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Fantasy Football Tiers (2021): Running Back Rankings Explained

Ranking running backs in tiers will help you make better decisions during your fantasy football drafts

UPDATED: September 3, 2021

We are inching closer to the start of the 2021 NFL season, and with that, we're seeing an obvious increase in the number of fantasy drafts. That makes it more important than ever to put your players into positional “tiers.” Unlike my regular player rankings, which you can also find on Sports Illustrated, tiers group players of similar value together. So, if you miss out on a particular player, you can see others on his tier.

Fantasy Football Tiers
Quarterbacks | Running Backs | Wide ReceiversTight Ends

We’ve already looked at the quarterbacks, so let’s check out the running backs next.

Tier 1 – The Elite

  • Christian McCaffrey, Panthers
  • Dalvin Cook, Vikings
Carolina Panthers Christian McCaffrey

McCaffrey and Cook are the consensus No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks in most drafts, and for good reason. While he missed most of last season due to injuries, CMC scored an average of over 30 fantasy points in three games and has averaged 29.6 points in 19 games since 2019. Cook ranks second among running backs in fantasy points scored per game in that time, averaging 22.5 points, including 24.1 last season. Both backs are versatile, have little competition for touches, and project to be superstars once again.

Tier 2 – High-End RB1s

  • Alvin Kamara, Saints
  • Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
  • Derrick Henry, Titans
  • Nick Chubb, Browns
chubbs thumb

You might be asking, “How in the heck is Kamara not on the elite level?" He sure was last season, ranking first in points among runners. But that was last season, folks. In my humble opinion, he will see a decline in touchdowns, and we're still not sure who the Saints quarterback will be in Week 1—it looks like Jameis Winston, but Taysom Hill is also in the mix. Check out other reasons Kamara isn't in the top tier here. Zeke had a poor 2020 season based on his previous high standards, but he'll return to prominence with Dak Prescott back under center. Henry will see a decline in rushing yards after his 2,027 last season, but he's still a top-five pick. Chubb ranked eighth in fantasy points per game among runners last season, and I like him in the middle of the first round.

Tier 3 – Mid RB1s

  • Austin Ekeler, Chargers
  • Aaron Jones, Packers
  • Jonathan Taylor, Colts
  • Saquon Barkley, Giants
New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley (26) is helped off of the field after suffering an injury during the second quarter against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field.

All four of these running backs could finish the season in Tier 2, but for now, they're all being selected as mid-RB1s in most drafts. Ekeler has big upside due to his receiving chops, and Jones has been a top-five runner in each of the last two seasons. Taylor was a top-10 runner as a rookie, and Barkley would be ranked higher if we knew for certain that he would be 100% back from knee injuries suffered in 2020.

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Tier 4 – Low RB1s

  • Antonio Gibson, Football Team
  • Najee Harris, Steelers
  • Joe Mixon, Bengals
Washington Football Team running back Antonio Gibson (24) runs for a touchdown against the Dallas Cowboys during the second half at AT&T Stadium.

As reports suggest, Gibson's stock is on the rise. The Football Team would like to use him like the Panthers use McCaffrey. I'm not sure that will ultimately be the case, but it's good to hear coach Ron Rivera has that kind of faith in his second-year back. Harris has the talent to become a No. 1 fantasy runner for years to come, and he landed in a great spot with the Steelers. Let's just hope their offensive line isn't terrible. Mixon is on the border of the RB1/RB2 and is being picked no later than the middle of Round 2.

Tier 5 – High Upside RB2s

  • James Robinson, Jaguars
  • Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chiefs
  • Chris Carson, Seahawks
  • D’Andre Swift, Lions
  • David Montgomery, Bears
  • Josh Jacobs, Raiders

Robinson's stock is rising after Travis Etienne suffered a season-ending foot ailment in the second week of the preseason. The RB7 a season ago, he will start being picked in the second to third round in redrafts. Edwards-Helaire suffered what is being called a “slight” ankle sprain, so fantasy fans should keep tabs on his status. I see Carson drafted as a high RB2 in some leagues, but he has had his share of injuries, Swift is uber-talented but could lose work to Jamaal Williams, who has been called a "classic A back" by Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn. We all remember how good Montgomery was down the stretch last season, but he faced a line of poor run defenses and had no competition for touches. That won't be the case this season, as  Damien Williams is in the mix for touches. The Bears' offensive line looks bad, too, so D.M. is a RB2 in most drafts. Jacobs was the RB8 a season ago, but the presence of Kenyan Drake has caused his stock to decline. He's being drafted as a low RB2 in most leagues, but I wouldn't be a bit surprised if he were on the high end of this tier at season's end.

Tier 6 – Mid/Low RB2s

  • Miles Sanders, Eagles
  • Gus Edwards, Ravens
  • Mike Davis, Falcons
  • Myles Gaskin, Dolphins

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This quartet of runners all have the potential to be high-end No. 2 fantasy options this season, but they all come with their share of question marks as well. Sanders has the tools to be a solid No. 2 option, but he's dealt with injuries and failed to meet expectations a season ago. Edwards' stock is on the rise with J.K. Dobbins out, so he's now on the RB2 radar. Davis and Gaskin should receive most of the touches for their respective teams, though the latter might end up in a committee in Miami.

Tier 7 – High Upside RB3s

  • Kareem Hunt, Browns
  • Javonte Williams, Broncos
  • Darrell Henderson, Rams
  • Damien Harris, Patriots
  • Chase Edmonds, Cardinals
  • Michael Carter, Jets
Atlanta Falcons Mike Davis

Hunt is second on the depth chart behind Chubb in Cleveland, but the Browns lean on both runners in their run-based system. Harris' stock is on the rise after the trade of Sony Michel. On the flip side, Michel's presence in Los Angeles makes Henderson more of a risk-reward flex option and his situation is cloudy due to injury and the arrival of Michel. Hunt was a top-10 back last season, but Chubb missed four games. Williams, Edmonds, and Carter all have the potential to sneak into the RB2 tiers, but it’s tough to see true featured roles for them to begin the regular season. Williams could be more useful in the second half.

Tier 8– Mid/Low RB3s

  • Raheem Mostert, 49ers
  • Trey Sermon, 49ers
  • Melvin Gordon, Broncos
Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers

Mostert could end up being a bargain in this tier, as many fantasy fans have favored the rookie, Sermon, in the Niners backfield. Harris' stock is rising as the projected top runner in New England, but his ceiling isn't great due to a limited role in the pass attack. Gordon is likely to open the season as the starter in Denver, but Williams looms in what could become a full-blown backfield committee situation in 2021.

Tier 9 – High RB4s

  • Jamaal Williams, Lions
  • Nyheim Hines, Colts
  • Ronald Jones, Buccaneers
  • A.J. Dillon, Packers
  • James Conner, Cardinals
  • Zack Moss, Bills
  • Sony Michel, Rams
  • James White, Patriots
  • Devin Singletary, Bills
  • Leonard Fournette, Buccaneers
Ronald jones

This tier includes many players who are projected to or are competing for secondary roles in their backfields. Hines might be the most consistent back of the bunch, as he was a top-20 runner last season and will see a regular role in the Colts' pass attack. I like Jones to start in Tampa Bay, but Fournette and Gio Bernard will get work. Williams, Dillon and  Conner are all projected to be backups but could have standalone flex value when the matchup is right. Injuries to starters could also vault them into the RB2 conversation. Michel could push Henderson for the starting role in Los Angeles, so his stock is rising in fantasy drafts. Moss is competing to start in Buffalo, but the Bills seem committed to a backfield rotation with Singletary.

Tier 10 – Mid-Low RB5s/Handcuffs

  • Kenyan Drake, Raiders
  • Giovani Bernard, Buccaneers
  • Latavius Murray, Saints
  • Tony Pollard, Cowboys
  • J.D. McKissic, Football Team
  • Alexander Mattison, Vikings
  • Rhamondre Stevenson, Patriots
  • David Johnson, Texans
  • Ty'Son Williams, Ravens
  • Phillip Lindsay, Texans
  • Rashaad Penny, Seahawks
  • Malcolm Brown, Dolphins
  • Joshua Kelley, Chargers

Stevenson has moved up the depth chart in New England after the team traded Michel. Drake's value has tumbled in the offseason, while Lindsay looks like the best bet for fantasy value based on current average draft position data in Houston's backfield. Mattison and Pollard are two of the top handcuff runners in fantasy football.

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Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. Click here to read all his articles here on SI Fantasy. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for your late-breaking fantasy news and the best analysis in the business!

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