The best of the rest (RBs)

In part 1 of my running back preview, I presented information on my top 15 running backs – Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Austin Ekeler, Aaron Jones, Nick Chubb, Najee Harris, Jonathan Taylor, Joe Mixon, Clyde Edwards-Helaire and David Montgomery. In part 2, I will provide insights on the best of the rest. This will include sleepers like Michael Carter of the Jets that may return huge value but are more risky in terms of steady production.

If you decide to use the controversial Zero-RB strategy, you will be especially interested in some of these names. The Zero RB strategy is where you draft only one running back in the first five runs and focus on rostering three wide receivers and an elite tight end like Travis Kelce. The advantage of this approach is that you can draft elite wide receivers like Tyreek Hill, Stefon Diggs, Devante Adams (if Aaron Rodgers is back in Green Bay) and DeAndre Hopkins. You might also select Patrick Mahomes in an early round.


Some people are expecting Dobbins to have an increased role in the Baltimore offense this year, including the passing game. He had an efficient rookie season, averaging 6.0 yards per carry, but he barely reached 800 total yards. He played less than 43 percent of his team’s snaps and never saw double-digit carries until the seventh game. His lack of involvement in the passing game was the real drag on his fantasy value. If that all changes, there’s a path for him to be a top-10 running back.


I’m higher than most on Gaskins, ranking him as my RB17. Like Dobbins, he has a path to be a top 10 back. In 2020, Gaskin was among the best waiver wire additions in all formats. He had eight games with at least 12 PPR points. In the 10 games he appeared in, and he had six games with at least 19 total touches. Keep an eye on what happens with the Dolphins backfield prior to training camp, but Gaskin could return real value as your RB2 if you draft him late in the fourth or early in the fifth round. 


There were flashes of what could be a great three-down back with Swift last year, but the Lions added Jamaal Williams in free agency. Then, they drafted Jermar Jefferson. Then, they brought in Todd Gurley on a free agent visit. While they didn’t sign him, it’s not promising for Swift’s outlook, as this smells like a timeshare. Without a lot of scoring opportunities in Detroit, there is a risk of Swift being a bust. Swift is a talented football player, however, and should get enough work to be a low-end RB2.


Throughout Carson’s career, he’s produced RB2 or better numbers in 60 percent of his games and has been consistently underrated. Although he figures to remain the primary rusher for the Seahawks, his carries per game sunk from 18.5 in 2019 to 11.8 in 2020. As such, Carson had just four games out of 12 with 15-plus carries and seven with 15-plus touches last year. Injuries have also been a problem, but when he’s on the field, he’s a reliable RB2 who will provide a decent floor if not a high ceiling each week.  


Fantasy managers were drafting Sanders as early as the first round last year, in spite of my warnings against such foolishness. He’s delivered RB2 or better numbers in just 14-of-28 of games (50 percent). To be fair, he hasn’t been used in a workhorse role, totaling more than 15 touches just 11 times over that span. Will the departure of Doug Pederson allow him to shine, or will Nick Sirianni implement a timeshare as well? I’m expecting a timeshare, and the Eagles quarterback “hurts” his fantasy value.


Jacobs was being drafted in the second round last year and failed to meet fantasy expectations. Now, the Raiders have decided to pay Kenyan Drake a lot of money to come in and share the workload with Jacobs. Understandably, this has caused Jacobs’ stock to plummet. But the question is whether it has fallen too far. Running backs being drafted in the middle rounds are usually in timeshares. With lower expectations, taking Jacobs in the fifth round as your third back could prove to be a shrewd move. 


The fantasy world was a buzz about Henderson a week ago with the year-ending injury to Cam Akers. While the injury opens a door of opportunity for Henderson, I want to sound a note of caution. Over the whole of 2020, Henderson averaged slightly more than 10 carries per contest, and I don’t think that will change. I expect the Rams to bring in someone to compete with Henderson for the starting job. There were rumors of someone flying around LA with a cape that looked like former superhero Le’Veon Bell.


At first glance, Davis should be ranked higher than RB23 since he has a clear path to 15-plus touches per game. There have been 144 running backs who’ve hit that mark over the past 10 years, and none have finished worse than RB28. The vast majority have finished higher than RB23. There are two things that are working against Davis in becoming a solid RB2 on a fantasy team. First, the Falcons aren’t very good and will be playing from behind a lot. Second, there’s a chance a free agent could be added in Atlanta.


Like Gaskin, I’m higher on Mostert than most because I know what he’s capable of. When he’s healthy and on the field, he’s a beast. He’s turned 282 career carries into 1,590 yards and 11 touchdowns. The 49ers traded up to draft Trey Sermon in the third round, but I believe that’s because they want a quality backup for Mostert. If you want a shot at upside, draft Mostert in the 6th round. He tallied at least 14 carries in 5-of-8 starts last year, which is more than enough to get into RB2 territory – if he stays healthy.


All of the running backs you’re reading about now are in time-sharing arrangements, but some are better than others and Hunt is one of the best. He finished as a top-10 running back last season when Chubb missed four games. He’s a handcuff plus RB. He has a secure role as a pass-catching back, but he’s capable of being a top-five back if Chubb gets injured again. The worst-case scenario is that Hunt will be a strong RB3/flex option, and the best case is a back with 20-touch upside in a run-first offense.  


With Kenyan Drake gone, Edmonds is the lead running back for the Cardinals. The team added James Conner, but we know he can’t stay healthy. Edmonds will line up for passing situations (he averaged 3.3 receptions per game last year) but should see a lot of early-downs work as well. So why is he only RB26? Edmonds only has four career starts and nine career games with 10-plus touches (six in 2020). The wild card is Kyler Murray. If he runs a lot – especially in the red zone – that will hurt Edmonds’ productivity.


At the risk of repeating myself, I’m higher on Carter than most. One of my top sleepers, the Jets quietly took him in the fourth round of the NFL Draft, and he has the chance to be their starter. Though he’s undersized, he does everything well including catching passes. The only player standing in the way of him securing 15-plus touches each week is Tevin Coleman, who’s always injured. Carter is being taken around No. 80 overall in mock drafts, and he is one of the best late-round values in fantasy football.


Robinson was one of the biggest surprises last year, coming out of nowhere to become a top 10 back in fantasy. He was a bell cow back, averaging 4.46 yards per carry, 5.73 yards per target, and scoring 10 touchdowns. Enter Urban Meyer, who said they wanted to add depth/competition at the running back position. After adding Carlos Hyde, the Jaguars drafted Travis Etienne in the first round. Go figure. A timeshare knocks Robinson’s value way down, but it’s still possible he surprises everyone again.


There are some who want to make Williams the lead back in the Broncos backfield, but Melvin Gordon is still there for another year. So, the Denver backfield is likely to be a time share. If you draft the 21-year-old rookie, you’re hoping Gordon fades away early in the season, leaving Williams as the last man standing. Don’t reach for Williams, but take him if he falls to you around the 75th pick overall. Williams is likely to fill the Phillip Lindsay role initially, but if anything happens to Gordon, Williams has big upside.


If Robinson wasn’t in Jacksonville, Etienne would be higher than my RB30. Etienne is a big-time playmaker in all facets of the game, averaging 7.2 yards per carry and 11.3 per reception at Clemson. He’ll be lining up next to his college QB, Trevor Lawrence, and that combination could be especially fruitful in the passing game, which is likely where Etienne will have to make his impact, at least at first. If Robinson were to get traded (think LA Rams), or sustain an injury, Etienne’s value would skyrocket.


Leonard Fournette had a strong finish to the 2020 season while Jones was hurt, but don’t forget Jones averaged 5.14 yards per carry and nearly hit 1,000 rushing yards despite finishing with just 192 carries. There are just eight running backs in the post-merger era who’ve finished with as many yards as Jones did with 192 or less carries. He’s not going to be heavily utilized in the passing game, which caps his upside, but Jones is the Bucs best ball carrier and could be a boon to managers if Fournette is injured.


When the Broncos signed Gordon to a two-year, $16 million contract, I assumed he would have a big role. That didn’t happen as he found himself in a timesharing arrangement with Phillip Lindsay. Gordon’s pedigree will cause some to draft him too early in 2021. The Broncos favor a multi-back approach, so Gordon will now be sharing time with Williams, instead of Lindsay. Gordon has hit 15-plus PPR in just 11 of 29 games over the past two seasons, so you certainly don’t want to overpay for him in the draft.


As previously stated, I’m a big Raheem Mostert fan. He’s the 49ers’ starting running back if he stays healthy. But he’s injured too often to ignore the fact. Why do you think Kyle Shanahan traded up into the third round to get Sermon? The skeptic in me says it’s not a question of if Mostert gets hurt but when. The 49ers have one of the softest schedules in the league among running backs, which is a plus for all of their backs. Sermon should be viewed as one of the best bench stashes in fantasy football.


I’m one of the few analysts that ranks Fournette behind Jones. Yes, Fournette had a good run in the playoffs last year, but don’t let a couple of games cloud the picture. He had a mediocre season, finishing with more than 52 rushing yards just once all year. His primary source of fantasy points in 2020 was via the passing game, as he saw 47 targets in 13 games. But the Bucs added Gio Bernard, who’s a much better receiver out of the backfield. There’s just too many question marks surrounding Fournette.


It wasn’t long ago, that the fantasy community saw Connor as a borderline elite running back. He looked like it after he took over from Le’Veon Bell in 2018. But Connor’s body just couldn’t stand up to a workhorse role in Pittsburgh. Now, he’s in Arizona in a timeshare with Edmonds. He’s my RB35 because I assume he is the No. 2 back for the Cardinals, There’s a reason the Cardinals signed him in free agency, so he will have a role. The question is “how big?” He’s only worth a late-round pick in drafts.


Like Connor, it seems Drake’s best days are behind him as he leaves Arizona and heads for the desert. The Cardinals experiment proved that Drake was no bell cow. His new role with the Raiders is uncertain – playing second fiddle to Josh Jacobs. Drake was considered a solid third-down back early in his career with the Dolphins and had two seasons with 50-plus catches. It’s tough to see him eating into Jacobs’ carry totals a whole lot, but he should offer low-upside flex value due to his work in the passing game.


David Johnson, RB 37; Damien Harris, RB 38; Zack Moss, RB 39; A.J. Dillon, RB 40; Nyheim Hines, RB 41; Devin Singletary, RB 42; Tony Pollard, RB 43; Gus Edwards, RB 44; Jamaal Williams, RB 45; J.D. McKissic, RB 46; Alexander Mattison, RB47; Latavius Murray, RB48; James White, RB49; Phillip Lindsay, RB50. These last 14 players are not expected to have much fantasy impact, but this list includes Pollard and Mattison. Both are talented athletes who are a key injury away from being top 10- or even top-5 backs.  

You can follow Thomas L. Seltzer on Twitter @ThomasLSeltzer1.

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