RB Tier 1 - Difference-making RB1s
2 - Dalvin Cook
3 - Ezekiel Elliott
4 - Derrick Henry
5 - Alvin Kamara
If you get one of these players on your team, you’ve locked in the golden goose of fantasy football: A running back with the potential to single-handily swing the field in your favor.
Ezekiel Elliott is a guy I thought I’d have in Tier 2 and be all-out on in 2021 — but I’ve seen the light. He has everything you want from a top-flight fantasy RB1. A proven workhorse portfolio, he plays on an offense we all expect to be one of the most prolific in the sport, has access to pass-catching work, and is good at the game. It doesn’t get much better than that. All of the “best shape of his life” talk out of camp is just the icing on the cake.
I’m now closer to moving him up to No. 2 rather than dropping him to the second tier.
Alvin Kamara has the most warts in this group simply because there are so many questions on the Saints' offense. Nevertheless, Sean Payton’s presence should keep the scoring unit from bottoming out, protecting Kamara's upside. The fact he could legitimately see 120-plus targets saves his floor.
RB Tier 2 - First-rounders
6 - Saquon Barkley
7 - Nick Chubb
8 - Aaron Jones
9 - Austin Ekeler
10 - Jonathan Taylor
As you can guess by the tier name, this is a group backs that I’m comfortable taking in Round 1, even if they lack the ceiling projection of Tier 1 stars.
As long as the news about Saquon Barkley’s early-season playing time and recovery from his 2020 injury stays on the positive path it took this past week, he’ll get bumped up to Tier 1. He has that kind of outlook. Just playing it a little cautious for now.
Austin Ekeler maintained a 100-plus target pace last season and could approach Alvin Kamara-levels of receiving prolificness this year. In addition to that pass-catching work, he’s tethered to an ascending young star at quarterback. If Ekeler can stay healthy he’s a lock top-10 back.
Should he get a few more opportunities inside the 10-yard line, he could push for a top-five finish.
Jonathan Taylor is the hardest one to stomach in this tier. He already had a bit of a troubling receiving profile given that Nyheim Hines remains a big part of the offense. Now the Colts quarterback and offensive line injury situation throw a huge wrench in the equation. He’s still an excellent talent on a run-first offense and players like Carson Wentz and Quenton Nelson should be back at some point, perhaps sooner than later. So I kept him in Tier 2 but pushed him to the bottom.
RB Tier 3 - A few questions but desirable RB1 candidates
11 - Antonio Gibson
12 - Joe Mixon
14 - Najee Harris
I really want to place Antonio Gibson in Tier 2. The Washington offense is just so tantalizing and Gibson flashed excellent early-down ability in a touchdown-laden rookie season. He just needs more receiving work to reach the heights of the consensus first-rounders. The fact that JD McKissic is still on the team gives me pause in projecting he’ll own that role. Nevertheless, he’s my smash pick every time in Round 2.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire ended up being a letdown in fantasy last year after the Chiefs signed Le’Veon Bell — which no one could have seen coming. Things could be different this year. There’s a chance he’s the answer to who will fill in the target gaps behind Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.
RB Tier 4 - Solid RB2s
15 - David Montgomery
16 - Chris Carson
17 - Darrell Henderson
18 - J.K. Dobbins
People that are fading David Montgomery this year make no sense to me. “Don’t draft him because he won’t finish as high as he did last year,” they say. No kidding. That’s why he goes off the board in Round 4 and is not ranked at RB4 overall like he was to end 2020. All of the risk is baked into his ADP and frankly, the longer Tarik Cohen remains on the shelf, the less the risk Montgomery doesn’t get enough receiving work even exists.
Darrell Henderson belongs in this group at a bare minimum. We all still expect the Rams offense to be one of the better units in the league and were top-five in rushing success rate last year. Everything out of Los Angeles points to the team treating Henderson as their clear-cut RB1 after the Cam Akers injury. Don’t hold onto your priors here.
RB Tier 5 - Low-ceiling RB2s
19 - D'Andre Swift
20 - Miles Sanders
21 - Josh Jacobs
22 - Mike Davis
23 - Myles Gaskin
All of these players project for decent volume but they either have troublingly light resumes or a teammate who could throw the equation out of whack.
D’Andre Swift looks destined to lose some work to free-agent signee Jamaal Williams. Even if Swift remains an electric runner in spurts and holds onto a receiving role, that’s tough living while playing in what could be the NFL’s worst offense.
Josh Jacobs is one of the more interesting players, to me, in this tier. He’s been a fine rusher to this point in his career, but fantasy managers are just all-out given his lack of targets. It's understandable but that’s why he’s appropriately ranked as a guy with no ceiling. He can still return value given the Raiders run-first approach.
RB Tier 6 - Significant workload questions
24 - Kareem Hunt
25 - Trey Sermon
26 - Damien Harris
27 - Travis Etienne
You know the deal with Kareem Hunt. The equation is basically identical to last year. Travis Etienne is much more of an unknown. There’s a receiving workload apparently laid out for him but James Robinson is still in line to get plenty of rushing duties. Etienne is one of the more difficult players to project and rank at the position.
Trey Sermon and Damien Harris are a bit above consensus rankings here and that’s meant to highlight my enthusiasm for them.
If Sermon snags the 1A role in this 49ers backfield he has a direct path to a high-end RB2 ceiling. Raheem Mostert and a gaggle of others will mix in but that risk is mostly baked into ADP. The upside of Sermon taking over this backfield while Trey Lance kicks the offense into a new gear makes him a perfect mid-round flier if you’re strong at wide receiver and looking to gamble big at running back.
Harris just doesn’t have as much competition for touches as you think. He looks locked into the early down rusher spot and has a better profile as a receiver than previous Patriot bangers like LeGarrette Blount, Sony Michel, etc., after averaging 9.3 yards per catch his final collegiate season.
He’s plain underrated either way but if/when Mac Jones starts, he’ll have access to more goal-line work.
RB Tier 7 - Could exceed expectations
28 - Javonte Williams
29 - Chase Edmonds
30 - Michael Carter
31 - David Johnson
The backs here need a few breaks to hit. Javonte Williams and Chase Edmonds are being drafted as if they’ve already leapt ahead of Melvin Gordon and James Conner. That's more likely for Edmonds. Williams might take some time to earn that spot as all indications out of camp are that Gordon remains the RB1 in Denver. Perhaps he’s a better mid-year target than a draft pick.
Michael Carter looks to have the Jets’ top running back spot firmly in his sights. The same is true for David Johnson. Both play in offenses with significant questions but could get by on volume alone.
RB Tier 8 - Late-round usability
32 - A.J. Dillon
33 - James Robinson
34 - Leonard Fournette
35 - Gus Edwards
36 - Melvin Gordon
All of these players are going to give you some weeks. They are not “set it and forget it” guys but can get you through a patch.
My favorite players in this range are A.J. Dillon and Gus Edwards, with the former being perhaps my favorite non-wide receiver pick in fantasy this year. Folks forget that Jamaal Williams left behind a legitimate role in Green Bay, as he averaged about 10 touches per game each of the last three years. If Dillon walks into that spot (as we can safely project) he has a path to “what the heck FLEX” value. And of course, we know the massive upside still exists if Aaron Jones were to miss time and Dillon takes over as the RB1 for an Aaron Rodgers offense. The same equation exists for Edwards, just to a lighter degree in Baltimore.
RB Tier 9 - Significant roles for their teams, but need a break (or three) for fantasy
37 - Zack Moss
38 - Nyheim Hines
39 - Jamaal Williams
40 - James Conner
41 - Kenyan Drake
42 - Devin Singletary
43 - Ronald Jones
44 - Latavius Murray
45 - Raheem Mostert
46 - Malcolm Brown
It would be nice to get a lean on which Bills’ running back is truly going to leapfrog the other. Zack Moss is apparently having a good camp but we’d need his deployment to alter for him to truly leave Devin Singletary behind.
Jamaal Williams, James Conner, and Ronald Jones are likely to have critical early-down roles for their team. So you can take them and try to play the game-script guessing game but they will lose out on the “money touches” to other backs on their squad.
Latavius Murray could play a bigger role than I’m projecting here if Taysom Hill starts the majority of the games. Given their issues at wide receiver the Saints could go more run-heavy than ever. Malcolm Brown is a coach’s catnip kind of back because he’s ultra-reliable. Why can’t he eat into Myles Gaskin’s workload?
RB Tier 10 - High ceiling backups that you can’t start
47 - Tony Pollard
48 - Alexander Mattison
49 - Joshua Kelly
50 - Darrel Williams
You know the drill. If you’re drafting these players it’s because there is a path to a starting fantasy back ceiling if the RB1 on the depth chart gets hurt. Unlike Dillon or Edwards from a few tiers early, they don’t have any weekly usability. The Tony Pollard fear is more of a manufactured hysteria on fantasy twitter than a reflection of reality. The Cowboys have never, not once, shown any inclination to cede Elliott’s work to Pollard when the former is healthy.
RB Tier 11 - Useful veterans
51 - Giovani Bernard
52 - James White
54 - JD McKissic
55 - Tevin Coleman
Giovani Bernard is usually on my late-round radar. Obviously, there is a role for him to land a receiver. However, Bernard has always been an underrated rusher and could conceivably usurp one of Fournette or Jones in the early-down pecking order. It’s unlikely but getting any exposure to this Bucs offense is a good idea and Bernard is going almost undrafted.
RB Tier 12 - Deep fliers
56 - Phillip Lindsay
57 - Devontae Booker
58 - Chuba Hubbard
59 - Qadree Ollison
60 - Darrynton Evans
61 - Samaje Perine
62 - Carlos Hyde
63 - Xavier Jones
64 - Rhamondre Stevens
65 - Boston Scott
What we have here is a collection of backup running backs who would have some solid value if a starter went down. Take them in the final few rounds of a best-ball draft if upside is all you care about.
For roster-management seasonal leagues, they’ll be hot names off the waiver wire in the event of an injury. It’s good to learn these names now, rather than play catchup in October.