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How the fantasy football running back rankings for the 2021 NFL season would look if nobody got injured

Charlotte, North Carolina, USA; Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) runs as Washington Football Team free safety Kamren Curl (31) defends in the second quarter at Bank of America Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

My least favorite thing about fantasy football Twitter are injury predictors. They regularly respond to thought-out explanations about a perfectly healthy player with, “He’ll be hurt by Week 5.” Sometimes this actually winds up happening (I’m so sorry, Raheem Mostert), while other times veterans like Joe Mixon and James Conner are able to break or set career-high marks in games played despite handling the most robust workloads of their life.

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I avoid this problem entirely in Madden and NCAA Football by turning off injuries; today we’ll do the same and re-simulate the 2021 season under the pretense that all of our favorite running backs are physically unable to get hurt. Predicting injuries before the fact is at a minimum awfully difficult and at a maximum borderline impossible, so getting a handle on how the position might have looked without anything going wrong could be useful in looking ahead to 2022.

This approach requires going through every team and determining what the most likely opportunity split was for each respective backfield if none of the team’s running backs had gotten hurt all year. Note that I’m only considering injuries to the running back position, playoffs are included when applicable (we’re looking for the largest sample possible) and the production is only from the games relevant to the split. In some cases, I basically canceled out a backup for a starter such as Elijah Mitchell for Raheem Mostert and James White for Brandon Bolden, while for some other full-season injury types (Cam Akers and J.K. Dobbins) it made sense to incorporate some of their 2020 numbers.

Every single variable in the study isn’t perfect, but neither is life. Roll with the punches; the following table denotes the top-24 fantasy backs if injuries were turned off. I included their actual overall PPR rank, the difference between the two and a quick note on the relevant split used.

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Player Team No Injury Rank Real Rank Difference
Christian McCaffrey Panthers 1 39 +38
Derrick Henry Titans 2 23 +21
Jonathan Taylor Colts 3 1 -2
Austin Ekeler Chargers 4 2 -2
Leonard Fournette Buccaneers 5 6 +1
Alvin Kamara Saints 6 9 +3
Joe Mixon Bengals 7 4 -3
D'Andre Swift Lions 8 15 +7
Najee Harris Steelers 9 3 -6
Aaron Jones Packers 10 11 +1
Dalvin Cook Vikings 11 16 +5
Cordarrelle Patterson Falcons 12 10 -2
Josh Jacobs Raiders 13 12 -1
Raheem Mostert 49ers 14 154 +140
Ezekiel Elliott Cowboys 15 7 -8
James Conner Cardinals 16 5 -11
Nick Chubb Browns 17 13 -4
Cam Akers Rams 18 144 +126
Kareem Hunt Browns 19 50 +31
David Montgomery Bears 20 19 -1
Antonio Gibson Football Team 21 8 -13
J.K. Dobbins Ravens 22 N/A N/A
Damien Harris Patriots 23 14 -9
Devin Singletary Bills 24 20 -4

Some key takeaways:

CMC is truly a cheat code in fantasy land. Christian McCaffrey posted PPR RB1, RB3, RB15, RB4 and RB3 finishes in his five-game sample. You could even exclude the “dud” because he was “only” fed 18 touches in his first game back from injury. CMC essentially plays a different position than every other running back; his projected 119 receptions are 30 more than second-place. The No. 1 running back in PPR points per game ever, McCaffrey will continue to vie for overall RB1 treatment whenever healthy enough to suit up in 2022.

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