The List: Way Too Early Fantasy Football Rankings for ’21

Erik Smith releases his initial PPR rankings for the 2021 fantasy football season

RB Rankings

 

  • Tier 1 doesn’t need a ton of explanation, so let’s skip to tier 2. I’ve got Saquon Barkley a bit lower than consensus, and it’s admittedly not a stat-based argument. After producing a solid season in 2019 despite a high-ankle sprain, Barkley tore his ACL early in 2020 and missed most of the season. While Barkley should have plenty of time to be ready for Week 1, you have to wonder if the Giants will give him the full-blown Saquon workload of the past. The depth chart behind him is empty with free agency approaching, but it would make sense for the Giants to sign a veteran to help spell Barkley and keep him fresh while recovering from a major injury. Throw in that he plays for a bad Giants offense and Daniel Jones has shown few signs of progress at quarterback, and it may be nit-picking but he’s a tier 2 running back for me. His upside can’t be understated, however, as his athleticism is off the charts and he received 121 targets in his last fully healthy season.
  • I would expect many to bail on Ezekiel Elliott this offseason, and I’ll happily grab him at a discount in redraft leagues if that does happen. Regardless of what you think of Elliott’s explosiveness at this stage of his career, he’s signed through 2026 and the Cowboys can’t realistically move on until the 2023 season. And while Elliott has amassed a huge workload in his career, he will be just 26 years old and has stayed relatively healthy despite the workload. Elliott’s PPR points per game have declined each of the past three years from 21.9 to 19.5 to 14.9 in 2020, but there were certainly reasons for last season’s dip. Injuries to Dak Prescott and the offensive line destroyed this offense in the middle of the season, and Zeke suffered as a result. But Zeke was putting up elite fantasy numbers prior to this year, and even his 14.9 points per game is a similar number to those put up by Josh Jacobs or Chris Carson in a typical year. That feels like Elliott’s floor, and if we can squeeze one more year out of him he will be a steal in the later parts of the first round. Don’t forget, Elliott has topped 71 targets in each of his past three seasons, putting him in exclusive company.

 

  • Jonathan Taylor could be up to tier 2 by the time we get to draft season. After a rocky start, Taylor really came on down the stretch of his rookie year. Many will point to his schedule to finish the year (GB, HOU, LV, HOU, PIT, and JAX) and say that his improved performance was due to subpar competition. Luckily for Taylor, the Colts will play two games each against the Texans, Titans, and Jaguars as their divisional opponents, and despite the volatility year to year predicting defensive performance, those teams have a long way to go to become an above-average unit. There’s obviously the concern about who Taylor’s quarterback will be, and whether he will get the passing game work that he did with Philip Rivers under center (36 catches on 39 targets). But at the end of the day, Taylor put up 17 PPR points per game in a rookie year full of starts and stops, which is essentially as good of a season as Nick Chubb has ever had. If the Colts can figure out their quarterback position this offseason, Taylor is primed for a huge season.
  • Speaking of Nick Chubb, Chubb is no doubt a talented player and one of the best runners in the NFL. But he saw 60% or more of the running back snaps just twice in 12 games last year, and was below 50% of the Browns’ offensive snaps five different times. Chubb is a bit of a poor man’s Derrick Henry, as he has failed to see much passing game work outside of when Kareem Hunt was suspended in 2019. And while Henry has racked up 20 and 24 carries per game over the past two seasons, Chubb has received 19 and 16 carries per game, a significant difference. Chubb is a rock-solid fantasy asset for sure, but he will likely need an injury to Hunt or a sustained hot touchdown streak to truly break out in 2021.

 

  • At RB19 I’ll admit that I have James Robinson ranked at the bottom of his range of outcomes currently, but there are a ton of red flags here. Robinson was truly elite in his usage in 2020, as his 85% opportunity share led the league, as did the share of his team’s red zone rushes (77%) and inside the five-yard line rushes (83%). This comes on the heels of the Jaguars using Leonard Fournette like a true workhorse in 2019 (90% opportunity share and 100 targets). With a brand new coaching staff in place for 2021, we have no idea if Urban Meyer will use a running back in a primary workhorse role, and we also don’t know if Meyer will view Robinson as his preferred workhorse back. This could certainly work out where the offense is better with Trevor Lawrence and Robinson retains his role. But if I’m drafting right now in the early offseason, I’ll let someone else overpay for Robinson.
  • I’ll skip the rest of the second-year running backs in tier 3 for now, because frankly, they deserve their own article. But Cam Akers rises with the Matthew Stafford trade and D’Andre Swift falls. I’m ultimately being somewhat cautious with Akers and J.K. Dobbins due to their lack of proven passing game work, as Akers saw just 14 targets in his rookie season while Dobbins saw just 24 targets. It is awfully hard to be an elite fantasy running back without a passing game base to rely on.
  • Miles Sanders racked up 27% of his 2020 rushing total on just three carries that went for 82, 74, and 74 yards. While the talent to break long runs is clearly there, it’s scary to think that his year could have been even worse without those big plays. If Carson Wentz is back under center, it will be hard for me to invest in Sanders.

 

  • A.J. Dillon is my RB21 and I expect to draft him whenever possible. Both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams are free agents, and I expect Jones will be out of the Packers’ price range. There’s a chance that Dillon and Williams are sharing the backfield in 2021, and the thought of Dillon in an Aaron Rodgers-led offense is worth the gamble. Dillon likely won’t have a substantial passing game role, but the elite athleticism is there for a poor man’s version of Nick Chubb.
  • Myles Gaskin put up a healthy 16.4 PPR points per game last season and was involved in the passing game all year long. The depth chart has cleared out leaving just Salvon Ahmed, Patrick Laird, and Lynn Bowden Jr. as his competition, and if Gaskin makes it through the offseason without additions to the backfield he could be ranked much higher than RB26. I wouldn’t be shocked to see the Dolphins add running back depth, however, and an early pick could hurt Gaskin’s potential. But I’ll be drafting a lot of Gaskin in early drafts, and even with the added competition, he could retain the valuable passing game role.
  • Todd Gurley‘s departure from Atlanta frees up 66% of the team’s red zone attempts on the ground (4th in the NFL) and 75% of the Falcons’ carries inside the 5 (3rd in the NFL). Ito Smith is atop the depth chart for now with Gurley and Brian Hill set to become free agents, and while I wouldn’t expect Smith to be the lead back by training camp, he’s worth a late-round flyer for the time being.

 

  •  I’ve yet to dive deep into the rookie class, and not knowing their landing spots make them impossible to rank. Travis Etienne and Najee Harris look to be the top two prospects and I’ve placed them at the back of tier 4 for now, the absolute bottom of their value in all likelihood. I’ll update rookie ranks throughout the offseason, including after the NFL Draft.

 

RB Rankings

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