2021 Breakout Running Backs

Running back is easily the most exciting position in Fantasy Football. It’s so valuable that currently, 7 straight Running Backs are listed at the top of most Consensus Rankings. The exciting part, and the topic of today’s article, is that players can rapidly ascend to fantasy relevance at the position. In certain cases, these breakout players can mean a league winning result for Fantasy Managers. Let’s start by outlining some parameters to having a breakout season for any Running Back:

  • Greatly exceeding expectations in their rookie season
  • A player who has never finished at the RB2 level or better
  • Winning the job as the teams lead back after starting in a committee
  • Significantly increasing their productivity in a key statistical category

The most recent player who fits the bill is James Robinson in 2020. If you had him on your roster in early 2020 then you likely found yourself right at the top of your league standings. By week 3 when he had tallied 64.90FPTS in PPR formats. Robinson presented a scenario that Fantasy Managers dream of – a low to undrafted ADP Running Back who produces as an RB1. A very similar scenario played out in 2018 where Phillip Lindsay burst onto the scene tallying a 192/1,037/9TD stat line and a 5.40 YPC average. While predicting those types of breakout players is nearly impossible, we do have some options going into 2021 who could achieve similar results from a much higher ADP.

Going into 2021 here are some players that fit those key points for a “breakout” worthy label:

Damien Harris

ADP: 76 / ECR: RB29

I bet you wouldn’t associate an Alabama Running back with a career 5.0 YPC average with an ADP of 76. Well surprise, you’ve got Damien Harris. Since being drafted out of Alabama in the 3rd round of the 2019 NFL Draft by New England, Harris has only played in 12 NFL games. That is a very small sample size to be evaluating him on but it also caps his draft position at a modest ADP 89 in PPR formats.

  • Career 5.0 YPC average
  • 10+ carries in 9 of 10 games played in 2021
  • Only played 40.3% of offensive snaps during the 2021 season leaving ample room for growth
  • Projects to lead the Patriots backfield in touches
  • Positive endorsement from Bill Belichick as the team’s lead back
  • Projected increase in red zone usage with Mac Jones at QB vs Cam Newton
  • 3rd ranked Offensive Line in the NFL according to PFF
  • Returning defensive players who sat out the 2020 season bolster the New England defense and lend towards a more ‘run-friendly’ game script.

The other options in New England include veteran James White and rookie Rhamondre Stevenson. James White has trended downward in each of his last two season and until the Sony Michel trade, was going undrafted in most formats. Newcomer, Rhamondre Stevenson now ranks as the only player who could begin to limit the upper end of Harris’ value in 2021. While Stevenson has had an exciting 91-yard TD run in his first pre-season contest he is still a very raw talent who’s likely going to begin the season further behind on the Patriots depth chart than most care to admit.

Darrell Henderson

ADP: 54 / ECR: RB23

Darrell Henderson’s fantasy upside will not be limited by Sony Michel. Its bold, and its my stance. The LA Rams are projected to finish inside the Top 10 in 2021. Many analysts are predicting that Michel comes in to be the early down back. I view the situation a bit more similarly to the Bucs bringing Fournette aboard just prior to the start of the 2020 season. At 23y/o Henderson’s career is still on an upwards trajectory, one that is going to substantially benefit from the opportunity ahead of him in 2021. The signing of Sony Michel by a team of the Rams caliber should be viewed as adding security. Teams don’t add a new lead back in the week leading up to the start of the NFL season.

  • Henderson is the most dynamic back the Rams have
  • 8.2 YPC average in his college career at Memphis with a 214/1,909/22TD final season stat line
  • Very effective rushing to the outside which is a great fit for Sean McVay’s system
  • Possesses the highest level of elusiveness in the Rams backfield
  • Sean McVay loves to use a back who can cut back against the grain and bounce to the outside, Henderson outperforms Michel in this category
  • Sean McVay has said that Darrell Henderson’s role “won’t change” and that he will have a “very big role”

It’s worth noting that the Rams traded up in the 3rd round of the 2019 NFL draft to select Henderson. That shows confidence in the fact the Rams liked what they saw before he had ever put on a uniform. With some degree of concern given to Henderson’s injured thumb, the signing of Michel by the Rams is intelligent. Michel’s knee’s are an item that should be managed and preserved toward the playoff rounds of 2021.

AJ Dillon

ADP: 101 / ECR: RB37

AJ Dillon was taken in the 2nd round of the 2020 NFL Draft and came into his rookie season with incredible amounts of hype surrounding him. But behind both Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams he barely had room to show us what his “tree trunk” legs can do. AJ Dillon reminds me a lot of this guy who I drafted out of college years ago, before he had done anything fantasy wise, Derrick Henry.

  • Listed at 6-0 247lbs
  • Moves from the teams RB3 to RB2 role
  • Averaged 125.2 Rushing YPG in College
  • Benefits from his size in a cold-weather home environment
  • Had a 21/124/2TD Rushing performance in week 16 of 2020
  • Has added an improved pass catching ability trait going into 2021

We know that Dillon is a powerful back who is capable of stepping into a short yardage and goal line role for the Packers in 2021. With Aaron Jones, now 26 y/o, signing a 4-yr $48M deal at an age of 26 it clouds the Fantasy value of Dillon going into 2021. As a savvy drafter you should exploit this and point and capture him at his RB4 draft value. Dillon has a good chance to out-produce his ADP in 2021, you should be bullish on him as you select from players who aren’t likely to crack your starting roster in most formats.

Chase Edmonds

ADP: 63 / ECR: RB27

On his own, Drake vacates 1,092 yards from scrimmage and 10 TD’s. While both Chase Edmonds and James Conner appear to have unique roles in the 2021 Kliff Kingsbury offense I am leaning heavily on the fantasy upside with the usage of Edmonds as opposed to Conner. Kingsbury utilizes an up-tempo offense which is designed to drive the ball downfield quickly. Edmonds has proven his versatility as a pass catching back and has the skillset to stay on the field for extended drives.

  • Edmonds Finished as RB25 in PPR formats in 2020 – now being drafted as RB28 despite his projected increase in usage
  • He averaged 4.62 YPC and 7.58 YPR in 2020
  • If Conner misses time again in 2021, Edmonds projects for a heavy 20+ touches per game
  • Edmonds can stay on the field in a ‘no-huddle’ offense better that his counterpart
  • Already has 3 seasons in Cardinals offense giving him the ability to hit the ground running to start the season.

Conner is a bigger, harder nose runner capable of picking up a first down or even punching the ball in on the goal line. He lacks the stamina at this point in his career to be thought of as a 3-down back and the durability to hold our confidence as a Fantasy asset. Additionally the Cardinals utilize Kyler Murray heavily inside the redzone with his speed. For these combinations of reasons I’m lower on Conner than the consensus.

David Carey – @87_Carey

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: