Fantasy Football 2021 Running Back Rankings + Projections

After taking a look at the top-40 quarterbacks for the upcoming fantasy football season, it is time to turn our attention to the premium position: running back.

As a position that dominates the early rounds of the draft, it is generally imperative that your running back room is at a position of strength. There are only so many players who are guaranteed a high workload, making the range of points scored at the position much greater than others.

With that, I am excited to publish my 2021 running backs rankings! In addition to ranking the top-40 quarterbacks for the upcoming fantasy football season, I have placed them in tiers in order to give a better idea of the perceived gap between each player. With this being such a critical position, having these players properly aligned can be the difference between winning and losing one’s respective league. Who will lead your team to the standings in 2021? Let’s dig in!

Overall Strategy

Utilizing research and analysis from our deep dive on the correlation and stability of key metrics, here are some takeaways that are important when it comes to ranking quarterbacks:

  1. Rushing production is very difficult to predict, meaning that volume is key.
  2. Receiving production, on the other hand, is much more stable, making it a priority in PPR leagues
  3. Touchdown luck varies greatly year-to-year
  4. To best project touchdowns, identify who is likely to get goal-line carries on each team, as well as which offenses will be in position to score most often
  5. Offensive line can often play a greater role in rushing production than the running back himself.

As you’ll see, I place a high priority on volume, dual-threat ability, and a favorable situation to make the most of each touch given. This allows us to not only give us players with high floors, but those likely to have the type of high-end weeks that can you’re looking for.

Additionally, based on my PFF grade projections for the upcoming season, I was also able to take into the account a few other notable metrics when it comes to each running back’s situation. 

First, listed in each running back’s average opposing run defense grade projection, ranked from most difficult to easiest schedule:

I don’t generally pay too much attention to running back strength of schedule, but it can be useful when they are great discrepancies. Since running backs don’t have a significant amount of control over their rushing production, they certainly would be subject to benefitting from favorable schedules. With the Colts and Browns both featuring a well-regarded running back, this is something to keep an eye on. What matters most for rushing success, however, is the projected strength of each team’s offensive line:

Not only do the Colts and Browns have the easiest projected strength of schedules, but they also feature the top run-blocking offensive lines. This is a strong indicator that the running backs of those two teams will likely perform well in terms of efficiency. On the other hand, the Giants face a difficult schedule and don’t field a great offensive line, which is less than ideal.

Finally, utilizing previous research, I also was able to construct projections to forecast each running back’s anticipated fantasy output per game. These projections will continue to be updated as we inch closer to the season:

Nevertheless, projections are seemly a mean outcome of a running back’s success. Whether it’s the confidence level in said projection, the range of outcomes present, or other factors that may cause their future production to not line up with past years, they should not be expected to be 100% accurate. Rather, they provide the foundation to rankings. With that in mind, let’s rank the top 100 running backs for this upcoming fantasy season!

Statistics Courtesy of Pro Football Focus

Tier 1: The Undisputed Cream Of The Crop

Photo via Sports Illustrated

#1: RB Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

He’s back! Christian McCaffrey obviously wasn’t able to meet expectations last year as the top player drafted due to injuries, but with him at full health heading into this season, he remains the clear top option. In 2019, his 26.1 expected fantasy points per game not only led the pack, but the difference between him and second place (20.9) was the same difference as second place and 13th place! Heck, even in the three games he played this season, he still led the league in expected points per game (24)! There really is no flaw in his profile; he’s the premier receiving back in the league, is projected to continue to have a massive workload, and has consistently been utilized heavily in touchdown situations. I know this did not go as planned last year, but don’t let that stop you from taking advantage of the opportunity to secure such a high-end talent!

Tier 2: Top-Notch Players You Shouldn’t Hesitate To Draft In The First Round

Photo via Sports Illustrated

#2: Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

I came close to placing Cook within the first tier, but his 5 yards per attempt last season being higher than his career 4.7 number, it feels like you’re buying him at his highest point- I’d expect his efficiency numbers to decline somewhat. That said, he still ranked #1 in expected fantasy points last season, and also almost certainly will finish amongst the league leaders in rush attempts. Even if his efficiency goes down, that volume is just too much to ignore when comparing him to the players listed behind him

#3: Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

Coming off of a season shortened by a torn ACL, there is some reason to be worried about a slow start for Barkley, especially behind a poorly-projected offensive line. Nevertheless, he’s going to be the workhorse in New York, and Daniel Jones has not been shy to give him an extensive amount of targets. You’d love for him to have more projected touchdown opportunities, but the dual-threat volume will be tough for others to match.

#4: Ezekiel Elliot, Dallas Cowboys

Last season wasn’t an optimal outcome for Ezekiel Elliot, but let’s not recency bias prevent us from overlooking what I believe will be a top-five finish at the position. In fact, if you look just at expected points per game, Elliot finished as the deserved RB4 last year. What caused this discrepancy? Per PFF, he was expected to have twice the amount of touchdowns (12.2 xTD vs 6 TD), and I wouldn’t anticipate him losing six fumbles again. He’s going to get a lot of carries, benefit from being on a team that will score a lot of touchdowns, and is almost certainly going to see positive regression from a career-low 4 yards/attempt. I like the sound of that!

#5: Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

Just in terms of overall aesthetics, there might not be a more fun running back to watch than Alvin Kamara. His elusiveness, scheme diversity, and dual-threat ability have made him one of the top running backs in the league, and he should continue to be moving forward. Unfortunately, without Drew Brees to supply him with around 100 targets and likely touchdown regression, it’s hard to have as much faith in him as usual. I doubt head coach Sean Payton is going to let a player they just paid $75 million to be underutilized, but there’s some risk here that you generally worry about when picking at the top of the draft.

#6: Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers

Running back injuries really did take over last year, huh? Hopefully, Austin Ekeler can stay healthy for all 17 games this season, because his potential is through the roof. His 18.4 expected fantasy points per game (excluding a Week 4 game he left early) would have ranked 5th for the season. He’s an underrated runner who has produced after contact, gets the benefit of a very improved offensive line, and also is a likely candidate the lead all running backs in receptions. We’re talking about as high of a floor as there is combined with the upside of his efficiency being better than ever. That’s quite intriguing.

#7: Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Derrick Henry. Since he doesn’t much of an impact as a receiver, his fantasy value comes exclusive from his rushing production, but it’s likely that ticks down this year. Not only is it silly to assume that he’ll repeat last year’s 5.4 yards/carry, but he’s also thrived based on extreme touchdown luck (33 in the past two seasons), while he’s also entering the season (age 27) where workhorse running backs generally start to see their performance decline. The likelihood he receives 300+ carries keeps him as a tier-2 option, yet this feels like a scenario where you’re buying into a player for what he’s done in the past, rather than what he’ll do in the future.

Tier 3: Could Very Well Finish as Top-5/10 RBs, But Some Risk

Photo via 1070 The Fan

#8: Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts

I REALLY want to put Jonathan Taylor in the tier above. After all, he has arguably the league’s best offensive line, faces a very easy projected run defense schedule, and showcased his talents with an 84.1 PFF rushing grade in his rookie season. Given that he’s projected for a high workload, I could easily see him finishing higher than Henry. However, there are some minor drawbacks. How heavy is his workload? Does Carson Wentz take away from goal-line carries? Is he going to maintain such high efficiency (5 YPA)? That said, the upside is so significant.

#9: Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

Currently priced RB14, Joe Mixon clearly has less faith from the public than he has with me. If that price stands, he could be the ultimate value from this group. Last year, he finished 5th in expected fantasy points per game in the six weeks he played in, and even if he likely regresses from that, his floor should be no lower than his 13th-rank in the statistic in 2019. After earning 16+ rush attempts in every game last season and with Giovanni Bernard departing, all indications are that he’ll be an every-down back for the Bengals in 2021. Chase the volume, not the efficiency.

#10: Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

With his efficiency (5.6 YPA) likely to go down, you certainly want to bake in regression from Aaron Jones’ RB5 finish last season. Plus, the offensive line isn’t in perfect shape, he still has red-zone completion with AJ Dillon, and the offense could take a major step back should Aaron Rodgers not be their quarterback. At the same time, he’s a dual-threat player who has proven to be one of the more efficient rushers in the NFL, so picking him in this range is perfectly reasonable.

#11: Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

Speaking of efficient runners, a case can be made that he’s pound-for-pound the best runner of the football in the NFL than Nick Chubb. Not only is his success after contact (4.05 YCO/A) absurd, but playing behind an elite offensive line and against a very favorable schedule, he’d be my pick to lead the NFL in yards/carry. He won’t provide exceptional numbers as a receiver and does compete for touches with Kareem Hunt, but he’s a rarity at the position when it comes to consistent efficiency.

#12: Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers

There was a lot of discourse regarding the Steelers taking Najee Harris in the first round based on positional value, but it could not have been more perfect for fantasy. After a very productive college career, he immediately looks positioned to receive close to 300 touches, dramatically increasing his floor compared to the general rookie running back. Now, he’ll be playing behind the worst-projected offensive line and for a team that may not score a lot of touchdowns. At the same time, the combination of rushing value and prowess in the passing game are incredibly enticing.

#13: Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams

Currently a top-ten running back based on average draft position (ADP), there clearly is a widely-held expectation that Cam Akers is in line for a massive second-year jump this season, and it’s easy to see why. Head coach Sean McVay has been a friendly play-caller when it comes to running back production, and the 21-year-old Akers worked his way into a bellcow role down the stretch. There’s some definite boom-or-bust potential here, but without a guaranteed high workload and a lack of value in the passing game, I can’t quite be as high on his outlook as the rest of the community.

#14: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs

Remember the days where Clyde Edwards-Helaire was the 5th running back taken in fantasy drafts last year? Those were wild times. Finishing as just RB22, it’s clear he didn’t match those lofty expectations, though that opens up the opportunity for fans of his to benefit from newly-found value. Andy Reid has almost always made his running backs coveted assets from a fantasy perspective, and outside of three games when they first signed Le’Veon Bell, his workload was much stronger than you’d expect. The addition of tackle Orlando Brown should only helps with his rushing production, so assuming he continues to provide value as a receiver, he has the dual-threat skillset you’re looking for in a starting fantasy running back.

#15: D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions

In a lot of ways, Swift is the exact same player as Edwards-Helaire: a running back who won’t create yardage after contact, but provides a lot of value in his dual-threat abilities and figures to be the premier option. The volume he should get catching passes from the conservative Jared Goff when behind in games is intriguing, but between the lack of touchdown upside and some competition from running back Jamaal Williams makes me slightly prefer Edwards-Helaire? We’re splitting hairs, though.

#16: Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team

Finishing off the run of second-year running backs, a case can be made Antonio Gibson has the highest ceiling of the bunch. Assuming he runs more than 203 routes (he was a college receiver, after all), we’ll be looking at a every-down workhorse back, but the question is how certain we can be in that? JD McKissic was given 106 targets last season, so you’ll have to project an increase in opportunities for Gibson without Alex Smith on board. That certainly could happen, though it can’t necessarily be projected with as high degree of confidence as we’d all like.

Tier 4: Better Served as RB2s, But There’s Still a Lot To Like

Photo via DraftKings Nation

#17: Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles

I don’t know why, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Miles Sanders actually finished as a top-15 running back in terms of expected fantasy points per game. There hasn’t been a natural feeling of optimism surrounding his outlook, yet I think there’s a lot to like. Simply as a runner, his 3.31 yards after contact/attempt demonstrate his ability to succeed even in less-than-ideal circumstances, but that won’t necessarily be the case in Philadelphia. The team is projected to have a top-ten run-blocking offensive line, and with Jalen Hurts also posing as a rushing threat, I wouldn’t be shocked to see Sanders’ numbers benefit as a result. Rushing quarterbacks do take away from touchdown upside, though between the positive regression he’ll see with an unprecedentedly low 56% catch rate and the opportunity to receive an extensive amount of carries, I’m definitely on board with his 2021 fantasy value.

#18: Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks

The Seahawks’ insistence on being a run-first team despite having an elite quarterback and multiple high-end receivers is puzzling, but, hey, fantasy owners of Chris Carson won’t be complaining! With his success creating yardage after contact (3.38 yards after contact/attempt) and three straight years with a PFF rushing grade of 74 or higher, I continue to insist that he’s one of the more overlooked “real-life” running backs. For fantasy, though, we’ll have to work that his end-of-season usage is more reflective of the workload he’ll see in 2021, especially since the team appears to still be enamored with Rashaad Penny. Consider last year’s RB20 finish to be his floor.

#19: David Mongtomery, Chicago Bears

What if I told you that you could get last year’s RB4 without using a top-30 selection? I don’t know about you, but that would definitely catch my attention! Now, the chances that David Montgomery repeats last year’s finish is very unlikely, as the return of Tarik Cohen takes away receiving opportunities for him. Regardless, he was a much better player in year two (82.3 PFF rushing grade, 3.09 yards after contact/attempt), didn’t rely on efficiency (4.3 YPA) last year, and should continue to get a lot of carries. Considering the upside attached with him should he get more touches than projected, he’s one of my favorite targets from this tier.

#20: JK Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens

Simply based on real-life rushing ability, a strong case can be made that JK Dobbins is the best overall player of the second-year running backs. Once again, though, we play FANTASY football, and his outlook there isn’t quite as pretty. Even in a friendly rushing scheme, we can’t expect any running back to consistently average six yards per attempt, which is why he finished the season with such a modest expected points per game (8.5) total. Thus, he’ll need more volume to compensate for the decrease in efficiency, but all indications are that he’ll continue to split carries with Gus Edwards. Without consistent receiving production and with Lamar Jackson also taking away potential touchdown/rushing opportunities, so although there is intriguing variance attached with him, the downside is quite clear.

#21: Mike Davis, Atlanta Falcons

Ah, Mike Davis. Should you have picked him up off of waivers last season, you might be quite fond of what the 28-year-old accomplished last season. Taking over for the injured Christian McCaffrey, he finished as a top-15 running back, and even ranked in the top 10 in expected fantasy points per game if you take out the three games in which he backed up McCaffrey. In other words, there’s no question that his production was off the charts. Will that repeat in 2021? He doesn’t have a track record of being a bellcow running back, yet does contribute as a dual-threat option, and has never gotten the chance to succeed in a greater role. That’s what makes him landing with the Falcons so exciting; he has little backfield competition, should get targets just from them playing from behind, and also will have touchdown opportunities playing for a strong offense. He might not be the flashy “young gun”, but he may be the player that helps put you over the top (again).

#22: Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars

I love James Robinson (who doesn’t?). However, when you draft a running back in the first round, I’m pretty sure he takes center stage over a former undrafted free agent from a previous regime. Is that how it should work? No, yet when it comes to analyzing how coaches think, we have to look at it this way. With a career 4.57 yards after contact/attempt in college, Travis Etienne’s talents aren’t in question, and he showed consistent progression in college with regards to his receiving (90.9 PFF receiving grade in his final year). Is there a chance that he truly is a “third-down back”, as Urban Meyer described him as? Maybe, yet should end up dominating the Jacksonville backfield, I definitely would want him on my team!

#23: Myles Gaskin, Miami Dolphins

One of the fun aspects of the running back positions is that talented players don’t just come from the first round. Heck, Robinson was an undrafted free agent! Meanwhile, as a seventh-round pick, there probably wasn’t much to suggest that Myles Gaskin would finish as the 11th-ranked running back in points per game last season. Yet, here we are! Given that he doesn’t provide much after contact, his efficiency could be an issue behind a poor offensive line, but Gaskin also showcased his receiving abilities last year 1.87 yards/route run. Now, a lot of that was predicated on a few select chunk plays and production after the catch, and Malcolm Brown’s presence might take away the amount of goal-line carries. At the same time, that’s why we’re talking about him as RB23 instead of RB11! Based on his dual-threat abilities, the floor is quite high here.

#24: Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders

It’s a pleasure to watch Josh Jacobs go about his business on a football field. He’s earned PFF rushing grades above 79 in each of the first two seasons of his career, has rushed for 2,215 yards in that span, and has already missed 120 tackles in his early career. Coming into the offseason, I was extremely excited to potentially get him at a discount given his low 3.9 yards/carry last year. Alas, the Raiders made this situation much more murky by adding Kenyan Drake to the backfield, taking away Jacobs’ top feature- undisputed volume. Then, you factor in the decline of Las Vegas’ offensive line, not great touchdown potential, and limited production as a receiver, and this becomes a very complicated player to rank. He finished as a top-ten running back in expected fantasy points last season, so there’s some upside here if Drake doesn’t play as large of a role as anticipated. That said, I may want to avoid drafting him just to prevent the potential for consistent headaches when it comes to deciphering this backfield.

#25: Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos

Full disclaimer; Javonte Williams may be my favorite running back to watch, and he hasn’t yet played an NFL snap! I guess that’s what happens when you averaged 4.59 yards after contact/attempt and earn a 95.9 PFF rushing grade in your final year of college. Considering the Broncos traded up into the second round to secure his services, I’d guess it’s only a matter of time before he completely takes over the backfield from Melvin Gordon II. If so, the possibilities of him succeeding are through the roof, though you do need to proceed with some caution because a) he isn’t guaranteed that workload and b) the Broncos offense doesn’t project well.

Tier 5: Could Definitely Serve as an RB2, But Also Might Not

Photo via Sports Illustrated

#26: Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns

#27: Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals

#28: David Johnson, Houston Texans

#29: Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers

#30: Trey Sermon, San Francisco 49ers

#31: Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

#32: Michael Carter, New York Jets

None of these players are going to receive the type of workload that the players in front of them them will, but they’re all intriguing still. Hunt might be a top-ten running back in terms of talent and will produce as a receiver, though he’s limited rushing wise with Nick Chubb on the while. Meanwhile, Chase Edmonds will play in a very friendly offensive system for running back success, yet he’s never been tasked with a high workload and also will lose out on early-down rushes to James Conner. Of this bunch, the one with the best chances of a lot of carries would be David Johnson, who also happens to be 29-years-old and isn’t exactly playing for a high-flying offense.

Kyle Shanahan’s offense has been a goldmine for rushing success, which is good because no single running back will ever lead the way in a true committee situation. That said, if that were to change in any way, Raheem Mostert and Trey Sermon would be in a clear situation to thrive and belong here based on projected efficiency alone. Efficiency certainly isn’t why you’d be drafting Leonard Fournette; his workload increased down the stretch and perhaps he cements himself as the top dual-threat option for a team that’ll have plenty of opportunities to run the ball.

Then, there is the most interesting man in the world! Fourth-round picks don’t generally have a clear path to playing time, but all indications are that Michael Carter will be the Jets’ starting running back this season. He’s not a sure thing to contribute with him clearly cementing himself as the lead back and an unproven offense. Still, he’s a talented player (4.47 yards after contact/attempt, 91.1 rushing grade in college last season) with dual-threat potential, making him the exact type of player that can “blow up” and win you your league.

Tier 6: Less-Exciting Committee Backs

Photo via NFL.Com

#33: Ronald Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

#34: James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars

#35: Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos

#36: James Conner, Arizona Cardinals

#37: Zack Moss, Buffalo Bills

#38: Damien Harris, New England Patriots

#39: AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers

#40: Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts

#41: Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills

Ronald Jones, Melvin Gordon, and James Conner are all fine players, but are the less-enticing members of a backfield committee. Furthermore, Damien Harris isn’t ask to run routes out of the backfield, while receiving production is the exclusive source of fantasy numbers for Nyheim Hines.

As I mentioned, it’s a shame we won’t be able to see James Robinson flourish again this season, so don’t draft him with the hopes of him actually having a 50/50 split with Travis Etienne. A 50/50 split is a much better expectations, on the other hand, for Zack Moss and Devin Singletary. I’d lean with Moss because he received a higher share of goal-line carries last season and has one extra year of club control (Buffalo might have seen enough from Singletary). AJ Dillon, meanwhile, could produce decent numbers in the same role Jamaal Williams did last year, though he’s also an elite handcuff and could get a lot of touchdown opportunities as well given his play style.

Tier 7: Even Less Exciting Committee/Backup Running Backs

Photo via Blogging The Boys

#42: Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys

#43: Kenyan Drake, Las Vegas Raiders

#44: Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears

#45: Tevin Coleman, New York Jets

#46: Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens

#47: Jamaal Williams, Detroit Lions

#48: Latavius Murray, New Orleans Saints

#49: James White, New England Patriots

#50: Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams

#51: Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks

Pollard, Drake, Cohen, and Coleman would all classify under the “more than a typical reserve back” category. Even when Elliot was healthy, Pollard sprinkled in games with 10+ carries and spent actual time as a wide receiver last year, which is the same type of utilization as Cohen, though he plays more in the slot. Drake, meanwhile, is certainly going to have sort of role after Jon Gruden went out of his way to bring to Las Vegas, while Coleman still has a chance for a split share with Michael Carter in New York.

With Edwards, Williams, Murray, Henderson, and Penny, they’ll never be “full-time” running backs even if the starters on their teams would go down due to injury, but they’ll all play some sort of role throughout the season to provide some value for deeper fantasy leagues. If you’re looking for a potential value, we all hope James White gets back to his old PPR-legendary receiving performances this season, though you’ll need Mac Jones to win the quarterback job over Cam Newton for that to happen.

Full Rankings

52-100

Superlatives

  • Best Value: Ezekiel Elliot, Joe Mixon, Mike Davis
  • Least Optimal Value: James Robinson, JK Dobbins
  • Could End Up Ranked Much Higher (Non-Rookie): Antonio Gibson, Chase Edmonds
  • Most Intriguing Rookie: Javonte Williams
  • Player With The Widest Range of Outcomes: Cam Akers, JK Dobbins

5 thoughts on “Fantasy Football 2021 Running Back Rankings + Projections

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