2021 Fantasy Football Running Back Rankings
BY KEVIN HANSON (@EDSFootball)
Updated: Monday, May 17th
More way-too-early 2021 fantasy football rankings:
- Fantasy Football Quarterback Rankings
- Fantasy Football Wide Receiver Rankings
- Fantasy Football Tight End Rankings
For now, here are our early fantasy running back rankings for 2021 season:
If you drafted McCaffrey first overall in 2020, you likely find little solace that he was fantasy's top-scoring back over the three-week window in which he appeared (Weeks 1, 2 and 9). In those games, however, CMC handled 76 touches including 17 receptions, racked up 374 yards from scrimmage and scored six touchdowns. All of those numbers were either first or second among running backs in that split timeframe.
Before his lost season due to injury, McCaffrey was nearly an every-snap iron man in 2019. Heading into his age-25 season, he remains the top choice for me in 2021 drafts.
Once again, Cook has missed multiple games, but he set career highs in touches (356), yards from scrimmage (1,918) and touchdowns (17) and scored the third-most fantasy points (half-PPR) among running backs. The clear lead back in one of the league's most run-heavy offenses, Cook averaged a career-high 5.0 YPC and has a minimum of 40 catches in each of the past three seasons.
The clear favorite among the top six running backs in my rankings to finish last in receptions, Henry more than compensates for his smaller role as a receiver with his dominant rushing production. Not only is he the back-to-back rushing champion coming off a 2,000-yard campaign, but Henry has led the league in rushing touchdowns in each of the past two seasons with 33 rushing scores in 31 games.
No running back scored more fantasy points in non-PPR formats, but Henry also finished second in half-PPR and third in (full) PPR as well. In other words, the limited passing-game role hasn't hurt his value much, even in leagues that reward a full point per reception.
No running back scored more fantasy points in half-PPR formats than Kamara in 2020. The versatile back had exactly 81 receptions in each of his first three NFL seasons and then set a career high (83) in 2020. That said, he was on pace for a much higher career-best number before Drew Brees (ribs) missed four weeks. The only three games that Kamara failed to reach three catches came with Brees sidelined.
If the Saints utilize Taysom Hill as their starter (although Jameis Winston may be the early favorite), it would likely cap Kamara's upside and lead to more volatility in his weekly production. In the four-game span with Hill under center, 10 running backs scored more half-PPR fantasy points than Kamara. In the 12 games with Brees, Kamara was a top-10 weekly producer in all but one game. In four games with Hill, here were Kamara's weekly finishes: RB25, RB36, RB9 and RB9, respectively.
5. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
As a rookie, Barkley was about as good as it gets. Technically, Todd Gurley was better (fantasy's RB1), but Barkley was the RB2 in his rookie season and led the NFL in scrimmage yards (2,028), scored 15 touchdowns and hauled in 91 catches. Injuries have kept him out of 17 of the team's past 19 games, but if his health cooperates in 2021, he has the skill set to finish as one of the top two or three backs in the league.
6. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
Despite missing four games, Chubb still finished as fantasy's RB9 in 2020. Chubb has finished second and third in rushing yards per game in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Even with the league's best No. 2 back (Kareem Hunt), Chubb has averaged 18.05 touches per game since Hunt returned from his 2019 suspension.
7. Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
Over his final seven games of the season including a playoff loss, Taylor handled a massive 156 touches, racked up 921 yards and scored nine total touchdowns. Excluding that playoff appearance, Taylor ranked top four in the NFL in touches, YFS, touchdowns and half-PPR fantasy points from Week 11 on. Running behind one of the league's best offensive lines, Taylor carries plenty of momentum with him into 2021 even though the Colts re-signed Marlon Mack.
8. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
The offense went off the tracks when Dak Prescott sustained his season-ending injury and the offensive line injuries further impacted Elliott's production. From Weeks 6 to 17, Zeke finished as a top-12 fantasy running only twice in 10 games after doing so three times in the team's first five games. While Tony Pollard may have earned more touches in 2021, Elliott should rank near the top of the league in workload. In fact, only three backs had more than six games last season with at least 20 touches -- Derrick Henry (14), Dalvin Cook (11) and Elliott (11).
9. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
One year after leading the NFL in touchdowns (19, 2019), Jones averaged a career-high 5.89 yards per touch in the league's top-scoring offense. Even though he missed two games and scored eight fewer touchdowns in 2020, he has finished as a top-five fantasy running back in consecutive seasons.
The only real concern with Jones is the tension between Aaron Rodgers and the Packers front office. In the event that Rodgers plays elsewhere in 2021, Green Bay's offense will suffer overall with fewer scoring opportunities for Jones.
10. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
Mixon appeared in only six games in 2020 and he has now missed multiple games in three of his four NFL seasons. That said, Mixon had a minimum of 19 touches in the six games in which he appeared in 2020. Through Week 6, Mixon had more carries (119) than all running backs not named Derrick Henry (123) and was top 10 among running backs in targets (26).
11. Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
Missing a significant chunk of time due to injury and playing at less than 100 percent when returning to the field, Ekeler averaged 5.5 yards per touch and scored only three touchdowns, both of which were career lows. Especially given his immense upside as a receiver, Ekeler is a top-12 running back when healthy.
In his final six games played including the playoffs, Akers averaged 23.8 touches per game as the team's lead back. During that six-game span, the rookie averaged 118 yards from scrimmage per game.
While the Rams will still try to sprinkle in reps for Darrell Henderson as a change-of-pace option, I'd expect Akers to handle in the range of 15-20 touches per game in 2021 as McVay has described Akers as "an every-down back" and a "very special player." With the upgrade of Matthew Stafford over Jared Goff, the offense overall should be improved in 2021.
13. Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team
Before suffering a turf toe injury early in his Week 13 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Gibson had a five-game stretch where he performed as fantasy's RB5, RB11, RB8, RB7 and RB2, respectively. Even without adjusting for Washington's Week 8 bye, only Dalvin Cook and Derrick Henry scored more fantasy points during that stretch. Washington should have improved quarterback play in 2021 and Gibson has tremendous upside in his second season.
14. Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers
The all-time career rushing leader in Alabama history, Harris rushed for 1,466 yards and 26 touchdowns and added 43 receptions for 425 yards and four more scores last season. With few holes in his game, Harris will step in as a Week 1 workhorse.
15. D'Andre Swift, Detroit Lions
Swift was much more involved in the second half of the season and he finished his rookie campaign with 114/521/8 (4.6 YPC) rushing and 46/357/2 (7.8 Y/R) receiving. Swift had three-plus catches in 12 of 13 games and his ability as a receiver gives him the upside to outperform his spot in my rankings.
16. Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks
Few teams want to "establish the run" more than the Seahawks so returning to Seattle on a two-year deal was his ideal landing spot. Even though the Seahawks let Russell Wilson "cook" in the first half of the year, Carson performed as fantasy's RB13 or better in four of the team's five games before their Week 6 bye. In fact, he was a top-five performer through Week 5. Coming out of the bye, Carson sustained a foot injury in Week 7 that kept him out of several games. Carson's physical running style lends itself to a greater propensity to get banged up, but he will likely be undervalued in fantasy drafts this summer.
17. Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
Falling short of preseason expectations, Sanders missed four games and averaged just 3.1 yards per target after his catch rate dropped from 79.4% as a rookie to 53.8% in 2020. Although he averaged an impressive 5.3 yards per carry for the season, Sanders failed to exceed 3.8 YPC in four of his final five games. Even though the team added a number of backs to the roster, several of those will be cut before the season and I'm willing to bet on Sanders skill set.
18. J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens
The Ravens have had a 1,000-yard rusher in back-to-back seasons. Unfortunately (for the team's running backs), that player is quarterback Lamar Jackson.
Dobbins emerged as the team's lead back down the stretch, however, as Mark Ingram was often a healthy scratch. With Ingram now in Houston, the Ravens will continue to roll with the 1-2 punch of Dobbins and Gus Edwards. Either way, Dobbins is the clear lead (running) back. For a team that loves to run the ball as much as the Ravens do, Dobbins offers plenty of profit potential as a mid-RB2 type even if L-Jax may steal some carries at times.
19. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs
Given how productive a third-round rookie (Kareem Hunt) was in Andy Reid's offense just a few seasons ago (2017), Edwards-Helaire, the only first-round running back in the 2020 NFL Draft, was a relative disappointment despite a couple of big performances in the first half of the season. Even so, he has the skill set and draft pedigree to be much more productive in Kansas City's high-powered offense than he was as a rookie.
20. Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals
The former fourth-round pick has averaged 4.4 yards per carry and 7.2 yards per reception over his first three NFL seasons. Meanwhile, coach Kliff Kingsbury has said that Edmonds has "played at a starting running back level" when given the opportunity. With Kenyan Drake out and James Conner in, Edmonds has an opportunity to perform as a back-end RB2 in 2021.
21. David Montgomery, Chicago Bears
Over the final six weeks of the season, Montgomery was absolutely dominant (although that was aided by a soft schedule). Even so, the second-year back scored no less than 19.1 fantasy points and finished no worse than fantasy's RB9 during that stretch. Montgomery exceeded 100 scrimmage yards and scored a touchdown (or two) in all six of those games and only Derrick Henry had more fantasy points during that span.
The return of a healthy Tarik Cohen in 2021 may lead to a few less touches for Montgomery, but he'll be a high-upside RB2 in 2021 and you could easily make the case that he's too low in my rankings.
22. Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
Jacobs was less efficient (4.26 yards per touch) compared to his rookie season (5.02) and was only slightly more involved as a receiver (2.2 receptions per game). That said, Jacobs missed only one game, scored 12 touchdowns (compared to seven in 2019) and only Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook had more touches than Jacobs (306). Despite the drop in efficiency, Jacobs still finished eighth in fantasy scoring in 2020.
Aside from the drop in efficiency, that is the good news. The addition of Kenyan Drake should lead to fewer touches and especially fewer targets. Unless we see a significant drop in Josh Jacobs' fantasy ADP, he will likely be a player that I avoid in drafts this summer.
23. Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars
A two-time ACC Offensive Player of the Year, Etienne surprised many by returning to school for another season, but he was the top-ranked running back on my NFL Draft Big Board. Even if James Robinson gets more touches in Week 1, Etienne is likely to emerge at some point throughout the season as the team's primary back.
24. Myles Gaskin, Miami Dolphins
Gaskin was off to a strong start through Week 8, but he only appeared in three games (Weeks 13, 16 and 17) after that point. Even though he missed six games, he ranked 15th among running backs in receptions (41). In addition, only three running backs had more receptions in the 10 weeks that Gaskin played.
The former seventh-round pick out of Washington has shown the ability to be highly productive and the Dolphins were unable to draft one of the top three backs in the 2021 NFL Draft. While I currently project a first-round running back to the Dolphins in my early 2022 NFL Mock Draft, Gaskin is a viable RB2 for fantasy managers in 2021.
25. Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns
While Chubb (RB9) was a top-10 fantasy running back in 2020, so was Hunt (RB10). Outside of Week 16, Hunt had double-digit touches in all of his other 15 games. Playing in one of the league's most run-heavy offenses, there is enough to go around for both Chubb and Hunt to be drafted as viable starters in 12-team leagues.
26. Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos
Moving up to get in front of the Dolphins for the opportunity to draft Williams, it's likely that Williams emerges as the team's lead back sooner rather than later. The 20-year-old back is a tackle-breaking machine and there is enormous upside if the team could somehow acquire Aaron Rodgers via trade.
27. James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
Robinson had modest performances in Weeks 14 and 15 and missed Weeks 16 and 17. Before that, however, he was the favorite for fantasy football MVP (if such an award actually existed).
As lead back of a one-win team, the UDFA was fourth in half-PPR fantasy points, fourth in YFS and third in touches through Week 13. Even though Robinson has shown that he can be highly effective as the featured back, the addition of a first-round running back takes the sails out of Robinson's 2021 outlook.
28. Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers
Missing half of the season, Mostert finished the year with 677 scrimmage yards (84.6/G) and only three touchdowns on 120 touches (15/G). Mostert has career averages of 5.6 YPC and 10.0 Y/R, but it's possible that Trey Sermon emerges as the team's top fantasy running back at some point this season.
29. Mike Davis, Atlanta Falcons
Filling in for a mostly-injured Christian McCaffrey in 2020, Davis performed as a top-15 (half-PPR) fantasy running back last season. With limited competition for running back touches, Davis will has flex appeal (or more), especially with Arthur Smith (most recently OC in Tennessee) taking over as Atlanta's head coach.
30. Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
Down the stretch in their Super Bowl run, the Buccaneers relied on Fournette as their lead back. In four playoff games, Fournette totalled 448 scrimmage yards and four total touchdowns on his 82 touches including 18 receptions. Going into 2021, Fournette should continue his role as the team's RB1.
31. Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos
Gordon averaged a career-low 4.9 yards per catch, but he was only 14 yards shy of 1,000 rushing yards in his first season as a Bronco. From Weeks 11 to 17, MG3 ranked seventh in touches (120), seventh in yards from scrimmage (618) and ninth in half-PPR scoring. Gordon had his DUI charge dismissed, but it's unclear if he'll face any league discipline. Despite MG3's improved performance down the stretch, Javonte Williams' presence potentially makes Gordon expendable.
32. Ronald Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
The Bucs re-signing Leonard Fournette likely slides Jones back into his secondary role behind Fournette. Despite missing a couple of games and the fact that Fournette emerged as the team's primary back, Jones had his best season as a pro with career highs as a runner -- 192 carries, 978 yards, 5.1 YPC and seven touchdowns. RoJo took a step back as a receiver, however, with a 66.7% catch rate (77.5% in 2019) and 5.9 Y/R (10.0 in 2019).
33. David Johnson, Houston Texans
Johnson's three best games of the season occurred over the final three games of the season -- 18.8 half-PPR fantasy points (RB13), 27.4 (RB4) and 19.5 (RB11), respectively. Outside of that three-game stretch to close the season, Johnson was a more modest performer (when he was on the field), but he finished as a top-25 weekly running back in 10 of 12 games in 2020. The Texans should be one of the worst teams in the NFL in 2021 with an uncertain quarterback situation and the additions of Phillip Lindsay and Mark Ingram further cloud DJ's outlook.
34. Kenyan Drake, Las Vegas Raiders
Josh Jacobs and Drake combined for a total of 570 touches last season as lead backs of their respective teams and that combined number will (obviously!) drop significantly. The Raiders plan to use Drake in a variety of ways including at receiver, but Drake shouldn't be drafted as anything more than a flex option in 2021.
35. Damien Harris, New England Patriots
Harris is a non-factor as a receiver (five receptions in 2020) and that likely won't change much with James White returning to Foxboro. The other major obstacle to Harris being a top-24 option is the presence of Cam Newton, who rushed for six times as many touchdowns as Harris (12 to two) in 2020. While it may not be a six-to-one ratio in 2021, Newton's return limits Harris' touchdown upside for as long as Newton holds off Mac Jones as the starter.
36. Zack Moss, Buffalo Bills
37. A.J. Dillon, Green Bay Packers
39. Trey Sermon, San Francisco 49ers
40. Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys
41. James Conner, Arizona Cardinals
42. Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts
43. Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills
44. Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens
45. J.D. McKissic, Washington Football Team
47. Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears
48. Jamaal Williams, Detroit Lions
49. Phillip Lindsay, Houston Texans
50. Michael Carter, New York Jets
51. Jeff Wilson, San Francisco 49ers
52. Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks
53. Tevin Coleman, New York Jets
54. Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts
55. Benny Snell, Pittsburgh Steelers
57. James White, New England Patriots
58. Matt Breida, Buffalo Bills
59. Mike Boone, Denver Broncos
60. Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
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