Fantasy Football: Where experts go wrong on running back rankings

ECR stands for “Expert Consensus Ranking,” which means the average ranks of many members of the fantasy football industry and is typically similar to ADP (which differs from site-to-site). This will be an ongoing series highlighting some big differences between ECR and my own ranks. Knowing your league’s ADP/scoring remains equally important when drafting, but I rank the following running backs higher than the general fantasy community.

Other overlooked players by position: Quarterback | Wide Receiver | Tight end

Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys (ECR = RB6 vs. DDD = RB3)

While I usually prefer younger backs, Elliott remains in his prime (he just turned 26 last week) and is in the right situation to be a top-three pick. His ceiling isn’t as high as Christian McCaffrey’s or Dalvin Cook’s, but his floor is inarguably higher. And even if Elliott isn’t a real life top-five running back, he’ll be treated as a rare true workhorse while in the league’s fastest system; the Cowboys averaged the most combined plays last season and will now be getting Dak Prescott and both starting tackles back from injuries.

Elliott trained harder than ever during the offseason coming off a down year that saw some call for more Tony Pollard, and it resulted in a shredded version showing up for OTAs. While “best shape of life” stories can prove meaningless, other times an improvement in nutrition results in something like Vladimir Guerrero Jr. quickly transforming into MLB’s best hitter by a mile.

The Cowboys enter with one of PFF’s top graded offensive lines, while Prescott was on pace to shatter the NFL record for passing yards before going down last season in an offense that now gets Blake Jarwin back and CeeDee Lamb entering Year Two. In the five games Prescott played, Elliott totaled 537 yards with six touchdowns despite facing three top-eight fantasy run defenses. Elliott also saw 32 targets and a whopping 14 carries inside the five-yard line (he’s due for major TD regression) over that five-game span. While Elliott led the league in RB pass snaps last season, Pollard struggled as a complete afterthought.

Zeke is about to eat this year.

Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers (ECR = RB13 vs. DDD = RB7)

There’s something to a running back proving he can withstand a full workload at the NFL level, so I get why some may shy from taking a rookie in the first round of a fantasy draft. But Harris is worth the risk as one of only a handful of backs projected to approach 300+ touches. The Steelers have questions at offensive line and quarterback, although Ben Roethlisberger reportedly worked hard during the offseason after a down 2020 coming off elbow surgery. It also can’t hurt if Roethlisberger stops his pre-snap tell signaling to defenses whether a run or pass was coming. A new offensive coordinator (Pittsburgh ran the fewest play action of any team last year) and real weapons at wideout should also help.

Harris scored 50 touchdowns over the last two seasons in an Alabama backfield that usually splits work, and the rookie has as little competition for touches as any back in football. With the Steelers projected to have one of fantasy’s friendliest RB schedules, Harris is immediately a top-10 player on my board.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs (ECR = RB14 vs. DDD = RB9)

CEH is coming off a lackluster rookie campaign, although he was on pace for nearly 1,350 yards from scrimmage with the fourth-most touches before KC made the ill-advised move to add Le’Veon Bell mid-season. Damien Williams (and Bell) didn’t come back, and Edwards-Helaire should stay on the field during more third downs in 2021 as his pass protection improves with more experience (he was a terrific receiver at LSU).

The Chiefs have a rebuilt, much-improved offensive line, the NFL’s best player at quarterback and an offensive-minded head coach who’s routinely produced top-five fantasy backs in the past. Edwards-Helaire’s ADP has rightfully been moving up throughout this summer.

Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars (ECR = RB25 vs. DDD = RB17)

Etienne lands in the “RB dead zone” and isn’t without risk as a rookie on a team that just went 1-15 and already has a back who totaled 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns over 14 games last year. Let's not forget the huge wild card Etienne has at head coach. But there’s also plenty to like here if things break right, including a Jaguars team that's actually much better than last year’s record indicates, with a nice WR group and a possible generational talent taking over at quarterback. Trevor Lawrence shared the Clemson backfield with Etienne, a four-star recruit who put up video game like numbers in college including major work as a receiver.

Etienne is 5-10, 215 lbs and a legit prospect whom the team spent first-round draft capital on, with a possible star as his QB. James Robinson was an undrafted free agent who runs a 4.7 40 (he was 48th in breakaway run rate) and has zero ties to the new coaching staff, although admittedly Urban Meyer does have ties to newcomer Carlos Hyde. Still, Etienne doesn’t have any more risk than all the other backs going around his ADP, and few in that range possess the rookie’s sky-high fantasy upside.

AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers (ECR = RB40 vs. DDD = RB30)

Dillon is 6-0, 250 lbs with Speed and Burst Scores in the 97th percentile; we’re looking at a young Derrick Henry here. Jamaal Williams and his 10.7 touches per game last year left for Detroit, making Dillon a viable flex option. Aaron Jones is one of the best backs in football, but Green Bay doesn’t treat him as a workhorse and he’s still missed multiple games in three of his four seasons in the NFL. It remains to be seen if Dillon makes big improvements as a receiver, but with Aaron Rodgers now looking certain to return to Green Bay in 2021, Dillon would quickly become a “league winner” should Jones go down.

Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings (ECR = RB51 vs. DDD = RB37)

Mattison isn’t nearly as good as Dalvin Cook and flopped badly during a Week 6 spot start at home against the Falcons last season, burning so many DFS players his ECR sits outside the top-50 backs. But the Vikings were down 20-0 at halftime in that game, and when you count all the games Mattison played while Cook was sidelined, he averaged 103.7 yards from scrimmage and scored two touchdowns over 2.5 games. Mattison also had a breakaway run rate that was the fourth-best in football last year. While it will take an injury for him to be usable in fantasy leagues, Cook has chronic shoulder problems, has missed multiple games during each of his four seasons (averaging 5.3 DNPs) and was worked hard in 2020 while averaging the most touches per game in the NFL.

The Vikings are a terrific spot for a lead back as a run-heavy team that got the fourth-most yards per play last season and projects to have a much better defense in 2021 with Danielle Hunter's return. Minnesota’s backfield also got thinner with Mike Boone leaving. Mattison immediately becomes a borderline fantasy RB1 if given the starting job.

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