There are only a select amount of true “must-have” NFL running backs. Given the durability concerns across the position and the league’s greater reliance on dreaded backfield committees, it’s difficult to find studs or diamonds in the rough outside of your mainstays.
Yes, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Derrick Henry, and Alvin Kamara are all must-have running backs if they’re healthy. But you already knew that.
This list is meant to dig deeper. You’ll see some recognizable names you might not have expected to be must-haves in 2021. With that in mind, here are my must-have tailbacks.
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Ezekiel Elliott (DAL): ECR RB8
Ezekiel Elliott was certainly a disappointment in fantasy last season. Yet he still finished as the RB11 in half-PPR formats. Now he’s being regarded as a low-end RB1? This screams “buy-low opportunity” to me.
Elliott put up a career-low 979 rushing yards in 15 games in 2020, four fewer than in 2017 when he missed six games. He started the year battling COVID. Then, he had to battle the collapse of the Cowboys offense once Dak Prescott went down with a season-ending ankle injury.
Prescott is expected back in Dallas, at least for 2021. Am I concerned about the stability of Dallas’ offensive line? Absolutely. But last year’s bottoming out felt more like the equivalent of what happened to Carson Wentz in Philadelphia. Everything around Elliott crumbled.
At just 25 years old, I don’t think Elliott suddenly fell off a cliff. Unlike other members of your league who will be scared off, I’ll target Elliott in the back-end of Round 1 or the beginning of Round 2.
J.K. Dobbins (BAL): ECR RB12
I’m going from a potential buy-low candidate to a guy I’m willing to pay a premium for. Dobbins should’ve been Baltimore’s lead tailback much earlier in his rookie season. He was a better player than the aged-out Mark Ingram and career handcuff Gus Edwards.
It took almost half of the season, but the Ravens finally let Dobbins shine. The Ohio State product rushed for 651 yards and seven touchdowns from Week 7 on and finished as the RB21 in half-PPR formats.
With Lamar Jackson alongside him, it’s hard to truly gauge Dobbins’ rushing ceiling. However, Ingram likely won’t be back in Baltimore, and Edwards is nothing more than a goal-line handcuff. Dobbins should get the majority of the touches in Baltimore’s high-powered running game. I also expect him to be much more involved in the passing game, especially given Jackson’s limitations as a passer.
A top-12 finish is certainly a possibility for Dobbins, so I’m willing to pay what will likely be a Round 2 or Round 3 draft price this summer.
Austin Ekeler (LAC): ECR RB15
Despite being sidelined for six games by a hamstring injury, Ekeler managed to finish just inside the top 30 running backs in half-PPR formats. A big reason for that is Ekeler’s proficiency as a pass-catcher.
Los Angeles should have an exciting offense as Justin Herbert enters Year 2. Herbert is definitely more willing to sling the ball downfield, but his big arm didn’t slow Ekeler’s production in the passing game after he returned from a hamstring injury.
In six games to close the season, Ekeler caught 37 of 48 targets. I expect him to remain a focal point of the Chargers’ passing game. He’s never going to be a bell-cow ramming between the tackles, but he’s good enough to be a strong RB2.
Travis Etienne (FA): ECR RB46
For my final must-have running back, I’m turning to the best running back in the 2021 draft class. For what it’s worth, I like Najee Harris a lot too. But Etienne has more potential to be an explosive playmaker on all three downs at the next level. Thus, I like his chances of seeing the field right away a bit more.
Etienne is dynamic, he can score from anywhere, and he might have a little bit of Alvin Kamara in him. Obviously, we don’t know where Etienne will be playing yet. The situation certainly matters as I’d rather he land somewhere like Miami or Tampa Bay than with the New York Jets. But honestly, Etienne is so talented it might not make a major difference. Just get the ball in his hands.
I always like to get at least one rookie on my team in re-draft formats, and Etienne will be one of my top targets. While his ranking will most likely move up after he gets drafted, he presents RB2 upside as a rookie.
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Matt Barbato is a featured writer for FantasyPros. For more from Matt, check out his archive and follow him @RealMattBarbato.