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Fantasy Football: Rookie RBs worth targeting for the future in keeper leagues

Jul 29, 2021; Jacksonville, FL, USA; Jacksonville Jaguars running back Travis Etienne (1) participates in training camp at Dream Finders Homes practice field Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports

We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason, and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2021 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.

There are all sorts of different fantasy football leagues. Scoring differences often simply revolve around how many points a reception should be worth, but roster and league settings can be just as crucial to stay on top of to bring home the title after any given year.

One of my favorite league types is a redraft format that allows the ability to keep a player or two for the following season. This “keeper” isn’t free — he’ll cost his manager a draft pick in the following year to maintain his services. Often the keeper can be kept for a pick in the same round as he went; sometimes the round drops a spot or two by year. Either way, this sort of league provides users with a solid mix of living in the moment while also positioning (just a little) for the future.

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

I looked at the change in draft position from rookie, second-year and third-year backs drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL draft since 2015. The reason for the threshold inside of the first three rounds is that 80% of top-performing rookies at every position have been drafted on Day 1 or 2 over the past decade; literally only Roy Helu, Zac Stacy, Jordan Howard, Alfred Morris, Phillip Lindsay and James Robinson have posted top-24 production as a rookie among running backs not drafted inside of the top-three rounds since 2010. Obviously there’s another batch of backs that performed well in Years 2 and 3 after not doing much as rookies; we’re trying to avoid these types and hopefully find the best-case scenario of getting value in *both* this season and the next.

Note that a handful of players weren’t thought of enough to have an ADP prior to their rookie season (T.J. Yeldon, Ronald Jones, etc.) while others didn’t have one ahead of their second season due to injury (Cam Akers, D’Onta Foreman, etc.).

Round Running Back Rookie ADP Year 2 ADP Difference
1 Todd Gurley 27 2 25
1 Sony Michel 35 20 15
1 Josh Jacobs 19 8 11
1 Leonard Fournette 13 8 5
1 Saquon Barkley 6 1 5
1 Melvin Gordon 23 21 2
1 Christian McCaffrey 12 10 2
1 Ezekiel Elliott 3 3 0
1 Rashaad Penny 37 41 -4
1 Clyde Edwards-Helaire 5 13 -8
2 Nick Chubb 49 8 41
2 Miles Sanders 29 10 19
2 J.K. Dobbins 31 15 16
2 Kerryon Johnson 28 15 13
2 D'Andre Swift 30 18 12
2 A.J. Dillon 47 37 10
2 Jonathan Taylor 19 11 8
2 Joe Mixon 20 14 6
2 Dalvin Cook 14 11 3
2 Derrick Henry 32 32 0
2 Ameer Abdullah 18 33 -15
3 Alvin Kamara 52 5 47
3 David Johnson 46 1 45
3 Antonio Gibson 34 12 22
3 Matt Jones 48 31 17
3 Duke Johnson 42 27 15
3 Devin Singletary 36 24 12
3 Damien Harris 53 45 8
3 Alexander Mattison 49 42 7
3 Kareem Hunt 10 9 1
3 Zack Moss 36 36 0
3 Tevin Coleman 38 46 -8
3 Darrell Henderson 40 48 -8
3 David Montgomery 18 29 -11
3 Royce Freeman 15 44 -29

Overall, these running backs increased their average positional rank by a whopping 8.1 spots from Year 1 to Year 2. First-round backs only saw a +5.3 difference, as the second- and third-round qualifiers accounted for a combined +9.2 average.

What follows is a quick breakdown on 2021’s four running backs drafted inside of the top three rounds to determine whether or not they should be prioritized in keeper formats based on their potential to really dominate in 2022.

Pittsburgh Steelers RB Najee Harris

  • Current position ADP rank: RB10
  • Projected 2021 position ADP rank: RB5
May 4, 2021; Pittsburgh, PA, USA; Pittsburgh Steelers running back Najee Harris (22) practices at the UPMC Rooney Sports Complex during rookie minicamp, Friday, May 14, 2021 in Pittsburgh, PA. Mandatory Credit: Karl Roster/Handout Photo via USA TODAY Sports

Harris is already being thought of quite highly considering only Saquon Barkley (RB6), Ezekiel Elliott (RB3) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB5) have been drafted higher among all first-round running backs since 2015. Still, his expected gargantuan workload makes Harris’ steep price worthwhile in the second round. This won’t necessarily result in a mega advantage in 2022 for keepers, but simply having tabs on one of the league’s last remaining workhorses isn’t too shabby. Consider: 19 running backs had at least 300 touches in 2000, but only four hit that mark in 2020. It wouldn’t be surprising to see Harris eclipse that mark during each of his first two professional seasons.

Jacksonville Jaguars RB Travis Etienne

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