James Robinson and Antonio Gibson were buried on their depth charts this time a year ago only to rise and finish as top-15 finishers in 2020 and provide a major shot in the arm of their fantasy teams. Here are seven running backs outside the top two on their depth chart that could provide value in 2021.
Matt Breida was a feel-good story after fighting through an ankle injury in 2018 to finish as RB26 in 14 games. Since then his career has been derailed, falling out of favor in San Francisco in 2019 before being traded and operating as a reserve in Miami in 2020. Breida was 13th among running back qualifiers in yards over expectation per carry in 2018, (+0.63) and sits in a backfield that does not have a clear answer at the position. Fantasy production has been a struggle for the running backs in Buffalo, but Breida was in the top 10 in the percentage of rushes over 15 yards in 2018, so he could add an element the Buffalo backfield lacks.
The Jets do not have a clear running back pecking order. Free-agent Tevin Coleman came from San Francisco with the new coaching staff, while Michael Carter II was added in the fourth round of the NFL Draft. The depth chart also has Lamical Perrine, a holdover from the prior staff, but it is Ty Johnson who warrants deep consideration. Johnson ran 4.40 in the 40-yard dash at his pro day and has the potential speed to exploit the Kyle Shanahan-type running scheme being implemented in New York.
Justin Jackson has been one of the better pass-catching running backs in a small sample in his career. Joshua Kelley operated as the primary injury away back early in the season before his play fell off, and he was surpassed in the offensive priority by the likes of Kalen Ballage and Troymaine Pope. Kelley is likely to get another shot with the new coaching staff, but Jackson looms as a two-way player who can provide rushing and receiving value in a smaller sample size in 2021 if Austin Ekeler is injured.
In 2018, Kerryon Johnson led the league in rushing yards over expectation per carry (+1.5). To say things went sidewise quickly would be an understatement, with Johnson falling to -0.5 yards over expectation per carry in 2019 before failing to qualify in the 2020 season and being cut earlier this offseason. Johnson landed in a favorable situation with the Eagles behind Miles Sanders. The Eagles have rookie Kenneth Gainwell, Boston Scott, an undersized option from the prior administration, and journeyman Jordan Howard also on the depth chart. Johnson’s injury history should be a long-term concern, but he can handle a lead role in short sample sizes in the season if Sanders is injured. His profile is one to keep on speed dial or stash on the back end of your roster until the depth chart sorts itself out.
Damien Williams opted out of the 2020 season but landed on his feet in the Chicago backfield. Starter David Montgomery has proven to be good and satellite back Tarik Cohen is returning from an injury. Cohen was ineffective in 2020 before the injury, and even the best version of Cohen is unlikely to be a three-down back if Montgomery is injured. If Williams can return in good form after a full season out of football, he is the best candidate for a three-down role behind Montgomery.
Wayne Gallman was buried on the depth chart behind Saquon Barkley in 2020 before Barkley’s season-ending injury. After Barkley tore his ACL in week 2, the Giants experimented with Devonta Freeman and Dion Lewis before turning the keys to the backfield over to Gallman in week 7. Gallman went on to post an RB17 performance from week 7 through 17 and was ninth in yards over expectation in 2020 (+0.63). Gallman landed in free agency with the San Francisco 49ers as a largely afterthought with Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson, and rookie Trey Sermon on the depth chart. With Wilson expected to miss the start of the season, Gallman should make the roster and potentially compete for touches. In the event of an injury to Mostert or Sermon, Gallman could have league-winning upside in 2021.
Chris Carson has re-signed with the Seattle Seahawks to lead the backfield. Former first-round pick Rashaad Penny should be the backup running back if healthy, but that has been no guarantee in his career. Dallas and fellow backup Alex Collins could find themselves in an injury-away role behind Carson in 2021 in an offense that has historically committed to the run.