Continuing with its 2021 Fantasy Football Preview, ESNY presents the top 25 fantasy running backs for the upcoming season.
It’s interesting how the running back position has diminished in value when it comes to actual football.
In fantasy football, however, it’s likely the top position you focus on in your draft.
People flamed the Giants for selecting Saquon Barkley with the No. 2 overall pick in the 2018 draft. But if you took a running back No. 2 overall in fantasy, it would be completely normal and accepted.
Anyway, before I ramble on, let’s continue with our 2021 Fantasy Football Preview and take a look at the NFL’s top 25 fantasy running backs.
25. Nyheim Hines (IND)
24. Mike Davis (ATL)
23. J.K. Dobbins (BAL)
22. Kenyan Drake (LV)
21. J.D. McKissic (WAS)
20. Joe Mixon (CIN)
19. Melvin Gordon (DEN)
18. Kareem Hunt (CLE)
17. D’Andre Swift (DET)
16. Antonio Gibson (WAS)
15. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (KC)
Clyde Edwards-Helaire is expected to be the clear-cut No. 1 back in Kansas City. This comes after a productive rookie campaign in which he rushed for 803 yards and four touchdowns to go with 297 receiving yards on 36 receptions.
The reason I put him this far down on the list, however, is I feel this Chiefs team will certainly sport a pass-first offensive squad, given Kansas City employs the best quarterback on the planet in Patrick Mahomes and numerous talented targets like Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce.
14. Najee Harris (PIT)
The rookie first-round draft pick of Pittsburgh comes in at No. 14 on the list.
Despite an issue-filled offensive line, Najee Harris will probably earn a significant number of carries each and every week due to the Steelers’ quarterback situation. Ben Roethlisberger is not as reliable as he once was and the longtime Pittsburgh signal-caller will likely need the run game to take pressure off of him.
Harris also had a major knack for the end zone during his Alabama days, having crossed the plane 30 times last season (26 rushing scores, four receiving scores).
13. Ronald Jones (TB)
Ronald Jones proved to be one of the more productive backs in the NFL last year, and with the Buccaneers returning all 11 offensive Super Bowl starters, he should find that same type of success behind a strong offensive line.
Jones was able to cross the goal line eight times (seven rushing, one receiving) and ultimately racked up 978 yards on the ground.
12. James Robinson (JAX)
Trevor Lawrence is a highly talented quarterback who’s set to start Week 1 for the Jaguars.
But the offense can’t entirely run through him. The 2021 No. 1 overall draft pick will need to develop and rely on the run game to take pressure off of him, which should lead to James Robinson garnering a significant number of opportunities.
James should capitalize on those chances as well — the 22-year-old was tied for fifth last season with 1,070 rushing yards and also notched seven rushing touchdowns. He additionally caught 49 balls for 344 yards and three scores through the air.
11. Saquon Barkley (NYG)
When healthy, Saquon Barkley can be one of the more dynamic backs in the NFL.
The problem, however, is the health (or lack thereof).
Barkley missed 14 games last year due to a torn ACL and it’s unclear if he’ll be ready for Week 1. And even if he does play in the Giants‘ regular-season opener against Denver (Sunday, Sept. 12), it’s unknown if the team will have him assume the on-field responsibility it normally would.
Saquon’s talent and potential production on the stat sheet are why he cracks the top 15. However, the health history worries me and has forced me to keep him out of the top 10 (for now).
10. Ezekiel Elliott (DAL)
Ezekiel Elliott disappointed fantasy owners with a not-so-spectacular 2020 campaign. The Cowboy running back recorded career-lows in rushing yards (979), rushing yards per game (65.3), yards per carry (4.0), and tied his career-low in rushing touchdowns (six).
But given his talent in the passing game (52 receptions for 338 yards last season) and the fact his quarterback, Dak Prescott, is returning, I had to include him in the top 10.
Expect Dak’s return to force defenses to game plan against the pass more than they may have last year, which could decrease the opponents’ attention toward Zeke and assist in him returning to his pre-2020 production level.
9. Josh Jacobs (LV)
What a 2020 season Raiders running back Josh Jacobs experienced — his production in the run game leads to him landing in our top 10.
Jacobs was eighth with 1,065 rushing yards and also tied for fourth with 12 scores on the ground.
His 71 rushing yards-per-game mark was intriguing and so were his 33 receptions.
Expect Jacobs to be one of the top running backs in the AFC this coming year.
8. Aaron Jones (GB)
Aaron Rodgers is back and has Davante Adams and now Randall Cobb (once again) by his side. Thus, expect this Packer offense to run smoothly, which is great news for running back Aaron Jones.
Jones has heavily succeeded with Rodgers commanding the offense, and last season, rushed for 1,104 yards and nine touchdowns on 5.5 yards per carry. He also carries value in the passing game, having caught 47 balls for 355 yards and two scores.
Jones is a multi-talented back that’s proven to be a noteworthy asset of Green Bay’s offense; this shouldn’t change in 2021.
7. David Montgomery (CHI)
This Bears offense may need to operate through the run game for the time being.
It’s not confirmed free-agent pickup Andy Dalton will be heavily reliable in the passing game, and whenever Justin Fields plays, the rookie will likely need time to develop before assuming notable responsibility with his arm.
Expect David Montgomery to thus receive a great number of reps throughout the year.
While that’s one reason to draft him, another is the fact he’s actually capable of capitalizing on the in-game opportunities.
Montgomery tied for fifth in the NFL last year with 1,070 rushing yards to go with his eight rushing touchdowns. His receiving-game value (54 receptions for 438 yards and two touchdowns in 2020) should also interest you.
6. Nick Chubb (CLE)
One of the league’s more talented running backs comes in at No. 6 on our list.
Nick Chubb was seventh in the NFL last season with 1,067 rushing yards and tied for fourth with 12 rushing touchdowns.
However, there are a few reasons why I didn’t include him in the top five.
For one, Kareem Hunt is alongside him on the roster and Chubb may not receive the reps that some of the NFL’s bell cow running backs might. There also isn’t as much value with Chubb in the passing game — he recorded just 16 receptions for 150 yards in 2020.
Nonetheless, the Cleveland Brown still has the making of a No. 1 back on your fantasy team given the eye-popping production on the ground.
5. Jonathan Taylor (IND)
With Carson Wentz temporarily out with a foot injury, it’s time for running back Jonathan Taylor to step up just like he did during his 2020 rookie campaign.
By the end of that regular season, Taylor was third in the league with 1,169 rushing yards and tied for seventh with 11 rushing touchdowns. He’ll possess the chances to portray his talents amid the Wentz injury and should be able to make the most out of them.
Yes, star offensive guard Quenton Nelson is also dealing with a foot injury but is attempting to ready himself for a Week 1 return — pulling that off would obviously be huge for Taylor, so I would also keep an eye on that storyline.
4. Alvin Kamara (NO)
Did you think I was going to leave one of the league’s most dynamic backs out of the top five?
Drew Brees is gone, which means the Saints offense could rely on Alvin Kamara that much more to take pressure off whoever plays quarterback (whether that be Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston).
Kamara’s 83 receptions (led all running backs) from last year along with his 756 yards and five touchdowns through the air are tough to overlook. Not to mention, he still rushed for 932 yards and a whopping 16 touchdowns on the ground.
So, 1,688 yards from scrimmage and 21 touchdowns?
I’d take that level of production on my fantasy team — no question about it.
3. Christian McCaffrey (CAR)
I get he’s coming off an injury-plagued season.
But there’s still a reason why Christian McCaffrey is the highest-paid running back in the league.
During his 2019 Pro Bowl and first-team All-Pro campaign, McCaffrey further proved to be a dual-threat back and led the league in both scrimmage yards (2,392) and rushing/receiving touchdowns (19). In 2018 and 2019, he respectively recorded 107 and 116 catches, showing off his superb value in the passing game.
He also has a young, unproven quarterback in Sam Darnold now by his side, so head coach Matt Rhule and offensive coordinator Joe Brady will still need to run this offense through Christian.
If he remains healthy, McCaffrey can prove once again that he’s a top back in this league.
2. Derrick Henry (TEN)
Derrick Henry not at No. 1?
Okay, here me out.
Henry is second on the list because I’m not all that intrigued by his value in the passing game. He caught just 19 balls for 114 yards last year — he isn’t as much of a dual-threat back as, say, McCaffrey.
But the miraculous success on the ground is absolutely eye-opening.
Henry achieved the league’s rushing title each of the last two seasons (1,540 yards in 2019, 2,027 yards in 2020). He additionally led the NFL in rushing touchdowns during those campaigns (16 and 17, respectively).
Last year’s 126.7 rushing yards-per-game mark was also jaw-dropping.
The most recent rushing title wasn’t won by a close margin either; Henry beat out Dalvin Cook (the second-leading rusher) by 470 yards. Derrick’s rushing-yard mark was so staggering that he only needed 114 receiving yards to lead the league in scrimmage yards (2,141).
You get the point — Henry would be a phenomenal addition to your fantasy team.
1. Dalvin Cook (MIN)
I’m sorry, but I just like Dalvin Cook’s production in the passing game paired with what he’s still able to accomplish on the ground, which is why he locks down the top spot.
The Minnesota back was second in the NFL in 2020 with 1,557 rushing yards and tied for second with 16 rushing scores. He was also able to reel in 44 receptions for 361 yards.
Dalvin, on average, rushed for 111.2 yards per game.
Not to mention, he only played 14 games — think of the production level he could’ve reached if he was healthy for the entire 16-game regular season.
Henry’s great, yes. But when you combine Cook’s ability to produce both on the ground and through the air, and also his knack for the end zone, it’s tough not to put him atop this list.