Hartitz: 2021 Fantasy Football Running Back Tiers

Minneapolis, Minnesota, USA; Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) runs with the ball in the second quarter against the Detroit Lions at U.S. Bank Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Fantasy football rankings are cool, but sometimes they aren’t necessarily the most helpful tool for doing a little something the cool kids like to call winning. Median projections become the main tool for lining up each individual player, which can lead to -EV scenarios where those not willing to stray from their faithful ranks fail to capitalize on a better choice available because of how their specific draft played out.

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Additionally, it’s simply wishful thinking to expect to rank hundreds of footballers with pinpoint accuracy: Coaches will hold back promising rookies, injuries will take away some of our favorite talents and even people paid to write about the game like myself will inevitably miss on more than a few players ahead of any season.

It’s with this in mind that I present to you my 2021 fantasy football tiers based on redraft leagues. The general scoring I had in mind was half-point PPR in typical one-QB, non-TE premium formats. Players in the tiers are listed in order of who I would prefer first; just realize their standing in the same group reflects the reality that I’m not overly confident in picking one over the other. (Find my 2021 fantasy football quarterback tiers here.)

Tier 1: Undisputed workhorses

Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Saquon Barkley, Derrick Henry

The 2020 version of CMC actually averaged more PPR points per game (30.1) than the 2019 edition (29.5). All in all, McCaffrey is responsible for two of the top six highest-scoring campaigns on a per-game basis among all RBs in NFL history. The reality that the Panthers 1) gave him an absurd 97% snap rate in Week 1, and 2) allowed Mike Davis to walk in free agency, paints the picture of McCaffrey continuing to get all the touches he can handle in 2021.

Cook is also already established on first-team all volume, racking up 356 touches in just 14 games last season. He’s posted 40-305-2, 53-519-0 and 44-361-1 receiving lines over the past three years; it’d make sense if this part of his game continues to become more enhanced as time goes on. The Vikings’ undisputed featured back scored and/or surpassed 100 yards in all but one game last season; Cook deserves to be fantasy’s consensus No. 2 RB behind what should be an improved offensive line.

Friends don’t let friends forget that Barkley is one of the league’s single-best players with the ball in his hands when healthy.

Similar to CMC, we unfortunately don’t have much 2020 data to work with when projecting out Barkley. Also similar to CMC, at least we saw the Giants give him an elite 87% snap rate in Week 1, even though the Giants trailed by multiple scores throughout the second half. I believe at full health Barkley is the NFL’s best RB, and his total touch workload should rival anyone's.

Henry ran for 2,027 yards and scored 17 TDs in 2020. Somehow, this only comes out to the 64th-best season among all RBs in NFL history in full PPR scoring. Seriously people: Awarding equal points for catching the ball and gaining 10 yards is a flaw in the beautiful game we call fantasy football. We’re going off half-point PPR in this piece, so I’m fine still taking Henry among fantasy’s top four backs; just realize dual-threat RBs that also catch passes join mobile QBs as the closest thing our game has to a cheat code.

Tier 2: It’s firmly RB1 szn

Aaron Jones, Ezekiel Elliott, Austin Ekeler, Alvin Kamara, Nick Chubb

It remains to be seen how this Aaron Rodgers saga will play out; obviously Jones would slide down this list a bit if the Packers are suddenly without the reigning league MVP. Still, the departure of Jamaal Williams quietly opens up plenty of additional pass-down work considering Jones’ backup averaged 39 targets per season over the past four years. It’d be borderline malpractice for A.J. Dillon to continue to ride the bench, although we did see the Packers give Williams elite 89% and 85% snap rates when Jones missed two weeks last season. Basically, Jones should either 1) have his usual fantasy-friendly role that has consistently produced RB1 finishes, but with more pass-down work than usual, or 2) a newfound workhorse role that could produce an overall RB1 finish. He’s worth a top-five pick to find out.

The 2020 season was a bad year for the artist known as Zeke. Things started out fine enough in fantasy land, as he was the PPR RB3 in Weeks 1-5 with Dak Prescott under center. Afterwards we saw Zeke struggle to provide any sort of explosiveness to the Cowboys’ suddenly middling offense. Note that this offensive line was largely a walking graveyard all season, and Zeke still racked up at least 15 touches in all but three games. Yes, Tony Pollard is objectively a stud. Also yes, the Cowboys still have millions of reasons to feed Zeke for at least two more years before they can rid themselves of one of the league’s worst contracts. Last year was the worst possible scenario for Elliott in terms of both his own performance and the health of teammates; he was still the PPR RB9 when it was all said and done. Follow the volume and take the discount.

The issue for Ekeler ahead of 2020 was the potential for life with Tyrod Taylor to result in far fewer targets than we saw in 2019. There was also plenty of uncertainty around how the offense would look with Justin Herbert under center. Well, now we know the Chargers look fantastic with Herbert at QB, and it’s time to get all aboard the Ekeler RB1 train. The man that played in 46 of 48 potential games from 2017-2019 unfortunately missed six contests in 2020, but Ekeler does deserve credit for scoring the sixth-most PPR points at the position down the stretch after returning in Week 12. Throw in the reality that the Chargers offense is now being run by the Saints’ former QB coach, and it’s fair to wonder if 2021 Ekeler is the man that most hope Alvin Kamara will still be in his post-Brees career.

And now we get to Kamara, who is the reigning, defending, undisputed RB1 of the world. The problem: No more Drew Brees could mean that Kamara’s typical cheat code-esque allotment of targets could be in jeopardy. We should also probably not expect a league-high 21 trips to the end zone again because 1) that’s really hard to do one time, let alone twice, and 2) the Saints offense figures to regress in the scoring department at least a bit. Kamara posted 0-0-0, 1-(-)2-0, 2-9-0 and 7-44-0 receiving lines in four starts with Taysom Hill last season. We should be rooting for Jameis Winston to win the job; even then it’s not a given that his typical high-aDOT style will enable Kamara to similar heights. Gun to my head: Kamara catches at least 70 passes anyway because Sean Payton is smart and there really isn’t anybody other than Michael Thomas who deserves that large of a pass-game role anyway; this is just less of a sure thing than in past years and because of that we should approach with a bit more caution.

Nick Chubb is stupid good at the game known as American football. He tied Derrick Henry for the most games last season (7) with at least 10 carries and an average of five yards per rush despite missing four contests. Trailing only Henry in both PFF rushing grade and yards after contact per rush since entering the league, Chubb is on the short list of the league’s very best players with the ball in their hands. Kareem Hunt certainly lowers the overall ceiling, but Chubb still had a 16-game pace of more than 275 touches in 2020, and the potential for Hunt to miss time would make Chubb a no doubt (wait for it) league winner. The Browns return PFF’s first ever offensive line to finish a season No. 1 in pass- and run-blocking; Chubb is more proven, in a better offense and a superior real-life talent to every RB in our next tier.

Tier 3: With some luck these dudes could bounce up two tiers

Cam Akers, Joe Mixon, Jonathan Taylor, Antonio Gibson, Najee Harris, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, D’Andre Swift, Chris Carson

It took the Rams a bit before featuring their 2020 second-round pick, but by December Akers was *the* RB in Los Angeles. Overall, he racked up 22, 31, 16, 25, 30 and 19 touches in his final six games, with Darrell Henderson being active for all but the latter three affairs. Malcolm Brown is gone; we might see the Rams get back to being a one-RB offense now that they have a back capable of rising to the occasion. Sean McVay played his featured RB1 (usually Todd Gurley) on at least 60% of the offense’s snaps in 48 of 52 games from 2017-2019; I’m betting on 2020’s committee situation being more of a blip on the radar than a sign of things to come.

Nobody had more total touches than Mixon before he was injured six games into 2020. Yes, Mixon wasn’t exactly making the best use out of these opportunities from an efficiency standpoint. Also yes, he was still the PPR RB9 during this stretch. Now Giovani Bernard is in Tampa Bay, and Bengals OC Brian Callahan has made his intentions clear by stating: “I don’t want Joe Mixon to leave the field and I think he’s up for that.” Last season marked the first time in Mixon’s career that he didn’t play at least 14 games. He finished 2018 and 2019 as the PPR RB10 and RB13; I don’t understand the public’s general hesitation with trusting Mixon on what figures to be the best offense of his career. The offensive line isn’t great, but volume matters so much more than our perceived idea of which fronts will be good/bad ahead of next season. Note that PFF’s bottom-five offensive lines in run-blocking grade produces as many top-24 PPR RBs (4) as the top-five units (4).

Taylor is an objectively great real life RB; I’m not as convinced as most that this will translate into top-five fantasy production. The most glaring problem is overall usage: Taylor played fewer than 60% of the offense’s snaps in all but three games last season. He racked up at least 15 touches in 10 games, including each of his final seven contests, but it’s hard not to notice that he wasn’t exactly plowing over the league’s best defenses on his way to raking over down the stretch. All in all, Taylor gained over 100 total yards against the Vikings, Bengals, Packers, Texans, Raiders and Jaguars. Credit to JT for showing better hands than most gave him credit for throughout the season, but expect the backfield’s overall target share to 1) continue to go primarily to Nyheim Hines, and 2) be reduced overall with Carson Wentz now under center. Best-case scenario: Taylor serves as the bell-cow back behind the Colts’ beastly offensive line and challenges for the rushing title. Worst-case scenario: We see another *three* back committee with a combination of Jordan Wilkins and Marlon Mack *again* combining for triple-digit touches.

Nothing was more frustrating for Gibson fantasy investors than watching J.D. McKissic see a never-ending supply of targets with captain checkdown Alex Smith under center in 2020. The good news is that 1) Gibson remains the Football Team’s lead back, 2) Smith has been replaced by Ryan Fitzpatrick, and 3) Washington did nothing to suggest that this committee will grow to three. The best-case scenario for Gibson is that McKissic either misses time or hits the bench and we see the D.C. version of CMC. The worst-case scenario is a similar workload to last season, which was still enough to produce a PPR RB13 finish in just 14 games. This offense is ascending, and we could see plenty of games with a positive game script considering the likelihood that this defense remains lethal. Short of injury or suspension it’s tough to see Gibson busting in a major way in 2021.

Let’s go through what has happened to Carson over the past 12 months:

  1. Carson functions as the PPR RB5 in Weeks 1-5 before getting injured.
  2. Carson finishes the season as the PPR RB12 in Weeks 12-17 after returning from injury.
  3. The Seahawks re-signed Carson.
  4. The Seahawks decided to let Carlos Hyde take his talents elsewhere.
  5. The Seahawks declined Rashaad Penny’s fifth-year option.
  6. The coaching staff has (unfortunately) continued to bark about wanting to run the ball as much as possible.

I have my doubts that this defense is average enough for the Seahawks to pretend like they want to be a run-first offense; either way Carson is set up as the primary back in a perennial top-10 scoring offense. Injuries have impacted Carson over the past three seasons; he’s still managed to play in 41 of 48 regular season games since 2018.

Harris continues to climb up my ranks by the week. He looks like the next great Steelers RB and is set up for one of the league’s potential larger workloads from day one. Would it be better if the Steelers had a great offensive line? Absolutely, but Harris has the look of someone that will vie for 300-plus touches immediately, and that’s simply too much of a fantasy-friendly role for us to consider fading.

CEH finished 2020 as the PPR RB21, totaling 1,100 yards in 13 games of action. I understand this wasn’t enough to meet his lofty pre-draft expectations; just realize Edwards-Helaire was hardly a liability as far as real life football was concerned. It’s concerning that he split so much time with Darrel Williams and Le’Veon Bell down the stretch, although the Chiefs’ decision to only re-sign Darrel and not invest more in the backfield reflects the probable reality that we see Edwards-Helaire leaned on even more in 2021. Andy Reid historically produces a fantasy-friendly RB1; don’t expect this year’s version of CEH to be much different.

On the one hand, Swift doesn’t figure to lose 156 carries to Adrian Peterson in 2021. On the other, the organization’s decision to sign Jamaal Williams means another committee of sorts should be on the way. Look for Swift to be the primary pass-down back; he’s too good to keep on the sideline when the intention is to, you know, gain yards. Theoretically Swift could be a more fantasy-friendly version of what we saw from James Robinson last year: workhorse back on an awful team that makes up for a lack of high-end scoring with volume. It’s tempting to drop Swift into Tier 4, but I’m enough of a fan of his talent and (especially) pass-down ability to take the risk as a mid-tier RB2. Here’s to hoping Swift becomes one of few RBs that actually see more reps in the slot after their coach talked about doing so in the offseason.

Tier 4: There’s upside, but with notable risk

J.K. Dobbins, Javonte Williams, Travis Etienne, Myles Gaskin, Mike Davis, Chase Edmonds, Miles Sanders, Kareem Hunt, David Montgomery

Dobbins joins Jamaal Charles, Alvin Kamara, Adrian Peterson and C.J. Spiller as the only RBs to average at least 6.0 yards per carry in a single season since 2010 (min. 100 carries). The key problems with expecting more than RB2-level production from Dobbins are 1) Gus Edwards is back and should see relatively equal work on the ground, and 2) Lamar Jackson figures to continue to command triple-digit rush attempts while not making a habit of checking the ball down. As much as dual-threat QBs can help their RB’s rushing efficiency; generally we don’t want to chase fantasy RBs attached to mobile signal-callers. Dobbins might be a special enough talent to make the most out of this unideal workload; just realize there are many more RBs with a more fantasy-friendly touch ceiling ahead of 2021.

Our next two rookie backs might as well be tied, but I give the lean to Williams thanks to the reality that he’s seemingly set up for a two-back committee with Melvin Gordon, while Etienne could split time with James Robinson and Carlos Hyde at least for a bit. Don’t get me wrong: Etienne can and should emerge as the Jaguars’ three-down back before too long. Whispers about a Percy Harvin-esque role are borderline erotic. My primary concern is that 1) I don’t really trust whatever it is that Urban Meyer is doing with the Jaguars offense, and 2) there simply isn’t a track record of a RB spending equal time in the slot as well as in the backfield.

This breakdown will be far easier to handle if we wind up seeing some sort of a punishment handed down to Gordon following his late-season DUI charge. Williams broke more tackles than any other back in college football last season, while Etienne showed off more polish as a receiver than we’d seen in 2017-2019. For now I’m riding with the back seemingly set to feature in a two-back committee instead of three.

We saw Gaskin for 10 games in 2020, and he commanded double-digit touches along with a 60%-plus snap rate in each. All in all, Gaskin functioned as the RB12 in PPR points per game, posting season-long 142-584-3 rushing and 41-388-2 receiving lines along the way. The latter point is great news for Gaskin’s fantasy floor in case the Dolphins’ reigning 30th-ranked offensive line in run-blocking grade fails to improve in a meaningful way. The only offseason additions to the room are 1) seventh-rounder Gerrid Doaks, and 2) ex-Rams veteran Malcolm Brown. Neither appear to present any sort of meaningful competition for the starting job. It’s not a guarantee that Gaskin will possess the same role with a new play-caller, although it seems likely considering co-offensive coordinators Eric Studesville and George Godsey were the RB and QB coach last season.

Davis made life bearable for Christian McCaffrey investors if they were lucky enough to properly handcuff the reigning 2019 fantasy MVP. All the sixth-year journeyman RB did in 15 games of action is rack up 1,015 total yards from scrimmage with eight trips to the end zone. Davis achieved all of this in style, leaving countless defenders grasping for air along the way.

In Weeks 1-16, only Dalvin Cook (78), Derrick Henry (67) and David Montgomery (67) racked up more total forced missed tackles than Davis (65). Only Nick Chubb (0.31) had a higher rate of broken tackles per touch than Davis (0.29) among 65 players with 100 total touches. Davis finished 2020 as the overall PPR RB12 and now finds himself on another depth chart that should afford him a true three-down role. Perhaps the likes of Cordarrelle Patterson or Qadree Ollison force their way into a committee, but I wouldn’t count on it. Fire up Davis, like Gaskin, as a rock-solid RB2 that is currently being priced far cheaper in fantasy land.

Edmonds is the expected starter in Arizona after Kenyan Drake took his talents to Las Vegas; just realize James Conner will steal early-down work, and we could see Rondale Moore get some of the backfield’s targets. I like Edmonds; treat him as more of a low-end RB2 as opposed to borderline RB1. This is particularly true when considering the aforementioned negative impact that mobile QBs can have on their offense’s RB1.

Sanders is someone that I haven’t made a habit of trying to scoop up in fantasy land this year. The main issue is expected volume: Sanders has already had a hard enough time breaking fully away from the likes of Boston Scott and Jordan Howard over the past two seasons, now he’ll have to deal with Kerryon Johnson and Kenneth Gainwell in a brand new offense. Don’t get me wrong: Sanders can and should be the Eagles’ lead back; I’d just expect that role to produce a touch total far closer to 200 than 300. Throw in the reality that we don’t exactly know if Jalen Hurts can lead a high-end scoring offense, and Sanders is an easy fade for me unless he slides into borderline RB2 range.

Hunt remains the NFL’s No. 1 RB handcuff that isn’t actually a handcuff because he performs just fine as a RB2. It’d be great to see even more true receiver usage, but either way we’re looking at a back expected to command more than 200 touches in an ascending offense featuring the league’s single-best offensive line. Hunt will be a weekly RB2 or flex option if Chubb is healthy; he’ll be a top-five RB if the Browns’ starter is forced to miss time, as he was in Weeks 4-8 of last season (PPR RB7).

Montgomery won my award for best fantasy comeback of 2020. He improved from 13.2 PPR points per game in Weeks 1-8 to 21.9 in Weeks 9-16, joining Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook as the league’s only RBs to average at least 20 PPR points per contest during the second half of the season. The problem: Tarik Cohen is back and figures to at least see a decent portion of the 97.5 targets per season he commanded from 2018-2019. Additionally, Damien Williams has entered the picture for whatever reason, and the selection of Justin Fields could result in less overall carries and targets for everyone involved. Here’s to hoping the Bears give Montgomery the same workhorse role he finished 2021 with, but I wouldn’t count on it.

Honorable mention

We’re a couple paragraphs of coach speak away from Michael Carter earning a spot in one of these tiers. We know the Jets’ backfield is ripe for the taking, the question is whether or not 1) Carter can rise to the top after garnering meh fourth-round draft capital, and 2) if this offense is even planning on giving one single back a workhorse-esque role. I’m all for finding out in the later middle rounds; let’s just not get crazy at the moment. … Raheem Mostert was someone who I was far more in on before Kyle Shanahan and company felt good enough about Trey Sermon to spend a third-round pick to acquire his services. I’d expect Mostert to start the year as the starter, but at least a two-back committee looms. Throw in the reality that Trey Lance’s dual-threat tendencies will further lower the overall touches available to this backfield, and I’m more inclined to treat Mostert and Sermon as zero-RB targets than players worthy of an early-round pick. … Offseason coach speak seems to indicate Kenyan Drake will have a larger role than either DeAndre Washington or Devontae Booker did while backing up Josh Jacobs. We’ll also probably continue to see Jalen Richard steal pass-down work. Throw in an offensive line expected to take a step back, and it’s a situation I’d simply rather not be a part of. … ZacK Moss and Devin Singletary are sneaky big winners from the draft; both are more than solid zero-RB candidates, particularly if Josh Allen chills the hell out on his constant quests to score himself inside the 10-yard line. Give me Moss over Singletary, but the difference in their respective ADPs make both solid investments. … Melvin Gordon is the 2021 version of 2020 Leonard Fournette for me: An RB who didn’t exactly impress last season and is now on final year of deal with an organization he isn't exactly on great terms with. It remains to be seen if any sort of discipline will be tossed Gordon’s way in regards to his late-season DUI charge. … Ronald Jones would be my bet to put up the most production in Tampa Bay; the problem is Giovani Bernard and maybe even Ke’Shawn Vaughn will likely steal the majority of the pass-game work. Both RoJo and Fournette are capable of sporadic RB2 performances with 12-15 touches; just don’t expect as much of a floor without the targets this time around. … I like James Robinson, you like James Robinson: Now we know Urban Meyer isn’t particularly fond of James Robinson. Give it up people: There’s no need to draft the Jaguars’ early-down No. 2 RB with a non-double-digit round pick. … A.J. Dillon joins Kenyan Drake, Nyheim Hines and Gus Edwards as decent standalone RBs that likely will continue to work as part of a committee even if their team’s starter goes down. … Tony Pollard, Latavius Murray, Alexander Mattison, Jamaal Williams, Chuba Hubbard and Darrell Henderson stand out as RBs with potentially less standalone value than the previous group, but we’d be talking about potential RB1s if their respective starters miss time. … J.D. McKissic, James White and Tarik Cohen are solid high-floor options in full-PPR leagues, just realize we won’t see anything resembling a legit rushing workload for these pint-sized scatbacks. … Don’t draft anyone involved in this Texans offense if you don’t have to. … There could be some early-down work afforded to the likes of Rashaad Penny, James Conner, Marlon Mack, Sony Michel as well as Justin Jackson or Joshua Kelley; I’m just not lining up to take any of them due to their respective injury and/or committee red flags.


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