Last season’s rookie running back class set the bar so high that there’s almost no way the 2021 class can touch it. Sure, only one back ended up topping 1,000 rushing yards, but down the stretch, James Robinson, Jonathan Taylor, J.K. Dobbins, Antonio Gibson, Cam Akers, and D’Andre Swift were all must-start players, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire might have been if he hadn’t gotten hurt.
And expectations are very, very high for that group in 2021. If we’re talking about the running back position being in a better place than it has been in recent memory for Fantasy, it’s because so much is expected of this group.
In NFC ADP right now, Taylor is a top-six pick overall on average, while Akers and Swift are both top-12 RBs. Gibson and Dobbins are top-15 backs, and Edwards-Helaire comes in 17th — Robinson is slipping down draft boards since the NFL Draft, but even the likes of A.J. Dillon and Zack Moss are going to be drafted as potential starters in many leagues.
The Fantasy Football Today team is giving our bold predictions for the 2021 season all week, so make sure you’re subscribed to the podcast, and I’ll have a breakdown of the biggest bold calls from everyone in Friday’s newsletter. But for today, I wanted to take another look at last year’s rookie class, because it is going to be so key to how this season turns out.
I’ve written about the best and worst-case scenarios for each of the top nine second-year running backs in my rankings because I think it’s important not just to talk about what is most likely to happen — which is typically what we’re ranking based on — but also the total range of possible outcomes for each player. You’ll ultimately have to decide whose upside is worth the risk and how they’ll fit into your team, but I’ll make the case here for you.
Before we get to that, though, here’s what you may have missed from the FFT crew this week, starting with my team preview series, which kicked off this week. For each team, I’m focusing on the biggest question, a sleeper, breakout, and bust, my projections and our expert rankings, and more, and we’ll be publishing one team every day of the week (not including weekends) until the end of June:
And now, here’s the best and worst-case scenario for each of the top second-year running backs, as I see it.
Dave Richard makes bold predictions about Marquise Brown, Josh Jacobs and Tyler Boyd on the Fantasy Football Today in 5 podcast. Listen below and follow at Apple, Spotify or wherever you get your podcasts:
Second-year RB breakdownJonathan Taylor — RB11
- Best case scenario: Pretty much what we saw down the stretch in 2020, when he played at least 56% of the snaps over the last five games, averaging 127.6 yards on 21 carries per game with eight total touchdowns while adding nine catches. And, if Carson Wentz can rediscover some of the form that once made him an MVP candidate, the offense as a whole could take another step forward. The best-case scenario is a No. 1 overall RB season — think Nick Chubb with potentially twice as many receptions.
- Worst case scenario: Taylor fell in and out of favor with the coaching staff through his rookie season, so there’s always some risk of that happening again, though it seems pretty unlikely. The more likely scenario is that the offense just isn’t very good. It is lacking talent among the pass catchers and Wentz looked like one of the worst QBs in the league last season. Add in that he’s more likely to scramble when the pocket breaks down than Philip Rivers was, and you’re potentially looking at an RB in a bad offense who doesn’t catch many passes. You can still be valuable in that kind of role, but it’s possible the difference between Josh Jacobs and Taylor isn’t that big this season — and Jacobs is typically available 30 picks later.
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Clyde Edwards-Helaire — RB12
- Best case scenario: All those reasons we liked Edwards-Helaire a year ago are still here. The Chiefs are still heavily invested in him and this is still a pretty great offense to be in for a running back in Fantasy. Before the acquisition of Le’Veon Bell, Edwards-Helaire was averaging 17.8 carries and 5.2 targets per game and would have been rightly viewed as a Fantasy stud if he had more than one touchdowns on 128 touches. Edwards-Helaire could have a 2020 Aaron Jones type season — Jones averaged 100 total yards per game and scored 11 touchdowns in 14 games.
- Worst case scenario: What if it wasn’t just bad touchdown luck? Edwards-Helaire’s lack of touchdowns last season wasn’t necessarily for lack of opportunities — he had 15 green zone carries (inside of the opponent’s 10 yard line) and scored just one touchdown, including five inside of the 5. He added just one touchdown on three targets inside the 10, too. Edwards-Helaire was also splitting time with Darrel Williams in the playoffs, and maybe the Chiefs just don’t view him as that kind of every-down back. The downside looks like last year, where Edwards-Helaire finished as RB25 in points per game but wasn’t someone you felt comfortable starting most of the season.
Cam Akers — RB13
- Best case scenario: As with Taylor, we probably saw a glimpse of it late in Akers’ rookie season, when he saw his snap share spike to 63% in Week 12 and he averaged 141.6 total yards per game over his final five. Akers emerged as a must-start back in that span and now he gets to play in what should be a much better offense with Matthew Stafford at QB. The Rams offense was pretty middling in 2020, and it was clear Jared Goff just wasn’t getting the job done — they were too easy to defend with a QB who couldn’t consistently push the ball down the field. With Stafford in at QB, that shouldn’t be a problem, and Akers should find he has a lot more room to operate. As with Taylor, you’re looking for a high-volume RB who dominates snaps and touches in what should be a very good offense.
- Worst case scenario: Unlike with Taylor, I think there are legitimate questions about how good Akers actually is. He averaged 4.31 yards per carry while Darrell Henderson and Malcolm Brown combined for 4.36, and that came after a college career that saw him rank in the 29th percentile among all rushers in yards per carry. Yards per carry is a flawed stat and Akers has all of the physical tools you could want, but he was also one of the worst running backs in the NFL in forcing broken tackles in 2020, so maybe he just won’t be able to create much for himself. Add in that he was targeted just 14 times in that five-game stretch to end the season, and this is another scenario where you might just be paying a premium for what Josh Jacobs could give you two rounds later.
Antonio Gibson — RB14
- Best case scenario: Gibson got the hard part down as a rookie, as the converted receiver more than held his own as a rusher, especially near the goal line. He rushed for 795 yards on 170 carries with 11 touchdowns in 14 games, and he was starting to really emerge as a consistent high-volume rusher before a toe injury in Week 13 — he averaged 15 carries per game in his previous five games before that, reaching 20 twice. The receiving game should be the easy part, and the hope is he started to chip away at J.D. McKissic’s third-down role. Gibson earned some Christian McCaffrey comparisons from the coaching staff when he first got to Washington, and while I don’t expect anything like that, the hope is he becomes that kind of do-it-all running back. There’s top-five upside here.
- Worst case scenario: Strip away the touchdowns, and Gibson had a decent rookie season, but not an incredible one, and even that stretch before the injury wasn’t on the level of laate-season Akers or Taylor (or J.K. Dobbins for that matter.) The assumption is Gibson will take on that bigger role in the passing game, but there’s no guarantee he picks up all the nuances of playing on third down that coaches are sticklers for. They know they can trust McKissic in that role — will they have a long leash for Gibson if he messes up? Add in that he is apparently still recovering from that late-season toe injury as minicamps get under way, and there are some warning signs. I actually think Gibson has a pretty high floor, but it’s possible the ceiling many are projecting will be harder to reach than expected.
D’Andre Swift — RB17
- Best case scenario: Swift is a three-down back in an offense that relies heavily on his unique playmaking skills to move the ball. The McCaffrey comp is unfair for Gibson and it’s unfair for Swift, but that 2019 season is the template: He’s a high-volume rusher who also is among his team’s leaders in targets, overcoming a bad offense through an ideal mix of touches. Swift showed his receiving chops in 2020, earning at least four targets in all but two games and at least five in eight of 13. We could be looking at a 70-catch, 250-carry season for Swift, and no back who has hit those thresholds over the past decade has had fewer than 1,634 yards from scrimmage and Leonard Fournette in 2019 was the only one with fewer than nine touchdowns. Fournette still finished as RB7 with three total touchdowns.
- Worst case scenario: Well, I guess we have to start with that weird quote from new Lions offensive coordinator Anthony Lynn where he dubbed Swift his “‘B’ back” — with Jamaal Williams the “A”. It could just be coach speak, but the Lions did also recently bring in Todd Gurley for a tryout, so it sure doesn’t seem like they view Swift as the every down stud Fantasy players seem to. Maybe it won’t matter — maybe Swift will be so good he’ll force their hands. But I think it’s clear Williams is going to have a significant role here, and if they brought in someone else like Gurley, I would imagine it isn’t just to be a mentor. Swift’s upside is super high, but he could be stuck in a frustrating time share. Aaron Jones has, of course, been an elite Fantasy RB playing alongside Williams, but this isn’t the Packers offense. It’s not out of the question Swift ends up just a flex option.
J.K. Dobbins — RB22
- Best case scenario: Dobbins should be an incredibly efficient runner in this Ravens offense, and while we haven’t seen any RB consistently top 15 carries per game during the Lamar Jackson era, it probably isn’t a stretch to say Dobbins is the most talented one they’ve had so far. Let’s say Dobbins gets to just 16 carries per game and averages 5.5 yards per carry and one touchdown every 20 carries — he was at 6.0 YPC and one TD every 15 carries as a rookie. That would be good for nearly 1,500 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, without even accounting for what would likely be another 200-plus receiving yards and a few touchdowns that way. He probably doesn’t have the touch volume to get to the Nick Chubb/Derrick Henry level, but it’s not hard to get him into the 5-10 range at RB in that kind of outcome.
- Worst case scenario: I don’t actually think there’s a particularly low floor here. Dobbins is going to run the ball well and he’s going to score a solid number of touchdowns, providing health. The concern here is he’s more like a 12-13 carry per game guy and only catches around 25 passes, He would probably still be a reliable No. 2 Fantasy RB, though likely one on the lower end of the spectrum, and his lack of pass catching would mean relatively few truly massive games. The case against Dobbins is more that he has a much narrower path to being a truly elite back than even some players drafted later than him.
AJ Dillon — RB40
- Best case scenario: And now we’re at the part of the rankings where it’s more about injuries than anything else. Dillon should have a solid role — the Packers prefer to use multiple backs, and Jamaal Williams averaged 169 touches per 16 games over the last two seasons. Where the upside comes in is if he gets a chance to be the lead back if something happens to Aaron Jones. We caught a glimpse of that upside late in 2020 when he rushed for 124 yards on 21 carries with two touchdowns in Week 16 against the Titans, and that’s the kind of line you’d be looking for if Jones did go down. The upside is probably similar to what Dobbins could give you, though he would obviously need more to go right to get there.
- Worst case scenario: Dillon is just a 5-8 carry per game guy who makes little impact in the passing game and has to rely on vulture touchdowns to have much Fantasy utility. This is probably the most likely outcome, at least at the start of the season, but maybe Dillon’s perceived limitations in the passing game might cost him even more opportunities if someone else proves worthy of spelling Jones for the occasional third-down rep.
Zack Moss — RB43
- Best case scenario: This is a good offense that should score a lot of touchdowns, and Moss figures to be the lead back and top goal-line option over Devin Singletary. If Josh Allen decides to dial his rushing back even a little bit, the result could be a 10-touchdown season for Moss, who could probably rush for 1,000-plus yards in a best-case scenario too.
- Worst case scenario: I’m lower on Moss than the consensus, mostly because even if he’s the Bills lead back, I just don’t see much value here. Even when Moss was the lead back late in his rookie season, he wasn’t seeing a significant amount of opportunities — he averaged 10.7 carries and 1.3 targets per game in the six where he played at least 50% of the snaps. The Bills have ranked in the bottom five in Fantasy points by running backs since Josh Allen entered the league. Why should I expect that to change?
James Robinson — RB47
- Best case scenario: Despite the presence of Travis Etienne, Robinson is still the lead back for a much-improved Jaguars offense, playing a Mark Ingram role to Etienne’s Alvin Kamara. That would mean handling the majority of rushing downs, seeing a healthy goal-line workload, and still being a factor in the running game. There probably isn’t top-12 RB upside here, but there’s a solid weekly role here if the Jaguars are serious about using Etienne less as a lead back and more as an all-around weapon.
- Worst case scenario: They aren’t being serious, and they do use Etienne as a lead back. Or, they muddle along without clear roles and the offense isn’t good enough to make either much more than a fringe starter, which is truly the worst-case scenario.