Best Ball Tiers: Running Backs

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Best Ball Tiers: Running Backs

Note: If you haven’t already, go back and read the introduction in the QB Tiers article. In there, you’ll find a top-to-bottom breakdown of roster construction and an RB strategy that will change the way that you think about drafts. SuperHero RB for the win.

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Even though 2020 was a down year for running backs, drafters aren’t scared. At all. The first round is usually filled with at least 7 RBs and sometimes as many as 9. After that, another 6-7 backs go in the second, followed by 5-6 more in the third. The RB market cools off considerably after Round 4, but there is a slew of potential gutters and strikes littered throughout that range.

Let’s get right into it and navigate through a very RB-heavy market:

Tier 1

Honestly, CMC should get his own tier. The only reason I’m putting him here is because this is your locked-in top-4 in most drafts. And I didn’t want this to turn into an obnoxious 15 Tier article.

Over the last two years, Christian McCaffrey has averaged 29.4 fantasy points per game and put up 20 or more points in 17-of-19 games. Basically, 20 points is his floor. He gives you such a massive positional edge in terms of scoring that is only paralleled by Travis Kelce.

Let’s put this another way.

McCaffrey has finished as a weekly RB1 (top-12 scorer) in an other-worldly 89% of his games in 19 games in the last two seasons. How does that compare to the field? Well, Alvin Kamara ranks second in RB1 games… at 66%. Dalvin Cook is third (64%) while Derrick Henry is tied for fourth with Saquon Barkley (58%).

What this means is that, prorated over a 16-game fantasy season, McCaffrey will give you 3-4 more top-12 weekly finishes than whoever finishes as the RB2. That’s an unbeatable advantage.

While Dalvin Cook is a distant RB2 to CMC, he’s still locked and loaded as the No. 2 pick on the board. The gap between him, Kamara, and Henry isn’t massive. But there's still a gap.

Cook carries nuclear touchdown upside along with the sturdiest usage by a player not named McCaffrey in fantasy. Last year, Cook’s 25.4 touches per game led all running backs — Henry was second (24.8) — and his 1.7 carries per game inside-the-5 tied for the league lead with Ezekiel Elliott.

I was slightly concerned about Alvin Kamara’s usage with a QB change on the horizon, but all of that was thrown out of the window with Michael Thomas’ latest complication off of a nagging ankle injury. In the eight games that Thomas missed last year, Kamara averaged a whopping 30.9 fantasy points per game on the back of WR1-esque volume. Without Thomas on the field, Kamara saw 8.6 targets per contest and turned that into a 7-catch, 70.3-yard per game receiving line. Not bad! If Taysom Hill gets the starting nod over Jameis Winston, I do think Kamara’s target and touchdown expectation takes a small ding because Hill will look to scramble and not checkdown often. Still, the Saints are going to run their offense with Kamara as the clear No. 1 weapon for as long as Thomas is out.

Derrick Henry deserves every bit of being here in Tier 1 and he’s right there, neck and neck, with Kamara as the No. 3 here. Henry possesses monster upside on a weekly level, but he is just a little more volatile than Cook and Kamara from a scoring perspective because he’s seen just 1.8 targets per game over the last two years. That makes him more game-script dependent.

In fact, in his 38 career starts, Henry has eye-opening splits in Titans wins vs. losses.

Including the postseason, Henry has averaged 24.3 fantasy points per game and a god-mode 140.4 (!!) rushing yards per game in the Titans 24 wins. Meanwhile, in the Titans’ 14 losses, Henry dips to a much more pedestrian 12.2 FPG and 73.6 rushing YPG.

Honestly, this intel is more useful for DFS than best-ball. Those spiked weeks where he goes off for 30 points put you in range of winning your week single-handedly and negate his floor games when he scores “only” 10-14 points. At worst, Henry’s “floor score” won’t kill you and will still be worth a FLEX spot on your roster. In DFS, you play Henry when the Titans are favored to win and fade him when they are underdogs.

ADP range for tier: 1 to 5 overall

Tier 2

ADP range for tier: 5 to 15 overall

Main targets: Elliott and Jones

Avoids: Taylor

Everything went wrong for Dallas last year. Between Dak Prescott’s injury, their depleted offensive line, and Ezekiel Elliott’s nagging injuries — it should come as no surprise that Zeke is coming off his worst season of his career. Zeke’s 15.4 fantasy points per game in 2020 was nearly six points below his career average (21.0) over the four previous years.

The story for Zeke getting back to his old ways is an easy one, though. Dak is back, Tyron Smith, Zack Martin, and La’El Collins are all healthy again, and most of all… Zeke’s role is one of the most valuable in all of fantasy.

Before he landed on the injury report with hamstring/calf tightness in Week 9, Elliott was second (80%) to only Christian McCaffrey (81%) in snap rate among RBs, he got 20 or more touches in 7-of-8 games, and he paced the league in carries inside-the-five (16). While Zeke’s effectiveness was down last year because of all of the factors out of his control — he averaged a career-low 3.95 YPC and 6.4 YPR in Weeks 1-8 — that type of role is gold. Just from a 1,000-foot level view perspective, this Cowboys offense has the potential to lead the league in points per game while an improving defense should lead to better game-scripts. With his bellcow role, Elliott has a legitimate shot to push Kamara, Cook, and Henry as the RB2 in fantasy this season but isn’t being drafted as such.

Saquon Barkley is the most contentious player going in the first round and his ADP dip reflects just that. Back in May, Barkley would usually come off of the board no later than 6-7 overall but he’s slipping into the 10-12 range as drafters continue to fear a slow start. But, should they? Edwin Porras made a phenomenal medical argument for why Barkley shouldn’t fall too far in drafts and why Barkley is in a unique position to return to form quickly off of knee surgery.

Now, whether or not you take Barkley in the middle of the first round comes down to a philosophy question. Davante Adams, Travis Kelce, and Tyreek Hill all offer positional advantages in that 6-10 overall ADP range and I’ve found myself taking them more often than over Barkley. It’s not that I’m out on Barkley, it’s just that Adams and Hill both have 22-25 fantasy points per game at the top end of their range of outcomes while Kelce is the most valuable non-CMC player at the scarcest position in fantasy.

I’ve got Barkley locked at 10 overall in my ranks behind CMC, Cook, Kamara, Henry, Elliott, Adams, Kelce, Jones, and Hill.

Even with the news that Aaron Rodgers is back for 2021, drafters have remained tame on Aaron Jones. In the few days after Rodgers reported to camp, Jones’ ADP on Underdog is just 19.9 overall while he’s an early-second rounder in BB10s (14.4 overall). That’s laughably low.

Over the last two seasons, Jones is the RB5 in fantasy points per game (19.1) but is routinely going outside of the top-8 at the position. The timidness around Jones makes no sense at any level. He’s scored 25 or more fantasy points seven times over his last 30 games, which is essentially the same rate as Alvin Kamara who has seven 25+ pointers in 29 games. That’s right. You’re basically getting the same ceiling scores from Jones in the early/mid second as you get from Kamara in the top-4.

Now with Rodgers back and Jamaal Williams in Detroit, Jones arguably has the best outlook of his career.

Here’s the thing: Williams didn’t get a ton of targets, but he did play a bunch on passing downs. Last year, Williams ran 15.4 routes per game which wasn’t too far behind Jones (18.6). With Williams gone, who is going to take the majority of snaps? Well, A.J. Dillon caught just 21 balls in 35 career games at Boston College and caught a whole 2 passes as a rookie. It would be a shock if Dillon turned into something he’s never been, which leaves Jones in line for a monster high-volume passing down role.

As Scott Barrett has pointed out, targets are worth 2.7 times more fantasy points than carries. A.J. Dillon will get plenty of early-down work and likely steal some goal-line carries, but the uptick Jones will get in the passing game from Williams’ absence will more than make up for it and is going completely unaccounted for in drafts.

Jones is the best value on the board and is the No. 1 player I’m targeting in all of my drafts.

Meanwhile, Jonathan Taylor is one of the trickiest backs to forecast in 2021. On one hand, he’s on the freakish outlier spectrum of Nick Chubb and Derrick Henry and we saw that down the final six games of last year. JT was a league-winner, exploding for 119/741/7 (6.2 YPC) and 24.3 fantasy points per game. That made him the RB3 in this stretch. Looking a little deeper, Taylor’s weekly finishes during his hot streak from Week 11-17 were nothing short of phenomenal: RB12 > RB5 > RB2 > RB15 > RB10 > RB1.

Now, as Scott has pointed out, Taylor did benefit from an easy schedule during his hot streak and we’re dinging David Montgomery for that same reason. There isn’t a discount on Taylor, though. He’s going 6-7 overall on average and, at times, even over Ezekiel Elliott despite the fact JT isn’t a bellcow and the Cowboys offense projects to be much better than the Colts in general.

Because Nyheim Hines is going to continue to play a ton of passing down snaps and limit Taylor’s role as a receiver, JT doesn’t have as many “outs” as backs like Kamara, Barkley, Elliott, or Jones. Those 4-7 targets per game are massive floor boosters and Taylor simply doesn’t have that type of usage in his range of outcomes.

Taylor’s downside is scary low now considering that the Colts will be without Carson Wentz to start the season and could be down the best guard in football Quenton Nelson, too. Taylor is a back that relies on game-script for him to get his carries, and Indy’s opening five games are absolutely brutal: Seahawks, Rams, Titans, Dolphins, and Ravens. There is a very strong chance Taylor gets out of the blocks slowly.

Tier 3

ADP range for tier: 10 to 22 overall

Main targets: Mixon and Gibson

Avoids: Chubb

While JT hardly ever slides to the back half of the first round, that’s exactly where Nick Chubb is going. And honestly, their workloads are fairly similar, but Taylor has one big factor in his favor in that he doesn’t have to split goal-line work.

When he returned from injury in Week 10, Chubb averaged 18.3 touches per game, played on 52% of the Browns' snaps, and handled 56% of the team’s carries over his final 10 contests.

By comparison, Taylor got 22.7 touches per game, had a 60% snap share, and got 59% of Colts’ carries in his final seven games as the starter (including playoffs).

However, unlike Taylor, Chubb has to deal with Kareem Hunt who is pretty damn good in his own right. Hunt (17.1) and Chubb (15.5) split passing down snaps once Chubb returned from that knee injury and the duo evenly split scoring chances as well. Hunt had 9 inside-the-five (red-zone) carries to Chubb’s 8 over the final 10 games.

I got hosed by making this same call last year, but Chubb going at 10 overall is a bit too rich. I just can’t bring myself to click Chubb’s name over Aaron Jones.

Austin Ekeler has been sky-rocketing up draft boards and is now going in the 8-14 range in most drafts. I was hoping to snag a lot of second round Ekeler this year, but that seems like a pipedream at this point. Especially with Cam Akers lost, the market is just bumping up Ekeler and Chubb earlier and earlier. As a group, we are simply much higher on Jones and Taylor than we are Chubb and Ekeler.

The thing is, Ekeler is appropriately priced.

Ekeler was a beast in the eight healthy games he played with Justin Herbert last season as he actually averaged more receiving fantasy points per game (13.0) than Alvin Kamara (12.6). Ekeler’s 18.4 touches per game in Herbert’s starts would have ranked ninth-mos on the season and his 19.0 expected fantasy points (XFP) in these contests would have been fifth among RBs behind Christian McCaffrey (22.6), Dalvin Cook (20.8), Alvin Kamara (19.7), and Joe Mixon (19.7).

Plus, the addition of OC Joe Lombardi might help Ekeler soar to new heights as a receiver. Back in May, The Athletic’s Daniel Popper mentioned that Ekeler is a “perfect fit” in Lombardi’s offense and that the new OC will “have a field day with him, lining him up out wide, in the slot and in the backfield.” It’s worth noting that Joique Bell and Reggie Bush led the Lions backfield in 2014 when Lombardi was OC and combined for the most targets (153) and third-most receptions among RBs (113). However, while Ekeler is a fine PPR back, the biggest concern is his lack of touchdown upside. Last year, Ekeler was not the goal-line back. Over the last six weeks of the season (Weeks 12-17), Ekeler handled just two carries inside of the 5-yard line while Justin Herbert and Kalen Ballage both had 5 goal-line carries. Will the new coaching staff let him score touchdowns? Because that is the last thing we need from Ekeler for him to really hit a big ceiling season.

On the flipside, Antonio Gibson comes into 2021 with double-digit TD potential. As a rookie, Gibson turned his team-leading 13 inside-the-five carries into 7 scores even while their coaching staff gave dusty Peyton Barber seven inside-5 totes. With the early-down and goal-line role on lock, the missing piece for Gibson is ironically getting more involved as a receiver. Good news, though! There has been a steady drumbeat all offseason that Washington and OC Scott Turner are jonesing to unlock Gibson in the passing game and made it a point emphasis back in OTAs/minicamp. That’s huge, because J.D. McKissic out-snapped Gibson by a massive 197 to 22 margin on third downs last season. If Gibson can indeed close the gap and earn a larger role in the passing game, a top-5 finish is well within his range of outcomes. I’ve bumped Gibson up in my ranks all summer long.

There is a sentiment among the Twitter Hive Mind that believes Joe Mixon’s career has been a long line of disappointment and despair. The truth is that while Mixon hasn’t hit the ceiling that we’ve all been waiting for, he’s largely been a high-floor RB2 for most of his career. He hasn’t won leagues for you, but he also hasn’t killed you. Except for last year. That foot injury debacle was the worst.

Since 2018, Mixon has averaged 15.8 fantasy points per game — making him the RB14 just behind Ekeler (16.1). The biggest thing holding Mixon back has been a lack of usage on passing downs, which is finally going to reverse in 2021 with Gio Bernard now down in Tampa. The lack of a consistent receiving role when the Bengals are trailing has led to Mixon being game-script dependent, which is evidenced by his wide splits in wins (23.3 fantasy points per game) vs. losses (13.4 FPG) over the last three years.

However, 2021 sets up to be completely different. We’re getting Bellcow Mixon. Back in June, HC Zac Taylor was adamant that Mixon is going to play way more on passing/third downs. I don’t believe it’s coach-speak, either. The Bengals don’t have anyone on their depth chart who can swallow up snaps like Bernard did. This has to be the year. Mixon is a mid-second round pick across the industry and I’m targeting him and Gibson on a lot of the team’s I take Adams, Kelce, or Hill.

There are no two ways about it: Najee Harris is going to get a monster workload this year. We’re on a five-year streak of a rookie rusher finishing as a RB1 in fantasy and Harris is poised to make it six-straight. The bad news is that Harris is coming off of the board in a very tight range where Aaron Jones, Antonio Gibson, Joe Mixon, DeAndre Hopkins, Calvin Ridley, and Darren Waller are all going. I’m all-in on Jones and absolutely love Ridley, Mixon, Waller, and Gibson in this pocket, so I haven’t ended up drafting Harris too much unfortunately. It’s an efficient price! But, this range is so close. I outlined Harris’ outlook in way more detail in my Yards Created breakdown.

Tier 4

ADP range for tier: 23 to 34 overall

Main targets: CEH and Dobbins

Avoids: Swift and Sanders

All five of these backs have a fairly narrow ADP range, largely in the third-round. Sometimes you can get lucky with Swift, Sanders, or Montgomery falling into the fourth.

Consistently going near the Round 2 / 3 turn, Clyde Edwards-Helaire isn’t coming in at much of a discount on what was an objectively disappointing season. I was all-in on CEH last year, but he certainly didn’t have the league-winning upside I envisioned. He didn’t kill you, though. CEH ranked 25th in fantasy points per game at the position and had a low-end RB2 floor as he finished as the RB32 or better in weekly scoring in 11-of-13 games. He finished as an RB2 or better (top-24) eight times.

The biggest surprise was CEH not having more of a diverse role in the passing game. His 11% target share ranked a mediocre 19th among backs and HC Andy Reid didn’t use him as the mismatch nightmare he was at LSU in the passing game. In fact, 44% of his targets during the regular season were simple flat or screen routes per SIS.

However, that is set to change in 2021. Both Reid and Patrick Mahomes spent this summer trying to implement ways to get CEH the ball more in the passing game and expand his skillset. This mirrors exactly what Washington has been saying about Antonio Gibson all offseason. Behind an improved offensive line and with Sammy Watkins 16% target share vacated, the pathway for CEH to find a low-end RB1 ceiling on the league’s best offense is certainly there.

Back in May after the NFL Draft, D’Andre Swift was the RB12 by ADP and consistently going in the second round. Now, he’s the RB15 and a mid- to late-third round pick. What has changed? Well, nothing, really.

After the team signed Jamaal Williams in free agency in March, we’ve known for months that Swift probably isn’t going to get a bellcow role. Swift falling because of Williams’ role in July isn’t reacting to new information. It’s just the market (correctly) adjusting.

On the positive side of things, Swift finally started to get the role that was expected over his final nine games of the season after the Lions bye. Swift ran 20.7 routes per game from Week 6 on, which would have ranked 11th-most behind all running backs over the full season. And on those routes, Swift produced! His 7.2 receiving fantasy points per game was more than Marshall Faulk (6.9), Le’Veon Bell (6.5), and LaDainian Tomlinson (6.0) had in their rookie seasons.

Swift closed out Week 6-17 as the RB10 with 16.7 fantasy points per game.

On the negative side, the Lions are probably going to stink. Badly. They have a 4.5 win total at DK Sportsbook and only the Texans are lower (4.0). Swift playing on a basement dweller is, by far, my biggest concern for his outlook this year.

Over the last three seasons, just 24% (11-of-45) of the running backs that have finished inside of the top-15 in fantasy points per game were on team’s with five or fewer wins. Four of those seasons were accounted for by Saquon Barkley or Christian McCaffrey and both of those guys are superhumans. In this study, the top-15 is largely comprised of backs on average to above-average teams as the win total over the entire sample is 8.5. In fact, 51% (23-of-45) of the top-15 played on teams that won nine or more games.

So, not only is Swift fighting the odds with his own team, he’s going to have to break the trend while fighting for snaps with “co-starter” Jamaal Williams.

In fact, I have similar concerns with Miles Sanders. The Eagles are tied for the fifth-lowest win total (6.5) and Sanders has significant workload concerns, too. Scrambling quarterbacks like Lamar Jackson typically do not checkdown to their running backs when the play breaks down. Pocket QBs like Tom Brady, Philip Rivers, and Derek Carr do.

Jalen Hurts profiles very similarly to Jackson from a stylistic standpoint and Jackson has targeted his receivers on a league-low 12.9% of his passing attempts over the last three years. Hurts, on his 134 passes last year, wasn’t too far behind. He targeted his backs just 14.9% of the time.

Despite getting a solid role last year, Sanders largely disappointed. He was fourth among all running backs in snaps per game but only managed to finish as the RB20 by fantasy points per game. Yikes. Now, we are expecting Sanders to pay off as a 3rd rounder on a potentially bad team with a quarterback who won’t checkdown often and Kenneth Gainwell breathing down his neck for passing down snaps?

There is no way I’m taking Miles Sanders over potential WR1s like Terry McLaurin, Allen Robinson, Amari Cooper, CeeDee Lamb, Robert Woods, Adam Thielen, and Mike Evans. Same goes for D’Andre Swift.

J.K. Dobbins profiles as the safest back in this range from a projection standpoint. The Ravens are going to kick ass again and Dobbins only has to deal with Gus Edwards mixing in for snaps now. Lamar Jackson will do his usual Lamar things, but there is plenty of volume to go around.

Over the last two years, Ravens RBs have averaged a robust 23.6 carries per game — which projects out to 402 total attempts over the 17-game season. Even if Dobbins gets 55% of those carries, Edwards 35%, and Justice Hill gets the mop up 10%, you’re looking at 220 attempts as Dobbins’ floor.

Contrary to what you might believe, Jackson isn’t all that involved near the goal-line too. Over the past two years, Jackson has handled just 16% of the Ravens carries inside of the 5-yard line. So, that remaining 84% of the goal-line carries are going to split solely between Dobbins and Edwards and, luckily for us, the Ravens are in the red-zone a ton. Since the start of 2019, Baltimore ranks second in plays per game in the red-zone (inside-20) with 15.2.

So, even though he’s sharing with Jackson and Edwards, Dobbins still has enough projectable volume and TD upside to make him a borderline RB1 in the league’s most efficient rushing attack.

Full disclosure: I’ve done a bit of a 180 on David Montgomery over the last few months. I was largely avoiding him in this ADP pocket in favor of the receivers in this range, but have since changed my stance in recent weeks.

Ok, so on the one hand, Montgomery’s 2020 season was a mix of incredible luck and happenstance. It can be summarized by two things: 1) Tarik Cohen missing most of the season and 2) the easiest stretch of opponents during the fantasy playoffs in recent memory.

In Week 1-3 when Cohen was healthy, Montgomery played on just 52% of the Bears snaps (25th among RBs). That wasn’t going to get it done. However, without Cohen from Week 4 on, Montgomery’s snap rate led all RBs at 80%. Montgomery parlayed one of the best roles in fantasy with an absolute cake-walk schedule in the most important time of the year.

From Week 12-16, Montgomery faced the following opponents: Packers (sixth-most rushing EPA allowed), Lions (fifth-most), Texans (most), Vikings (third-most), and the Jaguars (ninth-most). And, to his credit, Montgomery feasted! In this five-game stretch, Montgomery put up 25.2 fantasy points per game. Across his 10 other games, he averaged 14.1 FPG — which shakes out to low-end RB2 figures.

With all of that being said, Montgomery’s end of season and injury luck is all baked into his price. He’s consistently stayed near that Round 3 / 4 turn all summer. You’re not paying any type of premium on what amounted to his ceiling to close out the 2020 season.

Now, Montgomery gets the fortune with playing with Justin Fields sooner rather than later and dual-threat QBs largely lead to spike’s in RB efficiency. Because the defense have to account for Fields’ wheels on zone-reads, it freezes linebackers and edge defenders from crashing down quickly on the quarterback and rusher. This should open up bigger lanes for Montgomery and help the Bears running game as a whole. Plus, it sounds like Tarik Cohen is laboring coming off his ACL-tear and there is no guarantee that he’s the same player that he once was. Cohen obviously needs his burst and shiftiness to win. This leaves only Damien Williams to steal snaps from Montgomery and he missed all of 2020 himself, sitting out because of COVID concerns with his family.

While I’m not going out of my way to target Montgomery and like Edwards-Helaire and Dobbins more because they are on better offenses, Montgomery’s volume and role is much safer than it might seem at first glance.

Tier 5

ADP range for tier: 35 to 70 overall

Main target: Carson

Secondary targets: Henderson, Williams, Edmonds

Avoids: Jacobs and Gaskin

If this seems like a wide cast of backs, it’s because it is. This RB group is going in the Round 4-6 range where the wide receiver pool is much deeper and has a much better floor/ceiling projection than the running backs. While you can poke holes in all of the backs in this ADP range, it’s much harder to find fatal flaws with the pass catchers. You also have to consider the quarterbacks going in this zone — Allen, Jackson, Prescott, and Murray — are all potential league-winners with extremely safe floors.

Here’s how I’m logically thinking of the QBs vs. RBs in the Round 4-6 range.

What are the chances that you take Lamar Jackson in the fifth-round and he absolutely burns you and finishes outside of the top-10 at the position? Pretty low, right? Maybe 15-20%? He’d probably have to get hurt and miss a chunk of time to really hurt your team.

Ok, now what are the odds that Jackson delivers a ceiling season and finishes as a top-3 QB? Considering he’s a near lock to lead the position in rushing again, that bakes in a top-8 floor. Jackson’s 22.1 fantasy points per game last year made him the QB8. But last season was an historic scoring year for QBs and Jackson’s 22.1 FPG in both the 2019 and 2018 seasons would have made him the QB2 in scoring.

Jackson’s, and the other quarterbacks going in this range, scoring is very predictable, unlike the running backs in this ADP zone. All of these RBs going in Rounds 4-6 are going here for a reason. Not only do quarterbacks provide a safer pathway to points that could give you an advantage on your teams relative to the field, the receivers in this range also provide a much better bet.

Historically speaking, there is a gap that’s the size of the Marianas Trench when comparing backs to their wide receiver counterparts as ETR and Rotoworld’s Jack Miller has been pointing out all offseason: “RBs drafted in Rounds 3-6 (i.e. the RB dead zone) this year averaged a 7.9% win rate. 2020 was the sixth consecutive year this group had a below-expectation win rate. WRs in that range were at 8.7%, their sixth straight above-expectation year.”

The gap in mid-round RB and WR output is also picked up in the “Hero” and “Superhero” RB strategy I was talking about earlier, where you take one stud back in the first two rounds and then hammer receivers and maybe a tight end or quarterback in Rounds 3-6 while ignoring the running backs completely.

This year, this 4th-6th round ADP bucket is set up to disappoint once again with an array of runners that have potentially fatal flaws.

Darrell Henderson was my most-drafted running back before Cam Akers’ injury, but I’m probably not going to end up with him on many teams at his new ADP in the mid- to late-fourth round. Henderson likely isn’t going to get the same role as Akers was projected for and last year’s numbers bear that out. In Week 3-7 when Akers was out/severely limited due to injury last season, Henderson got 15.8 touches and averaged 78.6 scrimmage yards per game. His 12.9 FPG in that stretch which would have made him the RB25.

Can he improve upon that in 2021? Absolutely. Henderson is coming off a severe ankle injury that nagged him late in the year and ultimately landed him on I.R. over the Rams final few games, clearing the path to Akers’ late-year breakout. But prior to that, Henderson was (gulps)… better than Akers. On their early down (1st and 2nd) carries, Henderson ranked 2nd-best in first down percentage and 5th-best in EPA per carry. Akers was 29th in EPA and 34th in first downs per carry among 40 qualified RBs.

I like Henderson attached to a WR-heavy build if you open up your draft TE-WR-WR or WR-TE-WR, but the 4th and 5th round receivers and quarterbacks in his range all provide better bets with more safety and better upside. HC Sean McVay is already talking about the need to keep Henderson healthy and available and the Rams may very well be in the market for a veteran back during Training Camp roster cuts. Henderson is a secondary target in this range, but I’m often taking the receivers over him.

Chris Carson is, by far and away, my favorite RB to target in this “dead zone.” Honestly, he’s really the only guy I want out of the Round 4-5 range. Unlike pretty much all of the guys in this ADP bucket, Carson has a track record of success in a workhorse role. Over the last three combined years, Carson is 16th in PPR points (15.2), 9th in touches (18.5), and 13th in scrimmage yards (92.1) on a per game basis. Oddsmakers are pretty high on the Seahawks offense, too. DK Sportsbook has Seattle with a 10.0 projected win total and they are tied with Cleveland, the LA Rams, and San Francisco for the seventh-best odds to lead the NFL in scoring (at 18/1). And, HC Pete Carroll absolutely loves Carson like a son and is thrilled to have him back. Carson is a perfect RB2 target.

No veteran back has seen their stock fall quite like Josh Jacobs has this offseason. A locked-in pick at the Round 1 / 2 turn last year, Jacobs’ ADP in NFFC/BB10s is RB20 (at 41 overall), he’s also RB20 on Underdog (at 54 overall), and RB19 in FFPC leagues (at 45 overall).

Jacobs’ 2020 season is the main reason I’m adamant that you should never use overall finishes to determine how valuable a player was. Yes, Jacobs finished as the No. 8 RB in total PPR points. Seems great! The thing is, fantasy is a weekly game and when those points were scored and how they were distributed matters. While it may look like Jacobs finished as a RB1, he was more of a low-end RB2 from a weekly scoring perspective. Jacobs had just four total RB1 finishes in Weeks 1-16 where he finished inside of the top-12 weekly scorers. That’s not what you’re looking for from a top-20 overall pick. For reference, Austin Ekeler went right after Jacobs in many drafts and managed the same amount of top-12 scoring weeks (4) despite missing 7 games.

For his career, Jacobs has been unbelievably game-script dependent because he doesn’t have a role on third-downs. And that lack of work as a receiver has made Jacobs extremely volatile in fantasy from a scoring perspective. When the Raiders win, he’s awesome! Jacobs averages 21.1 fantasy points per game in wins. But when the Raiders lose, he puts up just 10.3 FPG. In fact, 17 of Jacobs’ 19 career TDs have come in wins.

Over the last two combined years, Jacobs ranks 80th (!) in routes run on third-downs among RBs. And, as a result, Jacobs has one third-down target in this span. One.

Now with $11-million man Kenyan Drake added, just how much burn is Jacobs going to get in the passing game? HC Jon Gruden has gone around all offseason saying that Drake is going to be heavily utilized as a receiver. Plus, Drake is a more than capable short yardage back. Last year, Drake had the third-most carries inside of the five-yard line (22) and he turned those totes into 9 TDs. So, Jacobs doesn’t have a pathway to a larger passing down role and he might see his goal-line carries cut into by Drake. I’d rather just take a chance on Drake as my RB3 or RB4 in Rounds 9-11 than draft Jacobs in Round 4.

While Scott has convinced me that Travis Etienne isn’t as tragically bad of a pick that I originally thought, I’m still skeptical about this whole situation. Etienne’s passing down role will be nice and it’ll give him a pathway to at least meet his draft day cost (RB21 by ADP), but I’m equally concerned about his touchdown upside. Etienne might be the third in rotation when the Jags’ get in close to scoring range with James Robinson as the inside grinder and Trevor Lawrence’s dual-threat ability. I wrote about Etienne in way more detail in my Yards Created breakdown.

Mike Davis’ outlook is entirely dependent upon how valuable you think his role will be. Some people (not anyone at Fantasy Points) thought the ghost of Todd Gurley was a good pick at the Round 2 / 3 turn last year on the pretense that the role he would get outweighed any concerns about his knee. Well, now you’re getting a 2-3 round discount on a better player (at this point in his career) in Davis. On the downside, Davis is 28-years-old, has never entered a full season as a starter, and we’ve seen countless backs with that archetype fall flat on their face. Plus, the Falcons will undoubtedly be in the market for a body or two after Training Camp cuts are made. At the very least, Davis has remained fairly priced in the 50-60 overall range across the industry.

The writing has been on the wall since the Broncos traded up early in the second round to snag Javonte Williams away from the Dolphins: Melvin Gordon is out as the starter, and Williams is in. Even if he opens the season as the “starter”, Gordon’s upside is entirely dependent upon Williams getting hurt and missing games. Even though the market is warm on Williams — he comes off of the board in the 50-60 overall range in all drafts — I love drafting him as a high-upside piece attached to a Zero RB build or as my RB2 or RB3 when the receiver pool dries up. He’s now going just a few picks after Etienne, but I prefer Williams straight up. The Broncos (8.5 projected win total) are a considerably better team than the Jaguars (6.5) with a better offensive line and a much-improved defense that will help keep games close and allow Denver to run the ball. And honestly, Williams is a better player than Etienne.

You know the deal with Kareem Hunt. He’s a fine FLEX option, but Nick Chubb is the “1A” here. Once Chubb returned from an injury in Week 10, Chubb led the duo in snaps (52% to 47%), carries (168 to 100), and fantasy points per game (18.1 to 12.4). Unless Chubb misses considerable time, Hunt is blocked from really crushing at his sixth round cost.

Myles Gaskin is the definition of a dead-zone running back. His role is in limbo with a new coaching staff in place — former TEs coach George Godsey and former RBs coach Eric Studesville are now co-offensive coordinators and to replace Chan Gailey. The thing is, if Gaskin gets close to his usage last year, he’s a great bet to pay off his ADP. In his 10 healthy games last year, Gaskin got a near bell cow role as he played on 70% of the Dolphins snaps and got 18.3 touches per game. Now, the fact that Miami had their sights set on Javonte Williams at 36 before Denver moved up to snipe them doesn’t inspire confidence. Nor does it bode well that the team gave Malcolm Brown a fully-guaranteed one-year deal after he notoriously was a thorn in the side of both Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson at times last year. This situation between Gaskin, Salvon Ahmed (who played well last year!), and Brown could turn into a committee fast. I’m letting my opponents take the plunge here.

On the one hand, it’s great that Chase Edmonds avoided any additional competition in the NFL Draft and the only move the team made was to give James Conner a $1.75 million contract. Ironically, Conner’s deal is identical to Malcolm Brown’s in Miami. While Edmonds has the receiving role on lock — he ranked 15th among RBs in routes run per game (20.4) and 11th in targets per game (4.2) — Conner will be an early-down/short yardage grinder while Kyler Murray will remain heavily involved near the goal-line. Murray had 12 designed carries (non-scrambles) inside of the 10-yard line last season, which was third-most among QBs behind Taysom Hill (14) and Cam Newton (28). Still, even with potentially capped TD upside, Edmonds has Austin Ekeler-lite firmly in his range of outcomes and you’re not paying the iron price to figure out if the team will give him a slightly larger role as a runner (ADP: RB27 | 67 overall).

Tier 6

ADP range for tier: 70 to 85 overall

Main target: Harris

Avoid: Robinson

This is right around the range where I dip back into the running back pool for my RB2, 3, and 4 when I go “Hero” or “Superhero” strategy.

Scott made a great argument for drafting both Mostert and Sermon in best-ball here. The 49ers RB group has finished 8th, 15th, 4th, and 3rd in fantasy points scored as a team over the last four seasons, so even if one of Trey Sermon or Raheem Mostert never truly breaks away with the lead role, both have an extremely good shot at scoring 10-12 fantasy points per game as a floor with a few spiked weeks mixed in.

Michael Carter’s top end of range of outcomes are limited because the Jets are likely still a few years away from competing in the AFC East — New York’s 6.0 win total is third-lowest — but he’s at worst the “1A” of the committee right now. Carter lined up with the first-team offense on Day 1 of camp, which is a great sign. Most teams make their rookies “earn” the starting job to open Training Camp. Now, I’m not convinced Carter is a type of back that you give 18-22 touches per game, but he won’t need to be a true workhorse to pay dividends as the RB30-35 off of the board as long as he gets the majority of the passing down work.

James Robinson profiles as the worst bet in this range and is overpriced as the RB26 by ADP. What are his paths to beating that cost? At the very least, Etienne is going to take most of the passing down work, which was a huge part of Robinson’s improbable rookie season. Robinson ranked 13th in routes run and 12th in targets per game in 2020. Trevor Lawrence will rise the tides here, but the only way Robinson really crushes his cost is if he overshoots his touchdown projection. We have Robinson pegged to score just five times.

While I'm on Niners backs and have moved Carter up my ranks all summer, I am most excited about Damien Harris’ prospects as a RB3 target in the 8th rounds of drafts.

There has been a flood of positive reports on Harris all summer that started in June’s minicamp and has kept pace into the beginning of Training Camp. Bill Belichick is almost always stoic, but he sounds… excited? For once? Belichick said, “I think Damien’s a player that improved a lot from Year 1 to Year 2… This year, he’s in a little different role. Now he has an opportunity to compete for a lead spot, and he’s embraced that.” Now with Rhamondre Stevenson banged up to start camp and Sony Michel on the roster bubble, Harris is the heavy favorite to lead the team in carries.

However, Harris’ upside hinges upon Mac Jones starting over Cam Newton sooner rather than later. Newton had 22 of the team’s 32 inside-5 carries last season while now-Texan Rex Burkhead had four and Harris had just three. After Cam’s brutal first season as a Patriot, I’m betting that he’ll have a short leash and the calls for Jones will fire up quickly if Newton struggles again.

Ironically, Harris profiles as a discount version of his former ‘Bama teammate Josh Jacobs. Harris won’t catch many passes and will be a TD-reliant RB2/3 option, but he costs an 8th round pick. Not a 4th.

Tier 7

ADP range for tier: 90 to 110 overall

Main targets: Fournettte, Jones, Drake, and Dillon

Avoids: Johnson, Gordon, and Moss

Just like with 49ers backs, I want nothing to do with Buccaneers’ RBs in managed start/sit leagues, but I’m gladly taking Leonard Fournette and/or Ronald Jones as my RB2, 3, or 4. We want running backs to have plenty of good game-scripts and the Bucs’ will have just that. Their 12.0 win total is tied for the league-lead, which will, once again, lead both Fournettte and Jones to have plenty of scoring opportunities. Jones (21) and Fournette (12) combined for a whopping 33 carries inside of the 10-yard line in the regular season last year. For reference, Derrick Henry and Dalvin Cook led the league in inside-10 carries with 35. This backfield will be a headache every week, but in best-ball, who cares! You won’t have to predict when one of these two guys have their 100-yard, 2-TD weeks and you don’t have to pay up for their weekly upside.

A.J. Dillon and James Conner profile very similarly in that they’re both two-down bangers who have limited receiving upside because of the backs in front of them. Both are going to have to rely on TDs to hit a weekly ceiling. However, one back is a second-round pick on the upswing entering their second season and plays with Aaron Rodgers. The other plays with Kyler Murray, who scored 9 rushing TDs near the goal-line last year, and is coming off of a terrible 2020 season and was forced to take a one-year deal. I’m taking Dillon over Conner 10 times out of 10.

Kenyan Drake, Fournette, Jones, and Dillon are a huge part of my Superhero RB builds in Rounds 9-10.

The Texans spent all offseason adding bodies to their backfield and David Johnson is entering his age-30 season. Do you really want to bet on that? Johnson had the backfield to himself last year and only managed a RB17 finish in FPG and that was with Deshaun Watson. Best-ball is a game of opportunity cost just as much as it is a game of having the “right” strategy and I never want to bet on committee backs on bad teams at any price.

Again, opportunity cost matters. I’m looking for upside at my RB2, RB3, and RB4 slots and really have no interest in either of the Bills backs. Why even mess with it? This is Josh Allen’s team. The Bills became one of the most pass-heavy team’s in the league last year, throwing 70% of the time when trailing (fourth-highest rate), 64% of the time when the game was within a score (second-highest), and were 58% pass-heavy when leading (third-highest). Oh, and Allen is the goal-line back. He led the team in carries inside of the 10-yard line with 16, followed by Moss (15) and Singletary (9). As a result, Devin Singletary averaged 8.2 fantasy points per game while Zack Moss put up 7.8 FPG when both backs played together. Pass.

Tier 8

ADP range for tier: 115 to 150 overall

Main targets: Williams, Murray, and White

Avoids: Singletary and McKissic

Like it or not, Jamaal Williams is going to have a sizable role in the Lions backfield. And if Swift were to miss time, Williams would then become a bellcow. Those two things alone make him an intriguing RB4 target in the 11th round on the surface level.

Digging deeper… The Lions are likely going to run the hell out of the ball and I believe their coaching staff when they say Williams is going to be the “1A”. New OC Anthony Lynn has only called plays once in his 21-year NFL coaching career — as the interim Bills OC in the final 14 games of the 2016 season. Lynn called a run on 51% of their plays when the game was within a score (2nd-highest rate), they were 55% run-heavy when ahead (3rd-highest), and they were 44% run-heavy when trailing (highest rate).

Granted, having Tyrod Taylor’s dual-threat ability helped aid in the Bills run-first ways, but that season is the only indicator on the field of how Lynn will design the Lions offense. Off the field, Lynn has spent most of his time adamant that his Lions will run the ball a ton. Here’s a quote from mid-February a few weeks after Lynn was hired: “It will be an emphasis to run the ball and run it well. Defenses are too good to be one dimensional. You have to be balanced in your attack and approach. That's going to be our intention… I believe the more ways you can run it, the more ways you can pass it." That emphatic statement combined a strong offensive line and his 14-game history with the Bills should make the 2021 Lions one of the most run-centric teams in the league.

I like Latavius Murray late for the same reason I like Williams. He’s got a weekly runway to 10-14 touches per game, although Murray is on a better offense. And if Kamara were to miss time, Murray has RB1 upside. Everyone loves overdrafting Tony Pollard as Zeke’s cuff, but Murray has the same type of upside as Pollard and, yet, he goes off of the board 15-20 picks later.

Gus Edwards is on the Williams-Murray spectrum, too. Edwards had four top-24 scoring weeks over the Ravens final eight games after the team winded down Mark Ingram’s role. So, at the minimum, he’ll score somewhere between 10-18 fantasy points and crack your starting lineup a few times if you take him in this range. That’s exactly what the Superhero RB strategy is all about. You get your stud that scores 18-25 FPG and then you stream that RB2 slot with a committee of guys like Edwards. But unlike those two, Edwards is still not going to contribute much as a receiver if J.K. Dobbins was to miss time. That small delineation is enough for me to prioritize Murray and Williams.

Alexander Matttison made two starts last year, one of which was a disaster and the other was a home-run. Mattison fell flat on his face (11 touches, 30 yards) as the chalkiest DFS play of the 2020 season against Atlanta when Dalvin Cook sat out and ended up losing snaps to Ameer Abdullah. Then, in Week 17 when Minnesota was drawing dead for the playoffs, Mattison started and went off for 145 scrimmage yards and 2 TDs on 24 touches.

I never draft my own handcuffs because I never want to bet against myself — if I draft Dalvin Cook and he plays 15-16 games, he’s a league-winner while Mattison is just burning a roster spot on my bench. So while Mattison doesn’t have a path to RB3 numbers like Murray, Williams, Dillon, and Edwards do regardless of their starters health, he is the cheapest handcuff in this tier by a margin. Tony Pollard goes 2-3 rounds earlier.

Everything is set up for James White to be the lynchpin for Hero RB teams. White tied with Alvin Kamara for the league lead in targets per route among RBs (0.30) last season and now gets the added benefit of being the sole passing-down back in New England. Rex Burkhead is gone, which is sneakily massive for White’s projection. In the 17 games that Burkhead missed over the previous three seasons, White has averaged 15.2 fantasy points per game. For reference, that 15.2 FPG would have been good for an RB16 finish last year. With a playing time boost coming because of Burkhead’s departure, White has the scoring floor of a low-end RB2 but he’s priced like an RB5.

Finally, the writing seems to be on the wall for J.D. McKissic. Between Antonio Gibson playing more snaps on third-downs and Curtis Samuel taking shallow targets — there is no way McKissic repeats as the RB leader in targets (he had 110 last year). I’ve got White well ahead of McKissic in my ranks.

Ideally, the Superhero RB strategy looks something like this played out…

  • RB1 in Round 1 or 2

  • WR1-3 in Round 3-6

  • At least a QB1 or TE in Round 3-6. Maybe both a TE1 or QB1.

Then you target…

  • Maybe Chase Edmonds or Javonte Williams in Round 6
  • 49ers RB in Round 7
  • Damien Harris or Michael Carter in Round 8
  • Bucs RB in Round 9
  • At least 2-3 more Tier 7-8 backs, James White especially

This will give you one stud and then 4-5 RBs to “stream” in your RB2 slot for the rest of the season.

Tier 9

ADP range for tier: 150 to 175 overall

Main target: Bernard, Penny

Secondary targets: Williams, Perine

Avoids: Cohen and Gainwell

This is where things fall off a cliff at the position. I really only want to be drafting in these final two tiers once or twice at most to close out drafts. By Round 14, I usually have my five running backs and am only taking a sixth in this range if it’s necessary.

Gio Bernard profiles as a lite version of James White and zaps a bit of the ceiling from both Fournette and Jones. Who cares, though. They’re all cheap and you don’t have to worry about when to start them. You know Bernard is going to have a few 5-catch, 55-yard games and pop into the endzone a few times. He’s my favorite RB5/6 target.

After that, I like the idea of the super cheap handcuffs in Rashaad Penny and to a lesser extent Damien Williams and Samaje Perine. Penny is back to full health after a slew of injuries and is in line to give Chris Carson breathers. Tarik Cohen might not be back to 100% coming off ACL surgery, making Williams the Bears likely passing down back to start Week 1. Meanwhile Perine is in line to be Joe Mixon’s direct backup. These are guys to get like 3-5 times out of 10 drafts.

Tier 10

ADP range for tier: 175 to 225 overall

Main target: Booker

Avoids: None

With it seemingly likely that Saquon Barkley starts the season slow or misses a few of the opening games, Devontae Booker is the cheapest direct handcuff in fantasy. The Giants have nothing else behind Barkley on the depth chart. It’s not sexy at all, but he has a path to RB2 numbers if Barkley misses time. He’s the only guy I’m actively targeting in this tier.

Both Xavier Jones and Jake Funk are intriguing darts if the Rams do indeed roll into the season without adding a veteran or making a move. Since the Akers injury, I’ve taken both a few times as my RB6-7 in super deep leagues.

Graham Barfield blends data and film together to create some of the most unique content in the fantasy football industry. Barfield is FantasyPoints’ Director of Analytics and formerly worked for the NFL Network, Fantasy Guru, and Rotoworld.

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