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Running backs to target in the middle rounds of 2021 fantasy football drafts

Jul 30, 2021; Foxborough, MA, United States; New England Patriots running back Damien Harris (37) during training camp at Gillette Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports

Regardless of one's fantasy football drafting strategy for the 2021 NFL season, the most important concept is picking the correct players rather than positions. Easier said than done, right?

The middle rounds — for the purposes of this article, Rounds 4-8 — can be a murky range for sifting through running back talent. There are a lot of analysts out there, namely Jack Miller over at Establish the Run, calling this range the “running back dead zone.” And while these players can be riskier, they also arguably have a higher ceiling than their wide receiver counterparts. Not to mention, variations of #zeroRB strategies are better geared for best ball portfolios, not redraft leagues.

Look no further if you're aiming to shore up your running back depth with high-upside players.

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

Damien Harris, New England Patriots

Damien Harris was easily the best running back on the New England Patriots roster in 2020 and potentially the best player on their roster, period. With a 90.3 overall grade and an 86.9 rushing grade on the year, Harris again showed the prowess that many saw from his Alabama film. In fact, he notched the third-best rushing grade in the league last year.

Harris showed flashes that got many people talking during the season in 2020, but for some reason, their desire to draft him in fantasy football has faded a bit. He was the NFL's sixth-best back in explosive run percentage among running backs with at least 100 carries.

While many agree that Harris popped on tape, it never really amounted to more than a handful of useful fantasy outings. However, there seems to be more clarity in the Patriots' backfield going into this season.

But what can we say about Harris’ progression that head coach Bill Belichick can’t explain better himself?

The third-year halfback from Alabama hasn’t quite established himself as a starter in the NFL as quickly as expected, but he hasn’t quit just yet. James White will still be the main pass-catching back, but he saw his lowest target total since 2015 last season in the new-look Cam Newton offense.

The biggest hindrance to Harris’ path to becoming a top-24 running back will be touchdowns. Last year, Newton vultured 12 rushing touchdowns from the running backs. And while the Patriots added bulky rookie Rhamondre Stevenson to the mix, Harris was still the goal-line back in every game he started. From Weeks 4 through 14, Harris nearly doubled any other running back in goal-to-go touches.

With an ADP hovering around the seventh round, Harris is an ideal third running back to have on your roster, and a risky-with-upside pick if you take him as your RB2 on a wide receiver-heavy draft build.

Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams

If you’re thinking this name looks familiar, it’s because it was included in my earlier tweet about explosive run percentage. Henderson is an explosive and elusive back who is about to waltz into a situation with locked-in rushing and receiving opportunities for 2021. It was agonizing news for many that fellow Rams’ running back and presumed starter Cam Akers is out for the season with an Achilles tear suffered this offseason, but Henderson is more than capable of stepping in and shouldering the load.

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