Sunday, February 21, 2021

Way-too-early 2021 Fantasy Football RB Rankings

The 2020 NFL season is now two weeks behind us.

Even so, it's arguably never too early to look ahead to the upcoming season. NFL free agency in March and the NFL Draft in April will certainly alter our early fantasy football rankings and we will update these rankings after the start of the NFL free-agency period and the NFL Draft.

More way-too-early 2021 fantasy football rankings:

For now, here are our early fantasy running back rankings for 2021 season:

1. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

If you drafted McCaffrey first overall in 2020, you likely find little solace that he was fantasy's top-scoring back over the three-week window in which he appeared (Weeks 1, 2 and 9). In those games, however, CMC handled 76 touches including 17 receptions, racked up 374 yards from scrimmage and scored six touchdowns. All of those numbers were either first or second among running backs in that split timeframe.

Before his lost season due to injury, McCaffrey was nearly an every-snap iron man in 2019. Heading into his age-25 season, he remains the top choice for me in 2021 drafts.

2. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

Once again, Cook has missed multiple games, but he set career highs in touches (356), yards from scrimmage (1,918) and touchdowns (17) and scored the third-most fantasy points (half-PPR) among running backs. The clear lead back in one of the league's most run-heavy offenses, Cook averaged a career-high 5.0 YPC and has a minimum of 40 catches in each of the past three seasons.

3. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

The clear favorite among the top five running backs in my rankings to finish last in receptions, Henry more than compensates for his smaller role as a receiver with his dominant rushing production. Not only is he the back-to-back rushing champion coming off a 2,000-yard campaign, but Henry has led the league in rushing touchdowns in each of the past two seasons with 33 rushing scores in 31 games.

No running back scored more fantasy points in non-PPR formats, but Henry also finished second in half-PPR and third in (full) PPR as well. In other words, the limited passing-game role hasn't hurt his value much, even in leagues that reward a full point per reception.

4. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

No running back scored more fantasy points in half-PPR formats than Kamara in 2020. The versatile back had exactly 81 receptions in each of his first three NFL seasons and then set a career high (83) in 2020. That said, he was on pace for a much higher career-best number before Drew Brees (ribs) missed four weeks. The only three games that Kamara failed to reach three catches came with Brees sidelined.

If Brees retires and the Saints utilize Taysom Hill as their starter (although Jameis Winston may be the early favorite), it would likely cap Kamara's upside and lead to more volatility in his weekly production. In the four-game span with Hill under center, 10 running backs scored more half-PPR fantasy points than Kamara. In the 12 games with Brees, Kamara was a top-10 weekly producer in all but one game. In four games with Hill, here were Kamara's weekly finishes: RB25, RB36, RB9 and RB9, respectively.

5. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

As a rookie, Barkley was about as good as it gets. Technically, Todd Gurley was better (fantasy's RB1), but Barkley was the RB2 in his rookie season and led the NFL in scrimmage yards (2,028), scored 15 touchdowns and hauled in 91 catches. Injuries have kept him out of 17 of the team's past 19 games, but if his health cooperates in 2021, he has the skill set to finish as one of the top two or three backs in the league.

6. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

Despite missing four games, Chubb still finished as fantasy's RB9 in 2020. Chubb has finished second and third in rushing yards per game in 2019 and 2020, respectively. Even with the league's best No. 2 back (Kareem Hunt), Chubb has averaged 18.05 touches per game after Hunt returned from his 2019 suspension.

7. Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts

Over his final seven games of the season including a playoff loss, Taylor handled a massive 156 touches, racked up 921 yards and scored nine total touchdowns. Excluding that playoff appearance, Taylor ranked top four in the NFL in touches, YFS, touchdowns and half-PPR fantasy points from Week 11 on. Running behind one of the league's best offensive lines, Taylor carries plenty of momentum with him into 2021.

8. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

The offense went off the tracks when Dak Prescott sustained his season-ending injury and the offensive line injuries further impacted Elliott's production. From Weeks 6 to 17, Zeke finished as a top-12 fantasy running only twice in 10 games after doing so three times in the team's first five games. While Tony Pollard may have earned more touches in 2021, Elliott should rank near the top of the league in workload and production assuming Prescott is back and healthy. In fact, only three backs had more than six games last season with at least 20 touches -- Derrick Henry (14), Dalvin Cook (11) and Elliott (11).

9. Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers

Missing a significant chunk of time due to injury and playing at less than 100 percent when returning to the field, Ekeler averaged 5.5 yards per touch and scored only three touchdowns, both of which were career lows. Given his lead-back role and immense upside as a receiver, however, a healthy Ekeler is worth a late-first round pick in 2021.

10. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

One year after leading the NFL in touchdowns (19, 2019), Jones averaged a career-high 5.89 yards per touch in the league's top-scoring offense. Even though he missed two games and scored eight fewer touchdowns in 2020, he has finished as a top-five fantasy running back in consecutive seasons. Scheduled to become an unrestricted free agent in March, Jones will move up in our rankings if re-signed this spring.

11. Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders

Bad news first, Jacobs was less efficient (4.26 yards per touch) compared to his rookie season (5.02) and was only slightly more involved as a receiver (2.2 receptions per game). That said, Jacobs missed only one game, scored 12 touchdowns (compared to seven in 2019) and only Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook had more touches than Jacobs (306). Despite the drop in efficiency, Jacobs still finished eighth in fantasy scoring in 2020.

12. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

Mixon appeared in only six games in 2020 and he has now missed multiple games in three of his four NFL seasons. That said, Mixon had a minimum of 19 touches in the six games in which he appeared in 2020. Through Week 6, Mixon had more carries (119) than all running backs not named Derrick Henry (123) and was top 10 among running backs in targets (26).

With offensive line a common target for the Bengals in mock drafts, that would be a welcome sight for Joe Burrow, Mixon & Co.

13. James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars

Robinson had modest performances in Weeks 14 and 15 and missed Weeks 16 and 17. Before that, however, he was the favorite for fantasy football MVP (if such an award existed).

As lead back of a one-win team, the UDFA was fourth in half-PPR fantasy points, fourth in YFS and third in touches through Week 13. It's possible that competition is added in 2021, but Robinson has shown that he can be highly effective as the featured back. Depending on who's added (or not) in free agency and the draft, Robinson could move up (or down) in these rankings.

14. Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams

In his final six games played including the playoffs, Akers averaged 23.8 touches per game as the team's lead back. During that six-game span, the rookie averaged 118 yards from scrimmage per game. While the Rams will still try to sprinkle in some reps for Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown, I'd expect Akers to handle in the range of 15-20 touches per game in 2021. And with the upgrade of Matthew Stafford over Jared Goff, the offense overall should be improved in 2021.

15. Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles

Vastly underperforming compared to preseason expectations, Sanders missed four games and averaged just 3.1 yards per target after his catch rate dropped from 79.4% as a rookie to 53.8% in 2020. Although he averaged an impressive 5.3 yards per carry for the season, Sanders failed to exceed 3.8 YPC in four of his final five games. Given the offense's general struggles in 2020, I'm inclined to bet on his skill set with better things to come in his third season in 2021.

16. D'Andre Swift, Detroit Lions

Swift was much more involved in the second half of the season and he finished his rookie campaign with 114/521/8 (4.6 YPC) rushing and 46/357/2 (7.8 Y/R) receiving. Swift had three-plus catches in 12 of 13 games and his ability as a receiver gives him the upside to outperform his spot in our rankings.

17. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs

Given how productive a third-round rookie (Kareem Hunt) was in Andy Reid's offense just a few seasons ago, Edwards-Helaire, the only first-round running back in the 2020 NFL Draft, was a relative disappointment despite a couple of big performances in the first half of the season. Even so, he has the skill set and draft pedigree to be much more productive than he was as a rookie.

18. David Montgomery, Chicago Bears

Over the final six weeks of the season, Montgomery was absolutely dominant. The second-year back scored no less than 19.1 fantasy points and finished no worse than fantasy's RB9 during that stretch. Montgomery exceeded 100 scrimmage yards and scored a touchdown (or two) in all six of those games and only Derrick Henry had more fantasy points during that span.

The return of a healthy Tarik Cohen in 2021 may lead to a few less touches for Montgomery, but he'll be a high-upside RB2 in 2021 and you could easily make the case that he's too low in our rankings.

19. Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team

Before suffering a turf toe injury early in his Week 13 matchup against the Pittsburgh Steelers, Gibson had a five-game stretch where he performed as fantasy's RB5, RB11, RB8, RB7 and RB2, respectively. Even without adjusting for Washington's Week 8 bye, only Dalvin Cook and Derrick Henry scored more fantasy points during that stretch. Especially if Washington has more stable quarterback play in 2021, Gibson would have tremendous upside if drafted as an mid-RB2.

20. J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens

The Ravens have had a 1,000-yard rusher in back-to-back seasons. Unfortunately (for the team's running backs), that player is quarterback Lamar Jackson.

Dobbins emerged as the team's lead back down the stretch, however, as Mark Ingram was often a healthy scratch. Although Gus Edwards is a free agent and Ingram will likely be a cap casualty, Dobbins may still not get as many touches as fantasy managers would like as Jackson will push to lead the team in rushing for a third consecutive season. Given his talent and the team's run-first offensive philosophy, however, there is plenty of profit potential with Dobbins at this draft-day cost.

21. Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns

While Chubb (RB9) was a top-10 fantasy running back in 2020, so was Hunt (RB10). Outside of Week 16, Hunt had double-digit touches in all of his other 15 games. In one of the league's most run-heavy offenses, there is enough to go around for both Chubb and Hunt to be drafted as viable starters in 12-team leagues.

22. Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks

Few teams want to "establish the run" more than Seahawks. Even though the Seahawks were letting Russ cook in the first half of the year, Carson performed as fantasy's RB13 or better in four of the team's five games before their Week 6 bye. In fact, he was a top-five performer through Week 5. Coming out of the bye, Carson sustained a foot injury in Week 7 that kept him out of several games.

Carson is scheduled to become a free agent this offseason and his physical running style leads to an occasional missed game or two. If Carson and the Seahawks can reach a deal for his return, he would almost certainly outperform his ranking in the games in which he plays.

23. Myles Gaskin, Miami Dolphins

Gaskin was off to a strong start through Week 8, but he only appeared in three games (Weeks 13, 16 and 17) after that point. Even though he missed six games, he ranked 15th among running backs in receptions (41). In addition, only three running backs had more receptions in the 10 weeks that Gaskin played.

The former seventh-round pick out of Washington has shown the ability to be highly productive, but the Dolphins are one of the teams most often associated with top running back draft prospects like Travis Etienne and Najee Harris in mock drafts.

24. Ronald Jones, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

Leonard Fournette is a free agent. Given his role down the stretch and in the playoffs, Fournette would be the team's running back to own if he's re-signed. Despite missing a couple of games, Jones had his best season as a pro with career highs as a runner -- 192 carries, 978 yards, 5.1 YPC and seven touchdowns. RoJo took a step back as a receiver, however, with a 66.7% catch rate (77.5% in 2019) and 5.9 Y/R (10.0 in 2019).

25. Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos

Only 14 yards shy of 1,000 rushing yards in his first season as a Bronco, Gordon was one of the better-performing fantasy running backs down the stretch. From Weeks 11-17, MG3 ranked seventh in touches (120), seventh in yards from scrimmage (618) and ninth in half-PPR scoring. One potential concern looming for Gordon is a possible suspension for his DUI charge.

26. Travis Etienne, Free Agent
27. Najee Harris, Free Agent
28. David Johnson, Houston Texans
29. Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers
30. Kenyan Drake, Arizona Cardinals
31. Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals
32. Damien Harris, New England Patriots
33. James Conner, Pittsburgh Steelers
34. Zack Moss, Buffalo Bills
35. A.J. Dillon, Green Bay Packers
36. Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills
37. Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
38. Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts
39. Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams
40. Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys
41. J.D. McKissic, Washington Football Team
42. Latavius Murray, New Orleans Saints
43. Jamaal Williams, Green Bay Packers
44. Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears
45. Phillip Lindsay, Denver Broncos
46. Todd Gurley, Atlanta Falcons
47. Jeff Wilson, San Francisco 49ers
48. Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Tampa Bay Buccaneers
49. Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts
50. Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks

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