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Second-Year Running Back Rankings (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Skyler Carlin | Featured Writer
Feb 18, 2021

 
Teams in the NFL that took a wide receiver in the 2020 NFL Draft are likely content with who they selected as it was a truly historic class of pass catchers. The same could likely be said for the running backs who were taken in last year’s draft as the rookie wideouts’ performances overshadowed them.

Heading into the 2021 season, there is a slew of second-year running backs poised to be valuable commodities in fantasy football. In the rankings I am about to compile, let’s make one thing clear. The order I have them in does not reflect which running backs I believe are the most talented of the bunch. Rather than list them in order of talent, I’ve arranged them to signify who is in the best position to succeed next season. Given their current situations, this is how I see the 2020 NFL Draft class of running backs ranking ahead of the 2021 campaign.

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1. Jonathan Taylor (IND)
When speaking about the second-year running backs, it’s tough not to have Jonathan Taylor as the No. 1 option in the group. Taylor’s slow start to his rookie season in 2020 led many to believe that he could have been overrated in the fantasy football community. However, Taylor would finish as RB6 in PPR leagues as he put together a remarkable final stretch in the regular season.

From Weeks 13-17 of the 2020 season, there wasn’t a running back in the entire NFL that scored more fantasy points than Taylor, who recorded 130.3 of them in that span. Even though Nyheim Hines could cap his ceiling as a receiver, Taylor runs behind a fantastic offensive line, giving him a chance to be one of the top running backs in fantasy football in 2021. Don’t overthink it and make Taylor the second-year running back you target the most in drafts this offseason.

2. James Robinson (JAX)
One thing I’ve noticed this offseason already is that people are heavily underrating just how good James Robinson was in his rookie season. They also don’t seem to consider that Robinson’s situation with the Jacksonville Jaguars is about to become much more running-back friendly. Despite dealing with a revolving door at quarterback that involved Gardner Minshew, Mike Glennon, and Jake Luton, Robinson concluded 2020 as RB7 in PPR leagues.

Robinson, an undrafted running back out of Illinois State, would immediately secure Jacksonville’s starting running back spot following the release of Leonard Fournette. The undrafted rookie notched 1,414 yards from scrimmage and 10 total touchdowns, commanding 85.4 percent of Jacksonville’s running back attempts. During his historic rookie season for an undrafted prospect, Robinson ran 254 routes, which was the 13th most among running backs. Seeing that Robinson likely won’t have competition at the position, and Trevor Lawrence is expected to be his new quarterback, Robinson’s stock in fantasy football could skyrocket even further in 2021.

3. Cam Akers (LAR)
Name a better duo than Sean McVay and running backs when it comes to fantasy football. In the four seasons that McVay has been the head man for the Los Angeles Rams, he’s had the RB1 twice (Todd Gurley), RB14 (also Gurley), and RB8 (if you combined Cam Akers and Darrell Henderson’s shared points in 2020). The only reason Akers didn’t finish higher than RB45 is due to the Rams not utilizing him much until later in the season.

But once Akers was given the starting job – mainly because of Henderson getting injured – he flashed plenty of potential for the future. There were only three running backs who saw more stacked boxes (eight or more defenders) than Akers in 2020.

With Matthew Stafford coming to town, Akers should see way fewer stacked boxes than he did with Jared Goff at the helm. Simultaneously, Stafford won’t know what to do with a running back that could be on his way to rushing for over 1,000 yards. The only things – which are definitely plausible – that could prevent Akers from being a definitive RB1 is McVay not using him in the passing game more or Henderson garnering more touches than anticipated.

4. D’Andre Swift (DET)
On the other end of the Stafford trade, the Detroit Lions acquired Goff to become their new signal-caller. While Goff is a downgrade for Swift at quarterback, he does get a run-centric offensive coordinator in Anthony Lynn. Whether it was with the Buffalo Bills or the Los Angeles Chargers, Lynn loved to run the ball, regardless of the down-and-distance.

As for Swift, he was cornered into a limited role behind Adrian Peterson to begin his career with the Lions, which is a fireable offense in itself for Matt Patricia. However, when Darrell Bevell assumed the interim head coach position, Swift saw an increase in his usage. In the final four weeks of the 2020 season, Swift was RB14 in PPR leagues. Luckily for Swift, after a strong finish to his first year in the NFL, the Lions seem to view him as an every-down running back. There’s a chance that Swift earns the most touches among the second-year running backs next season, but the fact he is in Detroit lowers my belief that he’ll be efficient consistently.

5. J.K. Dobbins (BAL)
Whenever J.K. Dobbins was selected by the Baltimore Ravens, he entered a crowded backfield with Mark Ingram and Gus Edwards. But it didn’t take long for Dobbins to force the Ravens to make Ingram a healthy scratch in certain weeks as he seized a prominent role in the backfield alongside Edwards. With Ingram out of the picture entirely, that sets up Dobbins for even more touches in 2021.

Edwards has definitely earned himself a decent-sized role in Baltimore’s backfield moving forward. Though, it’s Dobbins who ran 191 routes in 2020 compared to the 78 routes run by Edwards, giving the edge to Dobbins in the passing game. If the Ravens actually spend time in the offseason expanding their passing scheme – and adding more receiving weapons for Lamar Jackson – Dobbins could be in for a stellar sophomore campaign. The uncertainty surrounding the split workload with Edwards and the unknowns surrounding the aerial attack that has Dobbins at fifth on this list.

6. Antonio Gibson (WAS)
Everyone was curious to see what role the Washington Football Team gave Antonio Gibson as he entered the NFL. Coming out of Memphis, Gibson was capable of playing wide receiver or running back at the next level due to his versatility. Washington ended up electing to have him slot in as a running back, which ended up being a magnificent choice as he averaged 8.5 attempts per broken tackle (second-best in the NFL).

Gibson wound up logging 1,042 yards from scrimmage and 11 total touchdowns in his first year in the nation’s capital. The Memphis product would be RB13 in PPR leagues despite being limited to 14 games due to a foot injury. After having Alex Smith for most of his rookie season, Washington will likely have a new quarterback manning the offense in 2021. Regardless of who replaces Smith, the emergence of J.D. McKissic lowers Gibson’s ceiling in the receiving department.

7. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (KC)
During the pre-draft process in fantasy football, a boatload of analysts and fans alike raved about Clyde Edwards-Helaire because of his ideal landing spot. Edwards-Helaire was able to join a loaded Kansas City Chiefs offense, leading most people to assume that he’d be the rookie running back to have the most shares of to begin the season.

Following a productive debut where he rushed for 138 yards and a touchdown, Edwards-Helaire had just one week where he finished as better than an RB10. With Kansas City’s offense built on throwing it often with Patrick Mahomes – and understandably so – Edwards-Helaire isn’t going to get the necessary carries to make him a must-start option every week. Also, with Tyreek Hill, Travis Kelce, Mecole Hardman, and the possibility that the Chiefs add another offensive weapon this offseason, there aren’t as many targets left for Edwards-Helaire as you’d like.

8. A.J. Dillon (GB)
While it remains to be seen what role AJ Dillon has with the Green Bay Packers in 2021, one thing is for certain; he never skips leg day. Dillon has thighs the size of two elephants, and that isn’t an exaggeration. Standing at six-feet tall and weighing in at nearly 250 pounds, Dillon isn’t a running back that defenders want to tackle.

In just a small sample size of action, while sharing touches with Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams, Dillon did make the most of his opportunities. Dillon would lead the league in the highest percentage of missed tackles forced, exceeding the 30 percent of missed tackles forced by Nick Chubb of the Cleveland Browns.

It goes without saying that Dillon’s future is contingent on the future of Jones and Williams, who are both free agents this offseason. If the Packers don’t bring back either Jones or Williams, Dillon is poised for a breakout season in 2021, and he would quickly rise up my rankings.

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Skyler Carlin is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Skyler, check out his archive and follow him @skyler_carlin.

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