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The Grueling Truth - Where Legends Speak / Fantasy football 2021 rankings: Top 70 running backs

Fantasy football 2021 rankings: Top 70 running backs

This year's best fantasy backs
Publish Date: 05/27/2021
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster

The NFL Draft was the final consistent bit of pro football content until the preseason, unless you count the ongoing Julio Jones and Aaron Rodgers sagas. With the offseason in full swing, fantasy football is becoming an increasingly popular topic. Today, we’ll rank the 70 best running backs ahead of the 2021 fantasy season.

I’ve broken the league’s 70 best fantasy running backs into eight tiers. These rankings are for standard leagues, but they offer some insight for points per reception (PPR) leagues too. I’ll create articles specifically covering PPR leagues in the future. While you wait for those, check out the top 100 wide receivers for the 2021 fantasy football season.

I’ll continue consistently releasing fantasy rankings throughout the spring and summer. Check my profile for all of the other articles.


Tier 1: Elite Fantasy Options

1. Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers

2. Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

3. Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

4. Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

Injuries are a significant concern for this year’s top running backs. McCaffrey was unstoppable in 2019, leading all standard league backs by roughly 70 points. However, the soon-to-be 25-year-old only appeared in three games last year. Cook has an extensive injury history. He’s missed 21 games in his first four seasons.

Henry has only missed two games in his career, but the 2,000-yard rusher is amassing touches at a historic rate. Maybe Henry’s freakish build makes him impervious to the beatings other backs suffer, but there’s also a chance all of that damage is accumulating. Kamara hasn’t missed many games either, but his quarterback situation is questionable.

Tier 2: First-Round Fantasy Options

5. Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

6. Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts

7. Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

8. Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

9. Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

Jones’ situation relies heavily on if Rodgers suits up for Green Bay in 2021. The former fifth-round pick enjoyed elite production with the Hall of Fame quarterback over the past two years. Jones ranked third among all running backs in fantasy points in 2019 and fifth this past season.

Chubb and Taylor run behind two of the best offensive lines in the NFL. They are both electric college stars turned 1,000-yard rushers. Even with Marlon Mack returning, Taylor should get close to 250 carries in Indianapolis. Chubb should see a similar workload in Cleveland if he stays healthy.

This is the last year I’ll give Barkley and Elliott the benefit of the doubt. If neither former Pro Bowler bounces back, I’ll remove them from the elite running back conversation. Barkley suffered a torn ACL last year. The Penn St. phenom finished second and tenth in fantasy points among running backs during his first two seasons.

Elliott battled poor offensive line and quarterback play last year. While he got Dak Prescott back, the 25-year-old hasn’t seen the offensive line situation improve much. Elliott finished 11th among backs in standard league points last season. It was his first time not finishing in the top ten.

Tier 3: Second-Round Fantasy Options

10. Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders

11. Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers

12. J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens

13. Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team

14. Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals

15. Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers*

16. Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles

17. Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams

18. Chris Carson, Seattle Seahawks

Jacobs produced roughly 1,300 yards from scrimmage in each of his first two seasons in the NFL. Kenyan Drake’s arrival shouldn’t change that. Sanders, Jacobs’ 2019 draft mate, had a disappointing second season after a stellar rookie showing. Quarterback play and coaching could limit the 24-year-old’s production this year too.

Ekeler missed six games last year, but he was the seventh-highest scoring fantasy back in 2019. He and Mixon should rebound well after missing significant time. Mixon had over 1,400 yards from scrimmage in 2018 and 2019.

Akers, Dobbins, and Gibson are second-year runners stepping into prominent roles. Dobbins was already a top-20 back as a rookie, despite only getting 152 touches. Similarly, Gibson finished 14th in points at the position on 206 touches. Akers has the largest leap to make in 2021, but he looked promising when healthy.

Carson and Harris are interesting cases. Carson has an injury history and runs behind a bad offensive line, but the Seahawks recently gave him a two-year contract. Despite missing four games and struggling throughout the season, Carson still finished 16th in scoring among runners last year. It was his lowest rank since becoming a full-time starter.

Harris is a dynamic rookie that should see plenty of action in the passing game. He just won’t have many running lanes because Pittsburgh’s offensive line isn’t in good shape. Luckily, Harris should see a significant enough volume of touches to finish as a top 15 fantasy running back.

Tier 4: Legitimate RB2 Fantasy Options

19. David Montgomery, Chicago Bears

20. Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns

21. D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions

22. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs

23. Myles Gaskin, Miami Dolphins

24. Melvin Gordon III, Denver Broncos 

Montgomery experienced a breakout campaign during his second year. He finished sixth at his position in fantasy points, while Hunt authored his third top ten finish in four seasons. Expect Hunt and Montgomery to see fewer snaps as Chubb and Tarik Cohen return to full strength.

Edwards-Helaire could compete for a top ten spot in fantasy if he played on a team more focused on running the football. He’s still a terrific RB2 with the potential to perform as an RB1 on any given week. Gordon posted his fourth career top 15 finish last season, but Javonte Williams could take significant snaps away from the former Pro Bowler.

Gaskin and Swift are challenging options to evaluate. Gaskin was terrific in college, and, in the absence of a better running back, he amassed 972 yards from scrimmage in ten games last season. Miami didn’t add a starting running back this offseason, which means it’s full steam ahead for Gaskin.

Swift had a disappointing rookie season by most standards, but he still finished 20th in fantasy points among running backs. Analysts expect significant growth in 2021. Swift only falls outside of the top 20 here because of injured running backs returning to the rankings.

Tier 5: Flex or RB3 Options

25. Raheem Mostert, San Francisco 49ers

26. Mike Davis, Atlanta Falcons

27. Ronald Jones II, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

28. Damien Harris, New England Patriots

29. James Conner, Arizona Cardinals

30. Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars*

31. Gus Edwards, Baltimore Ravens

32. Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos*

33. Jamaal Williams, Detroit Lions

34. Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals

35. Trey Sermon, San Francisco 49ers*

Fantasy options begin falling off after the top 24 spots. While plenty of Tier 5 backs can still score ten or more points any given week, they’re inconsistent. We’re not even sure how many touches or what roles some of these options will receive. Team owners should hesitate before investing high draft picks into these players.

Mostert was a top 20 running back in 2019, but injuries limited him to eight games last year. San Francisco has one of the deepest backfields in the NFL, which might restrict Mostert’s touches. Likewise, it’s impossible to know how many carries New England will give Harris this year. The Alabama product was good in 2021, but that doesn’t mean anything to Bill Belichick.

Davis has a fighting chance of becoming Atlanta’s starter. The journeyman back finished 18th in fantasy points last year. Jones, who finished 15th in 2020, should fend off Giovani Bernard and Leonard Fournette for his starting job.

While Etienne could win Jacksonville’s starting job and Arizona’s starter comes down to Conner or Edmonds, every other back not already mentioned in Tier 5 is a high-volume backup. Edwards is the steadiest of the group. He’s finished among the top 45 backs in fantasy scoring since entering the NFL, rushing for between 710 and 725 yards each year.

Sermon and both Williams should enter this season as backups. While Javonte and Sermon might eventually take over as starters, Jamaal won’t jump Swift.

Tier 6: Risky RB3 Options

36. Latavius Murray, New Orleans Saints

37. David Johnson, Houston Texans

38. Leonard Fournette, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

39. Devin Singletary, Buffalo Bills

40. Phillip Lindsay, Houston Texans

41. James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars

42. Zack Moss, Buffalo Bills

43. Tevin Coleman, New York Jets

44. Kenyan Drake, Las Vegas Raiders

45. Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears

46. Sony Michel, New England Patriots

Murray is the ideal backup NFL running back, but he can still do damage in fantasy. The former Pro Bowler hasn’t finished below 32nd in fantasy points among backs since his rookie season. With a quarterback controversy brewing in New Orleans, Murray might see more touches this year.

In terms of volume, Robinson was the most utilized member of Tier 6 last season. Jacksonville fed the undrafted rookie 289 touches, which led to a ten-touchdown season with over 1,400 yards from scrimmage. Unfortunately for Robinson, the Jaguars changed coaches, and Urban Meyer immediately used a first-rounder on Etienne. Expect Robinson to see significantly fewer carries this year.

Drake had 264 touches with Arizona, but he’s slotted behind Jacobs in Las Vegas. He’ll still see action, but it’ll be in a limited role. The same goes for either Johnson or Lindsay. The former Pro Bowlers are battling for Houston’s starting job. Lindsay, who ran for over 1,000 yards in 2018 and 2019, should have a slight edge.

Fantasy team owners don’t know whether to side with Moss or Singletary in the ongoing debate over who should start at running back for the Bills. Singletary showed more promise as a rookie than Moss did, but the Bills seem determined to feed their second-year running back. Ultimately, Singletary has shown more potential and should see more touches.

Coleman makes Tier 6 because the Jets don’t have many experienced options at running back. He’s one year removed from his fourth consecutive season with at least 500 rushing yards. Coleman could revive his career in New York by receiving a large volume of work in the young backfield.

Cohen missed most of last year, but he averaged roughly seven touches per game before getting injured. In 2019, Cohen recorded 143 touches and finished 44th among runners in fantasy points.

Michel is also looking for a bounce-back season, but Belichick might have other plans. The former first-round pick from Georgia battled injuries and poor play last year. He could lose significant snaps to New England’s revolving door of backfield options.

Tier 7: Ideal Bench Players

47. Tony Pollard, Dallas Cowboys

48. Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams

49. Jerick McKinnon, Kansas City Chiefs

50. Nyheim Hines, Indianapolis Colts

51. Alexander Mattison, Minnesota Vikings

52. Marlon Mack, Indianapolis Colts

53. Giovani Bernard, Tampa Bay Buccaneers

54. Michael Carter, New York Jets*

55. James White, New England Patriots

56. Malcolm Brown, Miami Dolphins

57. Mark Ingram, Houston Texans

58. AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers

Pollard could see more carries in 2021 if Elliott continues struggling. Pollard had 129 touches last year, and the Dallas coaching staff likes him a lot. On the other hand, Henderson is due for a decrease in snaps as Akers takes over. Henderson started 11 games last year, but that’s no longer his role in Los Angeles.

Mack also has to deal with losing his starting job. Taylor is the man going forward in Indianapolis, but Mack won’t lose all relevance. He’s coming off a major injury, but the 25-year-old averaged nearly 1,000 rushing yards between 2018 and 2019. He finished among the top 20 fantasy backs in both of those campaigns.

Bernard, Carter, Hines, McKinnon, and White could play similar roles. They’re all primarily receiving backs that occasionally get touches inside. McKinnon is the most interesting of the group. Despite missing all of 2018 and 2019, he finished 40th in fantasy points last year. He could thrive if used properly in Kansas City’s offense.

Hines is a consistent producer. He’s finished in the top 50 for points every year since entering the NFL. White finished 57th last season, but he ranked in the top 50 for the previous five years.

Brown and Dillon should get touches simply because they’re second on their respective teams’ depth charts. Dillon steps into the void left by Williams, and Brown brings some experience to Miami’s backfield. Ingram is hard to project for because we didn’t see much of him in 2020, and he’s sharing a backfield with two fellow former Pro Bowlers.

Mattison finished 55th and 50th in scoring during his first two NFL seasons. Cook always misses a few games, which opens the door to his backup getting snaps. Mattison has only lost one fumble during his 219 touches as a professional.

Tier 8: Priority Free Agents

59. Rashaad Penny, Seattle Seahawks

60. J.D. McKissic, Washington Football Team

61. Boston Scott, Philadelphia Eagles

62. Justin Jackson, Los Angeles Chargers

63. Jeffery Wilson, San Francisco 49ers

64. Devontae Booker, New York Giants

65. Salvon Ahmed, Miami Dolphins

66. Benny Snell Jr., Pittsburgh Steelers

67. La’Mical Perine, New York Jets

68. Kenneth Gainwell, Philadelphia Eagles*

69. Matt Breida, Buffalo Bills

70. Wayne Gallman, San Francisco 49ers

71. Royce Freeman, Denver Broncos

Injuries and sudden opportunities could make any of these players quick additions during the fantasy season. Wilson has the highest chance of turning into a full-time starter in your lineups. He finished 26th in scoring last year, but he’ll miss the start of 2021 with a torn meniscus.

Penny has the next best chance of becoming a significant contributor. The former first-round pick finished 59th and 53rd among backs in scoring during his first two seasons before missing most of 2020.

Of the backs in this section with over 100 touches last year, only McKissic, Scott, and Wilson have good chances of hitting that mark again. Booker, Gallman, and Snell gained significant touches because of injuries last season. Don’t expect them to be as relevant in fantasy football this time around.

Unranked Rookies Watch List

Gerrid Doaks, Miami Dolphins

Chris Evans, Cincinnati Bengals

Khalil Herbert, Chicago Bears

Kylin Hill, Green Bay Packers

Chuba Hubbard, Carolina Panthers

Elijah Mitchell, San Francisco 49ers

Rhamondre Stevenson, New England Patriots

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