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It’s the first thing you learn as you cut your teeth in fantasy football.
Real football is all about the quarterback. Fantasy football is all about the running back.
Drafting running backs was relatively painless a decade or so ago. Bell cows were easy to find; backfield platoons were far less common. No matter where you fell on the draft order, you could probably draft into something you’d be confident in.
And then 2020 happened. A scant four backs reached the 300-touch marker. Come back, bell cows, we miss you. (Back in 2010, 11 different runners got to that plateau.)
Even the top of the 2021 running back board opens uncomfortable conversations. Many backs have recent injury concerns, some backs face notable competition for touches, some are tied to teams expected to be .500 or worse.
You can talk down anyone if you want to.
Maybe last year’s workload drought was an injury blip; Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, and Ezekiel Elliott missed chunks of the season. If they’re back in form, this position becomes a lot more robust. Despite last year’s medical file, McCaffrey is still the consensus No. 1 pick in common fantasy formats.
We don’t lack for strategies (and strategy names) tied to running backs. Zero RB. Robust RB. Hero RB. I like an Anchors Aweigh approach, where you have one back you can hang your hat on, then you attack the other positions. That’s basically Hero RB, I just didn’t have the foresight to give it a catchy name; I’m nobody’s branding or marketing wizard.
Of course, any strategy will work if you pick the right players. And no matter how you draft your backfield, it will be a constant source of plotting in-season, as you consider trades, free-agency offers, weekly starting decisions. This is the position where you hope to run as pure as possible.
Let’s give you some names I’m eager to draft, and some names I’m reluctant to call out.
Running Backs I’m Targeting (more than the ADP market)
Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns (Yahoo ADP: 7.4)
He’s not everyone’s cup of tea, as Kareem Hunt is around to siphon some of the work. But at what point might the Browns accept that Chubb is a special player — and Hunt is not?
Last year, Chubb averaged 5.6 yards per carry; Hunt lagged at 4.2. Chubb also beat Hunt through the air; 8.3 yards per target against 6.0. It’s not like Chubb has never been a bell cow; he gobbled up 334 touches two years ago. When you consider the strength of Cleveland’s offensive line and defense, I’m happy to draft Chubb proactively in the middle of the first round, and thrilled if he slides to me anywhere after Pick 10.
Austin Ekeler, Las Angeles Chargers (ADP: 17.3)
Last year the Chargers solved the hardest thing of all — they found a franchise quarterback. Hopefully for 2021, they have the second hurdle cleared — a competent coaching staff. If so, mix this all together with a deep roster 1-53, and stand back.
I could see the Chargers challenging for the AFC West title, and the conference championship. The roster is that loaded. Justin Herbert is that exciting.
A healthy Ekeler sure would help, too.
There are some backs who catch bailout passes and low-return flips, but that’s not the story here. Ekeler is a route-running technician. He averaged 10.6 yards per catch in his first three seasons; I’m willing to write off last year’s dip on his lower-body injuries.
New offensive designer Joe Lombardi spent over a decade with the Saints — coaching, among others, Alvin Kamara. Perhaps Ekeler is ready for his Kamara-esque season. Ekeler is one of my favorite second-round targets, and someone I might even take late in the first round if things fell a certain way.
Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team (18.4)
I’m not in charge of the other positional previews, but I want you to know I’m on board with any kind of WFT stack you feel like assembling. Terry McLaurin is my heaviest rostered player through the first half of my draft season, all signs pointing to a Year 3 spike; Logan Thomas makes sense if you’re playing tight end on a budget; and Ryan Fitzpatrick is a fun Superflex QB2, or a reasonable grab for depth in more standard formats. This offense is an arrow pointing up.
Gibson is still learning how to play the running back position, which is a frightening proposition for his NFC East opponents. Gibson managed 4.7 YPC in his first season, and he was really cooking down the stretch (67-359-4, 5.4 over his last five starts). This is a player who rushed just 33 times in his two collegiate seasons at Memphis.
If this is what a raw Gibson looks like, I can’t wait to see the finished product, the polished back.
Mike Davis, Atlanta Falcons (ADP: 67.7)
There’s nothing exciting about Davis, a 28-year-old journeyman who’s settling into his fifth NFL team. But the Falcons have little competition behind Davis, setting him up to be a reliable source of weekly volume. And although Davis ran out of gas at the end of last season, he did clock in as the RB18 for the balance of the year, stepping forward after McCaffrey got hurt.
Opportunity matters more at running back than it does at other positions, and I can’t see how anyone at the back of the Falcons depth chart is likely to beat out Davis. Not all of our picks have to be potential home runs; sometimes it’s perfectly fine to settle for getting on base.
Trey Sermon, San Francisco 49ers (ADP: 89.3)
I’m a little surprised Sermon’s ADP hasn’t gone haywire, but there’s still time, I guess. Sermon has the highest upside of the San Francisco backs, and he also comes in with those fresh rookie legs. His college tape is also a plus; Sermon trampled the Big Ten for 7.5 YPC last year.
Calling your weekly shot for Kyle Shanahan glory can be a risky game — there is an abundance of depth in this RB room, and sometimes the usage is tricky to decipher — but the payoff is too great not to be tempted. And the Niners also have a delightfully soft schedule, especially during the fantasy playoffs (Bengals, Falcons, Titans, Texans). Generally, I don’t like to look too far ahead with things like SOS, but that slate is too juicy to ignore. Someone on this roster is likely to drive teams to fantasy championships.
Phillip Lindsay, Houston Texans (ADP: 129.1)
Houston looks like the worst offense in the league, no one disputes that, but if they can settle on a starting back, he’ll still have some fantasy juice. Lindsay is the youngest of the three primary contenders, and I didn’t need much of a nudge to fade David Johnson or Mark Ingram. Lindsay’s ADP is likely to rise after his usage in the first preseason game, but the stench of this organization should keep things in an affordable pocket. Bottom line, he’s an interesting depth choice.
Understudy Backs with High Upsides
Everyone can easily identify these runners, the No. 2 backs who might not have current fantasy value but could shoot to the moon if the starter gets hurt. If Dalvin Cook goes down in Minnesota, Alexander Mattison jumps into the Top 10. If Zeke’s down, Tony Pollard is up. Latavius Murray waits in New Orleans. AJ Dillon percolates in Green Bay.
I get a lot of pushback on this, but I don’t like to insure my own backs during my August drafts. I prefer to play for the big inning before the season begins; I love to grab the understudy backs tied to someone else’s starting back. There’s a time and place to play the insurance game, a time to play it safe; I’ll focus on that in the second half of the fantasy year, when depth charts are more crystallized and my winning scenario is clearer. In the foggy area of the summer, I say you throw conservatism out the window and focus on trying to grab as much upside as possible.
Running Backs I’m Fading (relative to the ADP market)
Saquon Barkley, New York Giants (ADP: 8.7)
When you invest in a fantasy running back, you’re making an investment in that team’s offense and that team’s overall infrastructure. Is there anything with the Giants backdrop we can feel good about?
Barkley’s running behind a horrible offensive line; his quarterback, Daniel Jones, is the most turnover-prone QB in the league; OC Jason Garrett is considered a mediocre play designer. And to make things especially complicated, Barkley is coming off an injury-ruined season and was on the PUP list for most of this summer. Even if he suits up in Week 1, we can’t be sure he’ll handle a starter’s workload.
Too many question marks for me. I’m going to be light on this offense, period, and that starts with Barkley.
Josh Jacobs, Los Vegas Raiders (38.7)
Jacobs is rarely used in the passing game, and that’s a problem as the Raiders are expected to finish below .500 again. Game script is not your friend here. The offensive line looks awful. Kenyan Drake was imported to catch passes and steal some of the rushing work. Does anyone have faith that Jon Gruden can take this sad song and make it better?
One of the reasons I feel one of your first two picks has to be a running back is so you’re not tempted to take players like Jacobs in Round 3, 4, or 5. There are so many juicy wideouts ready to be plucked in that pocket.
D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions (39.5)
Love the player, hate the offense he’s tied to. And I’m also worried the new Detroit regime seems enamored with new RB Jamaal Williams, openly discussing the idea of this being a shared backfield.
Let’s be clear, dual backfields are a fact of life in today’s NFL. We used to blanche at the idea of a Backfield by Committee, if two runners seemed viable; the new fantasy wisdom says we can live with two runners, but “at three, you flee.” Swift can still be handy for fantasy purposes even if he doesn’t shove Williams out of the way.
That said, a few months back, the logical assumption was that Swift would at least be the head of this committee, with Williams the change-of-pace back. Today, I’m not confident that’s the case. This could easily be a 50-50 split between the pair, or even a rotation that slightly favors Williams. And we’re also tying ourselves into a rough offense, a team that’s downgraded at quarterback (Hiya, Jared Goff) and lacking for playmakers at wide receiver. I’m not proactively drafting into what’s possibly a Bottom 5 offense, especially when the backfield rotation is potentially muddled.
Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos (ADP: 92.9)
He’s entering his seventh season, while rookie Javonte Williams steps into his first. The new Denver decision-makers traded up for Williams on Draft Day, prioritizing him. This regime has no tie to Gordon.
Perhaps this backfield will be a messy slog, with weekly volatility and the whims of the hot hand messing with usage patterns, but my chip has to side with the younger player, especially given his pedigree and draft capital. Williams is my proactive pick here, Gordon the name to avoid.
Top 24 Fantasy Running Backs
1. Christian McCaffrey
2. Dalvin Cook
3. Ezekiel Elliott
4. Derrick Henry
5. Alvin Kamara
6. Nick Chubb
7. Aaron Jones
8. Austin Ekeler
9. Antonio Gibson
10. Saquon Barkley
11. Jonathan Taylor
12. Joe Mixon
13. Najee Harris
14. Clyde Edwards-Helaire
15. J.K. Dobbins
16. Miles Sanders
17. David Montgomery
18. Josh Jacobs
19. D’Andre Swift
20. Chris Carson
21. Darrell Henderson
22. Mike Davis
23. Kareem Hunt
24. Travis Etienne
Condensed Running Back Strategy for 2021
Get at least one major back you can hang your hat on, someone with a plausible shot at 300 touches. After that, you’re free to consider different roster-building paths. Target high-upside backup runners for depth purposes, but take the understudies tied to star backs you don’t roster; worry about insuring your investment later in the season, if at all. When your draft ends, you should have more running backs than any other position on your roster; take as many bites of the apple as possible.