I never like making the fantasy football bust series. It’s not fun. I want everyone to be good, and I want everyone’s sleepers to hit, and I don’t want anyone to be a bust. Unfortunately, fantasy football doesn’t work that way. That means we have to take a look at some bust running back candidates for 2021 fantasy football. There’s no criteria here except for the ol’ gut. Generally, I looked for guys getting drafted at or above their perceived ceiling for 2021 fantasy football. Let’s dive in.
Bust Running Back #1: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
(ECR RB6, 6 Overall)
Early on in the offseason, I declared that there is no such thing as a bounce-back running back. Then, I spent the rest of the offseason thinking that Ezekiel Elliott will have a bounce-back season. Thanks to the begging and pleading of Walker Kelly on the Football Absurdity Podcast, I finally acquiesced. There are plenty of excuses for Zeke’s season last year: Dak’s injury, the line becoming a mess, Zeke maybe not being as good anymore.
If it was just the line, then why did Tony Pollard have more yards per carry, and more breakaway runs (in fewer carries)? If it was just Dak, then why did Tony Pollard have a higher juke rate and a higher yard created per touch? Dak’s injury and the line falling apart might have accelerated Elliott’s drop from favor, but they didn’t cause it.
Elliott’s rush attempts and rushing efficiency have gone down in each of the last two seasons. His receiving yards per game, as well as his catch rate, have also dropped in each of the last two years, which goes with his yards per target dropping every single season of his career. He’s clearly on the downslope, and he might have one more season in him, but I am not betting the #6 overall pick on that.
Bust Running Back #2: Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
(ECR RB11, 16 Overall)
Oh boy, here we go. I called Joe Mixon a bust last offseason, and everybody yelled at me that I was completely wrong and that he’s Actually Good, and that he’ll have lots of opportunities and that I was a big ugly stupid meanie head. Here’s where things ended up: Joe Mixon was one of the most disappointing backs in all of fantasy football last season. In the five games where he didn’t face the team that ended up with the #1 overall pick, he averaged 21.8 touches per game for a cool, cool 3.08 yards per touch. For those of you keeping track at home… that’s bad.
But, his one game was so good that it made all his numbers look better. Not good mind you, but better. Before his foot injury, Joe Mixon was on pace for 320 touches on 4.04 yards per touch. Since 2010, there have been 78 running back seasons where they ended with at least 300 touches. Had Mixon kept his touch and per-touch pace, he would have made that 79, and carried the sixth-worst season among guys with at least 300 touches in the last decade, bumping 2012 Trent Richardson off the list by 0.1 yards per touch.
I’m not wholly convinced that we aren’t just transferring our feelings from pre-2020 Joe Mixon onto 2021 Joe Mixon, without really grappling with how bad he was last year.
Bust Running Back #3: J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens
(ECR RB13, 25 Overall)
I like J.K. Dobbins, to be clear. I think J.K. Dobbins is a special running back who has the ability to be the next Nick Chubb. And by that I mean a hard runner who has to show that he can overcome a complete lack of usage in the run game before I anoint him as a top-fifteen running back. Dobbins was among the league leaders in yards per carry, yards per touch, breakaway run rate, juke rate, and pretty much every other efficiency metric on the ground.
But, unfortunately, most of us play in PPR or HPPR leagues, and a carry is worth a lot less than a target. Let’s do a little mental exercise. Let’s assume that Dobbins gets 250 carries (Ingram’s high with the Ravens was 202), at 6 yards per carry (he won’t, but let’s just say). That comes out to 1,500 yards or 150 fantasy points. In full-PPR, if a different back catches 40 balls for and chips in 1100 yards, that’s also 150 fantasy points. But, one seems much much harder to get. After all, Dobbins had more yards. But, in fantasy the form the yards take matters.
This might not shock you, but a fantasy football reception is worth a lot more than a carry in PPR and HPPR leagues. But, I feel like that’s something that needs to be said. A rush attempt is also worth just about two-thirds as many fantasy points as a reception in 0PPR leagues. The Ravens don’t give him any targets, as they don’t target running backs (dead last in 2020). So, that means it’s basically all carries. I can’t buy into that at his price in fantasy drafts this year.
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[Image Source: Image Source: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/0/05/Joe_Mixon_vs_Browns_2019.jpg, cropped under CC BY SA 2.0]