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Jahnke: 2021 Fantasy Football Running Back Rankings & Tiers

Kansas City, Missouri, USA; Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) runs the ball during the game against the Kansas City Chiefs at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 season was an exciting time for running backs, but 2021 should be even better. Alvin Kamara tied the all-time record for touchdowns in a game while Derrick Henry put up the fifth-most rushing yards in a season. Dalvin Cook joined both backs as the three highest-scoring running backs last season in both fantasy points and rushing touchdowns. It was the third time in NFL history that three different backs ran for 16 or more touchdowns.

The battle for the top will see more competition in 2021 with Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley returning from injury. Both players missed nearly all of 2020 but should be at full strength in 2021. McCaffrey led the league in fantasy points in 2019, while Barkley took the honor in 2018. 

The emerging 2020 NFL draft class will also add to the competition. Four rookie backs ranked in the top 16 in fantasy points last season. The number of viable options at running back makes the decision of whom to select in the first few rounds more complicated than ever.

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The following are my top 87 running backs, broken into tiers to best prepare for fantasy drafts of all shapes and sizes. Average draft position is taken from 12-team Best Ball 10s over the last week. Only players who were selected in at least half of those drafts have an ADP listed.

Last Updated: SEPT. 1, 2021

Tier 1

Rank Name Team ADP
1 Christian McCaffrey Panthers 1.1
2 Dalvin Cook Vikings 2.1

The first and second picks in any fantasy draft, PPR or non-PPR alike, is a no-brainer: McCaffrey should be picked at 1.01 and Cook 1.02.

McCaffrey took the fantasy world by storm in 2019. His 2,392 yards from scrimmage were the third-most in NFL history. His 116 receptions rank in the top 20 in NFL history regardless of position. Players like Davante Adams, Tyreek Hill, DeAndre Hopkins and Travis Kelce have never reached 116 receptions in a season. The only concerns heading into 2020 were the potential for injury — as with all running backs — and the new coaching regime led by Matt Rhule.

McCaffrey's 2020 season turned out to be undermined by injury, but the new coaches did not hold McCaffrey back at all. McCaffrey either touched the ball or was targeted on 42.0% of his offensive plays in 2019, and that increased to 48.8% in 2020. McCaffrey would have been on pace for the greatest fantasy season of all time if that usage continued and he wasn't hurt.

Cook secures the second spot due to his consistency. Cook lacks a red flag, but each back in Tier 2 has one major reason to be concerned. The Vikings' fourth-year back is not coming off an injury, shouldn’t lose time to a backup and isn’t going through major offensive changes.

The Vikings have retained the same offensive scheme, along with 15 of the 17 players who saw at least 200 offensive snaps last season. Their biggest loss was left tackle Riley Reiff, whom they replaced with first-round rookie Christian Darrisaw. Any fantasy manager will be ecstatic with another 24 points-per-game season from Cook if he can build on 2020.

Tier 2


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