Nate Hamilton ranks his top RB fantasy football rankings heading into the 2021 season. Which running backs have the most value this season? Considering skills and system, Nate ranks 82 running backs for 2021 fantasy football leagues.
RB Fantasy Football Rankings 2021: League Settings
- Lineup: 1 QB, 2 RB, 3 WR, 1 TE, 1 RB/WR/TE Flex, 1 PK, 1 DT
- 0.5 PPR scoring
- 1 point per 10 Rush/Receiving yards
- 4 pts Pass TD
- -1 pt Interception
- 6 points all other TDs
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Check out the rest of Nate Hamilton’s fantasy previews for detailed tier breakdowns and positional rankings:
- 2021 Fantasy Football Rankings: Top 300 Players
- 2021 QB Fantasy Football Rankings
- 2021 WR Fantasy Football Rankings
- 2021 TE Fantasy Football Rankings
- 2021 PK Fantasy Football Rankings
- 2021 DT Fantasy Football Rankings
RB Fantasy Football Rankings 2021
|25||5||Melvin Gordon III||RB||DEN||11||RB25||13|
|41||8||Ronald Jones II||RB||TB||9||RB41||8|
|56||9||Jeff Wilson Jr.||RB||SF||6||RB56||0|
|58||10||Benny Snell Jr.||RB||PIT||7||RB58||0|
|60||10||Mark Ingram II||RB||HOU||10||RB60||0|
|63||10||Anthony McFarland Jr.||RB||PIT||7||RB63||0|
RB Fantasy Football Rankings: Tier Breakdown
This is essentially the top-three of many fantasy analysts. They all have plenty of volume and are productive with their touches.
Christian McCaffrey is the most effective running back in both the ground and pass-catching categories. The Panthers trust him most when they are close to the goal line which gives him impressive touchdown upside in addition to his rushing/receiving yards. Dalvin Cook is an explosive running back who often looks like the best player on the field. He has over 300 touches in each of the last two seasons and a total of 3,572 yards in that span. Derrick Henry is the rushing champion for two years running and may be the hardest running back to tackle. He’s not known for his pass-catching abilities, but he truly doesn’t need those numbers to live among the elite.
Any of these running backs could be considered in tier 1. They are elite talent, but all have slight concerns that keep them from the top tier.
Jonathan Taylor has the talent and a great offensive line, but there is uncertainty with Carson Wentz at QB. With that said, he can’t do any worse than last year when he finished as the RB6 in fantasy. Nick Chubb has to share the backfield with Kareem Hunt. Ezekiel Elliott looked a bit off his game last season, but it seems like he’ll bounce back with the return of Dak Prescott. Saquon Barkley is coming off an ACL tear and may not even be ready Week 1. Alvin Kamara and the Saints will be without Drew Brees. That should be enough to feel concerned about that offense as a whole, especially when the Saints are looking to either Jameis Winston or Taysom Hill (or both) at QB.
Again, these are all slight concerns. They are all extremely talented and will most likely return their draft value in 2021.
Tier 3 is a healthy mix of high-upside running backs and a couple of players that many are fading, beginning with Miles Sanders.
The majority loved Sanders before last season, though I was not one of them. Doug Pederson has a tendency to destroy fantasy value of running backs. Now that he’s gone, I believe Sanders will shine and there is a massive over-correction when it comes to his 2021 ADP. David Montgomery falls into that same category. He had an impressive stretch of games to end the 2020 fantasy season. Even though he ended the year as the RB4, many believe it isn’t sustainable production. That’s a fair assessment, but the addition of Damien Williams and return of Tarik Cohen isn’t enough for me to drop Montgomery as far as most have this year.
Although Kareem Hunt shares a backfield with Nick Chubb, he still provides plenty of upside in pass catching and touchdowns. The two were RB9 & RB10 last season, despite Chubb playing in just 12 games. Joe Mixon has the chops to be ranked much higher, however, there is concern with his protection in Cincinnati. Rookie Najee Harris is expected to handle the full workload in Pittsburgh. For the Steelers offense, this typically results in valuable production. Mike Davis (who was the RB12 in 2020) basically laterally transitioned his situation when he signed with the Falcons. I’m much lower on Clyde Edwards-Helaire than most, which is no different than my stance on him last year. He can’t push the pile and finds himself in an offense that doesn’t need him to be effective for them to produce and win games.
There is plenty of love floating around for D’Andre Swift, but I have concerns with the Detroit Lions offense. They are much worse (talent-wise) heading into 2021, which will likely lead to fewer scoring opportunities. Josh Jacobs took a huge hit to his fantasy value with the addition of last year’s RB14, Kenyan Drake. I love Jacobs’ ability and production, but Drake will not be ignored, which naturally hinders Jacobs’ upside. Darrell Henderson is expected to step in for the injured Cam Akers in 2021. Despite the similarities in numbers between Henderson and Akers in 2020, they are not the same player. The season-ending injury to Akers will lead to more of a passing offense with Matthew Stafford at quarterback. Melvin Gordon lost in the offseason as well when the Broncos drafted running back Javonte Williams. Although I believe Gordon will lead the backfield in touches, it will likely be closer to a 60-40 or even 50-50 split with Williams.
Rookies and pass-catching backs and playoff Lenny, oh my! It would take some form of a breakout or situational changes for this tier to see consistent fantasy production in 2021.
Travis Etienne and Javonte Williams find themselves in offenses with currently productive starting running backs. This doesn’t mean they won’t see the field, especially given the draft capital given up by each respective organization to obtain them. Many are expecting Chase Edmonds to lead the Cardinals’ backfield in 2021, but I’m not. You can dislike James Conner all you want; he’s still a solid early-down back. Edmonds has never been a volume guy. He’s most effective in a third down role. Leonard Fournette is my favorite running back in Tampa Bay, but it doesn’t make him fantasy relevant. Unfortunately, the Buccaneers offense is similar to the Chiefs in that they do not need a workhorse running back to be productive and win.
Damien Harris has the opportunity to be the gem in this tier. If the Patriots look like the Patriots (unlike 2020) and Harris gets the majority of backfield touches, he’s got top-24 upside. David Johnson will turn 30 in the 2021 season and finds himself in a crowded backfield. It’s difficult to imagine much upside with Johnson at this juncture of his career, especially in a highly questionable offense.
Tarik Cohen has been an effective weapon for the Chicago Bears since his rookie season in 2017. He is returning from an ACL tear and will assume his role as the third down back. Kenyan Drake is my favorite player in this tier. Coming off his career-best season as the RB14, Drake will look to have an immediate impact in the Raiders offense. Unfortunately, he and Josh Jacobs will hinder each other’s fantasy value. Zach Moss could lead Buffalo’s backfield in touches, but it will likely be a committee approach.
This group of running backs are not in favorable positions for fantasy football purposes.
Devin Singletary, AJ Dillon, Trey Sermon, Gus Edwards and Phillip Lindsay are not expected to lead their backfields in touches, as many already have a workhorse ahead of them or are caught in a running back by committee. The two players I actually like for flex consideration are J.D. McKissic and Nyheim Hines. Both of these backs have a specific, pass-catching role carved out from them in their offenses. They can be a valuable asset for your fantasy teams, especially in points per reception (PPR) leagues.
For the most part, we are getting to running backs that will go undrafted in most fantasy drafts. There are some you may want to draft as a valuable handcuff.
Latavius Murray, Jamaal Williams, and Alexander Mattison would all see significant workload increases should any of the starting running backs miss time. Mattison happens to be my favorite backup running back in the league. I think he would be an amazing fantasy asset as a starting RB. I may be too low on James White given his consistent role in the Patriots offense. He is definitely a steal in the later rounds. The remaining RBs in this tier are a bit too risky to waste a bench spot on.
These are all late-round flyers and/or players we could see fantasy managers entering bidding wars on the waiver wire at some point in 2021.
Kenneth Gainwell could surprise many and have a much larger role in the Eagles backfield. I believe Miles Sanders is the better all-around back, but anything can happen in the NFL. Many of these names find themselves in a running back by committee or will need a key injury or outperform their team’s current starting running back to see significant snaps.
The last tier of running backs would need a miracle to be fantasy relevant in 2021. Again, the majority would need significant injuries and situational changes to have an impact.
The one name that stands out in this tier is Todd Gurley. He is certainly past his prime, however, as a free agent, he could be placed in a situation where a team needs him to handle a decent number of touches. There is still enough in Gurley’s tank to make him an interesting pick up. He just needs the perfect storm to occur.