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Early Undervalued Running Backs (2021 Fantasy Football)

Feb 24, 2021

Gus Edwards took on a larger role in Baltimore’s offense late in the 2020 season.

It’s only February, but it’s never too early to start analyzing offseason player values. Although the consensus rankings are destined to shift as we head into free agency and NFL Draft season, it’s important to pulse the market each step of the way to gain a fuller picture of offseason trends.

As such, I looked at the FantasyPros early consensus running to uncover three running backs I believe are criminally undervalued at the moment. If these current rankings hold and translate to Average Draft Position (ADP) come August, these three players could wind up being some of the biggest bargains based on their 2021 outlook.

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Gus Edwards (RB – BAL): RB58 ECR
Gus Edwards never played more than 50% of Baltimore’s snaps, yet he received more carries inside the 10-yard line (17) than teammate J.K. Dobbins (13) in 2020. His role became even more solidified when Mark Ingram II exited the running back rotation in Week 8. From Weeks 8-17, Edwards turned 24 red-zone carries into five touchdowns. For reference, Eagles starting running back Miles Sanders received 24 red-zone carries the entire season.

Edwards doesn’t just luck into these valuable opportunities; he’s granted them due to his ability as a runner throughout his three-year career. Edwards joined just Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb, widely considered two of the league’s best pure runners, with a 2.6 yards after contact average each of the last three seasons. Per Pro Football Focus, he led all running backs in 2020 with 31.3% of his runs resulting in either a first down or touchdown.

Edwards also became just one of two players in NFL history to rush for 700 yards and average 5.0 yards per carry in each of their first three seasons. The other was Chubb.

For this exercise, let’s say Edwards is back with the Ravens in 2021 and working a complementary role to Dobbins. It’d be most useful for a projection to look at both players’ production when Ingram was either hurt or used sparingly late in the season. In the final 10 weeks, Dobbins finished as the overall RB9 and Edwards was the overall RB17.

While this production level might not be sustainable for both teammates through an entire season, it’s clear the Ravens are comfortable using this combination. Something like a 60/40 split could be for Dobbins and Edwards in 2021 with Ingram out of the picture.

Not only could the “Gus Bus” carry standalone value as an RB3 next season, but he might also be one of the most valuable handcuffs in fantasy football. Fantasy managers should view Edwards much like they viewed Kareem Hunt and Latavius Murray in 2020. Speaking of Murray, the 31-year old could be on an offense that looks totally different next season without Drew Brees. Yet he’s currently the ECR’s RB39, while the 26-year old Edwards — averaging a career 5.2 yards per carry — sits as the ECR’s RB58.

Make no mistake about it; the Ravens want to run the ball as much as possible. In fact, they led the league in rush attempts each of the last three seasons with Lamar Jackson under center. Because of that, Edwards also enters 2021 with one of the safest floors for a running back outside of the top 36. To put it bluntly, don’t let another manager snipe him from you late in 2021 fantasy drafts.

Jeff Wilson Jr. (RB – SF): RB50 ECR
To say the 49ers’ backfield was decimated by injuries in 2020 would be an understatement. Raheem Mostert and Tevin Coleman both missed eight games, while Jerick McKinnon and JaMycal Hasty fell off the depth chart after their respective injuries. That left undrafted free agent Jeff Wilson Jr. alone atop the running back depth chart, and boy did he seize the opportunity.

In Week 7 vs. the Patriots, Wilson rushed 17 times for 112 yards and three touchdowns — Mostert scored just three touchdowns all season — on 56% of the snaps. Unfortunately, he left that game early with an ankle sprain. Both Wilson and Mostert returned in Week 12 against the Rams, each playing around 45% of the snaps.

But San Francisco utilized Wilson more in passing-down situations and the red zone. In fact, he had 11 red-zone carries and ran 15 routes per game compared to Mostert’s six red-zone carries and 12.5 routes run per game. Then Mostert re-injured his ankle, and everyone wondered who Kyle Shanahan would lean on heading into the ever-important Week 16, the championship round for most fantasy leagues.

In the final two weeks, Wilson showcased his ability as a workhorse back, carrying the ball 42 times for 259 yards and a touchdown while adding four receptions on nine targets for another 33 yards and two scores. He played on an average of 75% of the snaps in these two games, more than Mostert played in any one game the entire season.

Wilson ended the season as the 49ers’ leading rusher, toting the rock 126 times for 600 yards (4.76 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns in 12 games. He showed the coaching staff what he was capable of when given the opportunity, and for that was rewarded with a one-year, $2.05M fully guaranteed contract for 2021. That means the 25-year old will be playing for his next contract, giving Wilson some added motivation to produce next season.

The vote of confidence from the 49ers’ front office, plus the fact that Mostert will be 29 years old coming off an injury-riddled 2020, has me going all-in on Wilson in 2021. Personally, I think Wilson out-performs Mostert next season. His current RB50 ECR, compared to Mostert’s RB27 ECR, has me doing backflips all the way to the bank.

James Robinson (RB – JAC): RB20 ECR
The only logical reason James Robinson is ranked as the ECR’s RB20 is that he came into the NFL as an undrafted free agent. Imagine if second-round picks D’Andre Swift or J.K. Dobbins rushed for over 1,000 yards and saw 60 targets in their rookie seasons. We’d call both perennial top-five running backs in 2021.

That’s exactly what Robinson did, rushing for 1,070 yards and seven touchdowns while catching 49 of 60 targets for another 344 yards and three scores. His 1,414 scrimmage yards were the most ever by an undrafted rookie in NFL history.

Robinson scored more rushing touchdowns (seven) than Ezekiel Elliott (six) on 15 fewer red-zone carries (30 vs. 45). He also accounted for a league-leading 76.9% of his team’s red-zone rushing attempts — Derrick Henry was second with 67.0%. With the historic rookie season under his belt and a massive quarterback upgrade at quarterback on the horizon (assuming Jacksonville drafts Clemson’s Trevor Lawrence with the No. 1 pick), why isn’t everyone much higher on James Robinson?

I assure you it’s not due to Ryquell Armstead‘s career 3.1 yards per carry or Devine Ozigbo‘s 28 career rushing yards across two seasons. People are genuinely concerned the Jaguars are going to add one of the top running backs via the 2021 NFL Draft. But will they?

According to James Johnson of The Jaguars Wire, Jacksonville’s top-seven positional needs this offseason are WR, S, DL, TE, CB, LT, and QB. Nowhere in the article does it mention a need for a running back. While the Jaguars could certainly draft a running back in the later rounds to complement Robinson and lighten his workload some, they have a plethora of other needs to address first.

Speaking of the NFL Draft, the Jaguars will assuredly become a more potent offense with Lawrence at quarterback. This can only be a good thing for Robinson, who is bound to see more than the 30 red-zone carries he saw in 2020 with the Jaguars playing most games from behind. A better, more consistent passing attack will also open up more running lanes, leading to increased efficiency for the second-year back out of Illinois State.

Robinson’s current ECR of RB20 makes him an incredible value heading into 2021 fantasy drafts after finishing as the overall RB7 in just 14 games his rookie season.

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Whether you’re new to fantasy football or a seasoned pro, our Fantasy Football 101: Strategy Tips & Advice page is for you. You can get started with Starting Your Own Fantasy Football League or head to more advanced strategy – like What is the Right Amount of Risk to Absorb on Draft Day? – to learn more.

Adam Koffler is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Adam, check out his archive and follow him @AdamKoffler

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