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Fantasy Football 2021: Breaking Down and Ranking Running Backs

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Today, we’re here to explore and break down the best running backs for your Fantasy Football 2021 campaign.

On Tuesday, this series of breaking down and ranking each individual position in fantasy football started, and as it should, it started with the quarterbacks.

Today, we will continue with the running backs, possibly the most coveted position in fantasy, and the position that will most likely make or break your chances at a fantasy football championship come December.

Fantasy Football 2021 | Running Backs

Heading into last season, Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley were flying off of fantasy football draft boards, and with good reason. But then early injuries suffered by both Barkley (Torn ACL) and McCaffrey (Ankle Strain, Shoulder sprain, and Glute Strain) cause them to become huge busts for those who were betting all of their success on the shoulders of these two superstars.

Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, and Alvin Kamara would end up leading the way for fantasy backs at the conclusion of the 2020 season. All three of them had the ability to find the endzone, and earn yards through the air and on their feet.

With Saquon making a comeback and McCaffrey returning from his plethora of injuries, the race for the top RB spot could be a big one.

Running backs are the most important position in fantasy football, and it is not close. The top tier of this list will dominate the selections in the first two rounds, and many others that appear on this list will be ginormous contributors to any fantasy owner’s roster.

Due to the importance of running backs and the number of backs you can have on your roster, I will extend this list to 36 players compared to 24 for the quarterbacks. I will still break down the first 24 in depth.

So without further ado, let’s get started.

#1: Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

Had injuries not robbed McCaffrey of 13 games this past season, I have no doubt in my mind that he would have finished first overall in scoring out of all RBs in PPR and Standard leagues. In those three games that he played, he had an average of 24.4 Fantasy points per game, which would have been the highest in the league.

He scored six total touchdowns in those three games to go along with 374 total yards. He looked to be thriving once again, even with new head coach Matt Rhule taking over.

With Sam Darnold now in Carolina, look for him to rely on Christian McCaffrey heavily out of the backfield. McCaffrey averaged 20 carries per game last season, which is promising due to the injury concerns and the new Rhule system. Add those on to the touches he will get through the passing game, and McCaffrey should be the first player off the board in every fantasy league.

#2: Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

Derrick Henry has led the league in attempts, rushing yards, and rushing TDs in each of the past two seasons, and it would not surprise me in the slightest if he were to do that again. The Titans have added Julio Jones to the mix on offense, but Henry has consistently proven that he is one of the top backs in the league, and the Titans have fed him the rock.

After 378 rushing attempts last season, I do not think Henry will be used to the same capacity this year, but he could reach that number again with a now 17 game season. Even if his attempts slightly decrease, he may still lead the league, that’s how much he ran the ball last year.

He’s the best bet to lead the league in TDs, and maybe rushing yards due to his workload, but with a limited receiving game, he may fall back in total yards (receiving and rushing). That is the reasoning behind him being slated at #2.

#3: Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

Cook was clouded by injury concerns coming out of college, and starting in the NFL after he tore his ACL in his rookie season. However, he has lifted those concerns by starting 14 games in the past two seasons for the Vikings. While he has still missed a bit of time, he more than makes up for it with his contributions on the field.

Last season Cook scored the third-most points out of all running backs in standard leagues, and had he played all 16 games, he would have topped Kamara and Henry. He has more pass-catching upside than Henry, but his workload will be much lower.

Cook is an obvious RB1 in any scoring system and will be the workhorse for any fantasy owner who drafts him.

#4 Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

Question marks galore appear when talking about Saquon Barkley, but one thing is for sure. If he is healthy, he is one of the most dynamic running backs in football and is a top-tier fantasy player.

While his ACL tear last season was the first major injury of his career, he is still young and in immensely good shape, which leads me to believe that he will bounce back well from this injury. Take Adrian Peterson as an amazing example of someone bouncing back from a torn ACL, and Saquon has had more time to recover.

A Giants offense that has new receiving weapons will also open the door for Saquon to get better, and clearer opportunities on the ground and through the air. I like Saquon to bounce back really strong for the New York Football Giants.

#5: Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

Had this been a ranking of best overall running backs in the league, I might have had Chubb even higher on the list, that’s how much confidence I have in Chubb.

However, one thing diminishes his fantasy value, and that is the presence of Kareem Hunt in Cleveland’s backfield with him.

Chubb has never averaged below 5.0 yards per carry, and behind a strong Cleveland Browns offensive line, that should once again be the case this season. He will be higher valued in standard leagues due to most of the pass-catching duties being given to Hunt, but Chubb has shown that he can produce above-average RAC numbers.

#6: Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

I have my doubts about Kamara this season in a new-look Saints offense that does not feature Drew Brees, but there is no denying his production.

Last season he scored 21 total touchdowns, and caught 80 passes out of the backfield, an insane number for a running back. But, that could all change with Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill slated to be the starter for the New Orleans Saints.

Drew Brees threw the ball to the running back on over 25% of his passes last season, and the highest total of Jameis Winston’s career was much lower at around 15%. If you also look at Kamara’s production from last season, it took a major hit when Taysom Hill was under center.

While I do think he will still be a top-notch fantasy RB due to his dual-threat opportunities from the backfield, I am a little worried about his boom or bust potential.

#7: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

Prior to last season, Ezekiel Elliott received the bag from the Dallas Cowboys. Then he went on to have the worst statistical season of his career on a struggling Cowboys team.

The team was riddled with injuries, two of which happened to huge offensive lineman, Tyron Smith and Zack Martin. With those two returning, I have faith that Elliott will have a blossoming return season. The return of Dak Prescott will also help, as the Cowboys were often trailing in games, which forced them to shy away from handing Zeke the ball.

#8: Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

With Aaron Rodgers committing to Green Bay in what may be his final season there, Jones’ value remains with the top RB tier. He has averaged 5.5 yards per carry in three of his first four seasons, and remains a very valuable running back in both standard and PPR leagues.

He typically finds the endzone at a high rate, and with Aaron Rodgers by his side in the backfield, I have no doubts that that will continue. He will get plenty of red zone opportunities, and with the departure of Jamaal Williams in free agency, AJ Dillon will now slot in behind Jones as Green Bay’s RB2.
The Second Batch

#9: Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team

Gibson opened a lot of football fans eyes last season, and will once again be the starting bellcow for the Washington Football Team.

With J.D. McKissic still on Washington’s roster, Gibson’s opportunities through the air are limited, but offseason reports have stated that Washington plans to use him more in the pass game, which works well for a player who spent most of his time at wide receiver in college.

With 11 touchdowns last season, and a mark of 4.7 yards per carry, Gibson will be strong for fantasy owners and the WFT alike. Adding Ryan Fitzpatrick too will only add to, not hurt his production.

#10: Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts

Taylor managed to place second in rushing yards last season as a rookie, and with him running the rock behind one of the best offensive lines in football, I would not be shocked to see him near the top again.

Marlon Mack will be returning from an Achilles injury, and he is bound to factor into the equation. Along with that, Nyheim Hines has been a great pass catcher out of the backfield for Indianapolis, which could take away from Taylor in PPR formats.

He still put up 36 receptions last season, and found the endzone 12 times. He will be a great addition to any fantasy roster.

#11: Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers

Ekeler was off to a hot start last year before a left hamstring injury sidelined him for six games. e When he returned in Week 12, he was decent the rest of the season, but only scored three touchdowns. Fantasy owners might be wondering if he can really produce at a top-tier level, but with no big moves from the Chargers to get more backfield help, Ekeler will once again be the top dog.

One thing he does well is rack up yards on both the rushing and receiving end, as well as a solid amount of receptions. Excluding the game he got hurt, he averaged just over 102 yards per game.

#12: JK Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens

Dobbins did not play a huge factor in the Ravens’ offense to start the 2020 season, but after he consistently got double-digit carries with the team, he broke out. He ended the season scoring touchdowns in six straight games, and has shown a knack for finding the endzone.

With Mark Ingram gone from this offense that is heavily centered on the ground game, JK Dobbins is in line for a big year.

#13: Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks

Chris Carson will once again be returning to Seattle as the lead back for the Seahawks, and with that, he will have a great amount of opportunities come his way. He set a career-high in yards per carry last season at 4.8, and he caught 37 passes.

Carson missed four games due to injuries last season, but if he can maintain a healthy status, he will be a huge piece.

#14: David Montgomery, Chicago Bears

Montgomery made huge improvements last season, and if Chicago is to have a good season, he will have to maintain that. He totaled 1,508 yards, 54 receptions, and 10 TDs, and much of that work was done in a stretch of games to end the season.

However, he averaged just 4.3 yards/carry, plays in a mediocre offense, and that hot stretch he had last year was against some of the worst defenses in the league. While he could produce at the same level, he’s not considered an exciting fantasy option.

#15: Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders

Jacobs is a red zone machine, leading the league in red zone touches (64) and having a total of 12 touchdowns last season. However, his yards per carry and per game took a noticeable dip.

With Las Vegas unloading Rodney Hudson and other key cogs to their offensive line, Jacobs production could slip even more. The addition of Kenyan Drake in the backfield does not help either, especially when his uptick in receiving is what helped him maintain fantasy relevance this past season.

Jacobs will rely a lot on his touchdown numbers and redzone work, but unlike others, I still like him in this Raiders offense.

#16: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs

Edwards-Helaire entered last season with enormous expectations for a rookie, especially with him joining the high-powered Kansas City Chiefs offense. However, I feel there were plenty of missed opportunities. He did not get a lot of red zone work, and when he did, he failed to capitalize and score on them.

I worry that his small frame may hold him out from touchdown opportunities, especially since he only scored 5 in 13 games this past season. While he does have the upside of playing in the Chiefs offense, he will have to make the most out of his opportunities, as there are plenty of weapons to go around in KC.

#17: Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

Joe Mixon is probably the toughest running back to judge in the whole NFL when it comes to fantasy value. He has yet to have a breakout season, and now, entering his fifth season as a pro, it is tough to know what his ceiling or potential will be.

If he can stay healthy, he is sure to have a floor of a RB2 as he has been relatively dependable throughout his career. In the past three seasons, he has averaged 95.9 yards per game, and that number would put him up there. Now all he needs is the touchdowns and health to back it up.

#18: DeAndre Swift, Detroit Lions

The Lions were a perplexing team to watch last season. Instead of giving their blossoming new running back, DeAndre Swift, more carries, they instead gave them to Kerryon Johnson and aging Adrian Peterson.

Despite that, Swift totaled 878 total yards, 46 catches, and 10 TDs in just 13 games.

Swift has the potential to be one of the top receiving backs in the league, especially with the lack of offensive options for the Lions. If he gets more consistent time, he could rank way higher than 18.

#19: Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles

Sanders missed four games last year due to a string of different injuries, but he still managed 1,064 total yards and six TDs.

Sanders has yet to get a stable footing, and with a new QB in Philly and a new coach, it is hard to know what his production will be. Yet, he can catch the ball, and he runs hard. He should be a solid add to any team.

#20: Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers like to heavily feature their starting RBs in both the passing and running game, and after selecting Harris in the first round of this year’s draft, it’s safe to assume he will be the Day One starter for this team.

However, he is a rookie heading into his first professional season behind a Steelers offensive line that has featured some turnover. I am high on Harris’ potential and ability to be a great back in this league, but I’m not sure if the current Steelers are best poised to help him reach that potential just yet.

#21: Myles Gaskin, Miami Dolphins

Gaskin established himself as the main man for the Dolphins last season prior to a knee injury and COVID-19 keeping him out of six games.

He will get plenty of chances in this offense that is searching for it’s go to player, and his stats last season say he could be the guy. He averaged 20.9 touches, 106.7 total yards, and 3.9 receptions per game in a seven-game stretch from Week 3-15 (Missed games in between).

Those numbers are elite.

#22: Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns

Hunt is a beast of a back, but he just so happens to be behind another beast in Nick Chubb.

However, that has not stopped Chubb from producing solid numbers. He scored 11 times last season, and averaged just over 70 yards per game in his limited role and touches. Some of that can be attributed to Chubb missing some action last season, but there were plenty of games in which both Chubb and Hunt garnered multiple fantasy points.

He has the potential to be higher than this, but in a limited role, this is where I have to rank him.

#23: Darrell Henderson Jr., Los Angeles Rams

Unfortunately for the Rams, Cam Akers suffered a season-ending Achilles’ injury, but luckily for Henderson, this opens the door for more opportunities.

He’s had moderate success in the NFL thus far, such as averaging 4.5 yards/carry and scoring six times in total last season, but that was mainly in a split workload setting with Akers. Who knows how he’ll handle being L.A.’s feature back?

With Matthew Stafford now in LA instead of Jared Goff, this offense should be high-flying, and Darrell Henderson will be given his opportunities.

#24: Mike Davis, Atlanta Falcons

For the casual NFL fan, Mike Davis may not even cross your mind as a top RB, but in fantasy, he made a name for himself last year filling in for Christian McCaffrey. He had 59 receptions in that back heavy offense, and he should figure to be getting a ton of looks in Atlanta where they are known to throw the ball.

If Davis gets the majority of the workload for Atlanta, he is poised to see RB2 numbers for production, bringing a ton of value towards fantasy owners.

The Backups/Necessary Flex Plays/Roster Fillers

  • #25: Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals
  • #26: Damian Harris, New England Patriots
  • #27: Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers
  • #28: Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • #29: James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars
  • #30: Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos
  • #31: Ronald Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
  • #32: Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens
  • #33: Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos
  • #34: David Johnson, Houston Texans
  • #35: Zack Moss, Buffalo Bills
  • #36: Michael Carter, New York Jet
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