Top 80 Running Backs for 2021

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

Tier 6


41. Kenyan Drake (Las Vegas Raiders) – As someone excited to draft Drake last year, all I can say is, “Hate the Drake!” But seriously, what happened? After coming over to Arizona in mid-2019 and averaging 4.38 targets per game and 3.5 receptions per game over the final eight games, Drake went full Nick Chubb on us and caught just 25 passes over 15 games playing with Kyler Murray in 2020. Add in a lackluster 4 yards per carry to the lack of pass-catching, and Drake couldn’t pay off his draft capital even with 10 rushing touchdowns. Now with the Raiders, Drake is a higher-end handcuff with some potential stand-alone value. But this is a much lower floor and ceiling than someone like Kareem Hunt, and I’m not entirely sure how much the Cardinals misused Drake and how much this is just a declining skill set. He’s being completely ignored in some drafts, and in that case, snatch him up. But I’m not building very many teams with Drake in them.


42. James White (New England Patriots) – His best days are behind him, and another year of Cam Newton might be the end for White. But there’s a chance that Mac Jones takes over, and in that case, White could be back in play as a PPR asset. Rex Burkhead clears out some target competition from the backfield by heading to Houston, so a high volume season from White is a possibility. Low ceiling, high floor is the hope if you are taking White, but at age 29, we can’t depend on him like we once could.


43. David Johnson (Houston Texans) – Johnson finds himself in a backfield full of veteran free agent signings with the additions of Phillip Lindsay, Mark Ingram, and Rex Burkhead, and with a new coaching staff and a potential new quarterback, DJ has his work cut out for him to be fantasy relevant. With Deshaun Watson last year, Johnson caught 33 passes over 12 games and finished a respectable enough 15 PPR points per game, good enough for RB15 on the season. But with the potential move from Watson to Tyrod Taylor at quarterback, we can expect Johnson’s passing game work to vanish, leaving him to fend for himself on the ground. Johnson actually had a career-best 4.7 yards per carry last year and shockingly ranked sixth in Breakaway Rate with 6.1% of his carries going for 15 yards or more. But I’m not banking on that continuing into his age 30 season, and with such a low floor due to his team’s quarterback situation, Johnson is off of my radar.


44. Devin Singletary (Buffalo Bills) – With the way the fantasy community has given up on Singletary you’d think that he was outright bad, which isn’t exactly the case. He has a career mark of 4.8 yards per rush on 307 carries, his 2020 juke rate put him right in between Raheem Mostert and Ronald Jones II, two running backs with some juice, he ranked ninth in the league with 1.66 Yards Created per attempt last season, and he was also 13th in the NFL in Breakaway Rate. It feels like there is something here worth scooping up as he plummets in drafts (current ADP of 118), but he’s ultimately capped without much meaningful upside. Singletary has just six total touchdowns on 374 career touches as Josh Allen and Zach Moss present much better goalline options than the 5’7″ Singletary. And for a pass-catching specialist, his 5.4 yards per target is a pretty disappointing number, which actually represents an improvement from his rookie year. It’s hard to make the math add up to a useful season for Singletary without a massive spike in pass-catching work, and check-downs to the running backs don’t fit his quarterback’s style.


45. Xavier Jones (Los Angeles Rams) – Jones suffered an injury and is out for the season. I don’t trust Darrell Henderson to hold up to a massive workload, but I love the opportunity in Los Angeles, meaning that I want to take shots at the backups. The Rams may ultimately add their backup as training camp cuts are made, but for now, Jones looks like the best bet to handle a volume role. Keep a very close eye on this situation, as we are a soft tissue injury from Henderson away from this being a free for all at the running back spot.


46. Giovani Bernard (Tampa Bay Buccaneers) – I’d love to find a way to get Bernard a James White-like target share from Tom Brady this year, but getting the numbers to add up is tough. Even if Bernard gets the third-down job out of the backfield, he’s still battling with Mike Evans, Chris Godwin, Antonio Brown, Tyler Johnson, Rob Gronkowski, O.J. Howard and more for targets. But Bernard has shown some early chemistry with Brady and seems to already have a 3rd down role carved out. Bernard is a chance to get a PPR RB2 or flex player at a dirt-cheap price. You’ll probably want to pick the spots where you play him, such as in games with projected shootout potential, but Bernard may be able to be a spot-starter through injuries and bye weeks in the right matchups.


47. Ty Johnson (New York Jets) – I actually like Johnson from a talent perspective, and he’s flashed some explosiveness in his small opportunity in the NFL. He turns 24 in September, so he is in his prime as well. But outside of some deep dynasty league stashes, he has multiple options at running back to beat out, and even then I expect a committee in New York.


48. Nyheim Hines (Indianapolis Colts) – Hines had about as up and down of a 12 PPR point per game season as any player in 2020. Hines only had seven touchdowns all season, yet had three two-touchdown games, meaning that he was held out of the endzone in 12 of 16 games. Hines was an asset in the passing game, racking up 76 targets and 63 receptions, but that was with the perfect quarterback for his role in Philip Rivers. With Carson Wentz (hopefully) as the quarterback, and Jonathan Taylor taking over, it is hard to see Hines matching last year’s numbers. Even reaching 60 receptions in two of his first three seasons, Hines has topped out at 12.1 PPR points per game, and he has yet to reach 100 carries in a single season. Sure, you can play him in a pinch, but I’d rather use the roster spot to chase the hot new player on the waiver wire, especially early in the season.


49. Darrel Williams (Kansas City Chiefs) – He’s CEH’s handcuff, but we’ve seen him fail to do much with those opportunities in the past. There just isn’t all that much to go around after Hill and Kelce get theirs, and the Chiefs smartly aren’t going to start pounding the rock anytime soon. But with the recent ankle sprain from CEH, Williams makes sense as a late-round pick.


50. Justin Jackson (Los Angeles Chargers) – Jackson has been rumored to be a training camp cut in the final year of his deal, and has struggled to stay healthy over the past several seasons. There is talent and opportunity here, however, and if he can hold off Kelley and sixth-round rookie Larry Rountree III, there could be a few nice weeks in Jackson’s 2021 season. Jackson seemed on his way to winning the backup role in camp until a recent groin injury. Now we wait to see what his status is for the start of the season.


51. J.D. McKissic (Washington Football Team) – 589 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 110 targets is all that I can see when I look at McKissic’s profile. That gives you an idea of the value of those targets from Alex Smith, and while the offense should be more explosive in 2021, McKissic will hopefully be phased out in favor of the more explosive Antonio Gibson. It’s still impressive that McKissic hit 80 receptions last year, and he was a hidden gem in PPR leagues, seeing double-digit targets in five games. He’s pretty cheap to pick up in drafts, so you can’t really go wrong taking a shot on him. But I would expect 2020 to be the peak of his career, not the expectation going forward.


Tier 7


52. Rhamondre Stevenson (New England Patriots) – With Sony Michel rumored to be a trade candidate, the rookie fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma could stumble into some volume, especially if Damien Harris were to miss time. Stevenson needs an injury, trade, or roster move to make it happen, however. But With Stephenson’s excellent play in the preseason, maybe he forces the Patriots’ hand.


53. Jamaal Williams (Detroit Lions) – Williams is one of my favorites players in the league. I mean just watch these interviews. In fantasy football, Williams is a little less amazing. Williams has been durable so far in his four-year career and coaches love him because he is dependable in the passing game, so he will see the field in Detroit. But he is unlikely to overtake D’Andre Swift on the depth chart, and Williams lacks the athletic traits of a star. He’s a decent handcuff though thanks to his pass-catching ability, as Williams averaged six receptions per game in his three starts last year, and topped 15 carries in two of those contests. He’s a decent enough option late in drafts in certain league types, though I would tend to prioritize similarly priced options with more upside.


54. Qadree Ollison (Atlanta Falcons) – I’m being stubborn and keeping Ollison low despite some good reports from Falcons’ camp. I’m intrigued by the Falcons running back competition, but thus far in his young NFL career, Ollison has looked more like a full back than a running back. I’m hoping someone else emerges.


55. Devontae Booker (New York Giants) – He’s the backup to Saquon Barkley, who is coming off an ACL injury, making Booker one of the more intriguing handcuffs. Booker started his career with three straight seasons with 30 or more receptions, and while there isn’t much ceiling here, Booker could fill in as a decent volume play if Barkley indeed misses any time.


56. Alexander Mattison (Minnesota Vikings) – Mattison returns as the handcuff to Dalvin Cook, and in his 2020 Week 17 start Mattison rushed for 95 yards on 21 carries while chipping in 50 yards through the air. His competition for touches behind Cook is a rookie fourth-round pick in Kene Nwangwu and the 28-year-old Ameer Abdullah. Put Mattison near the top of your handcuff rankings.


57. Chuba Hubbard (Carolina Panthers) – After seeing what Mike Davis did last year, let’s just draft Christian McCaffrey‘s backup this year too, and see what happens. Hubbard has a solid enough athletic profile as a fourth-round pick out of Oklahoma State, and he’s worth a stash in deep leagues until a better option presents itself. Hubbard has also flashed his talent in the preseason, and appears to have the backup role locked down.


58. Salvon Ahmed (Miami Dolphins) – We don’t know how Ahmed factors into the Dolphins backfield plans behind Myles Gaskin, and his valuation is a tough one. Ahmed showed some flashes in his rookie season, most notably a 23 carry, 122 yard rushing day against the Patriots in Week 15. But at the end of the day, Ahmed is an undrafted player with little commitment from the Dolphins required. Luckily for Ahmed, his competition for snaps behind Gaskin consists of the ubiquitous Malcolm Brown, seventh-round rookie Gerrid Doaks, and two players that are more receiver than running back in Lynn Bowden and Patrick Laird. It sure feels like Ahmed has a role available in Miami, but for fantasy purposes he probably just amounts to a post-draft watch list selection.


59. Joshua Kelley (Los Angeles Chargers) – I’m intrigued in the Chargers’ backup running back position, as Ekeler is not a volume back (on the ground at least). Somebody is due to have a solid workload on the ground, and I’ll take shots at Kelley first. The old coaching staff soured on him quickly, but he had a good reputation coming out of UCLA and provides a between the tackles presence. If we had more clarity on this situation, Kelley might rank as high as RB42. Unfortunately, we just don’t know where the backup will come from.



60. Latavius Murray (New Orleans Saints) – Murray enters his age 31 season as the steady handcuff to Alvin Kamara, with his competition for backup duties consisting of Dwayne Washington and Ty Montgomery. He’s remained productive when called upon, averaging a career-best 4.5 yards per carry in 2020. There’s a chance if Taysom Hill wins the job that this is a run-heavy offense, and Murray sees a slight uptick in work. But the most likely scenario is Murray gives us starting-caliber production in a game or two when Kamara misses time, and otherwise is used 5-10 times per game as a change of pace option. Murray has recently been mentioned as a potential roster cut, however, so tread lightly even in deep leagues.

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!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.