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Running Back Battles to Monitor (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Zachary Hanshew | @ZaktheMonster | Featured Writer
May 11, 2021

Now that NFL rosters have become more solidified, it’s a great time to check up on positional battles. Today, we’ll look at fantasy’s most important position – the running back. There are plenty of notable backfield battles to monitor, starting with the defending champion Buccaneers, who have two very capable options. Let’s get into the eight most important running back battles to monitor for the upcoming season.

Check out our Consensus Dynasty Rankings here >>

Tampa Bay Buccaneers: Ronald Jones vs. Leonard Fournette
This is one of the most fascinating backfield battles in the NFL. After his release from the Jags, Fournette signed and slotted into a timeshare with the incumbent Jones. RoJo earned 15.7 touches per game in 2020, which was up from 12.7 in 2019. His 69.9 rushing yards per game were easily a career best. Jones also recorded career highs with 220 touches, 1,143 scrimmage yards, and eight total touchdowns. Fournette’s season was a bit less productive, but he more than made up for it in the playoffs. In the postseason, RoJo finished with a 35/139 rushing line and no receptions on two targets. Fournette on the other hand, provided a 64/300/3 rushing line and an 18/148/1 receiving line. He out-touched Jones 82-35 and outgained him 448-139 with a 4-0 TD advantage. After a Super Bowl run in which he played a key role, Fournette has the upper hand to start the season as the Bucs’ lead back.

Buffalo Bills: Zack Moss vs. Devin Singletary vs. Matt Breida
This was one of the most frustrating backfields in fantasy football last season, but the team went out and added Matt Breida in the offseason to give fantasy managers an even bigger headache. In 2020, Moss produced 576 scrimmage yards and five total touchdowns over 13 games, while Singletary went for 956 scrimmage yards and two total touchdowns over 16 games. Those numbers favor Singletary slightly, but the target distribution favored him even more. Last season, Singletary grabbed 38 receptions on 50 targets compared to just 14 receptions on 18 targets for Moss. If one of these two backs can separate himself, he could be a valuable fantasy contributor, but if a timeshare continues, each will cannibalize the other’s touches. Breida is likely a depth add, but this backfield is a mess for fantasy purposes, especially considering Josh Allen‘s prolific profile as a runner. Stay abreast of this running back battle ahead of fantasy drafts.

Denver Broncos: Melvin Gordon vs. Javonte Williams
Phillip Lindsay signed with Houston, so Gordon is the clear RB1 in the Mile High City, right? Not so fast! The Broncos invested second-round draft capital into Williams, so he’s not likely to sit idly by as a rookie. In his final year at North Carolina, Williams racked up over 1,000 yards on the ground thanks to a ridiculous 7.3 yards per carry. He also found the end zone 22 times on just 182 total touches. Williams provided solid production as a receiver as well, and he’s a legitimate threat to challenge Gordon for lead-back duties in his first season. The edge is still with Gordon, who has a proven NFL track record and a substantial contract, but this is a battle to keep a very close eye on throughout the summer.

Las Vegas Raiders: Josh Jacobs vs. Kenyan Drake
These backs can certainly work together given the complementary skill sets. Jacobs is more of a between-the-tackles type of guy, while Drake is a more polished receiver out of the backfield. This may not be a tremendous competition if Jacobs is used as the team’s primary runner and Drake as the primary receiver, but there’s certainly a chance Drake impresses in camp and overtakes Jacobs as the firm lead back. I expect this to be a committee backfield in 2021, but Jon Gruden didn’t bring in Drake to ride the pine.

Houston Texans: David Johnson vs. Phillip Lindsay vs. Mark Ingram
This is a backfield (and a team) that I want no part of in 2021 fantasy football. Deshaun Watson‘s future is very much up in the air, and Houston could be trotting out Tyrod Taylor behind a sketchy offensive line. I can’t imagine this team scores too many points or stays competitive in many games, so game scripts alone should favor a back who excels as a receiver. Unfortunately, all of these backs are able pass-catchers, and the fact that all three have been successful featured backs within the last five years makes this situation as clear as mud. Lindsay is the youngest of the bunch, Johnson has displayed the highest ceiling, and Ingram has been a steady and reliable producer throughout his career with the Saints and Ravens. Any of these three could seize the starting job outright, but the more likely scenario is a timeshare in an already-uninspired offense. Stay informed on what’s going on in H-Town, but know that even the most productive Texans running back has a limited ceiling for the upcoming campaign.

Jacksonville Jaguars: James Robinson vs. Travis Etienne
After an incredible rookie campaign from Robinson, the Jags did the only logical thing possible and drafted another running back in the first round of the NFL Draft. The team also added Carlos Hyde in free agency, but the battle to be the team’s RB1 should be a two-horse race. Etienne is currently ranked higher than Robinson in FantasyPros ADP, which is quite puzzling. Even if Etienne enjoys a prominent role in the offense, he’s not likely to render J-Rob irrelevant. Both backs should be involved in Urban Meyer’s offensive gameplan, and training camp could be important in determining 2021 roles.

San Francisco 49ers: Raheem Mostert vs. Jeff Wilson vs. Trey Sermon vs. Wayne Gallman
The world seems like it’s finally returning to normal after a tumultuous 2020, but one thing that’s remained a constant is the Niners’ crowded backfield. Mostert and Wilson will have first cracks at lead-back duties, with neither possessing a clear edge. Mostert emerged as San Fran’s leader in the backfield to start 2020, but he missed more time due to injury, and Wilson stepped up in some big games to lead the team in total touchdowns with 10. Sermon makes for an interesting change-of-pace back, and Gallman will likely be bench depth only. Still, due to the frequency at which this team’s running backs go in and out of the lineup, there could be opportunities available for all of these backs at some point in the season. Pay attention to reports out of camp this summer.

Arizona Cardinals: Chase Edmonds vs. James Conner
In another “not-so-fast” competition, Edmonds will have to fend off Conner in this “dust up in the desert.” After Kenyan Drake (see above) left for Las Vegas, Edmonds was ready to show what he could do with a featured role. Enter… Conner. The former Steelers’ stud hasn’t lived up to fantasy managers’ expectations over the last two seasons, and Pittsburgh’s running game has been straight up dreadful. Najee Harris will make his way to the convergence of the Allegheny, Mon, and Ohio Rivers as the Steelers’ back of the future, while Conner will take his talents to Arizona and face Edmonds. The latter piled up career highs across multiple categories, including 150 touches, 850 scrimmage yards, 53 receptions, and five total touchdowns. The edge should go to the incumbent, but Conner’s arrival should prompt an intriguing battle.

Check out our Consensus Dynasty Rankings here >>

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Zachary Hanshew is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Zachary, check out his archive and follow him @zakthemonster.