Top 80 Running Backs for 2021

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

Tier 4


21. Gus Edwards (Baltimore Ravens) – J.K. Dobbins is out for the year, opening up a massive opportunity for Edwards. The reason for the efficiency of this Ravens’ rushing attack is also the reason for Edwards’ lack of a ceiling – Lamar Jackson. When the quarterback is rushing for 1,000 yards and you’re splitting the rest of the rushes with J.K. Dobbins, there is just only so much work left to go around. Despite a career 5.2 yards per carry on 414 carries, Edwards has yet to reach even 750 rushing yards in a single season. Coupled with being a near zero in the passing game (0.51 targets per game in his career), and Edwards is no more than a touchdown dependant flex play. He does get the added bonus of being the handcuff to Dobbins, and the rest of the backfield consists of Justice Hill and some UDFAs. But even the best-case scenario for Edwards isn’t winning us any leagues, so save him for deep leagues where you need the help on your bye weeks.


22. Trey Sermon (San Francisco 49ers) – A third-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft, Sermon immediately steps into a high-upside situation with Kyle Shanahan calling the plays. Jeff Wilson Jr is already set to miss a good chunk of the season, leaving Sermon’s competition consisting of Raheem Mostert, Elijah Mitchell, JaMycal Hasty, and Wayne Gallman. Mostert has yet to reach 150 carries in a season as a pro, so even the top competition for Sermon is relatively unproven. Expecting Shanahan to hand over 60% of the carries to Sermon is likely unwise, and I could see this playing out similar to J.K. Dobbins‘ rookie season where Sermon has to slowly gain the trust of the coaching staff. But with the injury issues the 49ers always seem to have at running back, there’s a chance that the seas part for Sermon and he takes advantage of the opportunity. This is a 49ers team that rushed for the second-most yards in the league in 2019 without the benefit of a mobile quarterback, after all. With potential extra upside coming from the transition to Trey Lance, Sermon is a bet worth taking in the ninth round.


23. Javonte Williams (Denver Broncos) – The Broncos are a bit of a mess to sort out, and Williams is at the center of it all. He will be sharing the backfield with the 28-year-old Melvin Gordon, a player who, despite his faults, plays a bunch of snaps. Even last year, Gordon played 15 games and saw over 50% of the snaps in all but one game, logged 60% or more of the snaps nine times, and averaged a respectable 4.6 yards per carry. Word out of camp sure seems to be that Williams is being given the opportunity to beat out Gordon for the starting role. But unless Gordon is traded, he is likely to be a thorn in the side of Williams’ fantasy prospects.

Still, Williams was an early second-round pick in the NFL Draft with an intriguing athletic profile coming out of UNC. He may represent a discount if you don’t want to pay up for the higher-ranked rookies, and with Phillip Lindsay gone, Williams is an injury from a 28-year old running back away from having the backfield to himself (though Royce Freeman and Mike Boone are around). With a good defense and an offensive line that could be trending upwards, it wouldn’t be a shock to see Williams placed in a position to succeed.

I would feel better with Teddy Bridgewater checking down to the running backs as opposed to Drew Lock‘s run and gun style, but regardless, Williams is a talent worth taking a flyer on. Our projections initially spit him out as the RB10, and while that feels outrageous at first, when you sit down with the numbers you quickly see there’s a big opportunity ahead of Williams.


24. Josh Jacobs (Las Vegas Raiders) – Jacobs finished as the RB15 in scoring last season on 15.4 PPR points per game, which is fine. But we expected more out of the then 22-year-old former first-round pick, and with his career 2.57 targets per game holding him back thus far, the Raiders went out and brought in Kenyan Drake as a pass-catching specialist. I can’t imagine many worse realistic outcomes for Jacobs, as Drake likely saps both his ceiling and his floor. Oh, and don’t worry, Jalen Richard is still around to steal passing game work even if Drake goes down with an injury. At some point, Jacobs will certainly fall far enough to become a value, and then we may need to reconsider him. But compared to the receivers in his range of ADP, Jacobs is a player I will pass on 99 times out of 100.


25. Myles Gaskin (Miami Dolphins) – Gaskin was a fantasy asset because of his passing game output last year, averaging a healthy 4 catches for 39 yards per game in 10 games. Finishing as the RB12 on a point per game basis, Gaskin is a steal if he can replicate that success in 2021. But with a full season of Tua Tagovailoa at quarterback, as well as the additions of Will Fuller and Jaylen Waddle in the receiving corps, and this passing game could look much different in the upcoming season. The Dolphins backfield is fairly barren, so if you believe in the talent then invest in him at a reasonable price. Gaskin did rank 13th in Juke Rate last season per FantasyData, but his Breakaway Rate ranked 45th at his position and his Yards Created per attempt ranked 28th. I’m skeptical that Gaskin will see a massive workload this season, and I think the Dolphins are smart enough to mix and match at the position. We have entered the running back dead zone.


26. Miles Sanders (Philadelphia Eagles) – I’d be a lot more willing to buy into a Sanders resurgence if Jalen Hurts wasn’t the quarterback. But with a mobile quarterback, this offense projects as a low-volume pass attack, and quarterbacks like Hurts don’t typically check down to the running backs often, as they are generally a bigger mismatch taking off with their legs. So it feels like Sanders will need to break out as a runner this year, and while he has certainly shown some big-play ability on the ground, I much prefer Sanders as a pass-catching asset. He was the RB19 last season in an absolute disaster of a year from the entire offense, so maybe this is his floor. But the Eagles also just drafted Kenneth Gainwell in the fifth round, added Kerryon Johnson, and currently retain the services of Boston Scott and Jordan Howard. Sanders saw his targets per game increase last year from 3.94 up to 4.33, yet saw his receiving yards per game drop from 32 to 16. How much was Wentz to blame, how much was Sanders to blame, how much was the coaching to blame? I’m just not sure how much it will matter with Hurts under center.


27. Kareem Hunt (Cleveland Browns) – Those who drafted Hunt in 2020 got exactly as they wanted when Nick Chubb missed weeks 5-8 with an injury. And Hunt responded with a lackluster two total touchdowns while barely cracking 100 yards from scrimmage one time in four games. 51 targets across 16 games aren’t going to get it done in a part-time role, so unless there is another Chubb injury it is hard to see much upside in Hunt. He will have his good weeks and finish within the top 20 running backs in 2021, but there might be better uses of your draft capital.


Tier 5


28. Zack Moss (Buffalo Bills) – Drafting Moss feels a bit like making a deal with the devil, as drafters who passed on the position early on take their final swings at a running back with perceived upside. With Moss, it’s clear what his supporters see in him. He plays in one of the NFL’s most explosive offenses, he’s a 2020 third-round draft pick, and his competition in the backfield is Devin Singletary, who at 5’7″ has clearly shown he isn’t of the lead-back variety. But for Moss, we are beginning to assemble a worrisome list of injury history for a player entering just his second year in the league. Moss had a track record of injuries in college, missing two games in 2016 with a toe injury, tearing his meniscus while getting into bed in 2018, and suffering an AC joint sprain in his 2019 senior season. And in his first pro season in 2020, Moss missed three games with another toe injury, and reports surfaced during the offseason that Moss missed minicamp while recovering from ankle surgery. Throw in the fact that Josh Allen will continue to steal goalline work, and Moss lacks the upside that most seem to assume is there. I’m not out on Moss (I just took him in the 10th round of a dynasty superflex startup), but the price has to be right. For Moss to have a big season, we will likely need a conscious effort from the Bills to reduce Allen’s rushing volume.


29. Chase Edmonds (Arizona Cardinals) – I want to be in on Edmonds, I really do. But I’m not sure that I trust Kliff Kingsbury to take advantage of his strengths, and with more receiving talent in town, Kyler Murray may be looking downfield even more than ever in 2021. Kenyan Drake left this offseason but was replaced by James Conner, and Conner seems likely to fill a similar role as Drake did. In the one full game that Drake missed last year, Kingsbury tried to fit a square peg into a round hole, giving Edmonds 25 carries for 70 yards and just 3 targets for 18 receiving yards. And I worry that we might see more of that usage even if Edmonds does manage to take over this backfield. Edmonds has looked exciting at times in the passing game, yet despite playing 16 games in 2020 he finished with just 402 receiving yards. Lacking creative usage outside of a couple of schemed red zone plays, Edmonds ranked 50th among qualified running backs in fantasy points per target and topped 30 receiving yards in just three games. He was consistent in the passing game, catching two or more passes in all but one game, but we didn’t see a lot of upside. He’s worth a shot in the hopes that Murray dominates and fixes Kingsbury’s mistakes, but the coaching in Arizona has me worried about the ceiling of Edmonds this season.


30. Damien Harris (New England Patriots) – If your name isn’t James White or Rex Burkhead, the chances of getting the ball thrown your way as a running back in New England are slim to none. Last season Harris saw seven targets in 10 games while Sony Michel saw nine targets in nine games. In 2019, Michel saw 20 targets in 16 games. In 2018 Michel had 11 targets in 13 games. Granted, Burkhead is gone from the roster, and White has had 100+ target seasons that soaked up a lot of the passes, but the Patriots have had very compartmentalized roles for their running backs in recent history. Harris should be in for a majority of the workload on the ground, however, and in the event of Mac Jones starting, maybe the targets can uptick from the low passing volume Cam Newton offense of 2020. Harris averaged 5.0 yards per rush last year and cracked 100 yards rushing in three of his ten games played, but the passing game work was just non-existent. Without an improvement there, Harris’ fantasy profile has zero margin for error and a relatively low ceiling.


31. Melvin Gordon III (Denver Broncos) – Melvin Gordon’s 2018 season of 23 points per game has only been topped by Christian McCaffrey, Todd Gurley, Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, and Saquon Barkley over the past three seasons. Unfortunately, Gordon has been on a downward slide ever since, dropping to 15.1 points per game in 2019 and 13.2 points per game last year. Gordon enters his age 28 season lacking legitimate upside barring a massive trade. Add in the fact that the Broncos just drafted his replacement in the second round of the NFL Draft (Javonte Williams) and I see little reason to draft Gordon. I could see taking him in a zero-RB build when he falls, but otherwise, I won’t be chasing one final year from Gordon.


32. Michael Carter (New York Jets) – It’s hard to know how Carter fits into this Jets offense with Mike LaFleur running the Shanahan system in year one. On the plus side, this coaching staff chose Carter, while they inherited the rest of the backfield, which includes La’Mical Perine, Ty Johnson, and Josh Adams. They also brought in Tevin Coleman, so there are plenty of options for LaFleur to sort through. Carter fits the Clyde Edwards-Helaire profile to some extent, so don’t draft him expecting a grind-it-out bell-cow back. But if LaFleur and Zach Wilson click year one, Carter could be the big beneficiary. I’m generally fading this Jets offense until I see an improvement, so Carter is my lowest-ranked of the top rookie backs. At the end of the day, I just don’t know if the target share or the touchdown potential will be big enough for Carter to matter.


33. Sony Michel (New England Patriots) – The only way I could envision drafting Michel is if he was traded to the Rams as an Akers replacement. Otherwise, he’s stuck behind Harris with Stevenson nipping at his heels, all while White dominates the pass-catching role. No thanks. Well, Michel was traded to the Rams. He’s an injury to Henderson away from a massive role.


34. A.J. Dillon (Green Bay Packers) – We’re doing a pretty good amount of projecting here with Dillon, as he had just 48 touches in his rookie season backing up Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams. But just look at the guy, don’t you want someone like that as the running back for your fantasy team? We also have a one-game sample in the cold in Lambeau where Dillon was unwrapped, rushing 21 times for 124 yards and two touchdowns in a thrashing of the Titans. Jamaal Williams is gone, vacating 40% of the Packers’ running back targets, and while Dillon may not get a full 40% workload, it may be enough to be playable in plus matchups. Dillon will have plenty of chances at touchdowns in 2020, and any game that Jones misses will absolutely vault Dillon into RB10 range. The pass-catching will ultimately cap his ceiling, but Dillon can absolutely smash his cost this late in drafts.


35. Leonard Fournette (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) – Playoff Lenny has certainly earned a shot to have the lead back job after last season’s Super Bowl run, so I would expect the volume to be there early on. But Fournette looked like a fading player for much of the 2020 regular season. His Juke Rate ranked 43rd out of 52 qualified running backs per FantasyData, he ranked 40th in Yards Created per attempt, and he ranked 23rd in Breakaway Rate last year. Ronald Jones got most of the attention for the drops in the passing game, and he deserved it with a 14.3% drop rate that ranked fourth in the league, but Fournette pitched in as well, ranking ninth in the NFL with a 10.6% drop rate. Fournette is just 26 so his career isn’t over, clearly, but after producing just 4.0 yards per rush in three seasons in Jacksonville, he failed to take advantage of an excellent offensive line last year, and the number actually dipped to 3.8 yards per carry. With Giovani Bernard in town as a superior pass-catching option, Fournette doesn’t have the talent or role to be much of a fantasy asset. If you believe his playoff run was real, maybe there is some hidden value, as he averaged 4.5 receptions and 4.69 yards per carry across the four postseason games. But the rest of his profile shows an average player with an uncertain role.


36. Raheem Mostert (San Francisco 49ers) – Mostert fits a profile that I tend to fade at the running back position – betting on the late-career breakout. He’s 29 years old with just 282 carries in his career and hasn’t shown the ability to stay on the field, missing eight games last season with injury. Now with Trey Sermon in town, there’s a true threat to take over the backfield for the first time in recent seasons. Mostert will still have his spiked weeks, as he has averaged 5.6 yards per attempt in his career in this efficient Shanahan offense. Mostert averaged nearly 85 all-purpose yards in the games that he did play last season, and he saw double-digit carries in six of his eight games. He makes sense in best ball leagues and as depth in a zero running back team builds, but the thought of deciding whether to sit or start him on a weekly basis will be frustrating. I’d rather try to find the next Mostert late in my drafts, as opposed to spending a sixth or seventh-round pick on a 29-year-old running back.


37. Ronald Jones II (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) – The Bucs are overflowing at the running back, wide receiver, and tight end positions entering the 2021 season, and nobody is affected by the traffic jam as much as Jones is. Jones is just entering his age 24 season and has back-to-back seasons with over 1,000 yards from scrimmage, and looked efficient on the ground with 5.1 yards per carry in 2020. But he finds himself fighting with Leonard “Playoff Lenny” Fournette, newly imported pass-catching specialist Giovani Bernard, and 2019 3rd round pick Ke’Shawn Vaughn. And with so many targets available for Tom Brady in the passing game, Jones is far from a lock to see target volume. Jones caught just 28 of 42 passes last year and turned those opportunities into just 165 yards, so he has some work to do to gain Brady’s trust. There are worse shots to take at running back though, as the upside is real if Jones somehow takes off with this backfield. Just know that there are a lot of obstacles to clear along the way.


38. James Conner (Arizona Cardinals) – Conner slots into the recently vacated Kenyan Drake role in Arizona, and barring some innovation on offense from Kliff Kingsbury, that’s not a role to be excited by. Drake saw his targets per game drop by more than 50% from the year prior, all the way down to just two targets per game in 2020. With a career 4.6 yards per attempt with the Dolphins, Dake fell to 4.0 in his first full season in Arizona. And with Chase Edmonds on the roster to be at best the pass-catching specialist and 1B option, and at worst the lead back, there doesn’t appear to be much pass-catching upside for Conner barring injuries. Drake averaged 12.8 PPR points per game last season, good for RB25, while Conner finished RB26 in Pittsburgh with virtually the same fantasy scoring. Barring Kyler Murray ascending and dragging the rest of the offense with him, there just aren’t many paths to a big year for Conner, and that’s without even getting into the 12 missed games over the past three years. Edmonds is the back to target in this backfield, and if his price is too high for you this is a position to skip altogether.


Tier 6


39. Tony Pollard (Dallas Cowboys) – For all the hype we’ve heard around Pollard over the past few years, it’s easy to forget that he was picked near the end of the fourth round in 2019. While Pollard isn’t the star that many see him to be, he is a premiere handcuff in an excellent offense. Zeke has amassed a great deal of wear and tear over the years, and Pollard is likely the more explosive back at this stage in their careers. But that doesn’t mean that the coaches see it that way, and even if they did, Elliott’s contract means that he will be a big part of the offense while healthy. Pollard has yet to take a step beyond handcuff consideration and seems unlikely to take a leap without an injury to Elliott first. Value that as you wish.


40. Phillip Lindsay (Houston Texans) – Call me mildly intrigued when it comes to Lindsay this year, as his competition consists of over-the-hill veterans like David Johnson, Mark Ingram, and Rex Burkhead. If Tyrod Taylor ends up the quarterback, pass-catching at the running back position becomes less valuable than pure running ability, and Lindsay has more gas in the tank than the rest of his competition. Lindsay ranked third in Breakaway Rate last year with eight carries of 15 or more yards on just 118 carries, and he’s closer to his prime than the rest of his teammates in the backfield. Unfortunately, Lindsay isn’t a pass-catcher despite what you would expect from a 5’7″ running back, and the Texans could be really, really, really bad in 2021. I’ll take some shots on Lindsay when rounding out the end of my drafts, but I’m fully prepared to drop him for the first hot thing on the waiver wire.

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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