A draft strategy guide for running backs? That’s easy — draft early and draft often. Done. No other fantasy tips needed, right? Sadly, it’s not quite as simple as that. Drafting frequently is one thing; drafting smartly is another. You don’t need any sort of cheat sheet or sleepers list to do the former, but in order to do the latter, you need to know which players to target and in which rounds. Having a handy set of 2021 RB rankings tiers is the best way to do that.
As we do every year for every position (well, not kicker, because…well, you know), we’ve tiered off our rankings to give you a better idea how your draft could (and should) unfold. Specifically, we want to look at what to expect if you wait until the various stages of your draft to fill your RB1, RB2, and primary backup slots.
Obviously, our tiers are based on our rankings. You might prefer a different set, so some of the names in the various tiers could change, but the sentiments remain the same. If you plan to go with pass-catchers in the first few rounds, then you can expect Tier-3 or Tier-4 RBs as your starters in Week 1. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it means you should be extra aggressive in drafting those middle-round sleepers. The less “reliable” your starters, the more upside you want with your backups.
Heading into 2021, the studs at the top of our rankings all look like sure things, but we know at least a couple will suffer multi-game injury setbacks (Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley last year), and a one or two will simply underwhelm (2020 Ezekiel Elliott, anyone?). You can’t predict injuries, and even if you stay away from the most “injury-prone” guys, you still have to hold your breath every time your back is tackled. That’s just the nature of the beast. The surprise drop-offs are just as unexpected, which is why depth is always important at this position.
A few years ago, after a particularly brutal couple seasons for the top running backs, the “Zero-RB” draft strategy became popular with some. Eschewing early-round runners for more reliable pass-catchers, then stocking up on rookies, handcuffs, and other assorted committee backs obviously has its merits, but you better be ready to walk a pretty fine tightrope all season with your starting RBs. You will feel like a genius when your last-round James Robinson is outproducing someone else’s first-round Joe Mixon, but when someone else’s Dalvin Cook is destroying your Joshua Kelley, you don’t feel quite as smart — especially when that Cook owner also drafted Justin Jefferson in the 11th round and you drafted Michael Thomas in the first.
Ultimately, there are no sure things in fantasy football. Selecting running backs early and often is a preferred general strategy, but it’s not as easy as just clicking any name on the RB page during your draft. It’s about finding the best value, paying attention to what your competitors are doing, and projecting who will be available in the next round and round after that. Sometimes, you guess wrong and your preferred target is gone, but if you have a set of tiered rankings, you should be able to quickly adapt and refrain from overdrafting a lesser RB in a panic move. Knowing you can get approximately the same value in the next round or round after will help you build a stronger overall team and keep you on track for a successful draft at every position.
2021 Fantasy RB Tiers: Who are the best fantasy football running backs?
Rankings and tiers based on standard, non-PPR leagues. PPR leagues could have different tiers, which is highlighted throughout text below.
1 Derrick Henry, Titans
2 Christian McCaffrey, Panthers
3 Dalvin Cook, Vikings
4 Saquon Barkley, Giants
5 Nick Chubb, Browns
6 Alvin Kamara, Saints
7 Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
8 Aaron Jones, Packers
9 Jonathan Taylor, Colts
10 Antonio Gibson, Washington
The majority of this group will be drafted in the first round of all drafts, but the order is up for debate. There are also obvious differences between standard and PPR leagues. In PPR, Barkley and Kamara would vault into the top tier (with Henry barely hanging on), but either way, these backs will go throughout the first and early part of the second rounds.
You can’t go wrong with any as your RB1, whether you take one in the top five or select a WR first and get someone like Jones early in the second round. All figure to get the vast majority of their team’s carries and have track records of major success. Taylor and Gibson have only played one season, but they both have even higher ceilings than they showed last year when they rushed for 11 touchdowns apiece.
Again, the order is up for debate. Many will opt for McCaffrey first, which is fine, but we like the steadiness of the two-time defending rushing (and rushing TD) champ in standard leagues. In PPR, we’d take McCaffrey (quad, thigh, ankle) despite his injury-plagued 2020. Barkley (knee) is also looking to come back from injury, while Elliott will look to bounce back from his worst season as a pro. All come with slight worries (How will the Saints offense operate without Drew Brees all year? Can Kareem Hunt steal too many TDs/receptions from Chubb? Can Cook stay healthy?), but the question marks only get bigger the further down the rankings you go. That’s why grabbing at least one RB early is a preferred strategy of many and as tried-and-true as it gets in fantasy football.
2021 Fantasy Football Draft Strategy: Which RBs could break out this year?
11 Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chiefs
12 Austin Ekeler, Chargers
13 JK Dobbins, Ravens
14 David Montgomery, Bears
15 Joe Mixon, Bengals
16 Miles Sanders, Eagles
17 D’Andre Swift, Lions
18 Najee Harris, Steelers
19 Josh Jacobs, Raiders
20 Chris Carson, Seahawks
If you’re one of the fantasy owners in a 12-team draft that doesn’t get an RB from our top tiers, don’t worry — the third tier might actually feature some better values. These players will start coming off the board in the second round and likely will be gone by the start of the fourth. Getting one as your RB2 is a major victory, so don’t be afraid to start your draft with back-to-back RBs. Sure, you’ll miss out on the elite WRs and Travis Kelce, but your starting backfield will be as good as anyone’s in your league.
You could also take backs in Rounds 1 and 3 and get a stud WR in between, or take a receiver in the first, then two of the backs in this tier in Rounds 2 and 3. Any of these combinations is a great way to start your team.
It wouldn’t be a shock if any of these backs, with the possibility of Ekeler in standard leagues, finishes in the top five. All have major upside as primary ball carriers (again, expect Ekeler), and almost all are highly skilled receivers (especially Ekeler). Dobbins and Jacobs both lose value in PPR leagues (Dobbins because Baltimore rarely throws to RBs, Jacobs because of the addition of Kenyan Drake), but they should both post 1,000-plus rushing yards and 10-plus touchdowns with ease.
Edwards-Helaire (slight worries about his goal-line ability), Sanders (slight durability concerns), Swift (unproven as a lead runner), and Harris (o-line worries) figure to be especially good in PPR leagues, while Montgomery, Mixon, and Carson will be solid across the board if they’re healthy. Montgomery and Mixon could be going in different directions in PPR, though, as Tarik Cohen’s return could cut into Montgomery’s 54 catches from last year and Giovani Bernard’s departure should put more onus on Mixon in Cincinnati’s receiving game.
Ultimately, these backs all have similar overall outlooks (depending on the format), though they come with varying degrees of upside. You might get more value taking someone like Carson in the late third compared to taking CEH or Dobbins in the mid-second, but the latter have higher ceilings. However, if the last of the top-tier WRs is still available in the mid-second, you’re betting off grabbing the WR and “settling” for Carson. It’s all about reading the draft and weighing best available at all positions.
Fantasy RB Tiers: Sleepers and committee running backs
21 Kareem Hunt, Browns
22 Javonte Williams, Broncos
23 Myles Gaskin, Dolphins
24 Darrell Henderson, Rams
25 Mike Davis, Falcons
26 Damien Harris, Patriots
27 Raheem Mostert, 49ers
28 Travis Etienne, Jaguars
29 Chase Edmonds, Cardinals
30 Melvin Gordon, Broncos
31 Devin Singletary, Bills
32 Gus Edwards, Ravens
33 Zack Moss, Bills
34 Michael Carter, Jets
35 Phillip Lindsay, Texans
36 David Johnson, Texans
37 Ronald Jones II, Buccaneers
38 Leonard Fournette, Buccaneers
39 James Robinson, Jaguars
40 James Conner, Cardinals
You should have at least one running back by the time these names are atop your draft board, but if you still subscribe to the “Zero-RB” draft strategy, you’re probably looking at one of these guys as your RB1. Can you live with that? Yeah, you can undoubtedly make it work if the rest of your team is good enough, but the margin for error gets slimmer. Even if you pick, say, Ezekiel Elliott sixth overall and he disappoints like he did last season, you still have a back who’s worth using every week as no worse than a flex. Any of the guys in this tier could wind up being unplayable before the calendar flips to October.
It’s this tier of the RB rankings that makes people hate fantasy football, especially since a lot of owners will be mining this group in Rounds 5-8 for RB2s and flexes. Make no mistake, several reliable, every-week starters will emerge from this group, and we could even get some top-10 backs from this tier if things break right for a few, but after seeing how quickly things turn murky at RB, you’ll understand why most owners will try to get their two starters from Tiers 1-3.
Whether you’re looking for your RB1, RB2, or flex (or some combo of both), let’s figure out who to target. There are a couple “unquestioned” lead backs in this group, with Gaskin, Henderson, Davis, Mostert, and likely Carter filling those roles in Week 1. Harris could be considered one, too, but with the Patriots, we won’t assume anything. That’s why most of them are ranked higher and have more upside (and better picks if you need an RB1), but given the tenuousness of their grips on the jobs (be it because of experience, injury risk, or other assorted factors), they’re still in the same tier as many other “committee” backs.
However, even among some of these textbook “committee” backfields, a clear leader could emerge as early as Week 2. We particularly like Williams in Denver, but the rest will likely keep us guessing. It’s important to remember that even if, say, Robinson gets 14 more touches than Etienne in Week 1, that doesn’t mean the pendulum won’t swing back in Etienne’s favor in the near future. Unfortunately, it might take an injury for fantasy owners to really feel good about some of these backs.
That’s why players like like Hunt and Edwards so valuable. Even though we know they’re not their teams’ “lead backs,” we also know they have valuable roles and will see double-digit touches every week. Even when Chubb and Dobbins are healthy and rolling, Hunt and Edwards have shown the abilities to have good games. Case in point: Last year, in the 12 games in which Chubb played, Hunt averaged 11.1 carries, 2.3 catches, and 68.6 total yards and scored nine total TDs. A clearly defined role is important in fantasy. Both Singletary and Moss have more individual upside if they’re leading the Bills backfield, but it’s anyone’s guess which one will — and if they will remain in that role. The same goes for Williams and Gordon in Denver, Lindsay and Johnson in Houston, Fournette and Jones in Tampa, Robinson and Etienne in Jacksonville, and Edmonds and Conner in Arizona.
If you pick right in this tier, it could really pay off. Chances are, the “Zero-RBers” out there have guessed right in the past and think they can do it every time. Maybe they can (especially if they’re willing to be active on the waiver wire all year), but it’s not a fun game to play, at least not with all of your RB spots.
Getting good value on flexes and backups in this tier is great, but unless you get multiple backs from the same team, which limits your overall upside, you are taking some level of risk. That risk increases based on how much you’re relying on these players. That’s why we suggest having at least three top-40 backs on your team by the start of the eighth round, but if you trust your instincts, you can chart a different path.
Fantasy RB Rankings Tiers: Best handcuff RBs
41 Latavius Murray, Saints
42 Jamaal Williams, Lions
43 Nyheim Hines, Colts
44 AJ Dillon, Packers
45 Tony Pollard, Cowboys
46 JD McKissic, Washington
47 Trey Sermon, 49ers
48 James White, Patriots
49 Tarik Cohen, Bears
50 Alexander Mattison, Vikings
51 Tevin Coleman, Jets
52 Justin Jackson, Chargers
53 Malcolm Brown, Dolphins
54 Kenyan Drake, Raiders
55 Darrel Williams, Chiefs
56 Rashaad Penny, Seahawks
57 Marlon Mack, Colts
58 Devontae Booker, Giants
59 Benny Snell Jr., Steelers
The first thing to note here is guys like Hines, McKissic, Cohen and White all bump up a tier in PPR leagues. Touchdowns will likely be an issue for all, which is why even in PPR their overall values can be limited, but they provide a decent floor thanks to regular targets. As Gibson and Montgomery continue to emerge as pass-catching options in Washington and Chicago, respectively, we could see McKissic and Cohen lose some value, but for now, they still have to be considered among the elite pass-catching backs. In 2019, White and Cohen finished 18th and 27th, respectively, among RBs in full-point PPR leagues (Hines was 42nd); last season, Hines and McKissic were 15th and 17th, respectively (White was 42nd despite missing two games). The ceilings are clearly higher than anyone (including us) thinks they are on draft day.
That said, you don’t want to be counting on the backs in this tier to be starting for you in Week 1 in standard leagues. Murray, Jamaal Williams, Pollard, and Dillon should get a decent amount of work, perhaps not unlike Hunt and Edwards in the tier above, so they’re nice to have even if you don’t own the backs in front of them. Sermon is a popular sleeper who could (emphasis on “could”) contribute right away, and it’s likely someone in the Jets and Chargers backfields other than Carter and Ekeler will have notable roles, but the jury is still out on who. We’re favoring Coleman and Jackson right now, but we’ll have to continue to monitor those situations throughout the preseason.
Someone will emerge from these tiers, likely because of injury, to have an RB2-caliber season. If Cook gets hurt in Minnesota or Jacobs in Vegas, then Mattison and Drake will immediately be inserted into starting lineups with no hesitations. That’s true for a lot of these guys, so it’s good to grab one or two in the middle and late rounds, especially if it’s someone like Sermon or maybe even Brown who might not even need an injury to shine. Sermon will likely command the highest pick, perhaps in the early middle rounds, but it’s easy to imagine a scenario where he pays off in a big way.
You can consider the rest of these backs “high-priority” handcuffs. If you draft, say, Aaron Jones in the first or second round, it’s smart to make it a point to get Dillon. That could mean reaching a round higher than everyone else, but you don’t want to lose one of your cornerstones and replace him with a waiver pickup who gets nine touches on a good day.
If you’re a Zero-RBer and you’re mining these tiers for a Week 1 starter, you might as well swing for the fences, at least in standard leagues. Grabbing one “safe” guy, like Pollard, will guarantee you some points each week, but if you go all-in on this finally being the year for Penny, you might get a bigger payoff since Seattle is notoriously weird with their running backs. You also might get a guy who’s on the IR by Week 2. That’s why it’s a risky strategy, but it can work if your pass-catchers are monsters and you have even a moderate hit on a couple RBs.
Fantasy RB Deep Sleepers and Handcuffs
60 Kenneth Gainwell, Eagles
61 Kerryon Johnson, Eagles
62 Rhamondre Stevenson, Patriots
63 Cordarrelle Patterson, Falcons
64 Samaje Perine, Bengals
65 Chuba Hubbard, Panthers
66 Damien Williams, Bears
67 Salvon Ahmed, Dolphins
68 Joshua Kelley, Chargers
69 La’Mical Perine, Jets
70 Mark Ingram, Texans
71 Darrynton Evans, Titans
72 Jeremy McNichols, Titans
73 Anthony McFarland Jr., Steelers
74 Wayne Gallman, 49ers
75 Javian Hawkins, Falcons
76 Caleb Huntley, Falcons
There are some legitimate sleepers in tier. Ahmed was a stud in his three full games as a starter last year, posting 63 touches (seven catches), 291 total yards, and two scores. He could emerge in Miami even without a significant injury to someone else. Kelley and Perine struggled last year as rookies, but they’re both in unsettled backfields that have openings for 1Bs, if not 1As. Someone other than Mike Davis also figures to emerge for Atlanta, creating an opportunity for some combination of Patterson, Hawkins, and Huntley.
Mostly, though, this tier features traditional handcuffs. A few will get drafted (it only makes sense for the McCaffrey and Henry owners to use second-to-last-round picks on Hubbard and Evans, respectively); most won’t. At the very least, you should keep these backs on your watchlists because you just know it’s these types of RBs who wind up starting at some point in the season, especially with COVID issues once again destined to cause problems. If you’ve added a roster spot or two in your league to try to mitigate injury/COVID issues, you have no excuse for failing to back up your key starters.