Last week we analyzed which fantasy
quarterbacks might be a factor in the 2021 football season, this
week we dive into rookie running backs.
And as with the last study, I researched running backs who were
drafted in the first three rounds over the past 10 seasons (there
were 71 players, who averaged 9.48 FPts/G in full PPR leagues),
to see if we could find a common thread among the most successful
rookie running backs which might help us evaluate the 2021 draft
I found two significant factors which made rookie backs viable
fantasy options in their freshman season.
The first should be obvious, but the more opportunities to touch
the ball the greater the chance to post elite fantasy numbers.
Of the top-24 running backs according to touches-per-game, 23-of-24
averaged double-digit fantasy points. In fact, they averaged 15.1
FPts/G. Last season, the 24th-best running back (who played at
least two games), Clyde Edwards-Helaire, averaged 13.5 FPts/G.
Ezekiel Elliott saw the most touches of any back over the past
10 seasons (23.6-per-game) and turned them into 21.8 FPts/G which
ranked No.3 in 2016 behind veterans Le’Veon Bell and David Johnson. Saquon Barkley produced the most points of any freshman
back - racking up 24.0 FPts/G in 2018.
Wonder why future superstar running back Derrick Henry averaged
only averaged 7.6 FPts/G his rookie season? Perhaps, because his
head coach Mike Mularkey only let him touch the ball 8.8 times
per game, preferring an already overused DeMarco Murray instead.
The second factor in the “making of a fantasy worthy rookie
running back” is the ability to catch the football. Since
many rookies see limited touches, the best rookie backs usually
made the most of those opportunities by being efficient. And the
most efficient rookie backs almost always catch the ball (efficiency
for me = fantasy points per touch).
It will therefore be no surprise to anyone that Alvin Kamara
was the most efficient rookie running back over the past 10 seasons.
In 2017 he averaged 19.7 FPts/G despite just 12.6 touches because
of his receiving ability. His 81 catches (826 yards, 5 TDs) helped
him average a stunning 1.56 fantasy points every time he touched
Although that output is extremely high, it isn’t unusual in the
way he got there. What do David Johnson (1.31), C.J.
Prosise (1.31), D’Andre
Swift (1.21), Christian
McCaffrey (1.17) and Barkley (1.09) have in common besides
being the top-six in efficiency in this study? They all have great
hands. They catch the ball and they run well after the catch.
The first factor bodes extremely well for the Steeler’s Najee
Harris. With James
Conner moving on to the Arizona Cardinals, Pittsburgh had
a huge hole at running back which it filled with their first-round
pick (24th overall) choosing Harris and he should do quite nicely.
Conner, despite a number of injuries in recent years, still averaged
17.3 touches-per-game from 2018-2020. Harris proved in college
he can both run and catch the football. In his final two seasons
at Alabama he rushed 460 times (2690 yards, 39 TDs) and caught
70 balls (520 yards, 11 TDs). Given the other options of; Anthony
Ballage and Trey
Edmunds, Harris should get every chance to be a three-down
Meanwhile, this same factor would seem to work against the second
drafted back - Travis Etienne. Bringing in a teammate for rookie
quarterback Trevor Lawrence might be a calming factor for a young
signal-caller, but the Jaguars already had a 1,000-yard running
back from 2019 in James Robinson (240-1070-7 rushing and 49-344-3
receiving). Etienne did make himself a very good receiving back
at Clemson which might save his fantasy value. Still, the addition
of Etienne is likely to split the load between the two, lowering
their upside, and reducing both backs to RB2 and RB3 status, respectively.
And don’t overlook the signing of Carlos Hyde. He’s
going to get some work too, particularly at the goal line where
his 230 lbs. might matter. Therefore in my mind, Etienne won’t
be a great option in 2021.
Denver drafted Javonte Williams in the second round (No.35 overall),
but his path to fantasy-worthiness is blocked by Melvin Gordon
(215-986-9 rushing and 32-258-1 receiving). On the other hand,
the Broncos have reason to be concerned about Gordon, who in the
past held out into the regular season for a new contract (showing
little loyalty to his team) and recently had an “off-the-field
issue” (though that seems to have miraculously gone away).
Williams was part of a dynamic duo at North Carolina with Jets
rookie Michael Carter. Williams rushed for 1140 yards and 19 TDs,
but wasn’t part of the passing game because of Carter’s
skills in that area. His arrival in Denver (they traded up five
spots to get him) doesn’t bode well for Gordon long-term
outlook in the Mile High City, but until Williams completely replaces
Gordon, the rookie’s fantasy value and touches will be limited.
The fourth and final running back selected in the first three
rounds was Trey Sermon by the San Francisco 49ers. He joins a
messy backfield where Raheem Mostert is the top dog, but frequently
injured. Gone is Tevin Coleman and Jerick McKinnon so Sermon should
jump ahead of the remainder of lackluster veterans; JaMycal Hasty,
Jeff Wilson (inj) and Wayne Gallman. Mostert should get first
shot at the starting job coming off his high-ankle injury, but
Sermon should be waiting in the wings should/when he is sidelined
again (he’s only played more than 12 games in a season once
since arriving in 2015). Sermon is a handcuff, but not an opening
day starter, barring a preseason injury.
Could someone explode on the scene as Robinson did last season
as an undrafted free agent or a lower draft pick like Carter or
Here is what you need to hunt for in your search for a “diamond-in-the-rough.”
The most important factor is getting on the field for any rookie.
Twenty-four of the 71 running backs in this study averaged at
least 12.4 FPts/G (the average 24th-best back over 10 seasons)
and that group averaged 17.7 touches. The three backs who reached
our target points-goal with the fewest touches were: Johnson (10.1),
McCaffrey (12.3) and Kamara (12.6). Great pass receivers all.
The 47 backs who didn’t reach the minimum points target
averaged just 8.3 touches per game.
Therefore, the bottom line for predicting any rookie as a viable
first-year fantasy back is; can you see them getting the ball
more than 17 times-a-game? Or at least a dozen if they have the
pass-catching ability of McCaffrey or Kamara?