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RB3s with RB1 Potential (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Paul Ghiglieri | @FantasyEvolves | Featured Writer
Feb 13, 2021

The backbone of every great NFL offense has always been a strong rushing attack. Being able to run the ball effectively sets up the pass and allows an offense to be more balanced and less predictable. In many ways, the same can be said of a fantasy lineup. Contrary to what you may have read, you need effective running backs to consistently win in fantasy. Even Zero RB truthers won’t argue that you can’t just punt the position entirely. However, that does not mean you have to draft those running backs early.

The key to the strategy is finding running backs capable of league average production or better later in drafts so you can load up on premium talent at other positions like QB, WR, and TE, potentially giving you an edge. In order for this strategy to work though, you need to know which lower-tier runners are most likely to produce a value that far exceeds their later-round draft slot.

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There are three keys to unlocking an RB3 capable of producing RB1 numbers if given the right opportunity.

  • Upside RB3s play in unsettled backfields.
  • Upside RB3s play a role in the passing game.
  • Upside RB3s possess at least one upside skill.

Let’s tackle that third key first. On the surface, it seems obvious, but a pedestrian rusher who meets the other two requirements is not likely to produce RB1 numbers unless he’s given insane volume (e.g. a running back who averages 3.2 yards per carry and doesn’t catch passes can still post 100 yards and two scores if he gets 30 carries). The probability of that profile hitting is neither a sound investment nor a sustainable one, so while Peyton Barber may have received 234 carries for the Bucs in 2019, it only produced 871 yards and five touchdowns.

Barber’s value is tied to his ability to understand his assignments, generally get what’s blocked, and not fumble (only four in 645 career attempts). He lacks the athletic ability and talent to create for himself the way standout rushers do every week, partly as evidenced by a 15th-percentile Burst Score, according to Player Profiler. Taking a player like Barber as your RB3 might provide you with a safer floor if you know he’s going to receive volume, but his lack of upside prohibits him from producing RB1 stats even if the volume is there.

Contrast that with a player like James Robinson. Unlike Barber, Robinson, another UDFA, has the burst to create for himself (92nd percentile burst score). When given volume, Robinson produced like an RB1, and his ability as a pass-catcher helped him sustain that production. Fantasy analysts will always tout how “volume is king.”

It’s not.

Volume + Upside is king.

In 2020, David Montgomery, Antonio Gibson, J.K. Dobbins, and D’Andre Swift were all drafted as RB3s according to ADP last summer, yet all were able to produce RB1 weeks when given the opportunity. James Robinson was added off waivers or drafted as an RB3 or RB4 in late drafts when he was announced as the starter right before Week 1. What did they all have in common? All but Montgomery met the three criteria listed above, and Montgomery only inherited the volume he did because Tarik Cohen was lost for the season in Week 3.

It is hard to speculate which running backs from the upcoming 2021 draft class will qualify as RB3s with RB1 upside, with draft capital and landing spot likely to be contributing factors. However, Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams, Kenneth Gainwell, Chuba Hubbard, and Michael Carter are just some of the rookie prospects who possess the skillset necessary to meet the criteria. However, with so many unknowns about their landing spots this early in the offseason, let’s take a look at the candidates who finished as RB3s in 2020 who might have a chance to put up RB1 numbers if given the opportunity next year.

Myles Gaskin (RB – MIA)  and Salvon Ahmed (RB – MIA)
The Miami Dolphins are most likely going to draft a running back, and many early mocks project the team to take Travis Etienne in the second round. However, it’s also possible that the team continues with its pair of young rushers from 2020 and invests in the wide receiver room to support Tua Tagovailoa instead. Myles Gaskin’s closest comp, according to PlayerProfiler.com is Ronald Jones. He has at least average burst and showed last season that he can be a dynamic weapon as a pass-catcher.

Ahmed posted a similar Burst Score, and the tandem could easily provide Miami with a respectable rushing attack that would make either runner an RB1 if he were to take over the lion’s share of the backfield, provided the team doesn’t invest heavily in a running back in the draft.

Chase Edmonds (RB – ARI) and Eno Benjamin (RB – ARI)
Chase Edmonds has been a favorite of ZeroRB enthusiasts since he posted RB1 numbers during a brief stint filling in for an injured David Johnson in 2019 before the Arizona Cardinals traded for Kenyan Drake. Like Ahmed in Miami, Edmonds profiles more as a complementary back, but he has already proven he can produce RB1 numbers if given the opportunity in Kliff Kingsbury’s spread attack. Moreover, there wasn’t a better running back in football when it came to producing as a receiver out of the slot.

Seventh Round pick Eno Benjamin boasts an 86th percentile Burst Score, and with Drake set to hit free agency, Edmonds and Benjamin could form a tandem similar to what we saw in Miami to close out 2020. Again, the Cardinals seem likely to take a running back in this upcoming draft, and they’re yet another team that mocks have taking Etienne early.

Jeff Wilson Jr. (RB – SF) and JaMycal Hasty (RB – SF)
Jeff Wilson, like the other running backs mentioned above, shined in the passing game and plays in a muddled backfield. He is not very athletic, but he does possess one unique upside trait that makes him effective in HC Kyle Shanahan’s scheme: vision. Just how good is Wilson’s vision? He faced eight-man boxes on 32.5% of his carries last season, and he still averaged 4.8 yards per carry thanks to Shanahan’s run game coordination. Wilson’s ability to find a rushing lane, hit the hole, and make a cutback don’t show up on his athletic profile, but they also make him a highly scheme-specific back perfect for Shanahan’s system, even if his lack of elite size or athletic traits are a big reason why he went undrafted in 2018.

Nonetheless, Raheem Mostert remains under contract (and will be drafted as an RB2), and much of Wilson’s opportunity last year can be attributed to Mostert, Tevin Coleman, Jerick McKinnon, and promising young rusher JaMycal Hasty all getting injured at various points during the season. If nothing else, Wilson is durable, and he’s capable of RB1 numbers in this scheme if the carries will be there. As for Hasty, his Burst Score is in the 87th percentile, and he demonstrated enough wiggle that it’s easy to see him thriving in this scheme if given the chance.

Damien Harris (RB – NE)
Damien Harris is a power back from the SEC who served as Nick Saban’s workhorse at Alabama prior to the Patriots selecting him in the third round of the 2019 NFL Draft. Harris posted three 100-yard games and one 80-yard performance in the four games he was given more than 15 carries. New England’s backfield has historically been a headache for fantasy owners due to the usage of multiple backs as part of an ever-changing game plan each week, but Harris routinely saw double-digit carries in every game but one last season, eclipsing 15 carries or more in six of the ten games he played. While not a prolific pass catcher, Harris did catch five of his seven targets, even scoring two touchdowns on his receptions. Anyone who was able to stomach watching the Patriots’ offense in 2020 saw Harris racking up big gains on the ground.

Both James White and Rex Burkhead are unrestricted free agents this offseason, and Sony Michel‘s injuries have seemingly sapped much of the athleticism that made him a former first round pick. Harris has the momentum going into 2021, and while Michel’s abilities as a pass-catcher should keep him in the mix, Harris has a chance to be the lead dog in this backfield with so many other holes the team needs to fill through free agency and the draft.

AJ Dillon (RB – GB)
Much of this hinges on whether GB brings Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams back through free agency, but odds are likely Jones will want more money than the team is willing to pay, especially after spending Day 2 draft capital on Dillon last year in an effort to remake the team’s offense into something more akin to what HC Matt LaFleur ran when he was the OC for the Tennessee Titans. Some had questions about whether Dillon would be able to force missed tackles the way he did in college, and the answer seems pretty clear.

The team may bring Williams back on a more affordable deal, but Dillon possesses an elite Burst Score, and his closest athletic comp is former All-Pro Steven Jackson. His breakout game against Tennessee in Week 16 (21-124-2) showed how he can be a foundational back when given the volume, and his 13-yard reception against Tampa Bay in the playoffs may inspire the team to build more targets for him in the passing game given how much of a load he is to bring down.

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Paul Ghiglieri is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Paul, check out his archive and follow him @FantasyEvolves.

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