Top 15: RBs, part 1

It seems appropriate to start this 2021 fantasy football preview series with running backs because most analysts would agree that selecting the right backs is critical to your draft success. It’s been frequently said that you can’t win the league with your first two draft picks, but you can lose it. Many people select running backs in the first two rounds, and it’s likely that your RB1 and RB2 will anchor your team – if they stay healthy. But you have no control over injuries, so cross your fingers and gird up your loins.  

There is simply too much to cover in one installment on running backs, so I’m going to break this into two parts. This week, I’ll cover 15 players you should target in the first three rounds. Everyone on this list could help you to a championship. Next week, I’ll cover the rest of the backs. This will include sleepers and breakouts that might return huge value if taken in the later rounds. You will want to roster four or five running backs, but they will be in high demand in the early rounds of your draft.  

A daring alternative would be to employ the Zero-RB strategy. This is where you draft only one running back in the first five runs and focus on rostering three or four wide receivers, an elite tight end and/or Patrick Mahomes. This is a something to consider if are drafting later in the first round. For instance, let’s say you have the No. 11 pick and the first 10 players taken are running backs. You could select Travis Kelce and might still be able to get Devante Adams or Tyreek Hill with your next pick.

If you are fortunate enough to draft early in the first round, you should take an elite running back. In my opinion, there are only three that are elite. And Christian McCaffrey is in a class by himself. He’s scored 25-plus points in 10 of his last 19 games, and he has scored fewer than 19 fantasy points in just two of them. He’s basically posting quarterback numbers as a running back. The problem last year was that he appeared in only three games. Regardless of the injury risk, however, he’s the No. 1 pick.

After McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara Ezekiel Elliott and Saquon Barkley round out the top six running backs expected to come off the board. But I put only two of these five in my elite tier. I may be the only analyst sounding the alarm on Zeke, but you should listen. Kamara should be discounted with the departure of Drew Brees and Barkley is a significant risk because of his injury history. If McCaffrey, Cook and Henry are gone, you may want to draft Travis Kelce.

I also want to point out that Austin Ekeler, Aaron Jones and Nick Chubb are not far behind, and either of them could outperform Kamara, Elliott and Barkley. Jones, who re-signed with the Packers in the offseason, could easily be a top-five fantasy back if Aaron Rodgers returns to Green Bay. It’s possible Jones will be even more involved in the passing game now that he’s sharing with A.J. Dillon and not Jamaal Williams. Over the past two seasons, the Packers have been in the top third of the league with 268 passes thrown to running backs. Dillion will not absorb Williams’ share of targets.

CHRISTIAN MCCAFFREY

The injury-plagued 2020 season may deflate his value somewhat, but it’s not enough to keep him from being the No. 1 overall pick. In 2019, McCaffrey posted record-breaking stats and was the second-highest scoring fantasy player — including quarterbacks — to only Lamar Jackson. McCaffrey averaged 26.3 fantasy points per game in half PPR (Weeks 1 through 16). His 393.9 fantasy points was 99.5 fantasy points more than the second-highest scoring non-quarterback that season, Michael Thomas.

DALVIN COOK

Cook is as talented as any running back in the league, and would have surpassed 2,000 yards from scrimmage last year had he not missed two games due to injury. He still set career bests in rushing yards (1,557), touchdowns (17), and touches (356). In my opinion, he’s the most explosive running back in the NFL, having broken a run of at least 70 yards in each of the past three seasons. The mitigating factor is that he hasn’t yet stayed healthy enough to play 16 games in a season, but he’s still my No. 2 RB.

DERRICK HENRY

If I’m lower than most on Elliott and Barkley, I’m probably higher than most on Henry. He’s my No. 1 back in standard league and No. 3 in PPR scoring because of his lack of usage in the passing game. He’s also the most durable of the elite backs, having missed only two games in five years. Henry rushed for 2,027 yards and led the league in 2020, after leading the league with 1,540 yards in 2019. Keep in mind that the regular season has been expanded to 17 games in 2021, so he may break his own record.

SAQUON BARKLEY

After a breakout rookie season with more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 15 touchdowns, Barkley has produced 1,535 total yards and eight touchdowns over 15 games the last two seasons. He tore his ACL early in 2020, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be the same player when he returns. He’ll may carry the ball less since the Giants have more weapons in the passing game, so Barkley is unlikely to come close to the 121 targets he saw in 2018s. Still, he should be a productive fantasy back.   

ALVIN KAMARA

Kamara has been PPR gold during the Brees era, but that era is over. Brees targeted his running backs at least 28 percent of the time in each of the last four years. But projected starter Jameis Winston hasn’t targeted running backs more than 18 percent of the time during that same period. Kamara is less likely to have the backfield to himself than Ekeler, with Latavius Murray sharing time.  The Saints are also going to score less points. My prediction is Kamara will still be productive but not elite in 2021. 

AUSTIN EKELER

I’m higher than most on Ekeler, who’s currently being drafted RB9, with an overall ADP of 11. Ekeler could be a top-five back and finish ahead of Kamara, Barkley and Elliott, who are consistently being drafted ahead of him. In eight full games with Justin Herbert calling signals last year, Ekeler saw 63 targets. It’s not much of a stretch to project 100-plus targets for him in 2021. That would make him the new PPR darling. With little competition in this backfield, Ekeler’s bell-cow running back role is safe.

EZEKIEL ELLIOTT

Analysts wants to give Elliott a pass, writing off most of the 2021 season after Dak Prescott was injured. He will be drafted as early as No. 3 overall but not by me. Consider that after the Prescott injury, Elliott tanked to RB11. With Prescott back, he may be more productive. But there are a lot of mouths to feed in Dallas, with a trio of talented receivers on the field. That means Elliott will carry the ball less often than he has in the past, and he’s simply not running with the same intensity as he did in his early years.   

AARON JONES

Jones is another back I’m higher on than most analysts. A dynamic runner, Jones has finished 7th, 4th, 4th and 16th in fantasy points in spite of sharing time with other backs over the past four seasons. This year, expect Jones to be even more involved in the passing game now that he’s sharing time with A.J. Dillon and not Jamaal Williams. Over the past two seasons, the Packers have been in the top third of the league with 268 passes thrown to running backs. He’s my RB8 and worth a late first-round pick.  

NICK CHUBB

Chubb finished as the RB9 last year despite playing in just 12 games. Chubb was 6th in the league in total rushing yards, with 1,067 in only 190 carries. With a solid offensive line and a preference to run the ball in Cleveland, there no reason to think he’ll do worse in 2021. Kareem Hunt’s presence as the primary pass-catching back is the only thing that keeps Chubb from being a top-five back. He will never get a lot of passing volume, but he doesn’t it to deliver value if you select him at the end of the first round.   

JONATHAN TAYLOR

Taylor’s current ADP is RB6, but he’s my RB10, and I’m fading him in the first round. Did everyone forget about what happened the first 10 weeks of the 2020 season? At that point, Taylor was the RB19 and David Montgomery was the RB20. Taylor finished the year as the RB6 while Montgomery was the RB4. But Montgomery is being drafted in the fourth or fifth round. I don’t understand all of the love for Taylor, although he did finish strong last year – third in rushing yards behind only Henry and Cook.  

NAJEE HARRIS

I’m higher on Harris than most. His current ADP is RB17, but he’s my RB11. Although he hasn’t played a down in the NFL, Harris takes over as Pittsburgh’s lead back. The Steelers haven’t been shy about giving backs 18-plus touches per game in the Mike Tomlin era. Harris was a three-down back at Alabama, and the Steelers took him in the first round for a reason. The caveat here is that like Dallas, there are a trio of talented receivers. The assumption that Ben Roethlisberger will throw less is just as assumption.

JOE MIXON

Last year, I warned you about taking Mixon in the first round. But this year, he’s RB14. I have him at RB13, and I would certainly take him if he slips the end of the second or beginning of the third round. When Giovani Bernard missed time last year, Mixon averaged 27.0 touches per game over those next three weeks before getting hurt. Now with Bernard gone, are we finally going to get a full season’s worth of 20-plus touch games for Mixon? With that kind of volume, top-five production is possible.

CLYDE EDWARDS-HELAIRE

Edwards-Helaire was the No. 11 running back through six weeks of the 2020 season before the arrival of Le’Veon Bell. He was No. 11 while scoring just once during that time. With Bell gone and no one significant brought in this offseason, CEH could return to his 18-plus touch role in the best offense in the NFL. If so, CEH, would be a great value. The Chiefs have rebuilt their offensive line this year, which should help make life easier on CEH, who did average a solid 4.44 yards per carry his rookie season.

ANTONIO GIBSON

Last season, Gibson scored at least 12 PPR points in eight of his first 11 games. A toe injury in Week 13 slowed him down over the final five games of the season, but he should be healthy coming into training camp. He will share passing-downs work with J.D. McKissic, but Gibson is a converted receiver from Memphis and had 36 receptions on 44 targets as a rookie. If Gibson gets a larger target share in 2021, he could emerge as a top-10 Fantasy running back this year and return draft value. He’s my RB15. 

DAVID MONTGOMERY

Montgomery came into the NFL with a lot of buzz in 2019, with a potential workhorse role under head coach Matt Nagy. He ended up flopping, finishing as RB30 in fantasy points per game (PPR). He became known as a plodding back with limited upside heading into his sophomore season. Then, he broke out in 2020, finishing as RB4 after a late-season surge where he posted 24 receptions, 824 total yards, and eight touchdowns in his final six games. He can be drafted with confidence in the fourth round.

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