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The Running Back Race: Who Will Place in the Top 10 in 2021?

(Image credit: Alaa Abdeldaiem/USA Today)

By: Austin Geller

Twitter: @24Ageller

The running back race in 2020 was a rollercoaster ride. With injuries sustained to star players like Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley, the Top 10 was shaken up last season. We saw sudden additions like David Montgomery, James Robinson, and Jonathan Taylor. I am here to inform you that 2021’s Top 10 running back race will conclude a little differently than last year.

1. Christian McCaffrey (Carolina Panthers)

Christian McCaffrey is indisputably the best overall running back in fantasy football. There is no other running back in the NFL that receives the kind of workload that CMC receivers. You can forget about McCaffrey’s 2020 season, which was derailed by injury. Back in 2019, McCaffrey played all 16 games. In those 16 games, among all running backs, CMC ranked 1st in snap share, targets, receiving yards, receptions, and total touchdowns. In addition, he ranked 4th in carries, 2nd in red-zone touches, and 3rd in rush yards. His workload is second to none. This is what led him to be the undisputed RB1 of 2019. CMC is back and he is ready to reclaim his title as RB1.

2. Dalvin Cook (Minnesota Vikings)

Dalvin Cook is a fantasy football monster. Similar to McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook is volume-driven. He finished the 2020 season as RB2, which was no surprise considering his numbers. In 2020, among all running backs, Dalvin Cook ranked 1st in red-zone touches, 2nd in rush yards, carries, and total touchdowns, and 10th in receiving yards. Cook is one of the heavily utilized players in the NFL. With the talented receiving duo of veteran Adam Thielen and rookie sensation Justin Jefferson, the field should open up for Cook again this year. The Vikings are going to feature their marquee running back. I expect Cook to once again show why he is a Top 3 running back in 2021.

3. Derrick Henry (Tennessee Titans)

Derrick Henry is the definition of a workhorse. Having led the NFL in rushing yards the past two seasons, King Henry looks to continue his dominance in 2021. He may not be able to eclipse 2000 rushing yards again, but that won’t stop him from having another Top 3 RB finish. Among all running backs in 2020, Henry ranked 1st in carries, 2nd in red-zone touches, and 2nd in total touchdowns. The big news this offseason was the acquisition of Hall of Fame talent Julio Jones. Some folks believe that the addition of Julio is going to decrease Henry’s production. While I do believe his rushing numbers may go down, I strongly believe his receiving numbers will go up. With defenses now having to key in on the duo of Julio Jones and AJ Brown, in addition to containing the mobile Tannehill, it will open up the field for Henry to take advantage of some dump-off passes out of the backfield. In addition, Henry may even average more yards per carry if defenses decide to focus more attention on the secondary. Expect Derrick Henry to have another dominant year.

4. Austin Ekeler (Los Angeles Chargers)

Austin Ekeler is one of the most underrated running backs coming into the 2021 season. His ADP of 11 is just way too disrespectful. Ekeler had a frustrating year in 2020, predominantly due to injuries; however, Austin Ekeler comes into this season ready to go. His most recent full season was in 2019, which Ekeler absolutely commanded. Ekeler finished the season as RB7. In 2019, among all running backs, Ekeler ranked 2nd in targets, receiving yards, and receptions. He also ranked 8th in total touchdowns. He was a PPR menace that year. The Chargers brought in a new head coach in Brandon Staley and a new offensive coordinator in Joe Lombardi. Lombardi had been the Saints quarterback coach from 2016-2020. In that time, he got to work with superstar running back Alvin Kamara. The Saints' offense was explosive each year he was there because they were able to utilize the special talents of Kamara. Now Lombardi gets to work with rising star Justin Herbert and Austin Ekeler. If we learned anything from Lombardi’s time with the Saints, it is that he loves to use his running backs in the receiving game. Ekeler had 92 receptions in 2019; it is very possible that he repeats his 2019 success. And with no running back threat to steal his carries, Ekeler could be a three-down back in 2021. Ladies and gentlemen, buckle up for Ekeler Airways!

5. Alvin Kamara (New Orleans Saints)

Alvin Kamara had an incredible 2020 season, finishing as RB1. Kamara is coming off a 2020 season in which he rushed for a career-high 932 yards and 16 touchdowns. Unfortunately, what goes up must come down. It is so strange to say that after Kamara’s most recent performance in 2020 on Christmas Day when Kamara gashed Minnesota’s efense (and yes, I said “efense” because Minnesota played no “D”) for 6 touchdowns. But Drew Brees is gone. The quarterbacks will now be Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill. When Brees went down last season with a rib injury, Taysom Hill filled in. Alvin Kamara might have gotten the worst of it. In Brees’ absence, Kamara averaged just north of 11 PPG in PPR formats, a dramatic drop from his 25.2 PPG average over the course of the entire year. It is to be expected that Kamara will still be New Orleans' workhorse for 2021, but knowing the Saints will not have Brees dumping the ball to Kamara every other play will affect his value. While I do believe Kamara will still have a very strong season, finishing in the Top 5, I do not believe he is in a position to receive the volume that can elevate him to a Top 3 running back.

6. Aaron Jones (Green Bay Packers)

I recently wrote an article in which I was urging managers to avoid drafting Aaron Jones at his projected ADP because of the uncertainty of Aaron Rodgers. But as of right now, Rodgers has reported to training camp and it looks as if he is going to give it one more go in Green Bay. This is a blessing for Aaron Jones. With Rodgers under center, Jones finished last season as RB5 and did so in just 14 games. In those 14 games, among all running backs, Jones ranked 4th in rushing yards, 7th in total touchdowns, and 10th in carries. Had he stayed healthy for all 16 games, he could very well have ended the season better than RB5. Having Aaron Rodgers out on the field allows for Jones to have more work as a receiver, which is extremely valuable in PPR formats. In addition, Rodgers’ presence forces defenses to respect the passing game, opening up space for Aaron Jones to run. Assuming Davante Adams follows in Rodgers’ footsteps, the Packers should score a lot of points this season, Aaron Jones being a large contributor to that. Expect another massive year from one of the NFL’s best running backs.

7. Ezekiel Elliott (Dallas Cowboys)

Ezekiel Elliott’s 2020 was derailed by Dak Prescott’s season-ending foot injury that he sustained in Week 5. Through the first five weeks, Elliott averaged 22.34 PPG in PPR formats. At the end of 2020, Zeke’s average fell to 14.9. Dallas’ sixth-year running back looks to resurrect his disappointing season in 2021. There is some great news for Ezekiel Elliott fans and owners. The Cowboys are getting their star-studded quarterback Dak Prescott. As we saw in 2020, Elliott’s production was much higher with Prescott on the field than without him. In addition to Prescott’s return, the Cowboys are getting their offensive line back. In 2020, Dallas lost their three best offensive linemen. G Zack Martin, T La’el Collins, and T Tyron Smith all were missing in 2020. This made life very difficult for the Cowboys' offense. Andy Dalton had no time to throw and opposing defenses clogged up running lanes. Now with a full roster, Elliott is going to have a lot more freedom like he has had in previous years. Expect a bounce-back year from the NFL’s former rush leader.

8. Saquon Barkley (New York Giants)

It has been a frustrating couple of years for Saquon Barkley, to say the least. After a nasty ankle injury held Barkley out for a large portion of 2019, a torn ACL in Week 2 last season kept him out the rest of the year. Unfortunately, he just has not been able to stay healthy. A positive that resulted from Barkley’s torn ACL is that he has had almost a full year to recover and rehab. Now, Saquon is back and he looks to reassert his dominance in 2021. In his rookie season, the 2nd overall pick out of Penn State torched every defense. He accounted for 2000 scrimmage yards, becoming the 3rd rookie running back in history to do so. Barkley is in a great position to put up similar numbers in 2021. With Daniel Jones and the offensive line being expected to progress, along with the acquisitions of Kenny Golladay and Kadarius Toney, Saquon should have more opportunities and space to operate. Assuming he stays healthy, Saquon Barkley could get back to Top 10 status with upside to finish in the Top 5.

9. Najee Harris (Pittsburgh Steelers)

The Pittsburgh Steelers used their 24th overall pick on the Alabama Crimson Tide sensation in Najee Harris. He helped lead the way to Bama’s championship with a stellar season. He accounted for nearly 1500 rushing yards on only 251 carries, an impressive 5.8 yards per carry (YPC). Additionally, Harris found the endzone 30 times and found himself hauling in 425 receiving yards. This 6’1, 230-pound thoroughbred is most likely going to have a workhorse role in Pittsburgh. Last season, the lack of production from James Conner was detrimental to the Steelers. It was too much to ask of 39-year-old Ben Roethlisberger to account for the lack of a rushing attack having just come off of a serious elbow injury. But things look to play out differently in 2021. Najee Harris is going to be a three-down back for the Steelers and is going to take a huge load off of Big Ben Roethlisberger. Despite a suspect offensive line, the upgrade from Conner to Harris is going to benefit the Steelers in a big way. If Najee can assert himself as the workhorse that Pittsburgh intends him to be, defenses are going to have to choose between Harris or the three-headed monster of Smith-Schuster, D. Johnson, and Claypool. I expect Najee Harris to have a strong rookie season as a Top 10 running back in his workhorse role.

10. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (Kansas City Chiefs)

It is an understatement to say that CEH did not live up to his 1st round ADP in 2020. So, let’s take a dive into the mysterious waters on why the former LSU prospect disappointed. What went wrong? Through the first six weeks in 2020, CEH was averaging just under 16 PPG in PPR leagues. In addition, he was averaging 84 rushing yards per game on an average of 17 carries per game. He was clearly getting the volume; yet, he still was not performing as well as managers had hoped. Well, how many touchdowns did he have in those first six weeks? He had a whopping one total touchdown and that came from Week 1 on opening night. It is not unusual for star players to not find the end zone; it happened to Julio Jones a couple of years ago until eventually, he found his stride late in the season. When did CEH find his stride in 2020? Oh right, he didn’t. At the end of the season, Edwards-Helaire only found the end zone three more times. In addition to the lack of scoring, his value also got hit by the signing of Le'Veon Bell. From the moment Bell was acquired, CEH’s carries dropped a considerable amount. He was already struggling to find the end zone, but then he lost his touches, which was the only aspect keeping him in the Top 15. This season will be very different for Clyde Edwards-Helaire. There is no more competition at running back since the departure of Bell and Damien Williams (CHI). Expect CEH’s touches to increase tenfold compared to last season. In addition, the Chiefs made the offensive line the primary concern this past offseason. This is a great sign for CEH owners because we can expect the Chiefs to utilize CEH more often, especially in goal-line situations. Clyde Edwards-Helaire has an opportunity to not only crack the Top 10, but he has enough upside on the Chiefs’ explosive offense to land in the Top 5.

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