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Early Top 10 Rookie Running Backs (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Matt Barbato | @realmattbarbato | Featured Writer
Jan 17, 2021

If the 2020 fantasy football season taught us anything, it was to temper expectations for rookie running backs early on.

Here’s a list of where the most highly-touted rookie backs went in drafts last year, per FantasyPros ADP:

All of those tailbacks except Akers wound up finishing as top-25 backs in standard leagues, but it wasn’t a pretty ride for any of them. In fact, all of them except Edwards-Helaire emerged during the second half of the season.

With that important lesson in mind, let’s take a deeper dive into the 2021 incoming rookie tailback class.  This year’s running back class is headlined by two potential stars but lacks much high profile depth.

Can you draft the perfect 2020 team? Try our Perfect Draft Game >>

Najee Harris (Alabama)

  • 2020 season stats: 1,466 rushing yards, 43 receptions for 425 yards, 30 total touchdowns

Pardon my recency bias from the national championship, but Najee Harris is an absolute beast. At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, he reminds me of another former Alabama running back named Derrick Henry. Like Henry, Harris can certainly bring the hammer and isn’t the fastest back. However, where he differs is his versatility as a pass-catcher.

Harris is a finisher, a pile pusher, and fights his tail off to get extra yards. His frame allows him to absorb contact extremely well, and I expect that to carry over into the NFL. I’m also curious to see how he performs in the 40-yard dash.

I could see Harris generating third or fourth-round hype in redraft leagues. As one of the few elite tailbacks in his class, he will likely go at the very top of dynasty drafts.

Travis Etienne (Clemson)

  • 2020 season stats: 914 rushing yards, 48 receptions for 588 yards, 16 total touchdowns

Etienne is the ACC’s all-time leading rusher. But it felt like he was underused during his final season with the Tigers. Etienne is arguably the most explosive back in this draft class and can hit a home run every time he touches the ball.

Where Etienne could get in trouble, as we saw with some of the rookies this year, is that he has his struggles in pass protection. That could limit his potential as a three-down back during his rookie campaign.

There’s an enormous drop off between Harris and Etienne and the rest of this class’s running backs. With that in mind, I expect Etienne to go around the same range as Harris in both redraft and dynasty leagues.

Javonte Williams (North Carolina)

  • 2020 season stats: 1,140 rushing yards, 25 receptions for 305 yards, 22 total touchdowns

Williams combined with Michael Carter to form a two-headed backfield monster for the Tar Heels. I put Williams ahead of his running mate because he outscored Carter by a wide margin and also has more upside to be a three-down back at the next level.

Williams brought the thunder for UNC last season. He’s a bruiser with unexpected elusiveness, which makes him a chore to bring down. When we talk about rookie running backs, the key question is, can they get on the field early. Williams’ ability as a pass catcher and pass blocker gives him a better chance of seeing the field right away.

Williams’ redraft value will be more dependent upon his landing spot than Harris and Etienne’s. If he lands in a good opportunity, he could wind up as high as a mid-round pick. However, he’s more likely to be taken in the later rounds of drafts, if at all. The lack of tailback options in dynasty leagues could ultimately push him into the early second round of drafts.

Chuba Hubbard (Oklahoma State) 

  • 2020 season stats: 

After rushing for 2,094 yards in 2019, Hubbard’s stock declined in 2020 as he battled a nagging ankle injury. Now, it feels like he’s being undervalued in draft circles.

A 2,000-yard season isn’t a fluke. And what I like about Hubbard is he matches excellent long speed with a cerebral approach. Hubbard is a patient runner who has a great feel for where holes are opening up. He could fit really nicely in an outside-zone running scheme, much like what the San Francisco 49ers run under Kyle Shanahan.

Scheme fit will matter greatly for Hubbard. If he lands with an offense that’s suited to his skill set, he could be a late-round value in redraft leagues. I expect Hubbard’s talent to propel him to the second round of dynasty leagues.

Michael Carter (North Carolina)

  • 2020 season stats: 1,245 rushing yards, 25 receptions, 267 yards, 11 total touchdowns

Carter brought the lightning to the Tar Heels backfield. At 5-foot-10, 200 pounds, he profiles as more of a change of pace back. However, Carter is a good runner in between the tackles and out in space. He’s an excellent receiver with heightened elusiveness.

As a rookie, Carter likely fits in a Nyheim Hines type of role. I’m not sure he can ever carry a backfield on his own, but he could offer enough value to be relevant late in redraft leagues. As for dynasty, I expect Carter to go as a late second-round or an early third-round pick.

Check out all of our 2021 NFL Draft coverage >>

Kenneth Gainwell (Memphis)

Gainwell is the first prospect on this list to opt-out of the 2020 season after he lost four family members to COVID-19 before the season began.

Gainwell follows a recent lineage of Memphis running backs who made it to the NFL, joining Antonio Gibson, Darrell Henderson, and Tony Pollard. Like all of them, Gainwell offers home run potential as a runner and receiver.

In 2019, Gainwell was actually the lead back alongside Gibson at Memphis. He rushed for 1,459 yards and caught 51 passes for 610 yards while tallying 16 total touchdowns. Gainwell also lined up often in the slot.

Gainwell’s potential at the next level is exciting but also a bit unknown. He likely won’t be on the radar in redraft leagues but could be a third-round pick in dynasty formats if he lands on a team with an unimpressive depth chart.

Trey Sermon (Ohio State)

  • 2020 stats: 870 rushing yards, 12 receptions for 95 yards, four touchdowns

Nobody has ascended draft boards faster than Sermon has. At Thanksgiving, Sermon was having a pedestrian season and wasn’t even on draft radars. But then something snapped. Sermon rushed for 636 yards in his final three games of the season, including a 331-yard performance on 29 carries in the Big Ten Championship Game.

Sadly, Sermon was injured on the first series of the national championship, costing him a critical showcase spot. However, he might’ve done enough to merit a mid-round selection in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Sermon is a true inside power back. He won’t catch many passes. He won’t make you miss with agility or elusiveness. But he can run through you and has enough speed to get by you when the play is blocked. His fantasy value will likely depend on his landing spot. Sermon screams handcuff to me and likely will be treated as such in redraft leagues. In dynasty, he could be worth a late-round flier.

Jaret Patterson (Buffalo)

  • 2020 season stats: 1,072 yards, 19 touchdowns

Patterson was the engine powering Buffalo’s offense last season. He doesn’t possess a ton of speed or acceleration, but he’s an impressive runner with excellent footwork in the hole. Patterson fits a variety of schemes but likely profiles as a backup during his rookie season. Given the lack of options, Patterson might wind up on dynasty rosters later in drafts.

Jermar Jefferson (Oregon State)

  • 2020 stats: 858 rushing yards, nine receptions for 67 yards, seven touchdowns

Jefferson is an enticing athlete with excellent vision and footwork, attributes that are becoming increasingly important for running backs. At just 5-foot-9, 215 pounds, Jefferson probably won’t be an every-down back at the next level. He’ll only be worth a pick late in dynasty leagues, depending on his landing spot.

Elijah Mitchell (Louisiana)

  • 2020 stats: 878 yards, 16 receptions for 153 yards, eight touchdowns

Mitchell led a backfield trio at Louisiana and was the most productive of the group. He’s a good enough athlete who possesses good size to go with plenty of quickness. Like many of the backs at the tail end of this draft class, Mitchell likely profiles merely as a depth tailback and won’t offer much fantasy value.

Try to nail the perfect draft for the 2020 season with our Perfect Draft Game >>


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Matt Barbato is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Matt, check out his archive and follow him @RealMattBarbato.

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