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By Justin Edwards, 4for4
Special to Yahoo Sports
Workhorse running backs are few and far between in today’s NFL, and the obvious ones are pretty easy to peg. Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, and Ezekiel Elliott all accounted for at least 68% of their backfield’s touches in 2020 and figure to keep that sort of usage in 2021. Healthy seasons from Christian McCaffrey and/or Joe Mixon are sure to swell the ranks of that elite-usage tier. Other backs like Jonathan Taylor, Aaron Jones, and Austin Ekeler are all but guaranteed to handle a majority of their respective teams’ running back touches, and that’s also why they’re all going in the first round of most fantasy drafts.
What we’re doing here today is looking for candidates who could either come out of nowhere and earn that sort of usage or give us fantasy production in other, more niche ways like catching the ball out of the backfield or converting ample goal-line opportunities. First, we’ll take a look back at some running backs who delivered a 2020 break out in some form, and then, some potential breakouts in the middle-to-late rounds of 2021 summer drafts.
A Look Back at 2020
An undrafted free-agent rookie, injury beneficiaries, and a surprising receiver-turned-running back top the list of 2020 breakouts. Most of the players listed below were part of ambiguous backfields, and give us at least one criteria of what to look for in future candidates.
James Robinson was the clear 2020 running back breakout, but sadly, it was nearly impossible to predict as late as August of last summer. It took the release of Leonard Fournette and Devine Ozigbo landing on the IR for the undrafted Robinson to shine, but shine he did. He handled a whopping 77.9% of his backfield’s touches (third-highest mark of 2020) and proved why it is so important to keep up with player news, especially the closer it gets to the regular season.
David Montgomery was already pegged for a majority workload ahead of his sophomore season but his touch share skyrocketed after Tarik Cohen tore his ACL in Week 3. There were a lot of Montgomery detractors due to Chicago’s easy schedule down the stretch, but his league-leading 88.5% backfield touch share is nearly unheard of in the modern NFL.
Myles Gaskin and much of the rest of the list should be a breath of fresh air when trying to project what kind of player we can look towards to capitalize on in the upcoming season. Gaskin didn’t “luck out” with an injury ahead of him; he was simply in an ambiguous backfield and was coming out of drafts very, very cheaply (or freely).
The bottom two running backs in the chart represent the validity of selecting specialists in fantasy football. It’s not always exciting, but selecting a grinder in Ronald Jones or a pass-catcher in Nyheim Hines has its perks when they outpace their average draft position by 15-20 positional spots.
2021 Breakout Candidates
Let’s apply some of those scenarios to try to find some fantasy gold in the middle-to-late rounds of your upcoming — or ongoing — drafts. Some of the frameworks from above will of course be repeated in our coming season, and it’s also important to keep the most predictable running back stats in the back of our minds as well.
Zack Moss, Bills
Reason for breakout: Backfield ambiguity
Moss and teammate Devin Singletary carry the rare insignia of being involved in a top-five offense, and even though the fantasy community as a whole agrees Buffalo will be that good, we seem to not want any piece of the backfield. The issues are prominent and permissible — beginning with quarterback Josh Allen’s 11 carries from within the five-yard line and nine rushing touchdowns last season — but the possible upside here is mouth-watering. In offensive coordinator Brian Daboll’s third season calling plays for the Bills, the team had a neutral pass rate of 62.2% (fifth-highest in the NFL), and though it was celebrated by us fantasy players, it was a far cry from 2019 (57.1%, 24th) and 2018 (49.3%, 31st). Any regression to those numbers, less Josh Allen goal-line work, or both, could make for a second-year break out for Zack Moss.
Jamaal Williams, Lions
Reason for breakout: Guaranteed workload
Jamaal Williams is going to slide into an immediate role with Detroit — who signed him to a two-year contract for up to $7.5 million — splitting time with D’Andre Swift, who is currently going nearly 110 spots before him. Usage in all facets of the game will come in chunks with the departures of Kerryon Johnson and Adrian Peterson freeing up 239 running back touches from last season. This is all before even taking into account offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn referring to Williams as his “A” back and emphasizing how much he wants to use him in the passing game. Williams spent years playing second-fiddle to Aaron Jones in Green Bay, but this could be the year his workload really ratchets up.
Michael Carter, Jets
Reason for breakout: Backfield/offense ambiguity
It’s not only difficult to know exactly how the New York Jets running back depth chart is going to shake out by the season's beginning, but with a new coaching staff and a rookie quarterback, it’s also a mystery pegging down how the offense as a whole is going to look when it’s rolled out. As such, even though Michael Carter is projected for the lion’s share of touches, he’s still all the way down draft boards, coming in as the 37th running back in Yahoo ADP.
Carter has a floor built into his rookie campaign with his receiving work, and he gets to operate behind a young, ascending offensive line spearheaded by second-year behemoth Mekhi Becton and first-round 2021 selection Alijah Vera-Tucker. Head coach Robert Salah is a former defensive coordinator, and Jets offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur was involved in the 49ers offense that finished 11th, fifth, and 11th over the previous three seasons in neutral game script rushing rate. Tevin Coleman is worth thinking about in the last couple of rounds of drafts as well.
Phillip Lindsay, Texans
Reason for breakout: Backfield ambiguity/touchdown regression
There is a very good chance that the Houston offense is a crap show, particularly if Deshaun Watson doesn’t play for them in 2021, which seems the likeliest scenario. With the recent departure of Randall Cobb, the wide receiver depth chart behind Brandin Cooks is made up of Keke Coutee, Anthony Miller, Nico Collins, and Andre Roberts. Not necessarily a who’s-who. The running back room is made up of veteran cast-offs who have been losing a step since 2019, and Phillip Lindsay. Lindsay had the unluckiest touchdown rate amongst the 60 running backs who had at least 80 carries (five per game) in 2020, finding the end zone only once on 118 rushes (0.85% TD rate). With some regression to the mean there and a chance to flash his explosiveness, he could way outkick his current ADP as the 53rd running back off the board.
Justin has been playing fantasy sports since he booted up a Sandbox Fantasy Football league on his Gateway computer in Middle School. After nearly two decades in the restaurant industry, he's focusing his attention on making a living inside of the sports industry.
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