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The good news about running back this year is that it’s deep, and you’ll probably like what’s available to you at any point in the first three rounds better than you have in previous years. The bad news is that the choices are still tough at the moment of truth, and it will serve you to have clarity on your rankings instead of figuring out your running back targets and willingness to pass on running back early and then have to rely on later running back picks while you are on the clock.
The Gold Standard
If you draw the first or second pick in a 1QB, PPR league, your choice is basically made for you.
Even in a lost season, McCaffrey was still far and away the #1 PPR running back on a points-per-game basis. He’ll rightfully be the #1 pick in 90+% of leagues.
Cook is at the intersection of a perfect alignment between talent, skill, system, and role. We don’t even think of him as injury-prone anymore.
Established Foundational RB1s
8/26 UPDATE: Elliott is a more distant third now with the Prescott shoulder uncertainty
I won’t argue strongly against any order of these three, and I’m not sure it’s clear that they are better picks than Travis Kelce, Davante Adams, or Tyreek Hill. Still, I’m willing to take one of them over the elite WR/TE because of position scarcity and the increasing unattractiveness of running backs compared to their peers at other positions as you go through your draft.
Henry is #3 overall because I’m excited to see what he does in an offense with two legit #1 wide receivers. His workload might come down slightly, but with even better efficiency against stressed defenses. There’s some risk that comes with a heavy workload the last two years and the change from Arthur Smith to Todd Downing as the play-caller.
Kamara could flirt with 100 catches now that Michael Thomas will be sidelined for some part of the season. Still, there is uncertainty about the quarterback and overall quality of the offense with no proven producers projected to play Week 1 at wide receiver or tight end.
Elliott has the potential to lead all running backs in total touchdowns, and he looked like a player with a renewed commitment to conditioning this offseason. But he might be slightly past his peak as a player, and Tony Pollard is champing at the bit for more work.
Established RB1s with Ceiling Caps
Aaron Jones, GB **Target at ADP**
If you get one (or two) of these backs, you should feel good about how you used your picks. Both are just as proven as the backs going ahead of them, but their weekly and season-long ceilings aren’t quite as high by design.
Jones will get Aaron Rodgers back and he's a good player at his peak. I was worried about A.J. Dillon coming on, but realized he's no more a threat to Jones value than Kareem Hunt is to Nick Chubb's. Jones and the Packers offense are both good enough to merit a first-round pick.
Chubb was in rarefied air last year in efficiency, and his touchdown rate was outstanding. His passing game involvement and overall workload size are lower because of Kareem Hunt, but let’s remember that Chubb instantly becomes a top-five overall fantasy running back if Hunt goes down.
Ekeler should still get the biggest target share at running back this side of McCaffrey and Kamara, but he is rarely in at the goal line. That could change a bit with a new head coach and play-caller, but even if it doesn’t, Ekeler is a rock-solid PPR RB1.
Fantasy RB1s If...
Jonathan Taylor, IND
Joe Mixon, CIN **Target at ADP**
Antonio Gibson, WAS **Target at ADP**
8/26 UPDATE: Robinson is in this tier now after Etienne went down. Taylor has moved back up to the top with Wentz on track to start Week 1.
All of the members of this tier have RB1 potential as long as a few things go their way. They aren’t quite as proven as the backs going ahead of them, but all of this group can equal the scoring of at least a few backs taken ahead of them. They are all better second-round picks than first-round picks, but doubling up on your two favorites at or near the 1-2 turn is a fine strategy considering the depth at wide receiver this year.
Mixon will get the largest opportunity of his career in the best offense of his career. There’s some reasonable durability skepticism about him, but luckily the backup Samaje Perine is very cheap. He has been looking in camp, especially in the passing game.
Gibson only really went off against the Cowboys defense last year, but he played with a toe injury later in the season. This spring, the news about him matched what we wanted to hear about a second-year running back with little experience at the position when he entered the pros. He should be more involved in the passing game this year, too.
Taylor is trending down after Carson Wentz and Quenton Nelson both had to have foot surgery. He could get off to a slow start. Taylor also racked up points on poor defenses at the end of the year, so the degree of his breakout might be a bit overstated.
Barkley will be brought back slowly, and you are still counting on the playcalling of Jason Garrett and an offensive line that only got weaker in the offseason. He’s the kind of player that you feel better letting someone else take the chance on him in the first round.
Harris will get first-round opportunity and is a first-round talent, but the Steelers offensive line is second-rate. Receptions and touchdowns should make up for an inefficient running game, but this won’t be a ceiling year for Harris.
Robinson will get to have a lead back role again after Travis Etienne went down with a foot injury and the Jaguars offense can't get worse.
Carson is a clear lead back in what should be a quality offense. He will get as much work as he can handle and only needs to stay healthy to deliver above the discounted investment it takes to secure his services for your fantasy team.
Second Year Breakout Backs?
This group takes a leap of faith, but there’s good reason to put a chip on second-year backs who didn’t have an offseason to ramp up for their rookie year. All can be drafted as RB2’s with RB1 upside and the potential to be frustrating if they aren’t more consistent in year two.
Many offseason news items raised the possibility or even priority of Dobbins getting more involved in the passing game this year. He’s an outstanding talent in an outstanding situation. Like Nick Chubb, he can produce RB1 numbers on less than a typical RB1 workload.
Edwards-Helaire doesn’t have any strong competition, and the team is saying the right things about the second-year back. The offensive line has been rebuilt, which could help Edwards-Helaire in the red zone, and the team will give him ample opportunity to improve as a receiver.
Swift will share more with Jamaal Williams than fantasy teams would like to see, but he can still rise above by outplaying Williams and getting more work in the passing game and at the goal line. The Lions have an excellent run-blocking offensive line, and the team should be committed to the run for as long as game scripts allow.
Do You Believe RB2s
8/26 UPDATE: Myles Gaskin and Darrell Henderson have fallen out of this tier after we've seen indications that they won't be true lead backs.
This group is set up to lead their backfields in carries, but there is reason to hesitate before taking them as your RB2… and no need to take them as your RB3.
Montgomery and the Bears running game broke out in the second half of the season. Quarterback play should be improved, but the return of Tarik Cohen and the addition of Damien Williams could threaten his weekly workload. For now, Cohen isn't as big a threat as he was pre-knee injury as he has been slow to round back into form after ACL surgery. Montgomery is reasonably priced and could have an easier row to hoe once Justin Fields takes over.
Sanders floundered with the rest of the Eagles offense last year, and like the rest of the Eagles offense this year, there’s hope that a new regime, healthy offensive line, and new #1 receiver will make him viable again. His range of outcomes is as large as any back on the board.
Davis will get touches by default in an empty cupboard Falcons backfield, and last year he showed he could be a borderline fantasy RB1 in a starting role. Still, there is always hesitation to commit in fantasy drafts to a newly minted starting back who has never been an established starter when they are later in their career.
Rookie Lottery Tickets
It makes sense for every draft to include a spot reserved for a rookie running back at ADP, especially if you only take one running back in your first 3-4 picks. All of these backs could see their value increase as the year goes on, peaking when you need them the most.
The Broncos will still use Melvin Gordon, but Williams can relegate Gordon to a lesser role in short order and run away with this job on what should be a conservative offense that complements an attacking defense.
Sermon was taking first-team reps when Raheem Mostert was out this spring, and a Mostert injury is really all between Sermon and the starting job in what should be one of the most productive backfields in the league. The 49ers moved up for Sermon even though they already mortgaged the future for Trey Lance.
These backs are acceptable RB2 options, but without an injury in their backfields, that is all they will be.
Hunt was up and down after Nick Chubb’s return and not the strong RB1 we expected when Chubb was out. It’s probably better to take a back with more upside in his ADP range.
Kenyan Drake will join Jacobs, and who knows how many snaps and touches Drake will take away. We know Jacobs is a solid start when the Raiders win, but how often is that going to happen this year? He’s still being drafted on the promise of a true bell-cow role that hasn’t completely manifested and probably won’t with Drake on the roster.
Flex/Bye/Injury Depth with Upside
Darrell Henderson, LAR
Myles Gaskin, MIA
Gus Edwards, BAL **Target at ADP**
8/26 UPDATE: Henderson and Gaskin have dropped to this tier, and Moss and Carter have dropped out. Gus Edwards has moved up into it after a strong summer.
None of these backs will make your draft, but they fit well in team builds that go cheap on RB2 at the expense of building advantages elsewhere.
Edmonds is a quality back who will add value in PPR scoring, but the real key to his value is James Conner’s health, which points to Edmonds having more upside than his ADP indicates. Conner should take goal line and a lot of early-down looks, so if he goes down, Edmonds will have a chance to prove that he’s a lead back going into his walk year.
Harris has proven that he’s a solid between the tackles back, but he’s not going to add much as a receiver. He needs Mac Jones to start to give him the goal-line looks (as opposed to Cam Newton getting them) to hit at his ADP.
Henderson became the starter by default when Cam Akers went down, and the Rams are putting him in bubble wrap. There’s a risk of a strong veteran acquisition to cut into his workload, and they won’t ride him like they planned on riding Akers. Still, Henderson displayed the talent, and the offense is good enough to make him a hit at ADP and overcome any problems with the offensive line.
Gaskin ended up being the best back in Miami last year, even helping win titles with a huge Week 16, and the team didn’t add any credible competition this year. Malcolm Brown was signed to maybe take away some goal-line work and Gaskin is far from entrenched, but his price matches his expected workload.
Edwards has underrated week-to-week value as a finisher of drives and games, but you need him to score touchdowns to hit. He also has J.K. Dobbins injury upside.
League Winner Injury Upside with Possible Standalone Value
Tony Pollard, DAL
A.J. Dillon, GB
Chances are, you won’t use any of these backs, except out of desperation, unless the starter ahead of them gets hurt. Then you’ll have a strong RB1 on your hands. All three have the potential to contribute to your fantasy team even if the starter stays healthy, so they aren’t strictly injury upside plays.
Pollard was more dynamic than Ezekiel Elliott last year, and if Elliott gets dinged or slows down, he could turn the Cowboys backfield into a committee. He’s an instant top 10 back if Elliott misses time.
Dillon could take over goal-line work or even push his way into an equal early-down committee with Aaron Jones, so he could easily have matchup RB2 value without Jones getting hurt. If Jones does get hurt, Dillon could be a discounted Nick Chubb.
Murray already showed that he’s an elite fantasy back any time Alvin Kamara misses time. The bonus value comes from him being used closer to equal to Kamara when Taysom Hill started at quarterback last year.
Raheem Mostert, SF
Sony Michel, LAR
Devin Singletary, BUF
Injuries happen, players can improve or decline, so an RBBC at the beginning of the year isn’t always one at the end of the year. These backs are all in RBBCs, most are the lesser back, and their ADP reflects it, but if you get lucky or hit on an overlooked talent, they can help you get through some rough spots at running back, or maybe even allow you to get away with shanking an early pick at the position.
Mostert’s usage will be limited to 15-18ish touches a game in the best-case scenario, but the backfield has been restocked and his role could be smaller. Not to mention that he’s the type of back who tends to stay hurt once he is hurt, and he gets hurt a lot. Mostert is ideal for the Shanahan run game with his home run speed and instant acceleration, but his window to take over the backfield has likely closed.
Fournette is back with Tampa and probably in the same role as last year, but with fewer passing down snaps. At best, he’ll have Ronald Jones II' role from last year. Outside of injury to others in the backfield, it’s difficult to find a path to consistency for him.
Drake’s role is very uncertain, but the Raiders say they will use him as a receiver, and he should get more carries than Devontae Booker got last year if Drake’s 8.5 million guaranteed on a two-year deal is any indication. He’ll have more effect on Josh Jacobs' value than create value of his own.
Gordon seems destined to take a back seat to Javonte Williams as soon as Williams shows he’s ready for the lead-back job. He is efficient at scoring touchdowns and good at catching the ball, but the arrow is pointing down for him.
Conner was actually better than you remember last year, but he won’t get near the workload he got in Pittsburgh, and he got the same contract as Malcolm Brown in free agency. If he can capture most of Kenyan Drake’s 10 rushing touchdowns from last year, he’ll still help fantasy teams.
Williams is a solid all-around back, and he should be very useful for a Lions team that will likely be playing from behind a lot. Will that amount to enough production to trust him in a flex or RB2 role? Whether D’Andre Swift comes into his own in year two may hold the key to the answer.
Moss will have a chance to lead the Bills backfield in touches if he can stay healthy in camp and outplay Devin Singletary. He should lead the running backs in rushing scores in any event. His ADP is as cheap as you could hope for the first back in a good offense.
Carter is the best back on the Jets roster, but that’s a low bar. He should be a PPR success, but can he hold off competition for carries? He fits into any draft plan.
Johnson finally started looking like the back he was at his peak late last year, but all signs point to playing in the league’s worst offense this year, with Phillip Lindsay arriving to split the workload. Maybe the lack of passing game options could help Johnson have some sustained PPR value.
Passing Down Specialists
All of these backs are much more useful in best-ball leagues, but time your start right, or just get lucky when you need bye/injury/emergency coverage.
White is being underrated because the departure of Rex Burkhead isn’t being factored into his value. His weekly floor and ceiling should return to previous levels in 2021 after a 2020 dip along with the rest of the Patriots offense.
Bernard could be the new James White for Tom Brady, and if he gains Brady’s trust, he could be the most valuable back in the Bucs backfield this year. Unlike White, he has some early down viability, and he’ll be in one of the best offenses.
Hines is going to take a hit with the departure of Philip Rivers, one of the most prolific running back targeters in the NFL, but he still proved his explosiveness and value to this offense, so he’ll have his moments in 2021, even if they are difficult to predict when it comes time to set your lineup.
McKissic benefited from having checkdown kings Alex Smith, Dwayne Haskins, and Kyle Allen at quarterback, so we have to expect his target share to take a hit with Ryan Fitzpatrick in. He’ll still have a role in the offense and might not go away as easily as we expect.
Big Injury Upside without Standalone Value
Carlos Hyde, JAX
These backs will likely be worthless in fantasy without injuries to the starters, but like Mike Davis showed last year, a clear backup can still have low RB1 value if they inherit most of the starter’s role when they go down. All of these backs fit the bill. Perine and Hubbard are cheap and easy picks when you need a back at the end of your draft, while Mattison is a bit overrated as Dalvin Cook’s injury risk is overstated.
Second Tier Passing Down Backs
8/26 UPDATE: Scott has stuck around and found his way into this tier.
All of these backs will get work in the passing game and as a change of pace. They can increase their roles with meritorious play or injury to the starter, but they don’t have true lead-back profiles in any event. Gainwell has the allure of the unknown, and if the new regime sours on Miles Sanders, he could have a role similar to Michael Carter’s with the Jets. Scott has also hung around and should have a role in the Eagles backfield.
Role Players With Injury Upside
Damien Williams, CHI
8/26 UPDATE: Damien Williams has moved into this tier.
All of these backs have had moments of fantasy glory, albeit fleeting, and they will all play a role in their backfields this year. All will have value if the starter ahead of them goes down, but they might not move into a full workload in that event.
Moderate Injury Upside in Theory
Latavius Murray/Tony Jones, NO
This is a good group to monitor because they don’t appear to have significant competition to lead their backfield in touches if the starter ahead of them goes down. Booker has some potential early-season, deep-league value if Barkley starts slow, and Ollison, Jones, and Ahmed are behind the least proven starters.
#3 Backs to File Away
Jaret Patterson, WAS
All of these backs *should* make the team, and between their offenses and track records, they all present some promise of fantasy value if the backs ahead of them go down. Williams has a chance to be the backup with Tarik Cohen slow to round into form. We see third-stringers have fantasy value by the end of the year every season. This list represents the best of the bunch.
8/26 UPDATE: Michel is no longer in this tier after he was traded to the Rams.
These backs are probably good enough to make a roster, but maybe not the roster they are on right now because it has three backs that are better than them. The Rams or another team that suffers an injury in the backfield during camp could call about them.
Role Player Grab Bag
All of these backs have a role and NFL ability, but they don’t project as backs whose role would grow if injuries strike, so they are only of interest in very deep leagues, with the possible exception of McKinnon if he gets some of his burst back and overtakes Darrel Williams to become the #2 in Kansas City.
Fighting for a Roster Spot/Role
8/26 UPDATE: Kylin Hill has basically won the #3 job in Green Bay. Hasty has had a good summer and moved into the presumptive #3 spot. Larry Rountree isn't a threat to Jackson and Kelley, and they have moved up to the moderate injury upside in theory tier.
The range of values for these backs is having a fantasy-relevant role in the case of the Jets and Chargers backs to having injury upside as #2 or #3 backs, to not making the roster. We’ll be monitoring these position battles in training camp. Youngsters Trying to Prove Themselves
Youngsters Trying to Prove Themselves
8/26 UPDATE: Patterson has moved up out of this tier to #3 backs to remember. Williams is pushing Justice Hill for a roster spot.
Except for Vaughn, most of these backs will be fighting to make the roster, but they could also become practice squad investments whose value and role grow in future years, or maybe later this year.