Even in today’s pass-happy NFL, no position scores more points or is as valuable as the running back. Not only do running backs sit near the top of non-QB scoring leaderboards, but the relative lack of depth makes the handful of three-down workhorses an even greater commodity. So it’s important to know which 2021 fantasy football running backs to target.
While there are fantasy football draft strategies that eschew early-round fantasy football running backs altogether, that doesn’t mean that fantasy football drafters can ignore the position. In fact, drafters that load up on other positions early have an even bigger need to monitor depth charts and committee backfields to mine hidden value.
Regardless of which strategy you incorporate into your 2021 fantasy football drafts, knowing the current status of each NFL team’s backfields is integral for building a contending fantasy roster. Let’s take a detailed look at all 32 teams and how their running back position should play out in 2021.
2021 Fantasy Football Running Backs: Breaking Down Each Backfield
AFC RUNNING BACKS
- Top Back: J.K. Dobbins
- Change of Pace: Gus Edwards
- Backup To Know: Justice Hill
The Ravens always use multiple backs and also have a QB in Lamar Jackson who is as likely as anyone to lead the team in rushing. Mark Ingram played 160 snaps last season, mostly in September.
Now that Ingram is in Houston, J.K. Dobbins should lead the club in snaps, attempts, and fantasy football points, but don’t discount Gus Edwards, who has averaged over five yards per carry in each of his three NFL seasons.
Head coach John Harbaugh seems to like Edwards in short-yardage situations, making Edwards a dark horse to lead Baltimore in rushing scores and a tremendous late-round fantasy football sleeper. Justice Hill should see an increase in the 17 touches he earned in his second season, mostly on passing downs.
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- Top Back: Zack Moss
- Change of Pace: Devin Singletary
- Backup To Know: Matt Breida
The best rusher on the Bills happens to play quarterback. As long as Josh Allen is healthy, that’s unlikely to change in 2021. Since coming into the league, Allen has accounted for 25 of Buffalo’s 44 total rushing scores himself.
The Bills were thought to be a potential landing spot for an early-round rookie running back but instead will trot out the same two-man backfield they utilized last season. Devin Singletary led the team in attempts and yards but only surpassed double-digit carries once after Week 13, when Zack Moss became more involved. Moss actually looked more explosive as a runner, tying for fifth in the NFL with 1.71 yards created per attempt.
While Moss has potential as a receiver, the staff seems to trust Singletary more in that area. Matt Breida was added to the mix this offseason but is unlikely to receive enough touches to be much of a factor.
This has all the markings of a committee backfield that would be best avoided until the latter rounds of fantasy drafts. View Moss as the back with the most upside and potential to emerge as an RB3.
- Top Back: Joe Mixon
- Change of Pace: Samaje Perine
- Backup to Know: Trayveon Williams
Joe Mixon played over 66% of Cincinnati’s snaps before exiting Week 6 with a season-ending foot injury. In those six games, Mixon handled 159 out of the Bengals’ 191 running back touches (83.2%). The departure of pass-catching specialist Giovanni Bernard only solidifies Mixon as one of the safest three-down workhorse backs in football.
Samaje Perine will occasionally step in for change-of-pace duties and should be viewed as Mixon’s handcuff. Trayveon Williams logged 26 attempts last season and is the favorite for No. 3 duties.
- Top Back: Nick Chubb
- Change of Pace: Kareem Hunt
- Backup to Know: D’Ernest Johnson
An anomaly in football, the Browns use not one but two premier running backs quite effectively on a weekly basis.
Nick Chubb acts as the 1A back and has averaged north of five yards per tote in each of his three campaigns. Chubb missed four games in 2020 but still punched in a career-high 12 rushing scores and topped 100-plus yards six times. Chubb is an excellent receiver as well but will cede most of the third-down work to Kareem Hunt. Even as the team’s RB2, Hunt actually outscored Chubb in PPR scoring and managed to produce 1,145 scrimmage yards and 11 touchdowns.
Expect both backs to remain highly involved each week, with Chubb worthy of a first-round fantasy football draft pick and Hunt warranting attention one or two rounds later.
- Top Back: Melvin Gordon
- Change of Pace: Javonte Williams
- Backup to Know: Mike Boone
While incumbent starter Melvin Gordon will open the season atop the depth chart, new general manager George Paton made a splash by trading up in the second round for fantasy football analytics favorite Javonte Williams from North Carolina.
While splitting time as a Tar Heel, Williams still punched in 22 touchdowns last season and looked like an underrated receiver.
It seems like only a matter of time before the rookie ascends to the starting role, which makes him an excellent middle-rounds fantasy target and Gordon a risky proposition if taken in the first three or four rounds.
- Top Back: David Johnson
- Change of Pace: Phillip Lindsay
- Backups to Know: Mark Ingram, Rex Burkhead
At the beginning of what looks to be a massive overhaul and rebuild, it’s hard to get excited about any of Houston’s veteran backs for a team that has the lowest win total projections.
David Johnson is a declining player but put up usable fantasy numbers last season; he will enter 2021 atop the depth chart. Mark Ingram, 31, was phased out of Baltimore last season and has been in decline for three years. The Texans also just brought in yet another New England castoff in Rex Burkhead, but the real sleeper here might be Phillip Lindsay, who posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in 2018-2019.
Lindsay could simply have the freshest legs of this uninspiring bunch and could emerge as the starter soon rather than later. Regardless, the Texans quarterback situation is a mess, and they’ll be playing behind very often in 2021, which doesn’t bode well for the running game.
- Top Back: Jonathan Taylor
- Change of Pace: Nyheim Hines
- Backups to Know: Marlon Mack, Jordan Wilkins
Once Jonathan Taylor took over as Indy’s main back, he produced elite fantasy numbers down the stretch. Starting in Week 13, Taylor averaged 136.5 rushing yards and scored nine touchdowns in Colts’ final six contests.
While Nyheim Hines lost carries to the emerging Taylor, he remained heavily involved as a pass-catcher and finished third among all running backs with 77 targets and 64 grabs.
Expect that formula to carry over into 2021, with Taylor logging 20-plus touches, Hines flirting with RB3 numbers as a receiving threat, and Marlon Mack getting a mere handful of touches.
- Top Back: Travis Etienne
- Change of Pace: James Robinson
- Backup to Know: Carlos Hyde
Right after the 2021 NFL Draft, new head coach Urban Meyer said he envisioned No. 25 overall pick Travis Etienne as a third-down back and receiver — but don’t buy into that. Etienne is a special talent with a three-down skill set who has the complete confidence of new franchise signal-caller — and his former Clemson teammate — Trevor Lawrence.
As well as James Robinson played last season, it will be next to impossible to see him repeat those stellar stats or get anywhere near 289 touches. Expect Etienne to lead the club in carries, but we could see Robinson lead the backfield in targets. Carlos Hyde also stands to vulture short-yardage work.
Kansas City Chiefs
- Top Back: Clyde Edwards-Helaire
- Change of Pace: Darrel Williams
- Backups to Know: Jerick McKinnon, Darwin Thompson
Clyde Edwards-Helaire flashed some big games but battled injuries and short-yardage struggles to ultimately post disappointing overall rookie numbers. Although it is far too early to write off CEH, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Andy Reid employ a full-blown committee backfield in 2021.
With Damien Williams off to Chicago, Darrel Williams takes over as the team’s main change-of-pace option. Darrell Williams looked quite capable in the AFC playoffs and should certainly be on fantasy football sleeper lists.
Don’t discount Jerick McKinnon‘s ability to earn a decent amount of weekly touches, especially as an efficient pass-catcher.
Las Vegas Raiders
- Top Back: Josh Jacobs
- Change of Pace: Kenyan Drake
- Backup to Know: Jalen Richard
Fresh off a 1,065-yard, 12-touchdown season, the Raiders thanked Josh Jacobs by signing Kenyan Drake to a two-year $11 million deal. Early expectations are that Drake will be used extensively as a receiver, but he’ll also receive at least 8-10 carries per week.
This obviously limits Jacobs’s upside as he’s unlikely to see the 45 targets he commanded in 2020 and could potentially split goal-line looks as well. This makes Jacobs difficult to trust as an RB2, but there’s still enough upside to make the third-year back a decent bargain if he slips out of the fourth round of fantasy football drafts.
Los Angeles Chargers
- Starter: Austin Ekeler
- Change of Pace: Justin Jackson
- Backup to Know: Joshua Kelley
The hiring of Joe Lombardi as the Chargers’ new offensive coordinator assures that Austin Ekeler will continue to be heavily utilized as a receiver. Lombardi previously coaxed tremendous fantasy success out of Reggie Bush, Darren Sproles, and Alvin Kamara.
Last year, the Chargers were more willing to give Ekeler carries, as he topped double-digit totes in 7-of-10 games. If that trend carries over, Ekeler has top-5 potential in PPR formats.
Joshua Kelley was benched in favor of Justin Jackson late last season, but with a new staff, there should be an open competition for backup duties.
- Starter: Myles Gaskin
- Change of Pace: Malcolm Brown
- Backups to Know: Salvon Ahmed, Gerrid Doaks
Myles Gaskin has the potential to emerge as a strong RB2 and could even contend for RB1 numbers in PPR formats if his usage remains the same as his 2020 workload.
In the 10 games during which Gaskin suited up last season, he averaged over 18 touches and ranked 12th with 16.8 PPR points per contest. Head coach Brian Flores prefers to utilize his starting running back in a bell-cow role, which makes Gaskin an excellent middle-rounds fantasy football draft target.
Malcolm Brown was added via free agency and could factor in as a short-yardage option, but Brown was never able to emerge with the Rams and probably won’t get enough touches as long as Gaskin is featured.
Salvon Ahmed showed some promise when Gaskin was sidelined but was immediately made irrelevant when the latter returned. The club also added Cincinnati rookie Gerrid Doaks in the seventh round, but his waning value is limited only to dynasty fantasy football leagues.
New England Patriots
- Starter: Damien Harris
- Change of Pace: James White
- Backups to Know: Sony Michel, Rhamondre Stevenson
Although New England has the potential to be one of the most run-heavy teams in the league, that doesn’t necessarily make the Patriots’ backfield desirable.
QB Cam Newton will almost certainly lead the club in rushing scores, but who leads in rushes is far more difficult to project.
Change-of-pace specialist James White is back to absorb targets and could actually see an increase in targets after the departure of Rex Burkhead. Damien Harris is the best bet to emerge as New England’s top rusher but has battled injuries and caught only five passes last season.
Those shortcomings are mirrored by Sony Michel, who missed six games a year ago and has yet to snag more than a dozen receptions in any season. Expect the team to more-or-less stick with a committee backfield with Harris offering the most potential as a runner and White a solid PPR value.
Keep an eye on fourth-round power runner Rhamondre Stevenson, who has impressive measurables (5-11, 231) and looked good catching the ball at Oklahoma. With the lack of proven depth in front of the rookie, he’s a name to monitor this summer.
New York Jets
- Top Back: Michael Carter
- Change of Pace: Tevin Coleman
- Backups to Know: La’Mical Perine, Ty Johnson
Few teams have a backfield as open as the Jets, who will be overhauling their entire offense in 2021. New offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur has favored a backfield rotation in past stops, and that’s most likely how the Jets will go about business, at least initially.
Free-agent addition Tevin Coleman might open the season as the proverbial starter, but fourth-round rookie Michael Carter has gotten some run with the starters in OTAs and offers more agility and versatility than Coleman. Carter is also an excellent receiver who should be able to contribute in that area right away.
Sophomore La’Mical Perine didn’t impress as a rookie but was hampered by a poor roster and staff. Perine has the skills to be a dual-threat factor but appears to be third on the depth chart ahead of training camp.
- Top Back: Najee Harris
- Change of Pace: Anthony McFarland
- Backups to Know: Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Kalen Ballage
Najee Harris will bring much-needed stability to a Pittsburgh backfield that has mostly floundered over the past few seasons. Harris showcased a superb three-down skillset at Alabama and has the size (6-1, 232), scoring ability (30 TDs in 2020), durability, and receiving chops (43-of-57 targets in 2020) to be an immediate top-10 fantasy running back.
If Harris were to miss time, the Steelers would likely employ a committee of Anthony McFarland, Benny Snell, and Jaylen Samuels. Pittsburgh also added Kalen Ballage via free agency, but he will have a hard time making the roster.
- Top Back: Derrick Henry
- Change of Pace: Brian Hill
- Backups to Know: Jeremy McNichols, Darrynton Evans
Derrick Henry just keeps getting better, his latest step culminating in a fantastic 2020 campaign that ended with 2,027 rushing yards, 17 touchdowns, and even a career-best 19 catches. A
s spectacular as Henry is, it’s doubtful that the Titans will give him 378 carries again, so that opens the door for newly-signed Brian Hill to factor in as a change-of-pace runner and passing-down back.
Jeremy McNichols should have a leg up on RB3 duties after making a decent showing as Henry’s backup in the middle of 2020. Sophomore Darrynton Evans only saw 33 snaps as a rookie but has spent some time at receiver in OTAs.
NFC RUNNING BACKS
- Top Back: James Conner
- Change of Pace: Chase Edmonds
- Backups to Know: Jonathan Ward, Eno Benjamin
Kliff Kingsbury signed James Conner to take the starting job vacated by Kenyan Drake. Conner has battled injuries but has proven to be a solid option when healthy. Conner can move the pile in short-yardage situations and is a good receiver out of the backfield.
Chase Edmonds remains one of the top change-of-pace options in football. Edmonds ranked sixth among all running backs with 1.02 fantasy points per opportunity (carries + targets). In this potent Arizona offense, both Cardinals backs offer RB2/FLEX potential on a week-to-week basis.
- Top Back: Mike Davis
- Change of Pace: Qadree Ollison
- Backups to Know: Cordarrelle Patterson, Javian Hawkins
Mike Davis went from unheralded journeyman to fantasy football hero last season. Davis did a fine job filling in for Christian McCaffrey and now will get the chance to be the unquestioned starter with a potent Atlanta offense that has 89% of its 2020 carries unaccounted for.
Davis will step into a starting spot that resulted in Todd Gurley averaging 19.3 touches and scoring nine touchdowns in his first nine games before being phased out. Qadree Ollison flashed solid pass-catching skills at Pitt and is the favorite to take over for Brian Hill. WR Cordarrelle Patterson also could factor in as a gadget/hybrid player.
- Top Back: Christian McCaffrey
- Change of Pace: Chuba Hubbard
- Backups to Know: Rodney Smith, Reggie Bonnafon
In his one full game of action last season, Christian McCaffrey played all but two snaps and touched the ball 26 times. With unproven reserves behind him, McCaffrey should once again rack up an enormous number of touches and rarely leave the field.
In 2019, Chuba Hubbard rushed for 2,094 yards and 21 TDs at Oklahoma. Hubbard also excelled in the passing game and could be a Mike Davis-like difference maker if McCaffrey were to miss time.
Rodney Smith logged a Week 17 start and turned 11 touches into 44 yards and a score. He probably has a leg up on Reggie Bonnafon, who bounced on and off the practice squad and IR.
- Starter: David Montgomery
- Change of Pace: Tarik Cohen
- Backup to Know: Damien Williams
David Montgomery finished the 2020 season as a top-5 running back in PPR leagues thanks in large part to doubling his rookie production as a receiver. While that was a welcomed development for fantasy football drafters, the main reason for the extra targets was the season-ending torn ACL suffered by Tarik Cohen in Week 3. Cohen averaged 89 targets annually with the Bears.
Cohen’s return to the change-of-pace role will reduce Montgomery’s involvement in that area and make it nearly impossible for Montgomery to repeat his gaudy numbers from a year ago, placing him more soundly as a fantasy football RB2.
At times, Damien Williams looked like the best running back in Kansas City, and his dual-threat skill set should prove to be a nice fit in Bill Lazor‘s offense whenever they call on him.
- Top Back: Ezekiel Elliott
- Change of Pace: Tony Pollard
- Backup to Know: Rico Dowdle
The return of QB Dak Prescott to the Cowboys’ lineup will boost all Dallas skill position players — especially Ezekiel Elliott, whose playing time and effectiveness took a big hit after Prescott broke his leg. Elliott is one of the rare workhorse backs and is still every bit worthy of a top-10 pick in all formats.
Elliott has been extremely durable as well, but if he were to miss time, Tony Pollard would offer league-winning upside. Pollard has looked like a star when given the chance to contribute and could immediately post RB1 numbers if forced into action. View Pollard as a high-upside handcuff or 2021 fantasy football sleeper to target in the final rounds of fantasy drafts.
- Top Back: D’Andre Swift
- Change of Pace: Jamaal Williams
- Backup to Know: Jermar Jefferson
It appears that the Detroit brass might not be as high on D’Andre Swift as the fantasy football community is.
Not only did Detroit sign Jamaal Williams to a two-year deal, new offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn has talked up Williams and talked up employing a “hot hand" approach to his backfield. When finally given the chance to shine starting in Week 6 last season, Swift stood out in all areas. In Detroit’s final nine games, Swift averaged over 79 yards per game and scored eight times.
While it’s inadvisable to put too much stock into offseason coachspeak, there is quite a bit of risk in investing a second-round pick in Swift. Williams, on the other hand, has proven to be a solid receiver and between-the-tackles runner, making him a nice value pick towards the end of most fantasy football drafts.
Green Bay Packers
- Top Back: Aaron Jones
- Change of Pace: A.J. Dillon
- Backup to Know: Kylin Hill
It remains to be seen how Green Bay will fill the void left by Jamaal Williams, but the most likely benefactor will be Aaron Jones. Jones has already scored 30 total touchdowns in the past two seasons while exceeding 1000 rushing yards and averaging 65.5 targets.
Williams was in on over 40% of Green Bay’s snaps and his departure leaves a big void in the backfield. A.J. Dillon will have the first shot at filling that void, but keep an eye on seventh-round rookie Kylin Hill.
Los Angeles Rams
- Top Back: Cam Akers
- Change of Pace: Darrell Henderson
- Backup to Know: Xavier Jones
The only sophomore back getting more hype than D’Andre Swift is Cam Akers, who finally got the chance to be the featured back and averaged 118 scrimmage yards in LA’s final six games. With Malcolm Brown now in Miami, there’s even more reason to be optimistic about Akers busting out in 2021.
However, Sean McVay has stubbornly refused to abandon committee backfields, and when you look at the overall numbers, Darrell Henderson was just as effective as Akers.
As exciting as it was to watch Akers down the stretch, recency bias is often a problem for fantasy footballers. The presence of Henderson combined with the history of usage means Akers is a much riskier first- or second-round pick than is being advertised.
- Starter: Dalvin Cook
- Change of Pace: Alexander Mattison
- Backup to Know: Ameer Abdullah
Among the league’s top three-down backs, Dalvin Cook had his finest pro season, putting up career-best numbers across the board in only 14 games. Cook logged 20-plus touches in 11 consecutive games and overall finished as the No. 2 fantasy back.
The Vikings rarely mixed in a third running back, so Alexander Mattison remains the top reserve to target. After Cook was injured in Week 5, Mattison came off the bench and rushed 20 times for 112 yards. He also started Week 17 and produced 145 total yards and a pair of touchdowns. Mattison is a must-have handcuff for Cook drafters.
New Orleans Saints
- Top Back: Alvin Kamara
- Change of Pace: Latavius Murray
- Backups to Know: Ty Montgomery, Dwayne Washington
Life without Drew Brees won’t be easy for the Saints and there are still questions about who will lead this offense in 2021. As special as Alvin Kamara has been, that uncertainty means there is a certain amount of risk in using a top-5 pick on fantasy football’s reigning No. 1 running back.
Perhaps Sean Payton will scale down the offense and rely more on the running game. That would benefit Latavius Murray, who is better between-the-tackles but can also hold his own as a receiver. Murray has gotten 146 attempts in both of his seasons with New Orleans but saw his targets dip considerably in 2020.
Taysom Hill winning the starting QB battle would also take away valuable goal-line carries from both backs.
New York Giants
- Top Back: Saquon Barkley
- Change of Pace: Devontae Booker
- Backups to Know: Ryquell Armstead, Corey Clement
Saquon Barkley tore his ACL and meniscus in Chicago and could be limited throughout camp and the preseason. Regardless, a fully healthy Barkley is one of the NFL’s elite three-down backs when healthy, particularly as a receiver.
Devontae Booker has also been an excellent receiver out of the backfield but won’t take too many carries away from Barkley. Wayne Gallman was excellent as New York’s reserve in 2020, but that role would likely fall to a committee of Booker, Ryquell Armstead, and Corey Clement in 2021.
- Top Back: Miles Sanders
- Change of Pace: Boston Scott
- Backups to Know: Kenneth Gainwell, Kerryon Johnson
It’s a new offense for the Eagles from incoming new head coach Nick Sirianni, who led a 2020 Indianapolis offense that threw a ton of passes to their running backs.
While this seems like great news for Miles Sanders and Philadelphia’s backs, Sanders dropped 8 passes last season, second-worst among running backs. Sanders will have to clean that up in order to receive the kind of touches he’ll need to approach the RB1 status he is currently being drafted at.
The Eagles quickly claimed Kerryon Johnson off waivers, which just adds more competition for playing time that could take valuable touches away from Sanders. Boston Scott has fared well as receiver, and fifth-round rookie Kenneth Gainwell projects to be a pass-catching weapon that could thrive in a system that opens up space for him to operate.
San Francisco 49ers
- Starter: Raheem Mostert
- Change of Pace: Trey Sermon
- Backups to Know: Wayne Gallman, Jeff Wilson (PUP)
Kyle Shanahan knows how to utilize his backs quite successfully and will not shy away from a full-blown committee backfield. Raheem Mostert is the incumbent starter and remains the best bet to lead San Francisco in carries.
Presumed No. 2 back Jeff Wilson will open the season on the PUP list, which opens the door for newly-signed Wayne Gallman to carve out a solid weekly role.
The real dark horse in Shanahan’s backfield could be third-round Ohio State rookie Trey Sermon, a 6-foot, 215-pound outside zone runner with excellent burst and agility. Sermon will be a popular mid-to-late round fantasy football draft target, but the real value remains Mostert, who should retain his starting gig and put up weekly RB2 totals.
- Top Back: Chris Carson
- Change of Pace: Rashaad Penny
- Backups to Know: DeeJay Dallas, Travis Homer
Seattle’s re-signing of Chris Carson was a best-case scenario for both Carson and the club. When healthy, Carson has been excellent as both a runner and receiver while also displaying a solid nose for the end zone. The only issue, unfortunately, is that Carson has yet to suit up for all 16 games.
Double that concern for Rashaad Penny, who has missed 21 games so far in just three pro seasons. When both backs are healthy, expect a 60/40 split in playing time favoring Carson.
DeeJay Dallas got some opportunities as a rookie but looks like he’ll be destined for spot duty.
Tampa Bay Buccaneers
- Top Back: Leonard Fournette
- Change of Pace: Ronald Jones
- Backup to Know: Giovani Bernard
The Bucs are firmly committed to a two-man rotation, which is bad news for fantasy football drafters.
Both Ronald Jones and Leonard Fournette had their moments last season but Fournette took over lead duties during Tampa’s post-season title drive. Assuming that momentum carries over, Fournette should be viewed as the Bucs’ back to grab, but the fact that Bruce Arians fully intends to stick with a frustrating rotation makes this an easy situation to fade on 2021 fantasy football draft day.
On top of that, Giovani Bernard was also signed to potentially take over on third downs, taking valuable reception possibilities away from Fournette and Jones.
Washington Football Team
- Top Back: Antonio Gibson
- Change of Pace: J.D. McKissic
- Backup to Know: Peyton Barber
New signal-caller Ryan Fitzpatrick is far more likely to press the ball downfield, which will likely result in fewer targets for Washington’s running backs. Antonio Gibson could still benefit if he’s able to take on a larger snap share as expected. Gibson snagged 36-of-44 targets as a rookie but only saw 15 or more carries four times. Keep an eye on Antonio Gibson’s toe injury, too.
He still managed to punch in 11 TDs and has an immense ceiling if he can get up over 200 rushing attempts. J.D. McKissic was a fantasy football waiver wire darling last season but probably won’t see as many opportunities with Fitzpatrick under center.
For more 2021 fantasy football draft tips, listen to our Take The Points podcast with Marcus Mosher and Adam Kramer: