The top running backs will get snapped quickly in the first and second rounds this season, with fantasy owners hoping to land Christian McCaffrey with the first overall pick. Each starting running back is profiled on their team outlook.
This season the top running back class has plenty of depth and strength at the front of the first round. Five running backs have ADPs inside the first six draft selections, while Austin Ekeler settled in as the sixth-best option based on his mid-August ADP (7.8).
RB1 (Ranked 1st to 12th)
Stud of Studs
Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
In 2019, McCaffrey dusted the running inventory, leading to 471.20 fantasy points in PPR leagues. In addition, he outscored any combination of two backs that ranked 12th or below. Last year, injuries led to only three games (374 combined yards, six touchdowns, and 17 catches). His success supported his previous ceiling, setting the stage for him to be drafted first overall again in 2021. If McCaffrey plays at a high level, the other 11 teams won’t have much room for error if they want to compete for their league championship.
Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
The progression of Cook continues to be on the uptick when adding that he has never played over 14 games in his four years in the league. He has over 300 touches in back-to-back seasons (303 and 356) while maintaining a high floor in scoring (29 touchdowns over his previous 28 games) and being active in the passing game (53/519 and 4/361/1). His game screams upside, but I would make sure to handcuff him with Alexander Mattison to ensure an entire season of the Vikings’ run game. Cook may match McCaffrey in touches and scoring, but he’ll fall well behind him in catches.
Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
Multiple questions are pulling at Kamara’s value in 2021. First, how much will the loss of Brees hurt his value in the passing game? Second, if Taysom Hill starts, will he snipe more rushing touchdowns and lower the overall value of the Saints’ passing game? Third, how does the injury to Michael Thomas affect how defenses play New Orleans? Lastly, is the better fit at quarterback Jameis Winston? His floor in his four seasons in the league has been 81 catches while scoring 58 times in 60 matchups. Kamara brings consistency and upside in a proven system.
Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans
No running back has repeated elite success after gaining over 2,000 yards in a year. On early downs, Henry is the best in the game and an excellent player at the goal-line (35 touchdowns over his past 31 starts). He has also improved his rushing yards each season in the league. His next area of growth needed is in the passing game (18/206/2 and 19/114 in 2019 and 2020). Henry finished 2020 with 397 touches. His physical style points to another top-tier season.
Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Dallas has the offensive tools to be one of the best offenses in the leagues, but the right shoulder issue of Dak Prescott does put a damper on his expectations in August. He enters his sixth season while averaging 23.3 touches over 71 games. Volume remains his friend, and a healthy season by Prescott could set the stage for a bump in scoring.
High-Floor PPR Pass-Catchers
Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
There is a good chance Ekeler finishes behind Christian McCaffrey for the second-most running back catches in the NFL in 2021. Injuries led to six missed games last season while still looking to get a more significant piece of the early-down carries for the Chargers. A rising young quarterback also adds his mid-first-round draft value. Los Angeles will use him as a top-two option to move the ball, setting a high floor each week in PPR formats.
Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
This summer, the Giants have slowed down the Barkley fantasy roll by suggesting that he may miss some games or see limited action out of the gate. His draft value (ADP – 15) in this scoring format reflected a few drafts when multiple drafters placed Barkley in the avoid column after the Giants floated the idea that he may miss the first three games. Barkley is my comeback player, with the skill set to finish as a top-two running back in 2021.
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Youth & Upside
Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
After Carson Wentz and LG Quenton Nelson suffered similar foot injuries over the summer that required surgery, Taylor lost some momentum in drafts. He finished his rookie season with an uptick in play over five games (672 combined yards with eight touchdowns and nine catches), highlighted by his success in Week 16 (30/253/2). His talent supports an explosive career, but Indy will rotate in two other backs, leading to some frustrating games. I prefer him as a mid-second round player, but his ceiling is high if the Colts fully commit to him on three downs.
Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team
The only thing holding Gibson from reaching impact status is the lack of a franchise quarterback. He brings a three-down skill set, but Washington wants to use J.D. McKissic on passing downs after setting career-highs in catches (80) and receiving yards (589). Gibson came to the NFL with experience at running back and wideout. On the rise, and he belongs on the field on all three downs. On the positive side, an excellent defense should invite many runs for Washington this year.
Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers
The themes that echo in fantasyland about the Steelers over the summer are a poor offensive line and Ben Roethlisberger’s age (39). Harris gives Pittsburgh a big back to improve the run game. This franchise has a history of riding one running back, giving Harris a chance to out-touch some backs drafted in front of him. Harris has breakout upside, and he’ll pound his way to some big games.
Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns
On early downs, Chubb is on par with Derrick Henry for explosiveness, supported by gaining 5.2 yards per rush over 40 games. The addition to Kareem Hunt helps keep him fresh, but it also lowers his ceiling. Last year, Cleveland used him on about two-thirds of their plays on early downs while seeing minimal role on passing downs (16/150). Chubb has early first-round talent but a second-round opportunity, so be careful not to overpay.
Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
Despite finishing second and fifth in PPR RB scoring over the past two seasons while averaging 5.2 yards per rush over 54 games, no one fights for Jones in drafts. The Packers rotated Jamaal Williams over the last four years. Even with him out of the picture, Green Bay added a power running back (AJ Dillon) in the second round in 2020. Jones offers scoring ability and the ability to deliver some explosive games. Dillon will be a problem at the goal line, but less of a factor passing downs.
RB2 (Ranked 13th to 24th)
Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
The Bengals have a league-leading talent in the passing game once their young quarterback and talented wide receivers arrive. They still have questions about their offensive line, but Mixon should thrive when finding space at the second level of the defense. His ADP (23.6) ties him to 2/3 turn on many drafts. He has three-down ability with an uptick in chances expected on passing downs. Cinci doesn’t have a back on the roster to push Mixon to the bench on many plays, so his ceiling comes down to how many touches he can handle.
J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens
In his second season, Dobbins moved to RB1 status in the Ravens’ offense. Unfortunately, he still has Lamar Jackson stealing plenty of runs and scoring chances, and Gus Edwards is going away. Nevertheless, Dobbins has a more steady feel while being on a path for about 250 touches. Baltimore will have him on the field on thirds, but his catches don’t project higher than 35 catches.
Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams
After the injury to Cam Akers, Henderson jumped up draft boards. The Rams won’t give him a full ride, but he does bring explosiveness. His ADP (52) looks viable for the right team structure while waiting to see his potential ceiling in catches and scoring.
Breakout Running Back of the Year
Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs
I left Edward-Helaire off my breakout team, but I’ve kept him in my thoughts as a potential breakout player of the year. He checks all the boxes a fantasy owner should be looking for in drafts – high profile offense, third-down ability, and favorably priced (ADP – 23.6). For anyone wanting to listen, I’ll fight for Edwards-Helaire in drafts while expecting him to be a sensational second piece to the fantasy puzzle.
Value Rookie Running Back
Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars
In 2020, the Jaguars delivered a top 10 running back (James Robinson – seventh PPR RB scoring), which came over 14 games of action. Jacksonville upgraded the quarterback position in the offseason while also investing in Etienne with the 25th overall selection. He already has ties to Trevor Lawrence, and the new coaching staff placed their winning bet on him. A fantasy owner should focus on his pass-catching ability while understanding his role should improve as the season moves. I would not let him slide past the fifth round in any 12-team PPR leagues.
Mike Davis, Atlanta Falcons
I can’t get my head around drafting Davis in any fantasy league. Volume should be his friend early in the year, but his inability to make big plays puts him in a grinder role with job loss risk. Davis caught 59 passes last year, but he gained only 6.3 yards per catch. I would only consider him in the eighth or ninth rounds, which is below his current ADP (55).
RB1 & RB2 ADP Final Thoughts
After the first 60 picks in PPR leagues in 2021, there will be 24 running backs drafted, forcing the wide receiver strong owners to chase at the running back position. I’d suggest a fantasy owner review the running back options over the first five rounds. If possible, grab an elite edge at RB1 while finding the right balance to add a second running back while developing an impactful foundation at the wide receiver position.
If you cheat the RB2 position, it is essential to get a feel for possible handcuffs. I know every fantasy owner would love to have depth at the running back position, but most fantasy teams will be lucky to own two playable running backs if they want to be competitive at the other positions on their roster.
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Senior analyst Shawn Childs is a multi-sport, high-stakes fantasy legend with lifetime earnings in the high six-figures. He has been providing in-depth, analytical break downs for years all while helping his subscribers to countless titles and winnings across season-long & DFS. A inaugural inductee of the NFBC Hall of Fame, Shawn can teach you how to prep like a champ!
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