In this era of pass-happy offenses, four-wide and five-wide receiver
sets, the “workhorse” running back is a rarity. You
can count the really good ones on one hand. (For reference, my definition
of workhorse is a three-down back who can block or catch the ball
out of the backfield in third-and-long situations as well as elite
running on early downs.)
With this workhorse scarcity, the math doesn’t easily work
for a league full of fantasy owners.
A 12-team league, in this era of byes, injuries and Covid-19
quarantines, must have at least three viable fantasy-worthy running
backs available and probably four. But that would require 36-48
decent running backs options in a league with only 32 starting
So the question for every fantasy owner is simple. Where can
I find viable fantasy running backs other than the obvious?
The answer is the hard part.
My search for No. 3 and No. 4 running backs in PPR leagues takes
me to the land of targets.
Running backs catch a higher percentage of targets than either
tight ends or wide receivers. In 2020, 164 backs caught 75.97%
of all passes thrown their way. In comparison, 127 tight ends
caught 67.4% and 224 wideouts 65.49%. That’s been pretty
consistent over the years.
Therefore, targets turn into fantasy points pretty easily for
running backs. Just four targets a game will reliably equal three
points plus yardage and touchdowns. In fact, last season 3297
pass attempts to backs earned 4970.4 points or 1.51 points-per-target
and 1.98 points-per-catch. So those four targets are worth on
average almost six points before a running back counts his rushing
Two of the top-three targeted running backs last season were
backups – J.D. McKissic and Nyheim Hines. Neither would
be fantasy-worthy in non-PPR leagues. McKissic produced 12.1 FPts/G
and Hines 12 FPts/G in full PPR leagues versus 8.0 and 7.1, respectively
in standard leagues. In last season’s top-48 fantasy running
backs, 14 of them were non-starters who were greatly assisted
by catching passes. Besides McKissic and Hines, Chase Edmonds,
Giovani Bernard, Kareem Hunt and both Rex Burkhead and James White
in New England among others, all benefited from having good hands.
For fantasy owners in 2021, the goal, therefore, is to identify
the non-starting pass-catchers in every backfield.
Let’s begin our search.
Edmonds has moved from backup to Kenyan
Drake to starter with James
Conner the backup. Conner has caught 124 balls over the past
three seasons in Pittsburgh, but he doesn’t figure to be a third-down
back type with Edmonds’ catching ability. We will keep on searching.
Davis caught 59 balls in Carolina as a starter for injured
McCaffrey and unless/until the Falcons sign another running
back he’ll be the pass-catcher out of this backfield as well as
Baltimore – The Ravens and Lamar
Jackson don’t throw enough to running backs to produce a viable
pass-catching option. In 2020 they threw just 63 targets to five
Buffalo – The Bills, under a much improved Josh
Allen, became a pass-first offense last season which could
Singletary (38 receptions) an option even while Zach Moss
figures to be the No. 1 rusher in Buffalo.
Carolina – If McCaffrey stays healthy there
are no backups of value as he’s a premier three-down back. Expected
Hubbard (4th-round pick from Oklahoma State), caught just
53 balls in 33 games for the Cowboys. If CMC were to go down to
injury again, this would probably end up being an RBBC with Reggie
Montgomery both ran and caught the ball last season becoming
a solid fantasy option, but beware Tarik
Cohen (still on PUP list) should return sometime this season
and newcomer Damien
Williams (from KC) will likely take many of his 2020 68 targets
and 54 receptions. If Cohen (ACL) is his old self (14.7 FPts/G
in 2018 and 10.2 FPts/G in 2019) he could be a viable option,
but that remains to be seen if he still has the speed and agility
from the past.
Cincinnati – With Bernard in Tampa Bay, it’s
no wonder Joe Mixon’s
ADP has shot through the roof as there is no one on the roster
to fill those receiving shoes except the starter.
Chubb is an elite runner, but Kareem
Hunt is almost as good and a great receiver. He’s the No.1
non-starting fantasy option and worthy of his high 52.7 ADP.
Elliott led the Cowboys running back room in both rushing
and receiving last season and will continue to lead them in both
this season. Tony
Pollard can also run and catch, but he won’t replace Zeke
as a third-down receiver. Pollard is a handcuff only.
Denver – Even when Melvin
Gordon was in LA with Austin
Ekeler, he received his fair share of targets catching 41-or-more
balls during his last four season in Southern California. While
his rushing work may be in danger from rookie Javonte
Williams, Gordon should stay low-end fantasy-worthy even if
he loses the starting role. Williams shared the receiving work
at UNC with Jets rookie Michael
Carter. In 34 college games he caught just 50 balls.
Detroit – Starter D’Andre
Swift was also the pass-receiver out of the backfield in 2020,
but new backup Jamaal
Williams was a very good pass-receiver behind Aaron
Jones in Green Bay and likely will take a good bite out of
Swift’s workload in this area to help the second-year back stay
healthier. The Lions’ best offensive talent is in this backfield
and both should end up being viable fantasy options.
Green Bay – Jones will dominate this backfield,
particularly in passing situations with AJ
Dillon replacing Williams as his backup. Dillon caught very
few balls at Boston College (21 in 35 games) and two balls in
nine games for the Packers last season. Third-stringer Kylin
Hill (Mississippi State rookie) could someday develop into
a third-down back, but it’s unlikely to happen this season.
Houston – Starter David
Johnson is a solid receiver, but new backup Phillip
Lindsay is a very good receiver too catching 70 balls over
two seasons in Denver. My preference is to stay away from this
offense given all the question marks, but Lindsay could be a low-cost
selection with a decent ceiling if things fall his way. Beware
of Rex Burkhead
mucking things up like he used to do in New England.
Taylor is getting plenty of hype after a very good rookie
season, but Hines should continue to be a viable fantasy option.
Despite Taylor likely seeing 300 touches, Hines is good enough
to carve out a useful role. Marlon
Mack could be a fly-in-the-ointment for both Taylor and Hines,
but he could also be traded to a running back needy team (Atlanta)
if he shows he’s healthy.
Robinson was in danger of losing a lot of work to 2021 first-round
Etienne, but with news of the rookie’s Lisfranc injury during
the Week 2 preseason game and an expected 2022 return, Robinson’s
value should skyrocket. Third-stringer Carlos
Hyde is more runner than receiver leaving Robinson to scoop
up almost all the receiving work.
Kansas City – Starter Clyde
Edwards-Helaire is also the team’s best receiving back. Backup
probably won’t catch more than 30 passes (barring injury to CEH)
and therefore is only a handcuff, not a viable fantasy option.
Las Vegas – The Raiders’ backup to Josh
Jacobs is talented Drake (or are they 1A and 1B). Drake caught
50+ balls in back-to-back seasons before being the starter in
Arizona last season and yielding third-down work to Edmonds. Drake
should reprise his receiving role and get enough rushing work
to be a viable fantasy option.
Los Angeles Chargers – Ekeler is back as the
No. 1 guy and he’ll get almost all the receiving work while surrendering
some first and second down work to backups Justin
Jackson and Joshua
Kelley, neither of whom has great hands. Nothing to see here
other than Ekeler.
Los Angeles Rams – The Rams were set to feature
Cam Akers running
the ball and Darrell
Henderson as the receiver until Akers ruptured his Achilles.
Then Henderson was going to be the starter but on Wednesday the
team traded for Sony
Michel. Michel is a first and second-down guy which might
leave Henderson in the same role as last year, but without Malcolm
Brown in the mix he’d have low-end fantasy value.
Gaskin is proving hard to push aside and continues to look
like the starter in Miami. He caught 41 balls last year and the
Dolphins really didn’t have another good receiving option. They
added Malcolm Brown who could become that guy and take some of
the workload off Gaskin who isn’t big enough to be a workhorse.
This team also may be looking at free agent backs.
Cook is one of those elite workhorse backs that runs well
and catches the ball well. Barring injury no backup on the Vikings
is fantasy worthy.
New England – Ah, the Patriots backfield - the
migraine headache of every fantasy owner. It’s called Bill Belichick’s
“running back roulette.” Damien
Harris should be the first and second down guy, but James
White is locked into the receiving role and does it as good
as anyone. Both are fantasy-worthy. Michel, more runner than receiver,
was the odd-man out and traded to the Rams on Wednesday leaving
a space for impressive fourth-round rookie Rhamondre
Stevenson. But it’s Belichick so no one knows for sure except
the master himself.
New York Giants – Is Saquon
Barkley healthy? That’s a huge question for fantasy owners.
When he is he’s got great receiving skills to go along with his
running work. If the team is looking to lighten the load on their
superstar, then Devontae
Booker, who has caught more than 30 balls a year for the last
three seasons in Denver could end up with consistent third-and-long
work. He should be on your radar screen late in the draft.
New York Jets –Tevin
Coleman gets the early season starter role as the veteran,
Carter is the future for the Jets. Carter hasn’t been running
with the first team, yet his 73.9 ADP to Coleman’s 142.6 shows
you he’s been overhyped. Carter is overpriced to start the year,
but could pay off late in the season if you can afford to stash
him. Both Coleman and Carter are about equal quality receivers.
Sanders is the starter, but over the last year has struggled
mightily with his receiving. Some of it was bad passing by Carson
Wentz who couldn’t make the swing pass, but Sanders didn’t
help much. Boston
Scott will be the receiving back early, but I think rookie
ends up being the third-down back. He caught 51 balls his last
year at Memphis.
Harris is the Steelers’ workhorse. He’ll be the full-time
running back and he’s also the best receiver among the running
back room. The only thing that might slow Harris down is management
wanting to limit his exposure (and a completely remade OL). Neither
McFarland Jr., will steal targets for Harris and neither is
San Francisco – The 49ers backfield had a little
of “Belichick” in them last season. Between Tevin
Wilson and fullback Kyle
Juszczyk one never knew who was going to show off each week.
It should be a little simpler in 2021 but not easy. Mostert, if
healthy, should start, but highly-touted rookie Trey
Sermon (Oklahoma/Ohio State) should be a threat to beat him
out should he falter or as in past years … get hurt. Juszczyk
will get the occasion splash but return to being the best blocking
fullback in the NFL. Wilson (knee) and newcomer Wayne
Gallman should only be a factor after multiple injuries.
Seattle – As long as he’s healthy, Chris
Carson is the back on the early downs and as a receiver. Backup
hasn’t shown anything as a receiver and that’s OK because Russell
Wilson doesn’t use his backs much. Penny is a handcuff, but
not a fantasy-worthy option.
Tampa Bay – Starter Ronald
Jones and backup Leonard
Fournette both lost targets and catches the minute the Bucs’
Bernard to a contract. But Bernard will likely see so little
of the rushing workload that his presence will only hurt Jones
and Fournette and not make him fantasy worthy.
Henry is a tiger running the ball, but a kitten in the receiving
game. And while second-year back Darrynton
Evans figures to be his backup, I think Brian
Hill could become a viable late-round pick. He’s a better
receiver than Evans, catching 25 ball last season in Atlanta,
and if he proves to be a better runner then he might have some
upside as Henry’s backup and third-down back.
Gibson exploded onto the scene last season despite McKissic’s
receiving expertise. McKissic saw 110 targets, catching 80 of
them, and became a fantasy-worthy starter. Be careful however
of pulling the trigger too early on McKissic as Gibson, a receiver
in college, can catch too and could eat into the backup’s workload.
Still, McKissic will be someone’s No. 3 or No.4 running back and
be successful in a limited role. Just don’t force him to be your