Running Back Tiers for 2021 Fantasy Football Drafts

2021 Myles Gaskin Miami Dolphins Running Back

A great part about doing a bazillion fantasy football drafts is that you get to see trends develop. A quarterback run here, a drop-off in talent there; you start to see the ebbs and flows of the draft. It’s a hard-earned dataset, gotten through endless hours of mock drafting and poring over the data. Or, you take 20 minutes on 4for4 and snag their ADP data and break it up into tiers… Anyway, here are the fantasy football running back tiers as broken up by average draft position data for a 12-team league, as well as some thoughts on the players going inside said fantasy football running back tiers. ADP data are for 12-team leagues and 6.03 means the sixth pick of the third round, 12.12 means the twelfth pick of the twelfth round, et cetera.

In a glow-up from last year’s iteration of the running back tiers article, I’ve included my tier, where I have the player, by my projections.

Fantasy Football Running Back Tier 1: Capital S Studs
ADP RB-# Player Team 12-Team ADP TIER MY TIER
1 RB-1 Christian McCaffrey CAR 1.01 1 1
2 RB-2 Dalvin Cook MIN 1.02 1 1
3 RB-3 Derrick Henry TEN 1.03 1 1
4 RB-4 Alvin Kamara NO 1.04 1 1
6 RB-5 Ezekiel Elliott DAL 1.06 1 2
7 RB-6 Saquon Barkley NYG 1.07 1 1
My Favorite: Christian McCaffrey, Duh

This is the cream of the crop, up here at the top. There are some warts among these guys, though.

CMC missed almost all of last season due to injuries, and Dalvin Cook had those malady-laden seasons in the past. I also have some fears that Derrick Henry has one of those seasons in the near future, given his proclivity for doling out punishment to would-be tackles. Alvin Kamara has question marks at quarterback, though the question marks surrounding Michael Thomas make him a stronger case. Zeke Elliott struggled last year and might lose a lot of snaps and touches to Tony Pollard this season. Saquon Barkley is recovering from an ACL tear but is looking increasingly likely for week one as the preseason progresses.

It’s a personal choice which order you take these guys, and which of the things I outlined above scares you and which don’t. Personally, I have McCaffrey #1, with Dalvin Cook and Alvin Kamara right behind him. The warts they have don’t scare me.

Fantasy Football Running Back Tier 2: The Next Men Up
ADP RB-# Player Team 12-Team ADP TIER MY TIER
10 RB-7 Jonathan Taylor IND 1.10 2 2
11 RB-8 Nick Chubb CLE 1.11 2 3
12 RB-9 Aaron Jones GB 1.12 2 2
14 RB-10 Austin Ekeler LAC 2.02 2 2
My Favorite: Aaron Jones

This tier is interesting because there’s something for everybody in here, and these seem to be the running backs that people are double-tapping. It’s also fascinating because you have two sets of two backs who have completely different profiles. Nick Chubb and Jonathan Taylor are more of your between the tackles runners, and Chubb catches almost no footballs. Taylor caught 36 balls in 15 games last year, which is pretty good. But, that’s nothing compared to the pass-catching prowess of Jones (47 catches in 14 games) and Ekeler (54 catches in 10 games in 2020).

That’s why I prefer Aaron Jones and Austin Ekeler here: if their teams are up, they’ll run the ball. If their teams are down, they’ll get targets. All-in-all, their situation is more secure. The thing that gives Aaron Jones the nod over Ekeler for me in this tier is Aaron Rodgers, to be honest. The Chargers’ offensive upside is the Packers, so I don’t want to get caught chasing upside with Ekeler, and I’ll go with Aaron Jones. But, I love them both:

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Fantasy Football Running Back Tier 3: Gibson or Harris?
ADP RB-# Player Team 12-Team ADP TIER MY TIER
17 RB-11 Antonio Gibson WAS 2.05 3 3
18 RB-12 Najee Harris PIT 2.06 3 3
My Favorite: Najee Harris

It’s at this point in the draft that people, satisfied with their round one running back, turn toward wide receivers and tight ends (and quarterbacks… please don’t do that). So, the next two tiers are a bit choppy. This group is just two guys: Antonio Gibson and Najee Harris.

There’s a strong case for Antonio Gibson: he’s the second-best player on his team, and they have a new quarterback who loves to throw the ball all over the field. Gibson also has a chance to take a huge step forward as the strong Washington offensive line (finished sixth in PFF offensive line ranking in 2020) and strong defense will combine for some good game scripts for Gibson to run through.

But, I still like Najee Harris more! The Steelers offensive line is somewhat of a mess, but a good running back like Harris will negate that. Plus, the Steelers love to give one running back a ton of targets and carries, meaning Harris has guaranteed work. Najee Harris is also… really good at football. He was my second favorite back in this class, and he’s stepping right into guaranteed production. At this point, I would go Harris over Gibson solely because I think Harris is the better football player.

Fantasy Football Running Back Tier 4: Mixon or CEH?
ADP RB-# Player Team 12-Team ADP TIER MY TIER
21 RB-13 Joe Mixon CIN 2.09 4 4
26 RB-14 Clyde Edwards-Helaire KC 3.02 4 4
My Favorite: Clyde Edwards-Helaire

This was another mini-tier, with Joe Mixon and CEH going only a few picks apart. For my money, I’m going with CEH in this one. Joe Mixon is one of the most average backs in the NFL, and I don’t care how much volume he is going to get. At a certain point, if he continues to be just okay running the football, the Bengals will turn to passing the ball more to Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins, and Tyler Boyd. If Clyde Edwards-Helaire struggles to run the ball… he’s still one of the most dynamic pass-catchers to come out of college in the last few years. I don’t see Jerick McKinnon gumming up the works too much, especially since multiple undrafted free agent running backs outplayed him last year on the 49ers. So, I fear CEH’s competition as much as I fear Mixon’s.

Also, Clyde Edwards-Helaire had historically bad touchdown luck, converting just one-of-nine carries inside the five… but five of these carries came in week one. He had just four carries the rest of the way inside the five. I’m not ready to write him off just because J.J. Watt abused a prior iteration of this offensive line.

Fantasy Football Running Back Tier 5: Solid RB2s
ADP RB-# Player Team 12-Team ADP TIER MY TIER
30 RB-15 D’Andre Swift DET 3.06 5 3
32 RB-16 J.K. Dobbins BAL 3.08 5 5
34 RB-17 David Montgomery CHI 3.10 5 4
38 RB-18 Miles Sanders PHI 4.02 5 5
39 RB-19 Chris Carson SEA 4.03 5 3
45 RB-20 Josh Jacobs LV 4.09 5 5
My Favorite: D’Andre Swift

Just stop the dang presses and go get D’Andre Swift… that is if he recovers well from the groin strain he suffered at practice this week. I think he will, and I think he will bounce back to have an RB1 season. The rest of the guys here all seem like they are set up for solid top-end RB2 seasons, but realistically, I’m not entirely sure what their solid RB1 upside could be.

If you’ve heard of the running back dead zone… this might just be it. There are a lot of guys in here with precarious value who could fall off of the knife’s edge… or they could smash value. I’m particularly worried about J.K. Dobbins in a PPR league, given that the Ravens do not pass the ball to running backs. Chris Carson is solid, but injuries are always a risk. I do believe that David Montgomery is a great pick at his price if Swift isn’t there.

And I simply do not know what to think about Miles Sanders and Josh Jacobs, so I politely refuse to formulate an opinion about them.

Fantasy Football Running Back Tier 6: The Pass Catchers
ADP RB-# Player Team 12-Team ADP TIER MY TIER
53 RB-21 Travis Etienne JAX 5.05 6 5
58 RB-22 Myles Gaskin MIA 5.10 6 4
59 RB-23 Mike Davis ATL 5.11 6 5
62 RB-24 Kareem Hunt CLE 6.02 6 5
My Favorite: Myles Gaskin

This group of backs all has some limited rushing upside for one reason or another. Mike Davis being Mike Davis is one reason, and Kareem Hunt & Travis Etienne getting hemmed in by James Robinson and Nick Chubb is the other reason. Myles Gaskin sits a tier above these guys specifically because he doesn’t really have much hemming him in. Malcolm Brown is just a guy, Salvon Ahmed does everything Gaskin does, but not as well, and Gerrid Doaks is not a threat, no matter what fantasy football Twitter tells you.

This isn’t to say that I don’t like the other guys in this group, I just love Gaskin. Travis Etienne was my favorite running back in this draft class and could have an Alvin Kamara rookie season if the Jaguars just unleash him on the unsuspecting world. Kareem Hunt is just a few years removed from being the 1.01, and Mike Davis… also exists! Mike Davis is an interesting case in this tier because nobody is coming for that job. Not Javian Hawkins, not Cordarrelle Patterson. Nobody. So, he’s probably the last good bet for 320 touches.

I love Myles Gaskin in this group, and he’s an easy selection for me in the fifth round every single time. Barring that, any of these are good picks at their price.

Fantasy Football Running Back Tier 7: The Part-Timers
ADP RB-# Player Team 12-Team ADP TIER MY TIER
68 RB-25 Darrell Henderson LAR 6.08 7 5
69 RB-26 Chase Edmonds ARI 6.09 7 6
71 RB-27 Javonte Williams DEN 6.11 7 7
73 RB-28 James Robinson JAX 7.01 7 6

My Favorite: Darrell Henderson

These four guys go in a range where upside has started to flatten and you’re really looking more at solid contributors to your team. Thematically, they sort of belong in the tier before and the tier after. James Robinson and Javonte Williams both have ticking clocks, and Chase Edmonds and Darrell Henderson will both cobble together value through some rushing and some receiving.

This tier though… I don’t know. I generally stay away from it. There’s nothing special about it, it just feels… icky. Darrell Henderson is the only one guaranteed volume in this group, so it just feels like I would rather go wide receiver, quarterback, or tight end in rounds 6 and 7 (and it’s usually Ryan Tannehill in round 7). You can get these guys if you like, but it’s unlikely they defeat this ADP for seventeen weeks. It feels like outside of Darrell Henderson, who is gaining steam from the Cam Akers injury, this is a bunch of guys I skip.

Fantasy Football Running Back Tier 8: The Ticking Clocks
ADP RB-# Player Team 12-Team ADP TIER MY TIER
78 RB-29 Raheem Mostert SF 7.06 8 8
85 RB-30 Leonard Fournette TB 8.01 8 10
88 RB-31 Michael Carter NYJ 8.04 8 7
89 RB-32 Melvin Gordon III DEN 8.05 8 6
91 RB-33 Trey Sermon SF 8.07 8 7

My Favorite: Trey Sermon

These guys all have a timer on them. Arguably, so do Javonte Williams and James Robinson in tier 7. Unfortunately, these players aren’t sorted thematically, they are sorted by ADP. So, in this case, the ticking clock comes in two forms: the clock ticking to expire or ticking to go off.

But oh my God, I thought I skipped tier seven a lot. Tier eight is mostly a mess… Trey Sermon is the only guy worth slamming onto your roster at cost here. Raheem Mostert, Leonard Fournette and Melvin Gordon all have ticking clocks on their value. As in, they’re going to expire at some point this season. I don’t want to invest in guys who are going to expire at some point this season at running back. The position is hard enough; I don’t need to start with guys I know will be in a hole five weeks into the year.

There’s a lot of hype surrounding Michael Carter, but… I don’t get it. Despite being solidly above-average, he isn’t exceptionally athletic and the Jets have no track record of being a prolific offense. We just hope he is going to be the lead back there. Unfortunately, we don’t take the same “oh there are JAGs about, we need to be cautious about Carter.” I guess because he hasn’t burned us yet? Carter is fine at the end of the next tier, but the man is getting drastically overdrafted at RB31.

Trey Sermon is good at football and fits the Shanahan scheme very well. He’s easily my favorite out of this group.

Fantasy Football Running Back Tier 9: Last Chance!
ADP RB-# Player Team 12-Team ADP TIER MY TIER
94 RB-34 Damien Harris NE 8.10 9 8
97 RB-35 Ronald Jones II TB 9.01 9 7
100 RB-36 Zack Moss BUF 9.04 9 10
102 RB-37 David Johnson HOU 9.06 9 6
104 RB-38 James Conner ARI 9.08 9 6
107 RB-39 A.J. Dillon GB 9.11 9 10
109 RB-40 Kenyan Drake LV 10.01 9 8

My Favorite: James Conner

That’s right, I said it! But planting my flag in James Conner out of this group isn’t exactly… exciting. This group represents your last chance to get a running back who doesn’t need a Rube Goldberg-esque series of depth chart machinations for fantasy football relevance. They all pretty much either have one guy to beat out, or are set for a partial-back role or are A.J. Dillon, here.

This is an interesting tier to dive into because David Johnson just sits in the middle of it. Do Mark Ingram and Phillip Lindsay really scare us that much? If you’re looking for just a solid flex guy, then you can do a lot worse than David Johnson here.

But, my favorite of this group is, by far, James Conner. Conner is getting universally disrespected because he was injured in 2019, and missed one game due to injury in 2020 (two due to COVID-19). He ran behind a putrid Steelers’ offensive line, and still managed to finish with 10+ HPPR points in 8-of-13 games last year. He’s good at football, and while I concede that injuries are a concern with him, he’s running back thirty-eight off the board. The downside is baked into the price. He’s a lot closer to Chase Edmonds than people want to admit, and you can take advantage of that by getting a cheap guy with RB2 upside.

Fantasy Football Running Back Tier 10: The Upside Backups
ADP RB-# Player Team 12-Team ADP TIER MY TIER
118 RB-41 Tony Pollard DAL 10.1 10 9
121 RB-42 Gus Edwards BAL 11.01 10 11
125 RB-43 Nyheim Hines IND 11.05 10 7
127 RB-44 Jamaal Williams DET 11.07 10 6
128 RB-45 Devin Singletary BUF 11.08 10 9
My Favorite(s): Nyheim Hines & Jamaal Williams

This is a good range to dive back into running backs if you sat out round tier seven and tier eight. But dive in with a purpose. Do you think Zeke is falling off? Tony Pollard is there! Do you believe in the Ravens running game? Then you can get a Gus Edwards! Are you a masochist? There’s Devin Singletary!

My favorite guys to get here are the pass-catching running backs. Did you know that on average, pass-catching backs finish around RB24? There are two in this range. Go ahead and get Nyheim Hines and/or Jamaal Williams here and just ride that profit all the way to the bank. Good news happened for both of them this week, with Quenton Nelson reportedly expected to return from injury sooner than expected (Hines) and D’Andre Swift dealing with a groin injury (Williams).

Fantasy Football Running Back Tier 11: Don’t Forget Your Handcuff!
ADP RB-# Player Team 12-Team ADP TIER MY TIER
141 RB-46 Latavius Murray NO 12.09 11 8
144 RB-47 Alexander Mattison MIN 12.12 11 9
My Favorite: Latavius Murray

Do you think that you should handcuff your stud running back? Chances are you’re handcuffing him in round 12, by ADP. Alexander Mattison offers zero standalone value but the changes in New Orleans could give Latavius Murray some potential upside here outside of plug-and-play if Alvin Kamara gets hurt.

Fantasy Football Running Back Tier 12: Time For Your Pet Favorite Sleeper Running Back
ADP RB-# Player Team 12-Team ADP TIER MY TIER
152 RB-48 J.D. McKissic WAS 13.08 12 8
153 RB-49 James White NE 13.09 12 9
164 RB-50 Phillip Lindsay HOU 14.08 12 11
My Favorite: James White

This is a fun tier because it’s just guys who were good in the recent past who sort of fell between the cracks. McKissic had 110 targets last year and is due for a massive regression in that category. But, 70 targets is still reasonably on the table.

James White dealt with a family tragedy last season, and when he came back, who could blame him for not caring? Toss in Cam Newton running instead of dumping it off and you have a recipe for James White cratering last season. Even when he cratered last year, he still finished RB42. So take him at WR49 because I’m pretty sure he won’t have the worst year of his personal life two years in a row.

Phillip Lindsay also exists! The Texans are a dumpster fire! I have no interest.

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About Jeff Krisko

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