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Way Too Early Running Back Rankings for 2021

By Andrew Swanson | 3/2/21 |

Every season there is a breakout player who comes out of nowhere to be a fantasy darling. From the Rudi Johnsons of yesteryear to the Phillip Lindsays and Chris Carsons of the past few seasons, it seems as though almost every season, a player jumps out from obscurity to lead teams to fantasy playoffs.

In 2020, that honor belonged to James Robinson, an undrafted rookie from Illinois State who vaulted into the starting running back for the Jaguars after Leonard Fournette was released. Although Fournette would get the last laugh and a Super Bowl ring with the Bucs, Robinson presumably secured the starting job for this season and beyond with 1400 combined yards and ten total touchdowns.

There is a common adage that fantasy titles are not always won in the draft - they are won by savvy owners who make the right free agent moves throughout the season. Robinson was on very few peopleís radars, with Devine Ozigbo the favorite to replace Fournette. Those fortunate enough to put a waiver claim on Robinson and not Ozigbo hit the lottery and likely rode the rookie to the playoffs.

Who will be that unsung hero who emerges from the fog and leads your team to victory? Only time will tell. In the meantime, here are my way too early running back rankings for 2021. Keep in mind that free agency, the NFL draft, injuries, and roster moves over the next six months will significantly affect these rankings.

1) Christian McCaffrey, CAR: 2020 was a rough year for CMC and his fantasy managers. When he was on the field, he was fantastic, averaging a league-best 24.4 fantasy points per game. The problem is he was only on the field for three games and left his managers in limbo with multiple injuries throughout the season.

2) Derrick Henry, TEN: King Henry proved those volume-naysayers wrong again with a league-best 2,027 rushing yards on 378 carries. Yes, I think he will break down eventually, and the volume is a concern, but the upside is too significant to pass up, and the Titan offense is built around him. He is a touchdown-scoring machine, and his consistency is nearly unmatched.

Dalvin Cook

3) Dalvin Cook, MIN: I would be just as happy receiving the third overall pick as the first, as I donít have a huge gap in my ranking between CMC, King Henry, and Cook. With his first 300-carry season of his career and a career-best 16 touchdowns, Cook was a monster running the ball and posted his first season of averaging 5.0 yards per carry. If his receiving numbers jump back up to what we saw in 2019, he could easily be the RB1 in 2021.

4) Alvin Kamara, NO: Although he finished second in total points scored behind only King Henry, six of his 16 rushing touchdowns came against a Minnesota Vikings team that was decimated by injuries and free agency. Kamara is a stud. But if you take out that monster 53-point game, he was not great down the stretch, and he was not the same pass-catcher without Brees. With so much of his value coming in the passing game, I have some worry about his ability to reached 80 receptions again without Brees under center.

5) Saquon Barkley, NYG: A season-ending knee injury in his second game of the season ruined what could have been an excellent year for Barkley. When you consider that Wayne Gallman scored a rushing touchdown in each game between Week 7 and 12, one would assume Barkley could have matched that at a minimum. The Giants had a rough start to the season, and Barkley got injured early against the Bears. Donít sleep on his talent, especially if the Giants add a big name wide receiver in free agency and boost up their offensive line.

6) Jonathan Taylor, IND: After a dreadfully slow start that included a game against Detroit with 22 rushing yards on 11 carries, Taylor exploded down the stretch, with seven rushing touchdowns in his final four regular-season games. Hopefully, with Taylor showing what he can do and the retirement of running backs coach Tom Rathman, Taylor will get a workhorse role for the Colts in 2021.

7) Nick Chubb, CLE: Chubb finished with more fantasy points than Ezekiel Elliott, Melvin Gordon, Antonio Gibson, and Ronald Jones, despite playing in just 12 games for the Browns. On a per-game basis, he trailed only Cook, Henry, and Kamara, even with sharing carries and touchdowns with Kareem Hunt. Chubb is an RB1 and should be drafted in the first round.

8) Ezekiel Elliott, DAL: Many people will be turned off by Zeke because of his disappointing production last season. The former Buckeye posted the worst rushing average of his career and managed just eight total touchdowns. Yes, Zeke did not look good and started showing signs of slowing down, but keep in mind that before Dak and three starters on the offensive line went down, Zeke was on pace for this best year as a pro. If Dak returns along with those offensive linemen, Zeke could be a massive value.

9) Aaron Jones, GB: This ranking is based on the assumption that Jones will either return to the Packers or sign with the Dolphins. If either of those two things happen, he should be ranked in the top 12 at the position. If he signs with, say, the Jets, I would not feel as comfortable ranking him this high.

10) Miles Sanders, PHI: The Eagles were a dumpster fire in 2020 that resulted in Carson Wentz getting shipped off to the Colts and head coach Doug Pederson getting fired. The offensive line was dreadful and riddled with injuries, and the geriatric receiving corps was one of the worst in the league. Despite this, Sanders averaged 5.3 yards per carry and scored six touchdowns in 12 games. If the new coaching staff gives him a workhorse role and Jalen Hurts continues to excel running the read-option, Sanders could be in for a strong third season.

11) Josh Jacobs, LV: If you owned Jacobs last season, you likely were disappointed with his performance, even though he technically finished the season as the No.7 RB. Jacobs managed just two 100-yard rushing games and failed to score a single touchdown in more than half of his games. To make matters worse, he did not get much work at all in the passing game.

12) Cam Akers, LAR: The final spot in my top-12 rankings came down to a coin flip between J.K. Dobbins and Akers, with the latter earning the spot based on recent comments from head coach Sean McVay saying Akers is a workhorse back. Both are great options, and both could be breakout candidates this year, but I would lean Akers based on the fact that Baltimore continues to use multiple backs and Dobbins did not get more than 15 carries in a game.