for the second pick. I’m not a guy who handcuffs 100% of the time, but you must draft Alexander Mattison if you take Cook.

Here’s the first tough decision. I lean slightly toward throwback Derrick Henry third this year. Only one game with fewer than 18 carries. Eight games with 24+ carries. The high volume combined with the violent running style should concern me, but it doesn’t. Maybe it’s because 4 of his five 200-yard rushing games since 2018 have happened after December 1st. I just don’t think this would be possible if they were grinding him down. To paraphrase that homeless Batman Rorschach: “He’s not locked up in there with them; they’re locked up in there with him.”

Alvin Kamara outscored Derrick Henry last season and was more consistent on a weekly basis, too. The problem is Kamara averaged over 25 points a game in 2020, but under 15 PPG from weeks 11-14 when Brees was out with broken ribs. I’m confident Kamara can get his numbers back up with Winston under center, but I want to see him do it first. Latavius Murray had a brutal camp and is no longer the auto-cuff he has been in the past. Tony Jones, Jr looks like he may supplant Murray on the depth chart.

We drop down a tier now.

Nick Chubb is primed for a fantastic season. He’s on the more favorable side of a backfield split with Kareem Hunt, though Hunt catches most of the passes, which does limit Nick’s numbers somewhat. He hasn’t averaged fewer than 5 yards per carry in any season and his 5.6 mark last season was a career high. Chubb runs behind arguably the best O line in football and he faces a favorable schedule this season.

Jonathan Taylor is reminiscent of those smackover tailbacks from the ‘70s. Straight-line speed for days and more wiggle than you expect. He also acquitted himself much better as a receiver than anyone could have anticipated coming out of Wisconsin. Taylor got stronger as the season went along, and he thrived under the increased workload. Taylor faces a favorable schedule, and his offensive line takes great pride in establishing the running game. Marlon Mack could bleed away enough carries to be a pain in the ass, but he’s not the type to make waves if he’s not getting the ball enough.

Ezekiel Elliott has been worked way harder than any other back in the NFL during his five-year career. 1,654 touches in five seasons, plus another 607 touches his final two seasons @ OSU. Zeke has always handled the heavy workload well, but last season, he showed serious signs of wear and tear. His performance dropped off across the board and he fumbled 6 times, losing five. He is another player who depends on a healthy Dak Prescott, as his numbers dropped off precipitously when Prescott was injured last season. All four of Zeke’s 20+ point weeks last season came with Dak in the lineup. This is very worrisome. Tony Pollard is still around, and he outplayed Zeke when he was on the field in 2020. He out-gained him 4.9 to 4.4 in yards per touch and Pollard has just one fumble in his NFL career. Just too many red flags for me at Elliott’s current ADP of fifth overall. I did draft him seventh on one team and that will probably be the only exposure I have this season.

As I’ve mentioned once or 80 times, I was pissed when the Broncos ignored Eaton product Austin Ekeler as a UDFA in 2017 and I’m sure they have regretted their lack of due diligence as well. 2017 would have been the nadir of Elway’s career as an executive if Joe Flacco never happened. I digress. Ekeler seems priced about right at his current ADP of 11. The Chargers are changing head coaches and coordinators and Larry Rountree III looks like a mild threat to his carries, but there doesn’t seem to be much reason for concern. If Ekeler could outplay Melvin Gordon, I’m sure he can hold off this youngster, at least for now. Ekeler’s value is decreased significantly in non-PPR formats.

Aaron Jones keeps rolling on. 3,007 yards from scrimmage and 30 touchdowns the last two seasons. I could easily see someone bumping him up ahead of Elliott or Ekeler, each of whom he outscored the last two years in fantasy football. The one caveat is the emergence of rugged AJ Dillon. A much more dynamic player than previous Jones handcuff/fantasy nemesis Jamal Williams. Much more dynamic. Had the Packers not resigned Jones, it’s likely that Dillon would have been a top 20 pick this year. He’s way bigger than Jones, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see Dillon start to siphon off goal line duties. Consider rostering Dillon in the round ten range even if you don’t have Jones. He has standalone value and he’s a league winner if Jones get hurt.

It’s a testament to Saquon Barkley’s rare ability that he could very easily finish the season as RB1 despite a raft load of red flags. Yes, he has had some injuries, but Dalvin Cook and others had that rep and shook it, and physically he’s simply on a different level than just about anybody. The Giants O line was poor last season and veteran Kevin Zeitler isn’t returning. On the positive side, Andrew Thomas is having a dominant camp and he looks like the player New York thought they were drafting in 2020. Like last year, Barkley is the most boom or bust player in fantasy this year

One of the reasons I disliked the Melvin Gordon signing was that I knew it meant we would ignore the large number of pass catching backs available in the 2020 draft, with Antonio Gibson being one of the most exciting prospects. He flourished as a running back last season after hardly carrying the ball in college. WAS has expressed interest in using him in a Christian McCaffrey role. This is all well and good, but Gibson was barely involved in the passing game last season, so I’ll need to see it to believe it. I’ll bet most people don’t know JD McKissic had 80 receptions last season, or that he led all running backs in targets. He’s still around and agitating for work. Going from Alex Smith to Fitzmagic will greatly reduce both runners looks in the passing game, but McKissic’s very presence will cost Gibson targets again. Gibson is going at the peak of his value in NFFC leagues but seems like a guy who may slide a bit in more casual leagues. Terrific value later in round two, but a small leap of faith at the turn.

Najee Harris is another back who is going at an ADP that might make it hard to squeeze out any value, but he’s an interesting proposition. Every concern about him, such as Pittsburgh’s deteriorating O line is negated somewhat by something positive, like the massive workload he’s projected to receive this year. Harris is not a breakaway back but he’s still a tremendously gifted athlete, with plus attributes in size, length, and toughness. He will also benefit from Pittsburgh’s loaded WR corps, which should keep the loaded boxes to a minimum. I took him @ 18 in one draft and feel okay about it. Might be my only share, though.

Rarely does one go into a draft targeting Joe Mixon, yet we’ve all wound up with him more than once. How does this keep happening? Every year, we hear that Mixon is ready to break out. This year, it’s because Giovanni Bernard is no longer around to pilfer passing downs, but personal draft favorite Chris Evans is already looking like Bernard’s successor in that role and sledgehammer Samaje Perine returns as well. Basically, you need to start two running backs every week in fantasy and Mixon is a relatively high-volume option in a league that is de-emphasizing single back backfields.

Few backs with the label workhorse remain. We’ve reached the point where people reach for need at RB while passing up near certain value @ WR. Taking any of these next few runners over Terry McLaurin, for example, just makes you feel bad. You may feel worse when they begin to deal with workload issues. That said, if all breaks right, one of these guys could give you 1,700 total yards. Let’s get started.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire was incredibly hyped last season and I did some of the hyping. Louis Riddick, in particular, made an ass of himself by declaring CEH the number one pick in fantasy football last year. Thankfully, I was more restrained than that. Some of the excitement made sense, seeing the success Andy Reid has had with less talented backs and CEH’s skill set seemed like a perfect fit for his offense. His contributions on offense were sporadic, though. His reception total was especially disappointing. He’s already dealing with a sprained ankle. He just makes me uneasy this year and I will probably not own him.

JK Dobbins was a versatile, dynamic playmaker @ OSU, and nothing has changed in the NFL. The muscle packed Dobbins was a workhorse in college and extremely durable (way to lay the whammy on this kid). 725 carries in three years, including 301 as a junior. He’s also in an offense that runs the ball like no other. So what’s the problem? One is the presence of burly and almost hilariously underrated Gus Edwards, who has never averaged under five yards a carry in the NFL. The other is his goal line TD pilfering quarterback. Not only does Lamar kill RB value in the red zone, but he also doesn’t throw the ball to his backs, like, at all. He targeted running backs a total of 50 times last season, all of them combined. Dobbins saw a pitiful 24 targets last season. When most quarterbacks decide to dink and dunk, Jackson tucks and runs and that’s not going to change anytime soon. Unfortunately, it’s probably time to take JK off your draft board for 2021 and time to bump Edwards up a few rounds.

D’Andre Swift is another great college back but unlike Dobbins, he wound up with a team in transition. Like Dobbins he’s an excellent back with three down capabilities and the Lions figure to run the ball a lot under Dan Campbell and Anthony Lynn. Except game scripts have a way of changing those plans and the Lions figure to trail a lot. Jamaal Williams is on board to siphon touches and make us nervous about the goal line. Swift missed some time this summer with a groin injury. I own him once this year, but the red flags and the amazing WR available in his ADP range make extra shares unlikely.

If you had a viable team in week 12 last season and you also had David Montgomery, congratulations on winning your league. He was a bad mofo down the stretch, but it should be noted he received volume that is unsustainable, and he faced a string of terrible defenses and teams that were in the process of giving up during his dominant stretch. He’s a solid back, ideally in an RB2 role, but don’t be fooled into thinking he unlocked another level last season because that probably didn’t happen.

I prefer the lesser resource cost of the following backs.

I was a big James Robinson fan prior to Etienne’s injury, and I certainly don’t like him any less now. Except for that three round discount disappearing. He’s not spectacular but he does everything well, including the little things that make you want to keep him on the field.

I think we’ve all got our own opinions on how Javonte Williams and Melvin Gordon will split carries this season. Williams looks like a complete back. Gordon showed he’s healthy against the Rams. I personally think Williams will have more carries and more receptions when it’s all said and done but they’ll each be worth owning.

Chris Carson has never played a 16-game slate, but I would hesitate to call him injury prone. He’s really quite dependable and he’s on a team that always talks about throwing more and then finishes top five in carries. Or do they? Last season, Seattle changed things up and wound up middle of the pack in carries. There are reasons to believe the offense will be more balanced moving forward. There should still be plenty of opportunities for Carson but be aware that he’s likely to miss a game or two during the season.

Miles Sanders has worlds of talent, but he has been a disappointment in fantasy so far. Knee, hamstring, and ankle injuries have hindered him, and the Eagles kept him languishing in a committee under Doug Pederson. It doesn’t look like he has a single back role in store this year, either. First, there was talk that he and Boston Scott might receive an equal split in carries. That was nonsense, but I do believe rookie Kenneth Gainwell and Scott will combine to siphon off a not inconsiderable amount of work from Sanders. He also faces the mobile quarterback conundrum, which means vultured goal line looks and fewer checkdowns. Talented dude, but too much uncertainty on this team.

There is another drop-off now. Committees as far as the eye can see. A couple of these cats could seize and hold the yeoman’s share of work on their teams but I’m not betting big on it. This is not to say there aren’t guys worth owning here, but most of them will need a little luck to be big factors in fantasy football.

Josh Jacobs has proven to be a far less dynamic athlete then he seemed to be at Alabama. He is a pretty tough dude, but he has ridden volume to 14th and 8th place finishes among running backs the last two years. The large contract given to Kenyan Drake means that Jacobs’ volume figures to take a significant hit. Jacobs was always an afterthought in the passing game, so he will surely lose those reps. Drake is much more attractive in round 11 than Jacobs is in round five. I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see Drake outscore him this season.

Mike Davis will be on his sixth NFL team in 2021 and it will be the first time he goes into the year as the number one running back. I’m rooting for the Thigh Master; his owners will be asking for a running back breakout season at the age of 29. This cat is trying to say hello when it’s time to say goodbye. Mike can juke you, but he can’t run away from you afterwards, like, at all. On average, Mike must carry the ball 50 times before he’ll spring one for more than 15 yards. The saving grace is he has soft hands and he’s a dependable receiver. Much more viable in PPR.

All crowded backfields from here on out.

You just knew the Rams weren’t going to let Darrell Henderson shoulder that much of the load this season. Drafted as a shaky scheme fit, then quickly supplanted by Cam Akers, the Rams have always made it plain that they don’t trust Darrell very much. Sony Michel arrives in exchange for some of those hated draft picks and I see another crab bucket situation here. Woods, Kupp and Van Jefferson are going to be the backbone of this offense.

Kareem Hunt has standalone value and is an automatic top ten back if the unspeakable happens.

Good place to reiterate that AJ Dillon is another standalone talent who becomes an elite option if Jones goes down.

One sad thing about fantasy sports is some guys you champion one year, you often find yourself trashing the next. I come not to bury Myles Gaskins but to praise him. He gets everything possible out of a limited athletic profile. And the Dolphins gave him all he could handle last season, both before and after the sprained MCL that segmented his season. Gaskins also saw his 2019 season end due to a high ankle sprain. It’s unlikely Gaskins will see a beefy 18.3 touches per game again this year, and I doubt he could hold up to that workload if he does. Plugger Malcolm Brown has arrived and he has nearly 30 pounds on the 194 pound Gaskins. Presumably he will also have all the carries inside the five. To further complicate matters, Salvon Ahmed looked more than capable when he got some chances last season. I’m avoiding Gaskins and Brown and snagging Ahmed after round 20.

You must go back to LeGarrette Blount in 2016 for the last time New England produced an RB1 in this offense. Damien Harris has James White taking all his passing downs and he will soon be sharing reps with Rahmondre Stevenson and possibly JJ Taylor. No interest in Harris at that price, but I have drafted Stevenson in the late teens a few times.

Nobody was buying into it when AZ tried to tell people Chase Edmonds was in for a three down role this season, except maybe Chase. James Connor is a pretty good partner for him. Edmonds will own passing downs and Connor will get short yardage and goal line. The Cardinals don’t give Edmonds any red zone work at all. Up-tempo offense, but another touchdown hog at quarterback. Unlike many of his scrambling brethren, Kyler Murray does check down to his backs with frequency. I’m not rushing out to own either of these dudes, but either could be a useful depth piece.

I was talking up Trey Sermon pretty good during the season last year. This list is already loaded with OSU products and this another good one. Strong kid with plus contact balance and a chip on his shoulder. Raheem Mostert really let me down last season. He was explosive as hell when healthy, reeling off a 76-yard TD reception and an 80-yard TD run in his first 30 touches. Unfortunately, he only had 62 touches through 10 weeks due to injuries. Already 29 years old, it looks like he missed the boat.

Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette are locked in a time share and now Giovanni Bernard has arrived to take all the passing downs. Ke’Shawn Vaughn also lurks. Jones and Fournette are each worth owning, but their respective upsides are capped. The Bucs don’t have many carries to go around in this WR driven offense. I am avoiding.

Zack Moss and Devin Singletary are going to split carries and Josh Allen is going to keep most of the goal line gold for himself. Since Josh came to town three years ago, he has 25 rushing touchdowns and all Buffalo running backs combined have a meager 15. Good luck bucking this trend.

I would rather own Phillip Lindsay than David Johnson, but the correct answer is to own neither. This is going to be a wretched offense and the culture of this franchise is severely twisted.

Michael Carter’s fantasy stock has cratered recently but he’s still the most talented, albeit most unproven, back on the Jets roster. Tevin Coleman is 28, which can be kind of old for a speed back. He has never tolerated a heavy workload. Ty Johnson and La’Mical Perine are present as well. The only one of these guys I would even consider rostering is Carter. He had a terrific career at UNC and there’s no reason to believe he won’t find success in the NFL. If the coaching staff is this committed to an extensive RBBC when the season starts, it’s possible Carter simply won’t get enough chances. I think it’s more likely that he flashes enough to take over as the primary back.

Nyheim Hines isn’t a handcuff, and he isn’t in an RBBC. If the unthinkable happens, Marlon Mack will slide in as the primary back. Hines gets enough action on third down to be a decent depth piece for the Colts.

If I missed anyone you’re interested in hearing about, let me know. The voluminous WR Primer will be the next and last installment this year.