Top 80 Running Backs for 2021

Erik Smith ranks his top 80 running backs for the 2021 season. Updated 8/21.

Tier 1


1. Christian McCaffrey (Carolina Panthers) – CMC played in just three games in 2020, snapping a spotless record of health over his first three seasons in the NFL. McCaffrey suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 2, injured his shoulder in his first game back in Week 9, and had his quad tighten up ahead of his attempted return in Week 14. While the injuries certainly set off warnings in the heads of veteran fantasy players who have seen countless running backs break down early over the years, McCaffrey remains worth the risk. Even in his limited work in 2020, McCaffrey scored six touchdowns in three games and averaged a whopping 30 PPR points per game. CMC’s 2019 campaign saw him rack up 142 targets and a 29.5 PPG mark that won countless fantasy championships. Over the past three seasons (if you count the small sample ’20 output) McCaffrey ranks 1st, 2nd, and 7th in best PPG seasons among active running backs. He’s the 1.01 in single quarterback leagues.


2. Dalvin Cook (Minnesota Vikings) – Cook overcame the early-career injury-prone label to put up his finest season to date in 2020. He missed just one game due to injury (his second missed game was due to the death of his father) while topping 1,500 yards on the ground and scoring 17 touchdowns. Cook actually saw his passing game involvement dip last year, from 4.5 targets a game in 2019 down to 3.86 in 2020, and it would be nice to see those numbers tick back up as Cook racks up more miles on his legs. But even his reduced passing game involvement puts him above the likes of Joe Mixon and Nick Chubb going later in the first or second round, and there is certainly room to increase his usage with few options beyond Justin Jefferson and Adam Thielen in the Vikings’ passing game. Cook’s 24.1 PPG from 2020 put him in elite territory, and with the Vikings offense remaining as easy to predict as any in the league, we can write Cook’s projected usage in permanent marker and move on to the next player.


3. Alvin Kamara (New Orleans Saints) – There’s nothing in Kamara’s profile to give us any cause for concern, as he’s a lock for 100 targets every year and still appears to be in his prime. Kamara’s surroundings, however, give us pause for the first time in the running back’s young career. With Drew Brees retired, we are left debating who gets the starts under center. Could we have a more opposite pair than Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill in New Orleans? The differing styles and uncertainty at the position are impossible to ignore, but I’m betting that whichever quarterback starts will be a successful quarterback with Sean Payton leading the way. And even with worries about Hill or Winston not checking down as much as Brees used to, I’m betting on Kamara for another year. When Hill took over for the injured Brees in 2020, Kamara saw just 5 combined targets in the first two games, and there was much panicking. The next two games with Hill? 16 combined targets. That doesn’t sound much different than when Brees was around, and without Michael Thomas to compete with for touches, I just can’t imagine a scenario where a healthy Kamara isn’t one of the league’s highest volume players.


Tier 2


4. Derrick Henry (Tennessee Titans) – When you’re rushing for 2,027 yards in one season, it’s a little easier to forgive the lack of passing game involvement. Henry has somehow been getting better every year, and at this rate, a 6.0 yards per carry, 2,500-yard season appears to be on the horizon. I’m kidding, I think. But with all of the question marks around every running back from here on out, I’ll gladly take Henry’s double-digit touchdown stability. Henry has averaged nearly 16 touchdowns a year over the past three seasons and hasn’t shown signs of wearing down despite his massive workload. Per FantasyData, Henry was 8th in juke rate, 8th in breakaway percentage, and 2nd in yards created per attempt among all qualified running backs. Sure, Julio Jones is in town and will draw plenty of opportunities in the offense, but everything that the Titans do in the passing game is set up by Henry. He’s an easy first-round pick.


5. Aaron Jones (Green Bay Packers) – Jones may be my most drafted player so far this offseason, so much so that I’ve had to check my rationale for mistakes. I’m still all in. Fantasy managers like to complain about his workload (62% snap rate in 2019, 52% in 2020), but that hasn’t stopped him from finishing as the RB5 with 18.5 points per game in 2020 and the RB3 with 18.5 points per game in 2019. Lasts years’ Aaron Rodgers drama caused us to fade Jones, and I’m not going to let that happen again. The same thing that has frustrated fantasy managers (his workload) is now set to help extend his career as he closes in on 27 years old, and with Jamal Williams leaving town and A.J. Dillon set to fill the void, Jones may see even more of the valuable passing game work than ever before. Jones has already topped 60 targets in each of the past two seasons, and he looks primed to set a career-high in 2021. On a per-game basis, Jones’ targets have risen each year of his career, with last year’s number hitting 4.5 targets per game. He’s efficient, scores touchdowns, and is an underrated pass-catcher. And with the threat of Rogers holding out behind us, Jones is a locked-in first-round pick. There’s always the chance that Dillon vultures too many touchdowns, but a likely increase in pass-catching will help mitigate that risk.


6. Ezekiel Elliott (Dallas Cowboys) – The risk-reward is clear with Elliott in 2021. He’s the model of consistency, topping 240 rushing attempts in each year of his five-year career while exceeding 70 targets and 50 receptions in each of the last three seasons. He still managed 15 PPR points per game last year in a disaster of a year without Prescott, and at 26 he should still have some gas left in the tank. And yet, it’s hard to miss 2020’s 1.6% breakaway rate, good for 43rd among qualifying running backs per FantasyData, lower than even (gasp) Todd Gurley. Zeke posted a career-low 4.0 yards per carry last season while also posting a career-low 6.5 yards per reception. But again, his offensive line and starting quarterback were in shambles for most of the year. As long as Elliott doesn’t fall off a cliff as Gurley did at a similar age, this is too much volume in too good an offense to overthink it.


7. Austin Ekeler (Los Angeles Chargers) – Ekeler is not your traditional first-round running back, and fantasy managers haven’t properly adjusted. Ekeler has rushed for between 500 and 600 yards over each of the past three seasons, lackluster numbers for even a ninth-round fantasy pick, let alone a first-round pick. He has 9 rushing touchdowns in his four-year career, with just 1 in 10 games last year. And speaking of last year, Ekeler missed six games with injuries, and at 5’10”, 200 lbs, he isn’t big enough to hold up to a major workload. That’s what his detractors say, overlooking the fact that in 2019 he was the RB6 with 19.3 points per game, and in an injury slowed 2020 he still managed an RB11 finish with 16.5 points per game. Ekeler survived the transition from check down king Philip Rivers to the low-volume attack of Tyrod Taylor, but if Justin Herbert wasn’t there to save the day that may have been the end of Ekeler’s fantasy relevance. As a result, Ekeler saw his targets drop ever so slightly, from 6.75 targets per game in 2019 to 6.5 in 2020. That means that Ekeler’s 108 targets from 2019 may be replicable after all, and we get to tie ourselves to the up-and-coming Herbert with one of his primary pass catchers, who just happens to be a running back. Maybe you won’t get 17 games from Ekeler, but the games you do get are assured to be high quality.


8. Jonathan Taylor (Indianapolis Colts) – We know that Taylor is going to be good on the ground. Well, we don’t know anything really, but we’re pretty sure he’s a bruiser. Taylor ranked sixth in the league in Breakaway Rate in 2020, per FantasyData, and while his Juke Rate and yards created per attempt were less impressive (19th and 34th respectively), behind a good offensive line Taylor has the power and speed to take advantage of the open field. The big question for Taylor is his pass-catching projection. Taylor goes from the aforementioned king of targeting running backs in Rivers to Carson Wentz, who had a painful time hooking up with Miles Sanders last season. Taylor finished as the RB9 last year with 16.9 points per game, and his underrated pass-catching chipped in 36 receptions for 299 yards. But that was Rivers connecting with Taylor on 36 of 39 passes for a 92% catch rate. Sanders, a supposed asset in the passing game entering 2020, caught just 28 of 52 passes from Taylor’s new quarterback, Wentz. Maybe Frank Reich can fix Wentz, or maybe Taylor runs so hot that he doesn’t need pass catching. But I fear that Taylor is closer to Nick Chubb than Derrick Henry, and while that makes Taylor an excellent runner, I just can’t pull the trigger on him in the top five of a PPR redraft league. Now with Wentz’s status up in the air for Week 1, I feel even better about passing on Taylor in the early first round.


9. Saquon Barkley (New York Giants) – There is ongoing speculation about Barkley’s status for the start of the season coming off of an ACL injury last September. It’s a real concern, and Barkley has serious downside this season as he recovers from the injury. But his upside is immense, which he flashed in his rookie year with 91 receptions on 121 targets and 15 total touchdowns. I’m relatively down on Barkley’s quarterback and offensive line, and I worry whether he still gets the bell cow treatment he saw in his rookie year. But if you’re looking for a player that has RB1 overall in his range of outcomes, Barkley certainly has that. *The most recent updates are looking like Barkley could miss 1-3 weeks to start the season. I’ve dropped him from Tier 2 to Tier 3, as the likelihood of his old workload looks to be lessening, early on at least. *Latest updates are more encouraging, we are back to Tier 2!


Tier 3


10. Najee Harris (Pittsburgh Steelers) – There are two glaring red flags for Harris that are preventing him from being hyped farther into the first round of drafts; He will run behind the league’s 2nd worst offensive line according to PFF, and his quarterback looks to be on his last legs as an NFL player in what may be Ben Roethlisberger‘s final season. Otherwise, the Steelers have told us the plan, and it couldn’t be any more clear. Harris will get the ball early and often on the ground and through the air, and Pittsburgh wants him on the field dominating snaps. As a first-round pick out of Alabama, Harris has all of the pedigree you could ask for, and he’s built like a back that can hold up to the workload. While the Steelers say they want to throw the ball down the field more in 2021, there’s no overlooking Roethlisberger’s 3.1 air yards per attempt last season, ranking 32 of 35 qualified quarterbacks. More short passes mean more opportunities for Harris to become a PPR asset, giving him as much upside as anyone outside of the top tier. While James Conner‘s 2018 season feels like a lifetime ago, his 21.5 points per game have only been topped by seven running backs since. It’s a great situation for Harris, as the Steelers have a track record of producing fantasy stars. Now he just has to play like a star.


11. Antonio Gibson (Washington Football Team) – I missed on Gibson last year as I faded him based on his lack of a college workload (77 touches in two seasons at Memphis). Gibson then proceeded to average 14.7 touches per game over 14 games on the way to an RB18 finish in PPR points per game. Even more surprising, Gibson got it done on the ground as opposed to through the air, rushing for 795 yards and 11 touchdowns, while J.D. McKissic and Alex Smith became best buds with McKissic catching 80 passes out of the backfield. Gibson was practically a receiver in college, and McKissic, well, just isn’t very good (he turned 110 targets into 589 yards!), so we should see an uptick in Gibson’s pass-catching. The problem is that this isn’t the same WFT offense, with Ryan Fitzpatrick bringing a much different dynamic than Smith’s dink and dunk ways. With Terry McLaurin, Curtis Samuel, and Logan Thomas suddenly forming a solid trio of weapons, Gibson has some serious competition. When Fitzpatrick started the first six games of the 2020 season in Miami, Myles Gaskin caught 27 of 29 passes out of the backfield for an average of 4.5 receptions per game, so despite Fitzpatrick’s gunslinging reputation, he can support a pass-catching running back. If Washington hands the backfield over to Gibson, he has the talent (6’0″, 228 lbs, 4.39 40-yard dash) to be the breakout running back of 2021. I should probably be drafting more of Gibson, now that I think of it.


12. D’Andre Swift (Detroit Lions) – The other night I was thinking about Todd Gurley‘s breakout 2017 season (that’s normal, right?) and I tried to find the players that fit his profile in 2021. I came up with the following criteria: talent (Gurley was drafted 1.10 out of college and ran a 4.5 40 at 6’1″, 220lbs), clear lead back status (Gurley handled a whopping 278 of the Rams’ 375 carries the prior year), youth (Gurley’s age 23 season), pass-catching ability (Gurley went for 788 yards and 6 touchdowns through the air in 2017), good offensive line play (PFF ranked the Rams line 18th in the preseason and 6th in their postseason rankings), and a massive upgrade in coaching (Jeff Fisher to Sean McVay).

As I went through the league looking for candidates for the upcoming season, I got to the Lions and realized that I couldn’t rule out Swift. He checks the talent box as pick 2.03 in the 202o NF Draft, which nowadays is a high pick for a running back. While Swift is only 5’8″, he did run a 4.48 40 at 212lbs. Swift didn’t dominate the touches in 2020 as his 160 touches ranked 8 behind Adrian Peterson for the team lead at running back, but he was 89 touches ahead of third-place Kerryon Johnson, and both AP and Johnson left in the offseason. Jamaal Williams has come in to complement Swift, but he likely wouldn’t stand in the way of a true breakout season. Swift also has youth on his side, as he enters the season just 22 years old. His pass-catching ability is clear, catching 46 of 57 targets across just 13 games and 4 starts last season. Detroit should boast an above-average offensive line after drafting Penei Sewell, as PFF ranks them 10th overall heading into 2021, and if Sewell is as advertised they could climb even higher. That leaves the final question; is this a massive upgrade in coaching? We don’t know that answer yet, but Matt Patricia certainly set the bar low enough that this scenario is 100% in play. While head coach Dan Campbell came off as a joke in some preseason press conferences, the jury is still out on his coaching ability. And with Anthony Lynn as offensive coordinator, we know that the run game will be important.

Swift’s competition in the passing game is T.J. Hockenson and not a lot else, so there’s the potential for a massive workload here. A lot can go wrong in Detroit in 2021, but if the line is excellent and the coaching is good… I’m just saying that they might not be the joke that they are perceived to be.


13. Nick Chubb (Cleveland Browns) – Speaking of Chubb, maybe Taylor will be lucky to ever match Chubb’s 2020 finish as the RB1 in Juke Rate and yards created per attempt, the RB2 in Breakaway Rate, and his 5.6 yards per carry across 12 games. But the pass-catching… Chubb’s targets plunged to 1.5 per game last year after spiking to 3 per game in 2019, and Kareem Hunt is there to demand a workload of his own. We’ve seen Derrick Henry produce some outlandish seasons without passing game work, and if anyone else could do it, it might be Chubb. The Browns project to have an excellent offensive line, they are built around the run, and with a quality roster, they should hold plenty of leads in 2021. Chubb has already ripped off a season with 1,494 rushing yards, and last season he averaged a career-high 5.6 yards per carry. But to reach Henry’s heights, we need Chubb to spike a 15+ touchdown season and rush for closer to 2,000 yards, and it’s hard to imagine that happening as long as Hunt is healthy.


14. Joe Mixon (Cincinnati Bengals) – Let’s start with the big picture look here because virtually every fantasy player has been disappointed by Mixon at one point or another. Through 4 NFL seasons, Mixon has averaged 4.1 yards per carry while playing in 48 of a possible 64 games. He’s scored more than five rushing touchdowns in a season just once (8 in 2018) and has averaged 6.25 all-purpose touchdowns per season. Mixon ranked as RB10 in points per game last year, RB20 in 2019, and RB9 in 2018. Mixon enters his age 25 season with some hope for optimism as his targets per game shot up to a career-high 4.33 in Joe Burrow‘s first year, and third-down back Gio Bernard is gone, leaving inexperienced options to replace his role. But with Burrow and Mixon both coming off of season-destroying injuries, and the offensive line still left with multiple question marks, there are several ways that this goes poorly. While there are plenty of positives in Mixon’s profile, there are also too many questions, and I’ll let others draft him in most circumstances.


15. David Montgomery (Chicago Bears) – Is Montgomery an early-career Melvin Gordon hiding in plain sight? Is that a compliment or an insult? Montgomery will probably be lucky to have Gordon’s career in reality, as Gordon was a 2015 first-round pick with a 79% SPARQ Score, while Montgomery was a 14th percentile athlete coming out of Iowa State in 2019 and lasted until the third round. But Montgomery’s 2020 breakout season looks very similar to Gordon’s second year, and he has set himself up to be a volume option in a hopefully rising offense. Montgomery saw 4.5 targets per game last year on his way to an impressive 54 receptions in 15 games, and his competition this year comes in the form of Tarik Cohen – a 5’6″ change of pace option still recovering from an ACL tear, a 5’9″ 6th round rookie in Khalil Herbert, and 28-year-old Damien Williams – who hasn’t seen a snap since the Chiefs’ Super Bowl victory in February of 2020. Montgomery probably doesn’t have the ceiling of several backs below him in the rankings, and I’m likely taking a wide receiver if Montgomery is the best running back available in my daft. But if leagues focus too much on his faults, he’s worth scooping up at a discount


16. Chris Carson (Seattle Seahawks) – It’s pretty easy to project Carson into the RB10 range for the upcoming season, so his profile comes down to a matter of upside and health. On a point per game basis, Carson is rock solid, ranging between 14.4 and 15.7 PPR points per game over the last three years. That doesn’t put him in the elite territory, however, as 21 other active running backs have had a better peak season over the past three years than Carson’s 15.7 points per game. Carson enters his age 27 season having played 42 of 48 possible games over the past three seasons, and he has little competition in the backfield unless Rashaad Penny can suddenly get healthy. Ultimately I will be passing on Carson because of his lack of upside and wear and tear, as he is beginning to exit the prime years for a running back. We certainly may be able to get another solid year from Carson, I just tend to prefer higher ceilings at running back early on.


17. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (Kansas City Chiefs) – The RB22 on a point per game basis in 2020, CEH enters 2021 with virtually no competition in the backfield. The Chiefs aren’t going to run the ball much, but that was supposed to be fine, as CEH was a pro-ready pass-catcher at the running back position. And yet, Edwards-Helaire averaged just 23 receiving yards per game across 13 games and chipped in just one receiving touchdown during his rookie year. That one touchdown was the final dagger in his fantasy game, as CEH was able to score just five all-purpose touchdowns in arguably the league’s best offense. Maybe Patrick Mahomes is just too talented to need to check the ball down often, and barring a concerted effort to involve Edwards-Helaire downfield in the passing game, CEH might be destined to disappoint through the air. There’s a chance at an Austin Ekeler type year here (CEH actually rushed for 246 more yards than Ekeler ever has in a single season), so he’s someone to target at the right price. But CEH has a massive leap to make in the passing game to be anywhere near elite, making him a player I’m not ready to overpay for in redraft leagues. *CEH’s recent ankle sprain is enough to drop him to the bottom of this tier. Stay tuned for more updates.


Tier 4


18. James Robinson (Jacksonville Jaguars) – Travis Etienne is out for the season with a foot injury. Robinson received a real glimpse into the business side of the NFL in his first offseason, as a new coaching staff came in and immediately selected his likely replacement in the first round of the draft. While Travis Etienne may not be the true bell-cow type to demand 80% of the snaps, especially in his rookie season, it’s hard to spin this as anything positive for Robinson. Coming off of a rookie season with 1,414 all-purpose yards as an undrafted free agent, Robinson’s dynasty stock has certainly plummeted. That doesn’t mean we should completely ignore him, however. He’s at least an elite handcuff, and his role is likely to be more in the 30-50% snap range. And we’ve certainly seen enough rookies battle health and irrational coaching, leading to wasted first seasons. Throw in the unknown upside of Trevor Lawrence, and this is an offense I want to take some cheap shots at. We need to recalibrate our outlook for sure, but Robinson could make a sneaky later-round draft pick.


19. Darrell Henderson (Los Angeles Rams) – With Cam Akers out with a torn Achilles, the Rams’ backfield is Henderson’s to lose. Henderson was an exciting prospect drafted out of Memphis in the third round of 2019, boasting an absurd yards per rush number and some nice flashes in the passing game. Henderson was a non-factor in his rookie season with just 43 touches, even as Todd Gurley struggled through his final Rams season with just 3.8 yards per carry and only 49 targets across 15 games. That Rams offense as a whole needed a spark, and yet Henderson was left on the shelf, and then the Rams went and spent a second-round pick on Akers to replace the departing Gurley.

Henderson contributed in a complementary role last year and rushed for 4.5 yards per carry on 138 attempts. Yet, when Akers played in just parts of three of the first seven weeks due to injury and Henderson was given a chance, he averaged nearly 14 touches per game over the first 7 weeks. That volume is intriguing in this Rams offense now that Sean McVay has Matthew Stafford under center. If everything clicks, Henderson could be the biggest beneficiary, as Gurley’s touchdown totals of the past show the lucrative role that running backs have with McVay.

It’s worth noting that Henderson has suffered a high-ankle sprain in each of the past two seasons, and he has reportedly been eased back in during the offseason with an undisclosed injury. Henderson also lacks any proven pass-catching chops, averaging just 1.60 targets per game last season. Rams running backs as a whole saw just 71 targets last season, a far cry from Gurley’s prime where he saw 80+ targets on his own in back-to-back seasons. Henderson has the potential for a really nice season in 2021, just remember that the upside may be capped due to durability and his pass-catching role. If he’s hyped too high in drafts, it’s just hard to get the math to work to pay off on the investment. The Rams traded for Sony Michel for some added competition late this offseason.


20. Mike Davis (Atlanta Falcons) – I love when the metrics back up the eye test on a player. Davis was third in the league last year in Juke Rate while filling in for the injured Christian McCaffrey, yet ranked 43rd in Breakaway Rate among running backs. And that’s exactly the way to describe Davis’ season, lot’s of impressive runs and receptions with broken tackles and shifty moves, but ultimately lacking the breakaway speed to break a long play.

Davis recorded double-digit rushing attempts in 10 of his 12 starts, averaged nearly four receptions per game, and finished as RB20 on a point per game basis and RB11 overall. He lands in a super intriguing spot in Atlanta, as new head coach and play-caller Arthur Smith comes over from Tennessee as the master of play-action and offensive efficiency. The Falcons have done almost nothing to give Davis competition for touches out of the backfield, and even the passing game targets are wide open with the departure of Julio Jones.

Typically this is exactly the type of profile I am fading – an unheralded running back coming off of an age 27 breakout season, landing on a new team with a perceived heavy workload. But there’s just nobody threatening Davis for carries in this backfield. Taking Davis in the fourth round is too rich for my blood, but I’ll scoop him up in drafts where he falls.

One response to “Top 80 Running Backs for 2021”

  1. Eric says:

    These player capsules are terrific – fun, with a mix of stats and opinion with an entertaining writing style. I am intrigued by the references to initial projections vs the published and various What If scenarios as well. Thanks for the great content!

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