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This series distills NFL charts into easily digestible fantasy football information for opportunity and upside. In this installment, the running backs are the featured position.
This is a golden age for high-pedigree running backs with strong profiles, and many of them already have clear NFL depth chart lead roles and/or a production track record.
D'Andre Swift is one of the projections for this high ceiling as one of the second-year options. Detroit was No.7 in High-Leverage Opportunity Score (weights targets and goal-line carries together for the running back position) in 2020.
Antonio Gibson is one of the better Year 2 breakout equations for 2021. After his rookie season, Gibson is firmly on the success track, and Washington was the top High-Leverage Opportunity Score backfield last season by a hefty margin. If Gibson siphons a few targets away from J.D. McKissic and Gibson keeps his strong goal-line work, an elite RB1 season is within reach.
With LeVeon Bell gone and Damien Williams moving on in free agency (after a 2020 opt-out), the path is clear for Clyde Edwards-Helaire to secure a strong market share and improve on his rookie success track.
Miles Sanders and Cam Akers possess high-end upside but are question marks more than most of the surrounding names in the tier. Sanders has the mobile Jalen Hurts as competition from the quarterback position and also has yet to be a true centerpiece back yet. Philadelphia added Kerryon Johnson and drafted Kenny Gainwell this offseason, pointing to yet another committee to keep Sanders from his talent peak usage. For Akers, he is not in the optimal Year 1 finish historical grouping to point to elite odds of a Year 2 breakout season. Darrell Henderson also has Day 2 pedigree on the same depth chart. Finally, the Rams were No.25 in High-Leverage Opportunity Score last season - will Matthew Stafford's addition change their course?
Joe Mixon, like Sanders, has been a 'where is the ceiling' young back thus far in his career. The Bengals are a trendy uptick offense selection for 2021, with JaMarr Chase added to Tyler Boyd, Tee Higgins, and (hopefully) a healthy and progressing Joe Burrow. Giovani Bernard is gone, a notable change to the depth chart, and only Samaje Perine or Chris Evans turning into the new hindrance to Mixon in the passing game would hold Mixon back.
Najee Harris has the makings of a strong producer with a high market share in Year 2. His role and potential impact on the Steelers' short passing game and wide receivers is one of the bigger offensive questions for 2021. The Steelers were a hearty No.10 in the NFL in running back goal-line carries last season and expect Harris to improve the No.26 running back target total from a year ago with his well-rounded skill set.
Ezekiel Elliott is one of the massive bounce-back candidates. A firm fantasy RB1 with a healthy Dak Prescott, Elliott joined the passing game weapons to swoon in productivity with Prescott for the more than half of the season their fantasy quarterback missed.
Austin Ekeler is one of the high-floor bets in PPR scoring with his passing game dominance (No.2 NFL team in running back targets), and the team did not notably add to the depth chart, which had a rotation of Justin Jackson, Joshua Kelley, and (now) Larry Rountree in the RB2+ positions. Ekeler is a sturdy bet.
Mike Davis and J.K. Dobbins were two of the more tough names to leave off the Tier 1 listing. For Dobbins, a firm committee with newly-extended Gus Edwards is the expectation, and Baltimore was No.32 in High-Leverage Opportunity Score last season. Even a 50% uptick in their score results in a bottom-half finish in the grading in 2021. For Davis, the Atlanta depth chart at RB2+ is so weak the risk is pronounced they bring in a back (Todd Gurley? LeVeon Bell?) to stability their depth chart. Also, Atlanta was only middle of the pack in High-Leverage Opportunities last year.
The best news for the Patriots backfield will be if Mac Jones is under center. Cam Newton was largely a running back last year and taking away running back chances (No.31 in goal-line carries for backs). Damien Harris is the projected lead option, but Sony Michel will have a role unless he is released. Also, James White is the receiving game vulture, and Rhamondre Stevenson is an intriguing rookie addition.
Myles Gaskin had a strong market share of the Miami backfield in 2020, but it was the perfect storm of limited competition, with Gaskin healthy out of the gate. The 2021 version includes a Gaskin arbitrage profile in Salvon Ahmed plus adding Malcolm Brown, a sturdy veteran and upgrade over the shadow of Jordan Howard last season.
Devin Singletary and Zack Moss are both Day 2 selection and without a strong career start between them. Moss was the preferred red zone option for spurts as a 2020 rookie, but this offense was No.28 in High-Leverage Opportunity Score last season and had Josh Allen to carve away some of the red zone chances, plus they were No.27 in running back targets.
Chase Edmonds has never been more than a sporadic fill-in starter in his career, and the addition of James Conner is a significant one for the potential Kenyan Drake role. Drake did the heavy lifting while Edmonds was more of the change-of-pace back within the offense. Plus, Arizona has enough wide receiver options to run more four-receiver sets with success this year.
The 49ers backfield has a high upside as a unit (No.2 in overall High-Leverage Opportunity Score in 2020). However, the variable on how many weeks any individual back will have clarity for lineups is the question mark. Raheem Mostert could be the Week 1 starter as a best-case or a candidate for release if the 49ers like their younger options enough. Trey Sermon could be the Week 1 starter or mire behind Mostert. Wayne Gallman was an addition for depth, Elijah Mitchell was a later Day 3 selection with athletic juice, and JaMycal Hasty flashed in limited time last season. As always, the 49ers have plenty of viable options within a strong system.
The (Potentially) Ugly
The Broncos added Javonte Williams early in Round 2 and signed the vibrant athlete Mike Boone. They still have Royce Freeman (for now). Melvin Gordon could be a placeholder for Williams early in the season, and a messy committee is well within expectation. The offense also will hang plenty of skill-position talent on the outcome of Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater, outside of a blockbuster move for Aaron Rodgers.
David Johnson, Mark Ingram, and Phillip Lindsay all have productive track records and reside on the same Houston depth chart. Ingram may be close to done, but this entire offense hangs in the balance with the Deshaun Watson outcome for 2021 (Suspension? Holding out? Traded? Playing?). This could be one of the few backfields without a top-25/30 fantasy option weekly in the projections.
Jacksonville had a rookie breakout revelation in James Robinson in 2020. However, enter Urban Meyer and the hand-selected Carlos Hyde (free agency) and Travis Etienne (Round 1) to clog the depth chart. They also have a host of viable wide receivers and are banking on a rookie splash from Trevor Lawrence. Without an injury to clarify the depth chart, this could be a firm committee with a low output for any individual back for long.
The Jets have one of the more interesting backfields from an aggregate cost perspective. Tevin Coleman, Michael Carter, LaMical Perine, and Ty Johnson are affordable compared to their potential if securing the lead role. Coleman has sparsely been a true lead back in his career, and a frustrating committee is a likely outcome if Coleman is a healthy element. Carter has the rookie buzz, but his pedigree and prospect profile are similar to Perine, who is getting lost in the shuffle considering his flashes and decent work for a cross-section of 2020. Ty Johnson has the most athletic juice of the depth chart considering Coleman's age, and Johnson has shown well in spots for his career.