2021 Best-Ball RB Tiers

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John Daigle
·14 min read
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Jump to: QB Tiers

Tier One

Christian McCaffrey (RB1) -- Even in returning from a six-week absence at 3-5, McCaffrey handled 18-of-19 backfield carries (including 100% of the team's carries inside the five) and 10-of-16 running back targets before re-injuring himself in the fourth quarter. Any discussion of a committee from Carolina's coaching staff can be ignored.

Dalvin Cook (RB2) -- Cook averaged 28 touches, handling 220-of-250 backfield carries, across his last nine starts. Minnesota's third-highest run play rate from neutral game script isn't expected to change since Gary Kubiak simply passed the keys to his son Klint Kubiak on the way out (lol).

Derrick Henry (RB3) -- Titans are still expected to rally around The Big Dog after 400-plus touches and rushing crowns in back-to-back seasons. Any uptick in opportunity following a career-high 31 targets is a plus.

Ezekiel Elliott (RB4) -- Nowhere to go but up after regressing for career-lows in rushing yards (65.3) and fantasy points (14.9) per game against the league's second-toughest rushing schedule. Also paced for 7.5 targets weekly in Dak Prescott's four full starts out the gates. Cowboys will encouragingly have Tyron Smith, La'el Collins, and Zack Martin available to open the year after that trio combined to miss 36 games last season.

Aaron Jones (RB5) -- Heightened outlook with Jamaal Williams' 35 targets and 14 routes per game removed from the offense. Note that AJ Dillon has totaled 23 catches in his last 46 appearances dating back to his first year with Boston College.

Saquon Barkley (RB6) -- Hampered by a high-ankle sprain and ACL tear the past two years, Barkley returns as the lead horse in an offense that most recently split 285 backfield carries between Wayne Gallman, Alfred Morris, Devonta Freeman, and Dion Lewis, all who remain free agents.

Alvin Kamara (RB7) -- Kamara's tepid outlook without Drew Brees remains the elephant in the room after the former's pitiful 14% target share in Taysom Hill's four starts. Kamara also handled just 53.7% of New Orleans' backfield carries in that stead.

Tier Two

Jonathan Taylor (RB8) -- Entrusted over Nyheim Hines for an average 20 carries and 22 touches across Indianapolis' last six regular season tilts, including 30 carries in the team's must-win Week 17 matchup.

Austin Ekeler (RB9) -- 18.3 touches per game and a 19.2% target share in eight full appearances alongside Justin Herbert. Free agent gem Corey Linsley graded as Pro Football Focus' No. 1 run-blocking center last year.

Cam Akers (RB10) -- Akers actually opened the year as Los Angeles' starter but suffered a drastic rib injury in Week 2, fought through for 201 yards and zero touchdowns through his first eight games, then was handed the reins for 141/645/4, 20.1 carries per game, and 5.2 yards per touch across his last seven performances. Malcolm Bown's departure vacates the third-down role necessary for Akers to emerge as a top-five option.

Joe Mixon (RB11) -- No running back in the league had more touches (140) than Mixon before he suffered a season-ending foot injury in Week 6. Giovani Bernard's rumored release/trade to free $4 million in cap space would guarantee Mixon's workload simply carry over into this year.

Nick Chubb (RB12) -- Out-touched Kareem Hunt 183-119 upon returning from injured reserve from Week 10 on. Chubb's nine targets to Hunt's two in the postseason suggest a higher ceiling for the former than perceived.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB13) -- CEH out-touched Darrel Williams 11-4 in Kansas City's Super Bowl loss — the rookie's second game back from injury — and averaged 17.8 carries and 5.2 targets through Week 6; the corpse of Le'Veon Bell was active from that point forward. With both Damien Williams and Bell out of the picture, the Fresh Prince of Helaire is still logically undervalued since his ceiling includes overthrowing The Mentor for nearly every rep.

Miles Sanders (RB14) -- Finally freed from Doug Pederson's annual committee approach, a career-high in touches per game is suddenly in Sanders' range of outcomes with Nick Sirianni and OC Shane Steichen calling plays. Averaged 5.6 yards per touch in three full starts with Jalen Hurts last year.

Chase Edmonds (RB15) -- Arguably free agency's biggest winner, Edmonds returns to the very same backfield that saw him handle 28-of-30 backfield touches in the lone game Kenyan Drake missed last year. Cardinals also have a league-high 21 carries inside the five-yard line up for grabs following Drake's departure.

Antonio Gibson (RB16) -- Even in having his name called for just 11 third-down touches to J.D. McKissic's 32, Gibson finished 19th among running backs in fantasy points per game (14.4) with 12.1 carries per outing. Any uptick in that aforementioned category this year would see him threaten weekly RB1 territory.

D'Andre Swift (RB17) -- Still the favorite to soak up a majority of Adrian Peterson's vacated team-high in carries (156) following the team's two-year commitment to Jamaal Williams in free agency. Swift's so-called usage "in the slot" with OC Anthony Lynn would be the icing on the cake.

James Robinson (RB18) -- Robinson isn't in the clear just yet since GM Trent Baalke added a running back in all six of his drafts with the 49ers. Having said that, Carlos Hyde's presence isn't scaring (or downgrading) anyone. Reminder Robinson averaged 25.5 touches and 24.8 fantasy points in two games without Chris Thompson, currently a free agent, last year.

Chris Carson (RB19) -- Rashaad Penny, DeeJay Dallas, and Alex Collins are still around to inevitably siphon touches, but the Seahawks intently re-signed Carson (at the behest of Russell Wilson) to presumably hand him the same 71% of backfield touches he received with that group available behind him from Week 15 on.

Najee Harris (RB20) -- 6.4 yards per touch in three consecutive seasons with the Crimson Tide despite a progressive increase in touches (121 < 236 < 295) through his senior year. Only 25 career carries of 20-plus yards negates any hope of plus speed at 6'2/230.

David Montgomery (RB21) -- Averaged 21 touches (including five targets) and 28 routes without Tarik Cohen from Week 4 on, whereas Montgomery only ran 20.7 routes per week with Cohen available. Although the sophomore did post 0.5 more yards after contact per attempt in Chicago's last six games to close the year, his success against Football Outsiders' No. 18, 27, 29, 30, and 24 Rush Defense DVOAs in that stretch can be thrown out the window given Damien Williams' and Cohen's presences.

Tier Three

Travis Etienne (RB22) -- Etienne's 4.45 40-time at 5'10/215 is less than ideal, but his career 102/1,155/8 receiving line, including a nation-high 588 receiving yards at his position in 2020, is proof he's ready to be dispersed in that exact role in Week 1. Per Pro Football Focus' Mike Renner, Etienne's dip in YPA (5.6) last year can easily be pinned on the Tigers' fluctuating o-line, which permitted 1.8 yards before contact compared to 2.8 in 2019 and 3.8 the year prior.

J.K. Dobbins (RB23) -- Best-Ball's most overrated player at this time, fantasy managers continue turning a blind eye to Dobbins' actual situation in sharing reps with Gus Edwards (who is also #good). Both also need touchdowns to make a significant impact since Lamar Jackson ignored their position with the NFL's third- and fourth-fewest targets the past two years.

Raheem Mostert (RB24) -- Kyle Shanahan featured Mostert on 52-of-87 backfield touches in his only three full appearances through October, but Jeff Wilson's emergence in the interim paved the way for a committee in order to keep both healthy. Both can be viable independently since Jerick McKinnon's 46 targets and third-down role could fall to either.

Josh Jacobs (RB25) -- 15th in fantasy points per game at his position last year, Jacobs enters 2021 with a questionable offensive line and the market's highest-paid running back directly behind him. Occasional ceiling performances in game scripts with a lead are best (no pun intended) reserved for Best-Ball scoring rather than weekly lineup decisions.

Kareem Hunt RB (RB26) -- 12.3 fantasy points per game behind Chubb from Week 10 on despite handling 70 fewer touches in that stretch. High weekly floor with proven league-winning usage if Chubb were to miss any time.

Myles Gaskin (RB27) -- Malcolm Brown's one-year deal is proof there's no competition standing between Gaskin's 13.1% target share and the 19.7 touches per game he received in eight appearances from Week 3 on. Note that Gaskin even out-touched Salvon Ahmed 11-3 through the first three quarters of Miami's no-show in the regular season finale before the team killed the clock behind Ahmed in a four-score deficit.

Mike Davis (RB28) -- Could easily exceed last year's career-high marks since Atlanta offers a league-high 301 carries unaccounted for. The fodder listed behind Davis lack leverage since all were signed by the previous regime.

AJ Dillon (RB29) -- The overwhelming favorite to soak up a majority of Jamaal Williams' 119 carries from last year. Any bruising role inside the five-yard line over Jones would also gift Dillon a serviceable weekly floor.

Melvin Gordon (RB30) -- Gordon averaged 20.8 touches in five games sans Phillip Lindsay and 14.3 in 10 surrounding starts. An offseason winner as long as fantasy darling Mike Boone was signed exclusively as insurance.

Leonard Fournette (RB31) -- Lombardi Lenny officially usurped Ronald Jones in the postseason, out-touching the latter 59-35 while seeing 17 targets to Jones' two in their last three appearances together. Even if Jones were to split carries weekly, Fournette remains the superior value for being trusted (and having earned the role) on passing downs.

Kenneth Gainwell (RB32) -- Gainwell's 2020 opt-out can be spun as a negative, but he spent that time tacking on seven extra pounds to his 5'11/201 frame, finishing with 21 bench reps and a 4.42 40 at Memphis' pro day. Proven receiving chops from both the backfield and slot provide Gainwell with multiple paths to play in his rookie year.

Gus Edwards (RB33) -- Edwards is inexplicably being drafted seven rounds later than Dobbins despite practically mirroring the rookie in touches (62-59) across their last five games together, all the while averaging 5.9 yards per touch in that span.

Jeff Wilson (RB34) -- Exploded for 17/112/3 in his first spot-start for Raheem Mostert, earning a 58-49 touch share favoring the latter while both were healthy in Weeks 12-15. No reason to believe that usage for either player alters this year, making Wilson the stronger value between the two since he's being drafted nearly three rounds later.

Ronald Jones (RB35) -- Best-case scenario includes having his name called on early downs over Leonard Fournette's. Worst (and most likely) scenario includes battling for usage with Ke'Shawn Vaughn on the final year of Jones' contract

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Tier Four

Damien Harris (RB36) -- Harris out-carried Sony Michel 27-17 in their only two games together. Still considered the rich man's version of his own teammate since he comically averaged 4.5 routes run in eight starts sans Michel.

Tony Pollard (RB37) -- Pollard's lone top-35 finish last year unsurprisingly occurred in Elliott's first absence for an injury since 2013. The former merely averaged 7.4 touches in 15 other appearances behind Zeke.

Javonte Williams (RB38) -- When adjusted for size (5'9/212), Williams' 4.58 40-speed is atrocious. But his production both on the ground (157/1,140/19) and in the receiving game (25/305/3) during his final year at North Carolina suggests otherwise, finishing with an FBS-high 75 broken tackles while crushing Pro Football Focus' college record for broken tackles per attempt (0.48).

Latavius Murray (RB39) -- Averaged 11.5 touches across Taysom Hill's four starts last year. Proven RB1 any time Kamara's absent.

Nyheim Hines (RB40) -- Still involved for 9.4 touches and 4.2 targets weekly as Taylor's backup across Indianapolis' last five games.

Chuba Hubbard (RB41) -- Stock down after recording a nation-high 328 carries (and 2,292 yards from scrimmage) in 2019 since his performance dipped across the board before calling it quits after seven games with a bum ankle last year. Seven fumbles the past two seasons won't be tolerated at the next level.

Ty Johnson (RB42) -- Delivered 46/194/1 and a 100% catch rate (on 10 targets) with limited opportunities across New York's last five games. Johnson remains untapped since he's only played under Matt Patricia and Adam Gase to date.

Michael Carter (RB43) -- A favorite among coaches at this year's Senior Bowl, Carter (5'9/199) piled up 1,500 yards from scrimmage and 11 touchdowns despite sharing a backfield with Javonte Williams last year. Excelled in the shuttle (3.98s) and three-cone (6.87s) drills at UNC's pro day.

Trey Sermon (RB44) -- Provided size (6'1/215) and efficiency (7.5 YPC) as a late-season bell-cow with the Buckeyes last year, breaking 24 tackles on 60 carries for 524 rushing yards between the Big Ten title game and playoff semifinal. Potential three-down option in the league if his elusiveness during his first three seasons with the Sooners transitions beyond the collegiate level.

J.D. McKissic (RB45) -- League-high 110 targets among running backs as Washington's version of James White in negative game scripts. Cemented third-down role at the very least offers sprinkled spiked weeks among this tier.

Devin Singletary (RB46) -- Singletary was available for all 19 of Buffalo's games last year and still only averaged 11.4 touches per contest. Gets the (pointless) nod over Zack Moss since the former at least averaged six more routes per contest.

Zack Moss (RB47) -- Interchangeable with Singletary pending your own read of the situation.

Mike Boone (RB48) -- The late-round steal of 2021 drafts if Boone was signed to split touches a la Phillip Lindsay with Gordon throughout the year. 17/148/1 in his lone career start for Dalvin Cook.

Rashaad Penny (RB49) -- Only one year removed from averaging 8.0 touches in nine appearances behind Carson. You could do worse than securing the No. 2 back in a predictable run-heavy offense in this stage of drafts.

Tier Five

Alexander Mattison (RB50) -- Averaged 19.3 touches in the three games Cook was either limited or absent for and 5.6 in nine other appearances. An 'if-then' player if there ever was one.

Darrell Henderson (RB51) -- 107/485/4 and 4.5 YPC from Weeks 2-11 until Akers earned the job in Week 12.

Benny Snell (RB52) -- All signs point to Pittsburgh adding Najee Harris in the first round. Snell would default as the team's starter if that proves to be farce.

Kenyan Drake (RB53) -- Perhaps there's value here if Josh Jacobs misses time or chooses to play through injury, both of which he's done the past two seasons. Until then, Drake should merely be viewed as someone who has yet to separate from any committee he's been a part of the past five years.

David Johnson (RB54) -- You're better than this.

Boston Scott (RB55) -- Beneficiary of any outstanding timeshare under the new regime.

James Conner (RB56) -- Either Conner gives up on the market and potentially returns to Pittsburgh ahead of Benny Snell or signs a one-year deal elsewhere for the stone minimum and drops out of Tiers altogether. There is no in between.

Salvon Ahmed (RB57) -- Averaged 21 touches in the only three games he played without Gaskin last year.

Damien Williams (RB58) -- Now 29 and having never handled 145 touches in a single season, Williams' value obviously evaporated the moment he became untied from Patrick Mahomes. Could still have value behind David Montgomery in the first month if Tarik Cohen is brought along slowly.

Duke Johnson (RB59) -- Direct path to a receiving role wherever he hands since NFL coaches have already pigeonholed Johnson with a singular skillset.

Tevin Coleman (RB60) -- The only back among New York's group who's already familiar with OC Mike LaFleur's scheme.