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Ranking the Top Running Backs for 2021 Fantasy Football

By Dan Vasta in Fantasy Sports
| July 14, 2021 5:20 am PDT

The 2021 fantasy football season is drawing near, which means it is time to start dissecting fantasy football rankings.

Few are as important as the running back position. Selecting an elite star running back is never an easy task in the early rounds, as a bust can put a major dent in your fantasy football championship chances.

A consistent scorer every week can be the difference between winning and losing the majority of your matchups. After the first dozen or so backs, the production and confidence start to deteriorate.

With that, here’s a look at my fantasy football running back rankings for 2021 for the upcoming 2021 NFL season.

10. Austin Ekeler – Chargers

There are a ton of other options that are as good as or better than Ekeler entering most of your non-PPR leagues. He is absolute money in PPR leagues if he can put forth a full season.

The 2019 season we saw the Charger running back put together was sensational. He was targeted 108 times for 92 receptions with 992 yards and 8 receiving touchdowns. Those are WR2 numbers and there is no reason why he cannot post similar numbers with an extra added on the slate in 2021.

Needless to say, he’s looking like a legit RB1 again in 2021.

One of the bigger reasons why he should return close to 2019 form is due to the quarterback. Justin Herbert had a fantastic rookie season, and most are expecting a healthier, better version of Ekeler.

The Chargers should be a tough offense to defend thanks to the consistent production from Keenan Allen at wide receiver. Ekeler should be the second top target on the squad and Herbert will be relying upon him.

The receiving ability and rapport he has with Justin Herbert should benefit him in some weeks that he does not end up reaching paydirt. In a two-minute drive, he can accumulate easy points on simple dump-off passes. Those are critical points that only a select few can garner.

Check out his Instagram if you don’t believe he can run through defenders despite being undersized compared to most backs. He plays with no fear and should be given ample opportunities to succeed in a team with a ton of talent.

FantasyPros has him ranked No. 8 among PPR backs, which is highly regarded after an injury-plagued 2020 season. Fantasy Football Calculator has Ekeler No. 10 overall and as the No. 9 running back.

I would recommend taking him as a great RB2 option if he somehow falls in your PPR leagues. Some leagues will pass on him since he is not a huge bellow back that is coming off a down year.

If he becomes a top 10 pick, then I would look elsewhere.

There will be elite wide receivers to choose from and somebody like Travis Kelce as well should be there. I am a backer in Ekeler having a major bounce-back season, but his stock is a bit too high at the moment.

9. Nick Chubb – Browns

The offensive line that Cleveland has lined out there these past few years has been impressive. The Browns finally look like they have the squad that can compete with any team in the NFL.

Tremendous protection in the trench is always a turning point and Chubb has been an absolute monster between the tackles. The strength, power, and drive he has shown ranks among the best in the league.

A miss tackling machine, Chubb was one of the best in the league at getting more yardage than expected in 2020. See where he ranked in some key stats last year.

Rush YDs After Contact YAC Per ATT Broken Tackles Yards Before Contact
511 (9th) 2.7 (6th) 21 (4th) 556 (6th)

Chubb clearly got it done before contact, but even when defenders took a crack at him, he was among the best in the NFL at still finding production.

The Browns should be involved in a ton of close games and there may not be a better bruising back in the red zone than this stud.

Chubb has rushed for over 3,500 yards on the ground in three seasons as a professional back. Over five yards a pop with nearly 700 carries is overly impressive when you factor in his 28 rushing touchdowns.

The reason we have not seen him fly off the draft boards in PPR leagues is due to his lack of receptions.

In his career, Chubb has only been targeted 96 times. Many backs average that in one season and the majority of those are the ones that are ranked ahead of Chubb.

The downside of his inability to catch any passes will make it tough to consider him as a top 5 back. Kareem Hunt is the main pass catcher on this team in the backfield. Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are looking to reunite on the field with health and consistency.

All the top stars can snag 60-plus with the chances of getting close to 100 like Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara. Nonetheless, Chubb is still a monster that is capable of winning a rushing title with a dozen or more scores on the ground.

Take him with confidence as one of the best fantasy running backs for 2021.

8. Aaron Jones – Packers

The Packers were a potent offense a season ago and if Aaron Rodgers comes back, Jones should be a bonafide stud yet again. He is a speed demon once he gets into the open field, and he does not get tackled from behind often.

Jones has 30 scores the last two seasons combined and that is why he is worthy of a late first-round selection in PPR leagues.

Despite this, Jones continues to be disrespected as some massive risk in the fantasy football industry. In reality, he’s an amazing value for where he’s presently going in drafts.

The one glaring weakness would be his occasional injury history which limits his productivity. He only played in 14 games last season and must stay healthy if he wants to improve upon those numbers from last year and get closer to his 2019 form.

Playing for the Packers can be good and bad. We have seen many players steal touchdowns and make some great matchups on paper turn into duds. Davante Adams is coming off a Hall of Fame season where he was scoring in most games.

Plus, there is now another bruising back that is ready to be the red zone vulture we all fear. AJ Dillon has quads of a beast that not many can match. Dillon even showed off soft hands and was able to catch a few passes from Rodgers as well. 

While he could steal some carries from Jones and a few goal-line touches, Dillon will be more of a backup in the event Jones misses any time like he did last season.

Jones has also contributed out of the backfield as a pass-catcher, better than Dillon. Jones hauled in at least 60 passes the last two seasons. Without those receiving numbers he would be closer to RB2 territory, but there is no need to sweat.

As long as Rodgers is under center, this is a clear-cut late first or early second-rounder in PPR leagues. If the reigning MVP were to walk or play somewhere else, the value would be a bit more mysterious. Just be wary of that if you happen to have a super early draft in the summer.

7. Ezekiel Elliott – Cowboys

The Cowboy star running back has not had quite the season since his rookie year. He toted the rock 322 times for 1,631 yards with 16 rushing scores. Elliott has carried the ball 300-plus times in two of the last three seasons, but did not seem like his old self last season with all the struggles the offense endured.

Losing Dak Prescott was devastating, but the offensive line had major issues against most defensive fronts. Zeke needs to get back to eating the competition up by developing his swagger even further.

The ability to hang onto the football was a glaring weakness after coughing it up six times last year and only two were eventually recovered. If you are in a league where you lose two points per fumble lost, that could be costly in a weekly matchup.

Elliott is one of the few studs that can consistently draw 20-plus touches every week. The improved play of Dallas in 2021 should only help his chances of improving upon his production.

If you ask Zeke’s teammate Dak Prescott, there are good things coming.

“We’re excited for this year. It’s going to be very, very special for us and the Cowboys fans.”

The value may allow you to scoop the star back in the second round of many drafts.

One of the bigger rules to understand in fantasy football is to know your league. If you are in a competitive league, you should know the trends of your friends and when certain positions or players go off the board.

Elliott is highly regarded by the majority of leagues and that is due to the great upside in an explosive Dallas offense. The targets that he has been given as a receiver bring positive vibes. 70-plus targets in three straight seasons have allowed him to have a decent floor.

He is listed as a top-six back for both FantasyPros and Fantasy Football Calculator, which should not come as a surprise. He has developed every season as a pass-catcher, which has made him worthy of a first-round selection.

6. Jonathan Taylor – Colts

When the December version of Taylor showed up, fantasy owners took notice and wanted more. Taylor either eclipsed 100 yards or found paydirt in all of his final four games. He has also given 21 totes a game and feasted on the competition.

If you wanted to see his upside, Taylor displayed that in a big way when he dropped 253 yards in a game late in the year. It was a historic feat.

The only part of his game that was missing as a rookie and didn’t show up in college until his final season was his pass-catching skills.

Will we see Taylor get a bump in targets and catches to make him a threat to challenge for the top running back spot? He likely won’t be taken with a top three or so pick in most drafts, but he should be going in the first round for about every league.

PPR or not, Taylor is still a reliable stud on an improving Colts team that has a ton of potential. The division is super favorable with four combined matchups against the Jaguars and Texans, which could allow him to accumulate the most points in those weeks.

JT is ranked among the top seven running backs via FantasyPros and Fantasy Football Calculator.

The Indianapolis offensive line should pave the way for a handful of games with multiple scores by Taylor. Take Taylor with confidence and understanding the youngster will go through occasional mediocre weeks with the upside of dominating AFC South competition.

5. Saquon Barkley – Giants

The rookie performance that Barkley displayed dazzled all of us. Just because we didn’t see the Giants being successful enough these last few years should not prevent you from taking him with a first-round selection.

We have seen a ton of first or second-year players succeed. Fast forward three years later and the injuries have been tough to watch for Barkley.

After a 16-game rookie campaign, Barkley has played just 15 games in the last two seasons combined. One of the biggest concerns in fantasy football is if your top draft picks cannot stay healthy, finding production close to a top pick is almost impossible.

Collectively your team could endure injuries here and there, but losing a top-five or so pick for significant time is the fantasy kiss of death.

The positive side for Barkley is he can pick up points in different ways. He is a balanced scorer that can catch fire due to his explosive play-making ability. Catching a ball in the flats is an easy two points more times than not, but occasionally Barkley will go the distance.

While there are a ton of weapons (Shepard, Engram, Toney, Slayton, Golladay) for Daniel Jones to find more success, Barkley is without a doubt the top option offensively.

The only negative right now is Barkley’s recovery, and the whispers that he won’t have a major workload early in the season.

Understandably so, that’s placed Barkley on fantasy football bust lists for 2021.

While worth noting, it’s important to remember that he will still be a major contributor.

If he can come close to his rookie numbers in the receiving department (121 targets for 91 catches and 721 yards), then he will be a cheat code for the better portion of the season.

Keep in mind, he did that in 16 games during his rookie season and I wouldn’t put it past him to come fairly close in the lines of 90-plus targets, 70-plus catches, and 500-plus yards receiving. That would put him right there in the discussion with Cook and McCaffrey.

4. Derrick Henry – Titans

King Henry is bound to break Eric Dickerson’s rushing record that has stood tall since 1984. Henry nearly broke the record a season ago but fell just under 100 yards shy of it.

Now, we have a 17-game schedule and Henry looks poised to shatter the record that so many star backs have come up well short of.

The division is a favorable one to break records thanks to the Texans and Jaguars rebuilding. Henry is a rare breed where his size, speed, and strength are unmatched. He shoves tacklers towards the benches and can outrun anybody roaming sideline to sideline.

I touched on Nick Chubb’s physicality turning into fantasy points, but Henry is even more imposing for defenders. Check out these numbers.

  • 954 yards before contact (1st)
  • 1,073 yards after contact (1st)
  • 34 broken tackles (1st)

The breakaway speed he has featured keeps defenses honest if they don’t keep a high safety out of the box. If you load the box up then one missed tackle or bad angle will result in Henry hitting his head on the goal post.

If you load the box up, then Julio Jones and AJ Brown will light any opposing secondary up. Ryan Tannehill is a mobile signal-caller that is also a major threat to score, so the weapons are endless.

He likely won’t score seven times on the ground again, but the added weapons should only help Henry out in the long run.

There is not much of a downside other than his lack of receiving production. For the first time in his career, Henry was targeted over 30 times in a season which is absurd to think.

Tennessee has normally had a third-down back, but the lack of receiving numbers has made life tough on Henry becoming the highest-scoring back.

Henry nearly broke the rushing record and reached the end zone 17 times and still was only third among running backs behind Dalvin Cook and Alvin Kamara.

Life can be tough if you have lofty expectations, but Henry will once again be in the running for the most points among backs.

3. Alvin Kamara – Saints

Merry Christmas was a saying I heard more than usual this past season and that was in large part thanks to Alvin Kamara handing out championships on his virtuoso performance against the Vikings.

It was the greatest performance many have ever seen for any skill player.

Kamara is highly regarded and is a consensus top-four pick via FantasyPros and Fantasy Football Calculator.

A lot will be talked about the loss of Drew Brees will be a major disadvantage, but Kamara is a premier talent playing on a very good roster.

New Orleans may not be a mortal lock to reach the postseason, but their offense should still be able to move the football. Kamara has been as reliable as a receiver as any running back in the NFL arguably.

Kamara has been the model of consistency in the receiving department. Just look at his reception total in his four seasons in the league.

  • 81
  • 81
  • 81
  • 83

The guy is insane. His pass-catching ability and role in the Saints system makes him a threat to once again clear 80+ catches.

The rushing numbers are not off the charts as he has not surpassed 1,000 yards on the ground, but the touchdown upside is there (35 rushing TD last three seasons). Grab Kamara regardless of Taysom Hill or Jameis Winston becoming the new starter.

2. Dalvin Cook – Vikings

Cook has shown flashes of being an all-pro running back and his future looks bright. Thus far, the fine career he has shown has been mainly due to his home-run ability.

The Vikings were not even a playoff team last season, but they were finding themselves to be in shootouts more times than not.

Even with Adam Thielen and Justin Jefferson having enormous seasons in touchdowns and or yards, Cook was still in the kitchen feasting on the opposition.

Take a look at his nasty production last year.

Rush YDs Rush TDs Receptions Rec YDs Rec TDs
1,557 16 44 361 1

I would anticipate that he will continue to score about as many touchdowns as any player in the NFL. Kirk Cousins had a tremendous season per the numbers, but they don’t want him dropping back over 500 times.

Cook will garner some top pick consideration and should continue to reach paydirt on a team full of weapons.

Take Cook with a top-three pick and don’t even think for a second about it. If he somehow crawls down to the middle or later portion of the first round, you just stole an elite fantasy prospect that any team would be lucky to have.

1. Christian McCaffery – Panthers

CMC has been an unstoppable force when he can stay on the gridiron and perform like a superstar. He has been a fantasy machine on a per-game basis.

He posted 80 receptions on a down year in 2019, which would make him a solid WR2 without a single carry in the backfield. Luckily, he gets plenty of those and the addition of Sam Darnold should help him reach elite status yet again.

Darnold struggled with the Jets, but he may give Carolina the most upside under center that they’ve had in years. That is potentially great news for McCaffrey, who has been fantasy’s consensus #1 pick even with suspect quarterbacks alongside him.

He is undeniably in that conversation again in 2021.

The viable options the Panthers have should not scare you off. This Joe Brady offense had Teddy Bridgewater find success without Christian McCaffrey and his health should improve the play of Sam Darnold. Darnold can improve his career in an offense that is full of productive players.

Former LSU wideout Terrace Marshall should help DJ Moore and Robby Anderson. The trio has great speed, which will open the underneath routes for CMC to take a huge bite out of opposing defenses in 2021.

More Fantasy Football Rankings for 2021

Hopefully, these 2021 fantasy football running back rankings help you for the coming NFL season.

Ideally, they point you to the very best running backs in fantasy football this year, and also help you gauge when you should look to draft them.

The best backs will be gone early and loading up on stud rushers is always a fine fantasy football strategy. This is just one position to prepare for going into 2021 season though.

For more 2021 fantasy player rankings and analysis, check out the posts below.

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