2021 Top Rookie Running Backs

Justin Dunbar analyzes the top rookie running backs from the 2021 draft.

Recently, we deeply examined the rookie quarterback class, looking the anoint the true “QB1”. However, in leagues that only start one quarterback, the other positions likely hold greater value. Isn’t it crazy how different fantasy football is from positional valuation in the NFL? Whereas running backs don’t tend to go high in the NFL draft, they’re the coveted assets in rookie drafts.

As we’ll get to, this year’s “RB1” isn’t in great debate. However, that doesn’t mean there aren’t other very talented rookie running backs as well! In fact, all of these top-five players should be starting players moving forward, which isn’t the case every year; having three running backs go in the top-35 picks also is likely to become more of a rarity in the future. Rather than focus on crowning an “RB1”, let’s take a look at the top-5 rookie running backs for dynasty leagues. We’ll take a look at their future outlook, fantasy player comparisons, and any other useful tidbits that help us paint a greater picture of their abilities. Meanwhile, if you stay tuned to the end, we’ll also look at a few sleepers as well! This is a very exciting running back class, and I’m excited to dive deep into it. Wait, why am I still rambling? Let us get right into it!

All Stats via Pro Football Focus. 

 

#1: Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers

 

When a team drafts a running back in the first round, openly states that they plan to use them as a workhorse running back, and immediately goes on to use them as such in the preseason, that’s a great soon regarding their fantasy value. In that lens, Najee Harris has one factor in his favor that no one has: pure volume.

Just based on that, Harris would likely rank as the top rookie running back. However, let’s not act like Harris isn’t an extremely accomplished player in his own right. Over his college career, he averaged 3.69 yards/after contact per attempt, earned a PFF grade over 88 in his past three seasons, and also factored into the receiving game with a 13.4% target share during his finals Eason.

When assessing the history of first-round running backs, it seems like the bust rate is all centered around injury or being a committee role, which we don’t have to worry about with Harris. He proved to be capable of being efficient while handling 200+ carries in a season, and already was cited by general manager Kevin Colbert as a three-down running back in an interview with NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport. Need more convincing? As a member of the Steelers, Le’Veon Bell averaged 24.9 touches per game. Even if Harris sees less than that, there’s still a great chance he sees 300 touches next season, and in the future as well.

To be honest, I’m not completely sure that Harris is the best overall running back in this class from an efficiency standpoint. However, in fantasy land, we’re taught to chase volume over anything else. The role Harris should play in Pittsburgh moving forward, in addition to what he’s provided as a receiver, gives him a clear edge over the other running backs from this past draft. He’s the only running back in this class without anything holding him back, and I’d be pounding the table for him as not only the top pick in rookie drafts, but a first-round pick in dynasty startup drafts as well. Don’t overthink this, folks!

 

This Year’s Outlook: Low-End “RB1”

Future Outlook: Consistent First-Round Pick

Fantasy Comparison: Joe Mixon

Top Strength(s): Complete Profile, Role In Pittsburgh

Biggest Obstacle: Non-Elite Burst + Yards After Contact Totals

 

#2: Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos

 

I like fun players, and I hope you do to! Simply based on that, how can you not love Javonte Williams:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kwv4Ek76rKg

 

Simply put, his production over the past two years at North Carolina has been utterly ridiculous:

 

I’m sorry, what? There’s a case to be made that Williams had one of the most efficient college seasons ever for a running back, and he did so behind an offensive line that earned just a 62.4 PFF run-blocking grade last year. If there’s a brick wall, Williams is going to run right through it. Breaking and avoiding tackles is the most stable skill from college to pro, and I have very little concern about Williams’ abilities as a runner.
As a receiver, it’s a bit more complicated assessing Williams’ abilities. He ran just 287 routes over the past two years at North Carolina, but he did perform well in those situations. With a career -0.9 yard average depth of target, it’s clear he was utilized much more as a weapon after the catch in the screen game than someone who is going to actually work as a receiver, making it harder for him to figure into a passing offense. All indications are that he likely won’t play for Denver this year in obvious passing situations, which would appear to back up that sentiment.
That being said, Williams could easily profile as an efficient enough runner to quell other concerns. If Jonathan Taylor is seen as a fringe first-round pick in redraft formats right now, why can’t Williams find himself in a similar spot next year? His immediate role is complicated based on the presence of Melvin Gordon III, but consider him someone who’ll not likely continue to get more playing time down the stretch, but could easily work his way into being a first-round pick next year. If you’re asking me, that sounds like someone to target early in rookie drafts!

This Year’s Outlook: High-End “RB3″/Low-End “RB2”

Future Outlook: Potential First-Round Pick

Fantasy Comparison: Nick Chubb

Top Strength(s): Creating Yards After Contact

Biggest Obstacle: Limited Experience as a Receiver

 

#3: Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars

 

Najee Harris wasn’t the only first-round running back in this past draft; just one pick later, the Jaguars reunited running back Travis Etienne with college teammate Trevor Lawrence, completing the Clemson stack in the draft. Sadly, they didn’t draft a third Clemson player later on, so it’s not actually a stack, but, hey, there’s nothing better than continuity, am I right?

If there’s one word to describe Etienne, it’s explosive. He posted a 51.7% breakaway rate in college and ranks in the 80th percentile in speed score, a fantastic combination. Meanwhile, the overall body of work is ridiculously impressive. Over his four-year career, he averaged 7.2 yards/attempt, 4.51 yards after contact/attempt, and also ranked consistently near the top of the league in PFF rushing grade. Worried about his abilities as a receiver? He averaged over 2 yards/route run in each of the past two seasons, while he also earned a 90.9 PFF receiving grade last year. By the looks of it, you’re getting the whole package here.

Now, on to the concerns. Heading into the year, Etienne was seen as the consensus top running back, but his senior year just didn’t match up with his previous ones:

 

 

It’s very difficult to understand what went wrong for Etienne in 2020. Clemson’s offensive line didn’t rate out much worse, nor did his usage change at all. Hopefully, the player we see is closer to his previous version, though there is some risk attached here. However, what may concern me the most is the offense he now finds himself in. At the moment, he’s splitting carries with James Robinson, and there is a chance he never takes on a complete “workhorse” role, especially with the perception likely to surround him and his 5’10”, 205-pound frame; it’s likely Jacksonville tries to “preserve” his explosiveness while limiting his carries. If that’s the case, his usage in the passing game and big-play ability gives him clear fantasy value, though not at the level of Harris. I slightly prefer Williams to him, but it’s as close to 50/50 as it gets. I guess just trust your gut, and don’t look back? I wish these decisions could sometimes be easier to make, but here we are!

 

This Year’s Outlook: High-End “RB3″/Low-End “RB2”

Future Outlook: High-End “RB2” With “RB1” Potential In Proper Role 

Fantasy Comparison: Aaron Jones

Top Strength(s): Explosiveness, Overall Body of Work, Receiving Progression

Biggest Obstacle: 2020 Struggles, Potential He Doesn’t Have a “Workhorse” Role

 

#4: Trey Sermon, San Francisco 49ers

 

A running back that Kyle Shanahan traded up to select? Yes, please! Well, maybe not completely. Shanahan has a long history of utilizing a “running back by committee” approach. That being said, that also means that the running back will be put in a position to succeed with every touch he gets, leading to him being fantasy viable just based on that. Let’s hope that Trey Sermon fits that mold moving forward.

If you’re looking for a long college track record, Sermon might not be your favorite option. He only had 452 carries over his four-year career, constantly dealing with being in a committee situation during his time at Oklahoma and Ohio State. At the same time, there’s no disputing what he did with the ball in his hands. For his career, he averaged 6.5 yards/attempt, while his efficiency numbers were significantly better in 2020:

 

Sermon’s Fabulous 2020 Season

 

Creating yardage after contact, explosive runs; Sermon did it all in 2020. It’s hard to find better games than his Big-10 championship performance against Northwestern:

 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D3wr-A5WPKU

 

331 rushing yards, 11.4 yards/attempt, 6.76 yards after contact/attempt; oh my! Obviously, I’m not making any definitive conclusions from one game, but I would be doing you a disservice by not blessing you with this highlight reel.

Sermon doesn’t rate well in Player Profilier’s speed score, which our own Ryan Heath found to be predictive of running back success. At the same time, his size (6’1″, 215 pounds) gives him clear upside with regards to touchdown opportunities and short-yardage situations, which is also extremely important. Really, the main concern is with regards to his receiving ability. He only ran 459 routes and had 48 receptions during his four years in college, and would figure to be a non-factor in an offense that generally doesn’t target running backs as is.

With his limited receiving ability, it’s likely Sermon works as an early-down back for the 49ers moving forward. As long as they continue to be a successful offense, the hope is that he is so efficient and has so much touchdown potential that he can be a “RB2” just off of that. At the same time, it’s definitely more of a boom-or-bust profile, putting him along with the likes of Zack Moss and Damien Harris. Could he Nick Chubb his way to success with elite rushing production? Maybe, but that’d also require him to receive a heavy workload, something he’s likely not going to get in Kyle Shanahan’s offense, nor did he prove to be capable of handling while maintaining efficient numbers in college. He’s certainly on a tier down from the top-three players on this list, though there’s enough to like here for him to headline the next tier of rookie running backs.

 

This Year’s Outlook: “RB3”

Future Outlook: “RB2” Who Relies on Rushing Efficiency and Touchdowns

Fantasy Comparison: Damien Harris

Top Strength(s): Size, College Efficiency

Biggest Obstacle: Unlikely To Be a Three-Down Back, Limited College Track Record, Low Speed Score

 

#5: Michael Carter, New York Jets

 

Wait, North Carolina had two running backs that appear on this list? How dominant was their rushing attack? Considering they led college football in PFF rushing grade, I guess the answer is: VERY DOMINANT. Javonte Williams may have stole the headlines, but Michael Carter quietly as productive as he was! The draft capital (fourth round) may not reflect it, but that may say more about the disservice done to him by NFL front offices more than anything else.

Carter as a senior last year averaged 7.9 yards/attempt, 4.47 yards after contact/attempt, and earned a 91.1 PFF rushing grade. Does that work for you? He’s agile of a back as there was in this draft, and it’s hard to stare how dominant he was. Furthermore, it’s not like he struggled as a receiver. In fact, this is where he outclassed Williams. With an 88.6 PFF receiving grade and 8.9 yards/target in 2020, in addition overall 9.2% target share in college, he definitely profiles as a dual-threat running back, which is beautiful for PPR formats.

Sadly, there are a couple of factors working against Carter. One is his limited track record before this year. He only had totaled 360 carries in the three seasons prior, while his overall numbers were noticeable lower than they year at a time when run defense was at all-time low in college football. Furthermore, even in that dominant season, he only worked a committee role, something he is likely to have moving forward. See, he’s only 5’8″ and 201 pounds, which doesn’t scream “workhorse running back” to the average NFL coach, and aligns perfectly with his mixed usage he’s had thus far in the preseason for the Jets. Plus, being a day-three pick also hurts him when projecting his future role, given that there’s less attachment to him by the organization.

I don’t want this to completely takeaway from Carter’s skillset, though. We’ve seen plenty of later-round running backs succeed, and he’s going to have an opportunity to perform this season. Unfortunately, he’s a pedestrian athlete (28th percentile speed score) with limited size that will likely be seen as more of a change-of-pace back at the next level, and that’s not ideal. What we’re chasing in fantasy football is sheer volume, and without that, the margin for error is very thin for Carter. His stock is already taking a hit in redraft formats, and there is simply too much touchdown potential to not side with Sermon as the best of the “tier-2” running backs. Consider him a nice “high floor” option at the end of the first round in rookie drafts, though how you see him likely depends greatly on your preference in evaluating running backs in general.

 

This Year’s Outlook: Low-End “RB3”

Future Outlook: High-End “RB3” as a Change-Of-Pace Running Back

Fantasy Comparison: Mike Davis

Top Strength(s): 2020 Production

Biggest Obstacle: Size, Day-Three Draft Capital

Potential Sleepers

 

If you’ve been watching the preseason, you’re likely familiar with Rhamondre Stevenson by now. The Oklahoma product has dominated thus far, leading to plenty of buzz surrounding the Patriots’ rookie running back’s profile moving forward. A failed drug test in college means that his track record is limited, but it’s safe to say he was a menace with the ball in his hands. On 165 rush attempts, he averaged 7.2 yards/attempt, 4.65 yards after contact/attempt, and earned an 89 PFF grade. Sadly, his name is “Rhamodore”, so I can’t call him “Rhamodore the Commodore”, but he definitely could mix into New England’s backfield in the future, even if it’s not this year- they don’t tend to play their rookie running backs. If his stock starts to slip with limited usage during the beginning of the season, don’t be afraid to buy-low on him. At the very worst, the 246-pound back is a clear goal-line/short yardage back, though I wouldn’t discount his abilities in the receiving game as well.

As for a deep sleeper, Elijah Mitchell fits the bill. As a sixth-round pick of Louisiana, Mitchell might not be someone you’re completely familiar with. Maybe you should be, though:

 

Elijah Mitchell’s Illustrious College Career

Meanwhile, take a gander at his athletic profile. Mitchell ran a 4.38 40-yard dash, good for an 86th percentile speed score, while his explosiveness showed with a 40.5% breakaway rate in college. That explosiveness fits right into Kyle Shanahan’s zone-rushing offense; Mitchell ran a zone concept on 76.2% of his attempts in college.

The limited draft capital and crowded backfield is difficult, but why not take a shot on a very talented player. Situations can fluctuate from year to year, and there is clear upside here if he ever gets an opportunity. As someone who could make it to the very end of your rookie draft, it’s simply malpractice to not be drafting him in that range.

 

Overview

 

Some might not see this as a deep running back class, but there is no doubting that the talent at the top is stronger than in years past. Also, it’s funny how much situation dictates running back value. After all, there are so many factors that play a more significant role in running back performance than the player themself, while we’re all chasing here. Simply based on talent, my ranking of these players likely would be Williams, Etienne, and Harris, followed by Mitchell, Stevenson, Carter, and Sermon. Yet, talent isn’t the only factor for fantasy purposes, which changes things. Harris’ ability to be a three-down back, for instance, matters a lot when it comes to projecting volume statistics, while Mitchell could potentially not even back the 53-man roster with such low draft capital attached to his name. This is precisely why rookie drafts are likely more logical to be held after the draft, and you should be quick to move off of your pre-draft rankings; taking all factors into account here is critical. Regardless, between Harris’ fantasy upside this year, Williams’ dominance after contact, and Etienne’s explosiveness, we are certainly blessed with three very exciting talents entering the league. My main recommendation? Just enjoy the show!

 

 

Photo by Bob Kupbens/Icon Sportswire | Design by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter @ IG)

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