Acquiring breakout fantasy producers for a discount, whether through drafting or trading, is a cornerstone route to emerging with a dominant fantasy season. These players emerge from non-starter status to weekly lineup stalwarts. Running backs, like all skill positions, rely on volume for a fantasy promise land finish. Ideally, each rostered running back on a fantasy team has a straightforward story for strong production. Here is a look at the optimal plays to find breakout running backs in 2021:
Breakout players will be defined as never finishing as a fantasy starter in a previous season. This threshold is a top-24 aPPG (weighed by missed games) seasonal finish in PPR scoring for running back.
The most common profiles for breakout running backs are backs 25 years old or younger, Day 2 NFL Draft picks or earlier, with an expected RB1 depth chart role to start the season.
Najee Harris, ADP in RB10-18 range
Harris has Round 1 pedigree, a huge boost to a back's top-24 and especially top-12 odds in their career. Harris has a workhorse profile, and the depth chart in Pittsburgh should provide little resistance to strong Year 1 work. The average Round 1 running back finishes as RB38 as a rookie - 40% logged a top-24 season with 24% in the top-12 in said season.
Darrell Henderson, ADP in RB25-40 range
Raheem Mostert, ADP in RB25-35 range
Mostert is an older veteran with a lack of pedigree but suboptimal from a historical profiling perspective. However, Mostert is already a macro success story earning a meaningful role later in his career and being the projected 1A back to start the season. Trey Sermon's addition on Day 2 is suboptimal, but the 49ers' conducive system can produce a top-12 starter season even with the primary backup seeing quality work. The 49ers were No.2 in the NFL for high-leverage opportunities for running backs last season, including the fourth-most targets. Mostert has the 'post-hype sleeper' feel for 2021 as he did not emerge from breakout potential to actual impact starter for fantasy in 2020.
J.K. Dobbins, ADP in RB15-20 range
Dobbins had a superior season to fellow rookie Cam Akers in 2020, finishing inside the Top 40. The Baltimore situation is similar to the Rams on multiple levels. First, Gus Edwards is a quality RB1b or RB2 of the committee. Edwards was extended this offseason and is now locked on the roster through the rest of Dobbins' rookie contract. Second, the Ravens have been woeful in high-leverage opportunities for running backs of late. In 2020, Baltimore was dead last in running back targets and 13th in goal-line carries (inside the five-yard-line). While attachment to Lamar Jackson boosts efficiency for Dobbins (and Edwards), the hyper-mobile quarterback will also siphon touchdowns away from the backfield. Dobbins, like Akers, will either need to be a perfect storm of volume-touchdowns or something must give with the running back passing game usage in Baltimore.
Chase Edmonds, ADP in RB20-30 range
Edmonds is in the optimal redraft ADP zone and fitting the possible-expected 1A role early in the season. Edmonds has a top-36 season to his profile but has yet to break through with a season-long impact as a weekly starter. James Conner's addition clouds Edmonds usage compared to the previously razor-thin depth chart behind Edmonds post-Kenyan Drake's free agency departure. Will Conner be the primary goal-line option and the higher-volume option a la Drake? Edmonds is in uncharted territory for expected and potential usage in 2021, and with tweener size and Day 3 pedigree, Edmonds is far from an optimal bet.
Trey Sermon, ADP in RB30-40 range
Raheem Mostert is the favorite for the first crack at the starting job in San Francisco, but there is room for multiple higher-usage backs on the offense. Also, Mostert has been far from the picture of health in his career when seeing volume over decent sample size. Sermon was a trade-up target on Day 2 for the 49ers. Sermon can hit or surpass his ADP ranking in production even as the 1B option and Mostert healthy, with a surge to the top-12 should Mostert miss time.
Damien Harris, ADP in RB30-40 range
Harris has been largely ignored as a breakout option in 2021. The possibility of Cam Newton starting for a chunk (or all of the season) as a rushing-centric and goal-line option are significant drivers. However, what if Mac Jones starts a large chunk of the season? The goal-line upside rises for running backs, and Harris has been consistently reported to be the clear RB1. One speed bump is James White's presence, a strong receiving option in his career to absorb a chunk of the team's 13th overall targets for running backs last season. With Day 2 pedigree, entering Year 3 with a workhorse profile, and if Mac Jones starts most of the season, Harris checks plenty of breakout boxes.
Travis Etienne, ADP in RB20-30 range
Etienne, like Najee Harris, snagged Round 1 pedigree this offseason. Etienne also projects as a strong receiving option. There are multiple reasons for concern, including James Robinson posting a strong rookie season in 2020 as an incumbent and potential (likely) committee mate. Carlos Hyde is also a relevant veteran on the depth chart who could see a smattering of touches to reduce upside. Also, Jacksonville has the variable of a rookie quarterback and new coach - albeit Trevor Lawrence being an assumed franchise-changing player since early in his collegiate career.
Javonte Williams, ADP in RB25-35 range
Williams is getting some 'perfect storm' buzz as a potential starter even if Melvin Gordon III is active. However, Round 2 rookie average an RB61 finish historically and only 30% in the top-24. The Broncos were also second to last in high-leverage opportunity score for the position last year, in the bottom-five for both targets and goal-line carries.
Michael Carter II, ADP inRB35-45 range
Day 3 rookies are tough historical bets for a starter season. The Jets depth chart is viewed as Carter's to lose for many Carter supporters. However, Tevin Coleman has, at a minimum, been a quality committee-mate over his career despite not being a prototypical workhorse. Also noteworthy is that Ty Johnson and Lamical Perine have equal-or better Day 3 profiles, plus some NFL experience under their belt. It's best not to assume Carter has a depth chart edge over either one at the outset of the season.
Both are Day 2 backs in the optimal career arc zone for an initial breakout season. However, they populate the same Bills depth chart, eschewed for a Josh Allen-centric Bills offense (with success) last season and a firm committee. The Bills were also bottom-five in total high-leverage opportunity score for running backs in 2020, including 27th in targets. If the other is inactive, there's a possibility here for a strong fantasy season if a perfect storm.
- A.J. Dillon
- Jamaal Williams
- Gus Edwards
- Latavius Murray
- Tony Pollard
- Alexander Mattison
- Rashaad Penny
- Chuba Hubbard
- Darrel Williams
- Darrynton Evans, Jeremy McNichols, Brian Hill (Tennessee)