Top Running Back Sleepers for 2021 Fantasy Football

By Anthony Haage in Fantasy Sports
| July 27, 2021 8:21 am PDT

In the past, the running back position dominated fantasy football. The best fantasy football picks were mostly featured rushers, and if you didn’t get at least one, you were in trouble.

Now the position is devalued a bit in the NFL, and using the Zero-RB fantasy football draft strategy is a viable approach.

Whether you go that far or not, it’s always helpful to locate value at the position. To help you do that, let’s analyze the best fantasy football running back sleepers for 2021.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire – Chiefs

The Kansas City Chiefs are a gold mine when it comes to fantasy. The story stays the same at the running back position.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire had an impressive rookie season, even though he only played 13 games. He burst onto the scene in Week 1, dominating the Texans in his rookie debut.

Check out his numbers in his first-ever NFL game.

  • 25 carries
  • 138 rushing yards
  • 1 TD

It appeared he was on his way to stardom, but he only rushed for more than 100 yards once the rest of the season.

He was still a very valuable fantasy player, as he was RB10 overall from Weeks 1 to 11. He fell to RB37 from Weeks 12-17, but that is because he ended up missing Weeks 13, 16, and 17. In Weeks 14 and 15, he was back to his productive self.

In Weeks 14 and 15, CEH averaged 18 touches per game with 87 yards per game. That is a great workload when considering how few running backs get 15+ touches per game.

CEH’s problem when it came to fantasy was the touchdown category; he only scored four touchdowns in the regular season, which was especially odd because of the Chiefs’ ability to score on offense. The Chiefs scored 53 times offensively in 2020, but only 4 of those scores were from their young running back.

Since the Chiefs’ offense remains one of the very best in the league, it would be no surprise to see Edwards-Helaire bounce back in the touchdown category. He could have a realistic shot at double-digit touchdowns.

He ran for 803 yards on 181 carries, which is good for 4.44 yards per carry. That ranked 27th in the league but 10th in the league of players who had at least 180 rushing attempts. If he kept the same rushing pace throughout the season, he would’ve finished with 988 rushing yards, 12 short of the century mark.

He also remains involved in the passing game. He had 54 targets and 36 receptions. If he kept the same pace over a 16-game span, that would go up to around 66 targets and 44 receptions. His 297 receiving yards would have been about 365 receiving yards over a 16-game season.

The balance and upside package CEH offers in the league’s best offense is quite appealing.

If you project his stats over a 16-game season, he would have had 1,353 total scrimmage yards and 44 receptions. That would have been more than Ezekiel Elliott’s 1,317 total scrimmage yards.

If Clyde Edwards-Helaire bounces back in the touchdown scoring department, he can end up being among the top fantasy running backs this season. He is currently being drafted as RB17 and 27th overall, which is a great price for a player of his upside.

Miles Sanders – Eagles

The very next running back being selected after Clyde Edwards-Helaire is Miles Sanders at RB18 and 33rd overall. Sanders finished as RB21 despite only playing 12 games for the Eagles.

Doing the same thing we did with Clyde Edwards-Helaire, let’s find out what his stats would have looked like over a 16-game span using his pace over his 12 actual games played.

Miles Sanders’ 16 Game Pace
GAMES ATT RUSH YDS TARGETS REC REC YDS TDs
12 164 867 52 28 197 6
16* 218 1,156 69 37 262 8

*Projection over 16 games

One thing that stands out here is that his receptions per target percentage is bad. He caught 50 passes the year before, which was his rookie season on just 63 targets.

That is an area that should improve this season, and he could reach the 50-reception mark again, boosting his value even more in PPR leagues.

Another thing to take into consideration is the young quarterback in Philadelphia, Jalen Hurts. Hurts only made 4 starts last season from Weeks 13 to 16. Sanders actually missed Week 16 to injury, so he played in 3 total games with Hurts as the starting quarterback.

In those 3 games (Weeks 13 to 15), Sanders ranked as RB13.

He did perform better from Weeks 2-6 when he was RB9, but it wasn’t exactly a huge difference to when Hurts was starting QB.

Sanders joins Edwards-Helaire as a sleeper RB with huge upside in this part of fantasy drafts.

Mike Davis – Falcons

Mike Davis did a good job of filling in for Christian McCaffrey last season and earned himself a 2-year contract in Atlanta, worth $5.5 million.

McCaffrey ended up only playing in Weeks 1,2 and 9. Davis was the starter in the rest of the season, minus Week 16 (injury).

Davis finished as fantasy RB18, even though he made just 12 starts at running back for the Panthers.

In Weeks 3-8, Mike Davis was fantasy’s RB7 and was one of the best waiver wire adds of the season. McCaffrey returned for one game in Week 9, but from Week 10-15, Davis was RB19.

Davis proved to be a solid running back for the Panthers, and now he should be the starting running back for the Falcons. Now, the Falcons are not a run-heavy team; they ran the ball 409 times last season, which was 20th in the league.

This doesn’t look good on paper for Davis, but Davis proved to be more than capable of catching the ball out of the backfield. Davis caught 59 passes on 70 targets for the Panthers, so the Falcons should be able to keep him involved outside of the running game.

Davis probably won’t be able to be the RB7 like he was from Weeks 3 through 8, but he should be able to put up solid fantasy numbers this season.

The only concern, of course, is if the Falcons turn to a different back as their top starter. RBs coach Desmond Kitchings ruffled some fantasy feathers with this quote.

“The door is wide open.”

Davis still looks to be in the driver’s seat for the most touches in Atlanta, though.

He is currently being drafted at RB29 and 68th overall, making him a steal in this year’s draft. He has a great chance to be worth way more than his draft pick and makes for one of my favorite sleepers this season, regardless of position.

Darrell Henderson – Rams

Henderson now slides into the RB1 spot for the Los Angeles Rams, who just lost Cam Akers for the season due to a torn Achilles.

This outlook on Henderson could change if the Rams opt to trade for another running back, but for now, Henderson looks like the man.

His average draft position is going to skyrocket since Akers’ injury, so his ADP is probably the lowest it is going to be for the remainder of the offseason.

With that being said, he is primed for a huge season. The Rams made some personnel changes at the quarterback position, and their offense could be in for a big season behind Matthew Stafford.

Akers and Henderson basically had opposite years last season, Henderson was the lead RB early in the season, and Akers took over later in the year. Now Henderson won’t have to split carries with Akers and has big breakout potential.

As a team, the Rams ranked pretty good in the rushing categories from a fantasy perspective.

  • 7th most rush attempts
  • 10th in rushing yards
  • 10th in rushing touchdowns

That proves that the Rams will utilize the run more than most teams and their RBs are in a good spot.

Akers was expected to be the starter coming into this season due to his performance at the end of last year and in the postseason, and he was being drafted before Henderson. Henderson was being drafted in the RB46 range, but he won’t be that low for much longer.

Try to get him while you can, or wait and see if the Rams want to add another RB in free agency or via trade.

James Conner – Cardinals

James Conner moves from Pittsburgh’s starting running back to sharing starting duties with Chase Edmonds in Arizona. It may sound like he is in a worse position, but Kenyan Drake was in the same spot as Conner last year, and he finished as fantasy’s RB12.

Drake ran the ball 239 times for 955 yards and 10 touchdowns. He wasn’t as involved in the passing game from the running back position because that is where Edmonds specializes. If Conner replaces Drake and Edmonds stays in the same role, Conner could offer a huge return on your investment.

Edmonds finished as RB30, but he got a ton of carries when Drake was inactive in Week 9. Edmonds carried the ball 25 times, which is rare nowadays for one player to carry the ball that many times.

He wasn’t very efficient with that much work, gaining 70 total rushing yards (2.8 yards per carry). But the work he got indicates that the Cardinals were willing to have him be their main RB. He just didn’t do as well as he normally does in the backup/receiving role.

Edmonds might actually be better off as 1B to Conner’s 1A. Not to mention Kyler Murray’s rushing production could be on the decline based on his recent comments.

“Honestly, the way I see it is, my legs should be a luxury.”

If Murray runs less, that could mean more runs for his tailbacks or some extra dump-offs in the backfield.

James Conner is being drafted as RB33 and 84th overall, and Edmonds is being drafted higher at RB28 and 72nd overall. Conner should have great value at this point in the draft.

Melvin Gordon III – Broncos

Gordon had a possible suspension coming his way when he was arrested with a DUI, but his charge was dismissed. He should be right back into the starting job in Denver, and his ex-teammate, Phillip Lindsay, is now in Houston.

Lindsay was Gordon’s main competition for carries, but now that changes to the rookie Javonte Williams.

The Broncos traded up to draft Williams at 35th overall, and he looks to be their future running back. Gordon is entering his last year on his contract, and the Broncos may opt to give Williams more of a look, and due to that, he’s easily one of the top NFL rookies to watch this year.

But for the time being, Gordon looks like to be a great value at RB25 and 60th pick overall. He’s certainly been a reliable performer over the years.

Take a look at his production and rank dating back to 2016.

YEAR (Rank) CARRIES RUSH YDS REC REC YRDS TDs
2016 (8) 254 997 41 419 12
2017 (5) 284 1,105 58 476 12
2018 (6) 175 885 50 490 14
2019 (25) 162 612 42 296 9
2020 (13) 215 986 32 158 10

Gordon has been one of the best fantasy running backs since 2016. It is worth noting that he only played 12 games in 2018 and 2019, so he could have finished even higher in the rankings.

Even if Javonte Williams proves to be worth the hype, Gordon is still the main starter and should be able to produce good fantasy numbers, even if his play declines. You could even try selling high on Gordon midway throughout the year if the Broncos start to give Williams more and more looks.

Trey Sermon – 49ers

Another team who traded up to take a running back was the San Francisco 49ers. The 49ers run offense has been among the best in the league in recent years, and they seem to have a sneaky fantasy running back option every year.

This year, it could be Sermon in that role.

The 49ers’ current RBs typically get injured a lot. Just look at all of their top rushers last year and the number of games they missed.

Player Games Missed
Raheem Mostert 8
Tevin Coleman 8
Jeff Wilson Jr. 4

So, if that happens again, Sermon could slide into the starting role and become a great fantasy pick.

The 49ers made the Super Bowl two years ago behind their dominant rushing attack and defense, so they could look to get back to that same style of football.

Sermon is being drafted as RB37 and 98th overall, so he comes at a low price. He could be a nice find that late in drafts and great for deeper leagues. If you are in a 10-team league or less, make sure you keep an eye on him throughout the year on the waiver wire.

Michael Carter – Jets

Carter is another rookie running back who could take over the starting role this year. The Jets’ Head Coach, Robert Saleh, said they were “excited as heck” to grab Carter in the 4th round.

That means they like what they saw from him when they were scouting and could give him some chances early in the year to grab the starting job. The Jets’ running back room isn’t necessarily stacked, so if Carter impresses in practice and the preseason, he could potentially grab the starting job.

His only real roadblock is the aforementioned Tevin Coleman, who has played in all 16 games just once in his entire career.

Carter is being drafted as RB34 and 86th overall, so he’s cheap, too. If you have an extra spot on your bench and don’t know who to draft, you can take a flier on Carter.

Other Fantasy Football RB Sleepers for 2021

  • J. Dillon – Packers (Round 8)
  • Kenyan Drake – Raiders (Round 8)
  • Xavier Jones – Rams (Round 13)

Dillon will take on a bigger role with Jamaal Williams gone, and he’s one Aaron Jones injury away from fantasy stardom. The same goes for Drake, who Las Vegas signed on to eat up pass-catching downs at the very worst.

Jones could be a nice handcuff to Darrell Henderson. Should Henderson share the load or get hurt like Akers, Jones, or even Jake Funk could suddenly hold serious value.

The running back position can make or break your fantasy roster. A lot of people draft RBs early and try to grab the workhorse backs.

These sleeper running backs will allow you to grab top-tier players in other positions and take a different path than most. The draft is a major part of the fantasy season, and sleepers are the reason why some people win their draft and their league.

Hopefully, my top fantasy football running back sleepers for 2021 helps you this year. There’s more advice to be had, of course, so check out some more fantasy football content below.

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