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The NFL Draft hurt the value of running backs like James Robinson and Melvin Gordon III., after their teams drafted Travis Etienne and Javonte Williams, respectively. With only four running backs drafted in the first three rounds, there are beneficiaries with rising valuations. The following five running backs see an increase in valuation and opportunity in 2021.
Mike Davis’s career was resurrected in 2020 after the injury of Christian McCaffrey. Davis was able to produce a top-24 seasonal finish less than two years after he looked like he was heading out of the league. While Davis performed well in Carolina, he outproduced his run blocking as he ranked 50th out of 55 qualifiers in expected yards per rushing attempt, a measure of his run blocking situation. Davis signed with Atlanta as the de facto starter heading into the NFL Draft. Despite rumors linking the Falcons to Javonte Williams, the Falcons did not spend any draft capital on the position. This is a big coup for Davis, as new Atlanta Falcons head coach Arthur Smith oversaw a hyper-efficient Tennessee offense. Davis is trading for second-round equivalency in dynasty leagues, a clear opportunity in a rookie class without difference-making running backs in that draft range. Davis has top-10 running back upside in 2021.
Arizona’s signing of James Conner ended up being a blessing for Chase Edmonds. Despite draft rumors linking Najee Harris to Arizona, the signing of Conner functioned as a buffer for Edmonds and allowed the Cardinals to focus their limited draft capital elsewhere. Edmonds, like Davis, is trading for second-round rookie pick equivalencies, while projecting as the pass-centric back while potentially sharing a running workload with Conner.
Running back was never thought to be a target by the Patriots in the draft, but Damien Harris is a big winner after the Patriots selected Mac Jones. In 2020, the Patriots ran 70% of the time in the red zone, the highest in the league, with 45% of their rushes from the quarterback position, the most quarterback-heavy red-zone run scheme in the league. The selection of Jones should tip the red zone rushing game back to running backs. The Patriots chose not to exercise the fifth-year option for Sony Michel, with speculation he may not make the roster. The Patriots selected Rhamondre Stephenson, in the fourth round, who could contribute, but should not overtly threaten Harris’s opportunity in the backfield. Harris is trading for later second-round rookie pick valuations, which is one of the cheapest for a projected starter. If Jones starts and Michel is cut, Harris has the upside to significantly outproduce his current trade cost.
The addition of Malcolm Brown to the backfield allowed the Dolphins to avoid the running back position in the NFL Draft. Gaskin was dealt a subpar opportunity in 2020, with a bottom-10 finish in expected yards-per-carry, but finished 25th out of 55qualifiers in rushing yards over expectation. Gaskin also finished top-five in receiving efficiency statistics at the position. Gaskin’s two-way ability out of the backfield makes him an intriguing, yet risky long-term option given his seventh-round NFL Draft pedigree.
In 2020, Joe Mixon ranked 45th in expected yards per rush yet he did not outperform his situation as he ranked 44th out of 55 qualifiers in rushing yards over-expectation and 40th in yards after contact. Without competition at the position and Giovani Bernard’s departure, Mixon’s stock should improve. Cincinnati had amongst the worst interior offensive line play in the league last year but added a guard and center in the draft to help improve the situation. Mixon is trading at a later first-round rookie pick valuation in Superflex leagues at present. Mixon’s perception might be higher than his ultimate skillset, so if his value rises this offseason, he is a potential sell candidate in dynasty leagues.