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NFL Draft

Fantasy Football 2021 RB Tiers

  • The Draft Network
  • August 24, 2021
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Let’s get one thing straight: These are NOT rankings. I can’t stand them. As anyone who makes rankings will tell you, there’s usually a case to be made for a player lower in the rankings over someone who’s higher. Exhibit A: In Tier 1, I have three running backs who I believe to be the best of the best. As you’ll see, Alvin Kamara is listed before Dalvin Cook. Obviously, I can make a case for Cook over Kamara. 

But enough about me. Let’s dive into the nine tiers of running backs in PPR leagues. Have any questions? I’d be more than happy to answer them on Twitter @ZachCohenFB! And follow us @TDNFantasy for daily advice, articles, polls, and more!

Tier 1

Christian McCaffrey

Alvin Kamara

Dalvin Cook

This is the tier of elite fantasy players. McCaffrey is the no-brainer No. 1 pick. Don’t be scared off by his injuries from last season, either. His record-setting fantasy season from 2019 may not be fully repeatable in 2021, but it’s still a fantastic ceiling. As for Cook and Kamara, you can’t go wrong with either. I’d probably prefer Kamara a bit due to higher potential target share in an offense with few other weapons, especially if Michael Thomas misses extended time. For as good as Cook is, he may lose a few looks thanks to Justin Jefferson’s emergence. Despite my nitpicking, Cook is still an elite running back who shouldn’t fall past No. 3.

Tier 2

Saquon Barkley

Ezekiel Elliott

Derrick Henry

Aaron Jones

Najee Harris

Nick Chubb

This is the tier of players who are one question mark away from being elite fantasy players. There seems to be one lingering question—no matter how small—with each of these running backs. Can Barkley rebound after last year’s ACL tear? Can Henry see enough targets to become fantasy’s RB1? Can Elliott overcome a poor season now that Prescott returns? Will Jones’ new opportunities in the passing game be enough to fend off lost carries to A.J. Dillon? How much will Harris’ offensive line impact him? Can Chubb see an increase in receiving work? 

For what it’s worth, I’d take Elliott over Henry. His role as a receiving back gives him legitimate RB1 upside. I’m also infatuated with Jones and Harris, the former of whom can thank Jamaal Williams for gifting him more targets. As for Harris, expect his usage alone to vault him into RB1 territory. Even if Harris doesn’t play on third downs and if the Steelers’ offensive line struggles, Harris may be too talented and too involved to finish outside the top-12 running backs.

Tier 3

Jonathan Taylor

Austin Ekeler

Antonio Gibson

Clyde Edwards-Helaire

Joe Mixon

This is the tier of running backs who are being held back by one or two factors. Taylor’s snap rate will improve from last year’s 51%, but he still has Nyheim Hines stealing pass reps. Conversely, Ekeler’s getting all the pass reps while teammates have tended to steal some short-yardage work, including at the goal-line. Gibson is similar to Taylor in that he’s more than capable of a three-down role despite little usage as one. Edwards-Helaire may get an every-down role, though he was just a low-end RB1 in that role prior to Le’Veon Bell’s arrival last year. Mixon’s floor is very high—he was RB9 before his injury in 2020 and was RB13 in 2019—we just haven’t seen him hit top-five levels yet (though Giovani Bernard’s departure should help Mixon’s case). Each of these players could be a top-five fantasy running back if his role was expanded from last year.

Tier 4

Chris Carson

D’Andre Swift

David Montgomery

Miles Sanders

J.K. Dobbins 

Darrell Henderson Jr.

James Robinson

This is the tier of potential despite a few question marks. It’s also the last tier of starting-caliber running backs before you’re living on a prayer. Surprisingly, Carson may be the safest bet of the bunch. He was RB7 through 12 games last year and now he won’t have to deal with Carlos Hyde. However, durability and ball security remain an issue. No running back in this tier has a higher upside than Swift. He has a good offensive line and could be his team’s second-best pass-catcher, behind T.J. Hockenson. Unfortunately, we don’t know exactly what Swift’s role will be, especially with the addition of Williams. An every-down role should vault him into solid RB1 territory. 

Montgomery was a fantasy darling last season after Tarik Cohen’s injury. Although Cohen and Damien Williams should still be factors in the Bears’ offense, we don’t know how that will impact Montgomery. His PPR stock takes a large hit if he gets cast aside on third downs. Sanders confuses me because I think he’s more than capable of being an every-down back. I just don’t think the Eagles agree. They added enough depth behind Sanders to make me worry about how he’ll fit into Nick Sirianni’s offense. Sanders did play well when Hurts was under center, though. 

I love Dobbins as a player, I don’t love him in Baltimore’s situation. He’ll compete with Lamar Jackson and Gus Edwards for carries while losing targets to Sammy Watkins and Rashod Bateman. Even if Dobbins gets a coveted three-down role, his ceiling is limited. Henderson has been the golden boy of fantasy drafts as of late due to his ADP. While I don’t expect him to see enough opportunity to become a bonafide RB1, he has salivating value in drafts right now.

Tier 5

Kareem Hunt

Chase Edmonds

Myles Gaskin

Mike Davis

This is the tier of running backs you better hope can expand their roles. For players like Hunt and Gaskin, an every-down role would be golden for their fantasy stock. Every running back except Davis should see enough work in the passing game to be borderline flex options. As for Davis, he’s the latest-drafted running back who should be on the field every down. We just don’t know if he’s good enough for that—he had a promising sample size in 2020–or if the Falcons’ offense works to his benefit. It’s not a good situation for running backs, but opportunity does reign supreme. Gaskin and Edmonds have the talent to be three-down backs, though they’ll likely get pigeonholed into receiving-back roles early on. Their ceilings are high, though.

Tier 6

Trey Sermon

Damien Harris

Josh Jacobs

Melvin Gordon

Raheem Mostert

Javonte Williams

Michael Carter

Zack Moss

Devin Singletary

Ronald Jones

Leonard Fournette

This is the tier of running backs who—if given the chance—can be borderline fantasy starters, or they could falter. Every player in this tier will have some sort of role in his offense, yet probably won’t be getting a full-time load. Guys like Harris and Jacobs are talented enough to be three-down backs, but their coaching staffs are holding them back. If you draft them, you’re likely settling for a low-ceiling, high-floor player (I like Harris’ value better.) 

You may have noticed I listed a handful of teammates here. I only love San Francisco’s situation because their starter could be a major stud in fantasy. I like Sermon at his ADP due to his talent and draft capital—he was a third-round pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. Every other situation is iffy to me. Even if a clear RB1 comes out of Tampa Bay and Buffalo, those are pass-focused offenses who only provide limited snaps to their starting running backs. I also question the overall skill of those four backs. Denver’s situation is fine enough to support a quality running back, though Gordon may hold onto that starting job longer than you think. Williams has more dynasty value than redraft value. I don’t know if the situation is worth touching in New York, even if Carter wins the starting job. He may be your last chance at finding a future starter in your draft.

Tier 7

J.D. McKissic

Nyheim Hines

Gio Bernard

Kenyan Drake

James Conner

Jamaal Williams

Phillip Lindsay

David Johnson

James White

Gus Edwards

Malcolm Brown

Tevin Coleman

This is the tier of one-trick ponies. Simply put, you know how these guys will earn their points. The slew of pass-catchers has heightened value in PPR, while the short-yardage backs may be too touchdown-dependent to be relevant. My favorite players on this tier are the first three proven receiving backs. A value pick I like: Coleman. He’s basically free and could see at least 50% of the Jets’ snaps.

Tier 8

Latavius Murray

A.J. Dillon

Tony Pollard

Alexander Mattison

Darrynton Evans

Chuba Hubbard 

This is the tier of top handcuffs. Look, I don’t need to remind you how important these guys could become if their respective starters missed time. The only backs I’d trust to have a steady role each week are Murray and Dillon. The other four guys might never leave your bench.

Tier 9

Everyone else

This is the tier of “why not?” Perhaps a player like Gerrid Doaks follows in James Robinson’s footsteps to relevancy. But at this point, the upside is limited. You’re better off solidifying your other positions. For the sake of content, some names to watch in deeper leagues and dynasty or best-ball formats: Doaks, Samaje Perine, DeeJay Dallas, Chris Evans, Cordarelle Patterson, Larry Rountree III. 

Did I forget anyone? Let me know!

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