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Darkhorse running backs to finish as the fantasy football RB1 in 2021

Cincinnati, Ohio, USA; Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon (28) celebrates his touchdown against the Jacksonville Jaguars cornerback Chris Claybrooks(27) during the second quarter at Paul Brown Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Joseph Maiorana-USA TODAY Sports

The running backs being drafted early in 2021 fantasy football drafts obviously have the greatest chance to deliver top fantasy performances. They've proven themselves and have earned the rushing/receiving opportunity to repeat in the coming season. However, every few years we see a running back who hasn’t quite hit the upper echelon of fantasy production break out. 

Before we dive into the list of dark horse candidates to finish as the fantasy football RB1 in 2021, let’s first examine the RB1 finishers from the last five years using 0.5-PPR scoring.

Season RB1 Total Points PPG PPG Rank
2020 Alvin Kamara 336.3 22.4 3
2019 Christian McCaffrey 413.2 25.8 1
2018 Todd Gurley 342.6 24.5 1
2017 Todd Gurley 351.3 23.4 1
2016 David Johnson 367.8 23.0 2

The first thing to note here is that each of the last five RB1s ranked in the top three in fantasy points per game. Elite running backs need to play at an elite level most if not all of the season to claim the RB1 title on the year. 

More of PFF's 2021 Fantasy Football tools here: 
Fantasy Football Draft Kit | Rankings & Tiers | Draft Guide | Cheat Sheets
Projections | Strength of Schedule | Expected Points Weekly Finishes

Players need to averag around 23 points per game in order to have a shot at the RB1 slot. Kamara’s 2020 RB1 season was solid, but injuries to big-name running backs like Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley and Dalvin Cook opened the gate for his first RB1 title.

Next, let’s look at the breakdown of rushing versus receiving.

Season RB1 Att RuYDS Tgt Rec RecYDS Total TD
2020 Alvin Kamara 187 932 107 83 756 21
2019 Christian McCaffrey 287 1,387 142 116 1,005 15
2018 Todd Gurley 256 1,251 87 59 580 16
2017 Todd Gurley 279 1,305 87 64 788 19
2016 David Johnson 293 1,239 120 80 879 20

Simply speaking, we're look for players who touch the ball a lot. None of these running backs had fewer than 250 total touches, though Kamara's 2020 was on a lighter rushing workload. The benchmark for 2021 should be closer to 325 touches, and it's important to note that none of these running backs saw fewer than 87 targets on the year.

Touchdown variance is also essentially a requirement for landing an RB1 season. All five players had 15 or more total scores in their leading season — an average of about one touchdown per week. In fact, scoring is the most important component of the offense when looking at team ranks.

Season Team Off Yds Pass Yds Rush Yds Scoring
2020 Saints 12 19 6 5
2019 Panthers 19 20 14 20
2018 Rams 2 5 3 2
2017 Rams 10 10 8 1
2016 Cardinals 9 9 18 5

Four out of the last five RB1s were part of a top-five scoring offense on the year. This might seem like bit of a chicken or egg conversation, but it’s also a fairly obvious point — the running back absolutely needs to be on a high-scoring offense if he's not named Christian McCaffrey.

EPA-based rankings paint a similar picture, but efficiency doesn’t matter quite as much as pure volume.

Season Team EPA Pass EPA Rush EPA
2020 Saints 12 13 7
2019 Panthers 27 28 22
2018 Rams 3 5 2
2017 Rams 7 8 8
2016 Cardinals 20 21 21

Four running backs being drafted outside of the top 12 at their position stand out as having the best chance to finish as this season’s RB1 based on these parameters.

2021 dark horse fantasy RB1 candidates

Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

  • What he has: rushing attempts, talent
  • What he needs: O-line improvement, more targets

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