Top 10 Fantasy Running Backs for 2021

Andrew Barton

In fantasy football, running backs are king. There are only a handful of trustworthy starters which drives their draft stock insanely high. Without at least one of these guys on your roster, winning your league can be almost impossible. You can draft a duel threat back who also puts up great receiving numbers or a traditional rusher who might contend for a rushing title. Either way don’t neglect your backfield! All of these rankings will be based on ESPN’s PPR (Points per Reception) scoring format.

#1: Christian McCaffery, Carolina Panthers

2020 Position Rank: 54

2020 Stats: 225 Rush Yards, 149 Receiving Yards, 6 Total TDs

Injuries ruined the 2020 season for McCaffery. Yet, if you look at his numbers across his limited appearances, it is easy to see why he is still the number one overall player on draft boards. With averages of 75 rushing yards, 50 receiving yards and two TDs a game, the Stanford product managed an excellent 30 fantasy points per game. It is not crazy to expect CMC to post 1,000 yards rushing, 800 yards receiving, and upwards of 90 receptions. There is no better back in fantasy football.

Top 10 Fantasy Running Backs for 2021: The CMC revenge tour is officially underway. If healthy, lock him into your top three.

#2: Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

2020 Position Rank: 3

2020 Stats: 2,027 Rush Yards, 114 Receiving Yards, 17 Rush TDs

In PPR scoring, running backs that do not double as receivers are often dismissed from the top five. Derrick Henry is the exception. First, his durability makes him invaluable. He has played in 78 of 80 possible games in his career despite his physical style of play. With players like Austin Ekeler, CMC and Saquon Barkley all missing large chunks of time last year, having a star player that will be there from week one through the playoffs is critical. Not only did Henry join the exclusive 2,000 yard club, but he led the league in carries by a wide margin, scored multiple touchdowns in six separate weeks, and had three weeks of 200 rushing yards or more. All hail the King!

Top 10 Fantasy Running Backs for 2021: King Henry is the best pure rusher in football. Tennessee’s offense looks terrifying.

#3: Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings

2020 Position Rank: 2

2020 Stats: 1,557 Rush Yards, 361 Receiving Yards, 17 Total TDs

Dalvin Cook is admittedly more versatile than Henry. He is the superior receiver and managed to post the same number of touchdowns on the year. The problem is his durability. He has missed at least two games in all four of his NFL seasons. While he remains elite when on the field (111 rush yards per game), there is always a risk he will miss extended time. With the emergence of Justin Jefferson and injury concerns, Cook may have weeks where he is not the focal point of the offense. However, when he is at his peak there are few backs better. 

Top 10 Fantasy Running Backs for 2021: We saw the damage Cook could do when he is healthy in 2020.

#4: Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints

2020 Position Rank: 1

2020 Stats: 932 Rush Yards, 756 Receiving Yards, 21 Total TDs

Having Kamara outside of the top three may seem unusual. In fact, you could draft him with the first pick, and no one would question your decision. He averaged 112 all-purpose yards, 17 touches, and scored 25 fantasy points per game. The questions surround both the quarterback position and return of all-pro receiver Michael Thomas. Can Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill get the ball in Kamara’s hands as efficiently as Drew Brees did? When Thomas was last healthy in 2019 Kamara only managed six total touchdowns and averaged less than 100 total yards per game. Kamara will still break 1,000 total yards, but his touchdown numbers may drop drastically. 

Top 10 Fantasy Running Backs for 2021: Kamara has some of the best hands out of the backfield. 80 receptions is a given in 2021.

#5: Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers

2020 Position Rank: 5

2020 Stats: 1,104 Rush Yards, 355 Reviving Yards, 11 Total TDs

Aaron Jones is one of the few proven weapons on the Green Bay offense. While Davante Adams is the primary focus for opposing defenses, Jones still managed to get double digit carries in every week he played. While Jones does not have the same explosive potential as some of the other backs, his consistency as a fantasy player is excellent. He only scored under 10 points in one week and averages 5.5 yards per carry. As with Cook, durability has been an issue at times, but Jones is one of the safest bets in fantasy.

Top 10 Fantasy Running Backs for 2021: While he doesn’t have the explosiveness of some other star backs, Jones is consistently an asset.

#6: Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers

2020 Position Rank: 26

2020 Stats: 530 Rush Yards, 403 Receiving Yards, 3 Total TDs

In just 10 weeks, Ekeler managed 933 all-purpose yards. That speaks volumes to his elite receiving ability and playmaking. In his limited 2020 season he hauled in 83% of his targets and finished the year 5th in receptions despite missing six weeks. You don’t draft Ekeler for his rushing skills. You draft him for the outstanding hands he possesses and the budding connection he is sure to develop with rising star Justin Herbert.

Top 10 Fantasy Running Backs for 2021: Ekeler almost broke the 1,000 yard mark despite missing six weeks. He is one of the most versatile weapons in football.

#7: Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns

2020 Position Rank: 11

2020 Stats: 1,067 Rush Yards, 150 Receiving Yards, 12 Rushing TDs

Nick Chubb missed four games in 2020, but ended the season on a high note by scoring eight touchdowns across his final seven games. He was 2nd amongst all backs in yards per carry and plays behind one of the best offensive lines in football. Unfortunately, there is one thing holding Chubb back. The presence of Kareem Hunt limits Chubb’s upside as he concedes touches every week to his partner in the backfield. Chubb’s excellent efficiency when carrying the ball keeps him in the top ten but the treat of Hunt stealing touches and touchdowns remains very real. 

#8: Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

2020 Position Rank: 121

2020 Stats: 34 Rush Yards, 60 Receiving Yards, 0 TDs

McCaffery may have disappointed fantasy owners, but Barkley downright failed anyone who drafted him. Blaming injuries on players is hardly fair. Unfortunately, in the games he did play in, he struggled mightily. His 15 carries for six yards in week one was awful. Barkley will likely bounce back and a return to form which means roughly 25 touches a week. The addition of Kenny Golladay will likely reduce his role in the passing game and there will be questions about his knee, but Barkley could easily outperform this ranking and bust into the top three by season’s end.

Top 10 Fantasy Running Backs for 2021: Saquon is one of the candidates for comeback player of the year. Can he elevate a mediocre New York offense?

#9: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys 

2020 Position Rank:9

2020 Stats: 979 Rush Yards, 338 Receiving Yards, 8 Total TDs

The reality is that Zeke has been slowly trending downwards since his dominant rookie season almost five years ago. 2020 saw him preform worse than the 2017 season when he was suspended for six games. He had the 2nd worst catch percentage, 2nd lowest rush attempts, and most fumbles of his career. Yet, there is still reason to believe in Zeke. The return of Dak Prescott will likely alleviate some pressure off the star running back and force teams to respect the passing game. A more competent defense will allow Dallas to commit to the run more frequently and despite his regression he still managed 1,317 yards from scrimmage. While he may no longer be a top three back in fantasy, Zeke can still churn out hundreds of yards on the ground easily.

Top 10 Fantasy Running Backs for 2021: Zeke is not the same player as he was in 2016, but he is still a solid contributor out of the backfield.

#10: Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts

2020 Position Rank: 6

2020 Stats: 1,169 Rush Yards, 299 Receiving Yards, 12 Total TDs

Taylor’s 2020 season was split into two distinct parts. The first 10 games were extremely rough. He rushed for 100 yards only once and was held under 30 yards four times. From week 11 on he was one of the best backs in football. He scored eight touchdowns in his final six games, rushed for 253 yards in his last game, and averaged six yards per carry. The return of Marlon Mack and Nyheim Hines may limit his upside, but Taylor is the lead back and will look to build upon his dominant final stretch of last season.

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Final Thoughts

Running back is a thin position when looking for elite talent. Each of these top ten players will likely get drafted within the first two rounds making it difficult to find quality depth. Keep an eye on players like Pittsburgh’s Najee Harris, Washington’s Antonio Gibson or Chicago’s David Montgomery. In the end, securing at least one top ten back is essential for your team and sometimes searching the waiver wire can help you find a hidden gem like James Robinson last season. Running backs remain at the top of the fantasy hierarchy once again.