2021 Updated Fantasy Top 10 RB Rankings
The running back position continues to be one of the most volatile positions in fantasy football. Next to the QB position, running backs are typically the highest scoring position in fantasy. Rostering a top back can greatly improve your chances of winning a fantasy championship.
The volatility in the position, however, makes selecting that top back challenging. If your goal is to walk away with a top running back in your fantasy draft, then you are drafting these backs in the first round and in some cases the top half of the first round.
Risk meets reward here as we have seen in recent years due to injury. 2019 injuries impacted Todd Gurley and Saquon Barkley, and last season the top two drafted backs (Christian McCaffrey and Barkley) combined to give you a little less than 5 games played.
Since 2010, in order to be a top-12 fantasy RB you need to put up 217.88 points in point per reception (PPR) leagues, or an average of 13.62 points a game. Since 2017, the requirement has been 217.97, a marginal increase. In 2018, it was 230.2, 2019 it was 232.6, and last season it dropped to 206.5 (12.90/game). 2020 was the third lowest scoring running back season in the past eleven years.
Injuries played a role in that low number, as did the pandemic, and likely most of all, the days of the true workhorse are near extinct. Coaches are smarter than ever and they protect their RBs as much as they can, spreading the touches across the entirety of the offense. The running back position is possibly deeper than ever thanks to solid draft classes continuing to push RB talent down the ADP ranks. Here are my 2021 Updated Fantasy Top 10 RB Rankings.
1. Christian McCaffrey – Carolina Panthers
Christian McCaffery entered 2020 as the top overall player selected in the majority of leagues on the back of his monster 471.2 PPR point 2019 season (second highest in history). In 2020, CMC averaged even more points per game (30.1) than he did in 2019 (29.5). The problem was he only played three times last season.
McCaffrey once again enters the season as the top ranked running back. Carolina appears to have upgraded at QB with Sam Darnold, and the return of RB-friendly OC Joe Brady should lead to another season of high volume for CMC. Barring another injury plagued season, CMC should finish atop the standings for the second time in three years. Like most in the industry I have CMC ranked at 1 overall. Don’t overthink you pick here, take McCaffrey and sit back and enjoy your draft.
2. Dalvin Cook – Minnesota Vikings
Dalvin Cook has finished as the RB2 and RB6 over the past two seasons after RB19 and and RB10 numbers during his first two years on a points-per-game basis. Since 2017, only Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, and Saquon Barkley have scored more fantasy points per game than Dalvin Cook. The challenge is Cook has yet to play 16 games in an NFL season.
Last season in 14 games, Cook solidified that he is one of the truly elite backs in the game. Cook’s 16-game pace in 2020 was 2,192 yards from scrimmage, 50 receptions and 19 touchdowns. Entering 2021, the Vikings have improved their offense, which should help them get back to their preferred offense which is a run heavy one.
If Cook can avoid injury and participate in 15-17 games in 2021, he should challenge CMC for tops at the position. The only player I have ranked higher than Cook is CMC, I am extremely comfortable taking him at pick two in my drafts.
3. Alvin Kamara – New Orleans Saints
Alvin Kamara finished last season as the RB1 overall with 377.8 PPR points in 15 games played. Since entering the league in 2017, Kamara has finishes of RB4 twice, RB9, and RB1. Since 2010, Kamara is one of only three backs to deliver as a top-12 back in every season in which he has played.
Entering 2020, it’s fair to wonder what kind of impact Drew Brees retiring might have on his production. A big part of what has made Kamara a bonafide RB1 has been his receiving volume. In the past two seasons, Kamara has appeared in nine games without Brees. His finishes have ranged from RB3-RB37. Only three of those contests he finished as a RB1.
With the injury to WR Michael Thomas and Brees’ retirement, expect for the Saints offense to flow through Alvin Kamara. His large workload in the passing game will remain and he is likely in for his largest carry total of his career as well. Alvin Kamara will deliver another top-3 fantasy finish in 2020. Assuming that my top-2 backs don’t slide to you, grab Kamara with pick three.
4. Aaron Jones – Green Bay Packers
Aaron Jones had another good season in 2020. Jones rushed for a career-high 1,230 yards (5.6 yards per attempt) in only 14 games played. He finished as the RB5 with 258.9 points while working in a timeshare with Jamaal Williams.
After finishing 2019 as the RB2 overall with 19 total touchdowns, regression was inevitable. In 2021, I see regression again, this time positive regression. Jones should be even more involved in the passing game now that he’s sharing with A.J. Dillon and not Jamaal Williams. Over the past two seasons, the Packers have been in the top third of the league with 268 passes thrown to running backs. Aaron Jones, in my opinion, has RB1 overall upside.
I have moved Jones up one spot to 4th overall in my 2021 Updated Fantasy Top 10 RB Rankings, and he moves up to 4th in my overall rankings as well.
5. Ezekiel Elliott – Dallas Cowboys
In 2020, Ezekiel Elliott had the worst per game fantasy season of his five year career. The good news is he still finished as RB9 in PPR scoring. Elliott’s season can be defined in two parts–with Dak Prescott and without.
Dak Prescott started the first five games for Dallas before injury ended his season. In those five games, Elliott averaged 22.3 PPR points and was third in running back scoring. From Weeks 6 through 17, Elliott was RB24 and his points per game were 11.2. Dak is back, and the injury riddled line Zeke ran behind in 2020 is improved.
Despite the perceived drop off, Elliott remains a top back and is 5th in my 2021 Updated Fantasy Top-10 RB Rankings.
6. Austin Ekeler – Los Angeles Chargers
What makes Austin Ekeler so valuable in PPR scoring especially is his work in the passing game. RBs averaged 0.64 fantasy points per rush attempt in 2020 compared to 1.58 per target. One target is nearly 2.5-times more valuable in fantasy-land than a rush attempt. In Ekeler’s breakout 2019 season, he averaged 6.75 targets a game. In 2020 with Justin Herbert, Ekeler averaged 6.5.
The difference in Ekeler’s 2019 RB4 finish and his RB26 2020 finish was a hamstring injury. Entering the 2020 season, the Chargers dramatically increased the caliber of their offensive line and hired Joe Lombardi as their Offensive Coordinator.
Lombardi is fresh off four seasons of watching Sean Payton deploy Alvin Kamara in New Orleans. Look for Ekeler to operate in a similar fashion, and if he can add goal-line touchdowns to his repertoire, the sky is the limit. I have Austin Ekeler ranked 7th overall and I love adding him to my roster starting in the middle of round one.
7. Jonathan Taylor – Indianapolis Colts
Jonathan Taylor finished his rookie season as RB6 with 252.8 PPR points. His road to a top-6 finish was anything but smooth. Taylor landed on the Covid-19 list in Week 12; at the time he was RB20 averaging 12.3 PPR points a game. After coming off the Covid list, JT exploded, averaging 23.1 points a game–best of all RBs over that five game stretch.
Seventh may very well be too low, but my mild concern stems from a lack of involvement in the passing game, combined with the opponents in which he destroyed down the stretch last season. The Colts faced Houston twice, Las Vegas, Pittsburgh and Jacksonville–some of the worst run defenses in 2020. If Taylor can see more passes and survive the potential slow start without Quentin Nelson and Carson Wentz, then he should have no problem delivering this result if not higher.
8. Derrick Henry – Tennessee Titans
In 2020, Derrick Henry was an absolute beast, and he became the eighth running back in NFL history to rush for over 2,000 yards in a single season. He scored 17 touchdowns and finished with 333.1 PPR points and as the RB3. In the past two seasons alone, Henry has ran for 3,567 yards, scored 35 touchdowns, while posting 627.7 PPR points.
Many will see Derrick Henry ranked 8th in my 2021 Updated Fantasy Top 10 RB Rankings and think it’s too low. I get that. There are more reasons than I can fit in this article to explain why I have him ranked where I do. I do my best to explain it here, and Rick Butts does a great job here. Simply put, Henry’s previous workload historically leads to a dramatic fall off, combined with the history of the seven previous backs to rush for over 2,000 yards in a season. I am concerned that this ranking may be too high.
9. Saquon Barkley – New York Giants
Ranking Saquon Barkley at 9th in my 2021 Updated Fantasy Top 10 RB Rankings could be perceived as my dislike for this running back. First of all, that is the furthest thing from the truth, and secondly he is still in my top-10.
My concern for Saquon is all based on volume. I am concerned that the Giants ease him back from injury, something they should have done when he injured his ankle in 2018. I am also concerned that his passing game volume sees the biggest dip. This ranking is very well is too low, and a rank closer to his floor than ceiling (I have moved him up from 10 to 9).
He has the potential to be the No. 1 RB in Fantasy in 2021. Prior to 2020, Barkley scored at least 20 PPR points in 16 of his first 29 games and failed to score at least 13 PPR points just five times over that span. Trust me, I hope my ranking is wrong. Saquon is ranked at 12 in my overall ranking and is an ideal back to grab at the 1/2 turn in your 12 team league drafts.
10. Najee Harris – Pittsburgh Steelers
Normally a rookie RB doesn’t enter my top-10 preseason rankings, it’s happened but its a rare. In 2021, Pittsburgh Steelers RB Najee Harris belongs here.
Opportunity is key in fantasy football, and opportunity trumps talent. When opportunity and talent collide, positive results tend to happen. Harris is one of the more well-rounded RBs to enter the league in recent memory. He has the size (230 pounds) that NFL talent evaluators love at the position, that he combines with exceptional receiving ability. It’s rare to find the blend of size, speed, and power that Harris provides and he’s set to emerge onto the scene in a big way.
With Harris’ ability to shoulder a significant workload, Ben Roethlisberger won’t be forced to carry this team with 656 pass attempts like they had last season. There is legit concern with the offensive line in Pittsburgh this season, it’s not enough of a concern for me to avoid adding Najee to my fantasy roster.
He will be massively involved in the passing game, and we have seen three-down backs thrive behind poor O-lines in Christian McCaffery and Dalvin Cook. Najee doesn’t belong in the range with those backs yet, but he does belong in my 2021 Updated Fantasy Top 10 RB Rankings .
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