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Impact Rookie Running Backs in Redraft Leagues (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Bonnie Robinson | @FantasyQueenB | Featured Writer
Jun 5, 2021
Travis Etienne 2021 fantasy football rookie running backs

Travis Etienne is a top-notch pass catcher and the most dynamic running back from the 2021 class.

Drafting rookies in fantasy redraft leagues might seem risky. Often in the NFL, it can take an entire season for first-year players to get acclimated. However, that’s mainly a fallacy for running backs, as it is the most uncomplicated skill position to learn at the pro level. Furthermore, fading them could mean missing out on the next Jonathon Taylor or one that could become the starter at some point in the season. Keeping this in mind, here’s an early look at rookie running backs set to have the most fantasy impact in 2021.

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Najee Harris (PIT)
Pittsburgh was the ultimate landing spot for a rookie running back with James Conner gone and the team thin at the position. Najee Harris will immediately slide into the top slot on the depth chart. The former Alabama star was the highest-ranked in this year’s class, and the Steelers drafted him 24th overall. Teams don’t spend first-round draft capital on a running back if they don’t intend to utilize them right away.

Pittsburgh’s offensive line is a bit suspect, but with quarterback Ben Roethlisberger’s declining arm strength, the team will likely emphasize the run game. Factor in that head coach Mike Tomlin prefers a bell-cow back, and Harris could easily vie for 300-plus touches this year. His floor will be lofty based on projected volume alone. Add in that he’s an elite dual-threat who’ll capitalize on his opportunities, and it raises his ceiling. What’s the cherry on top? The Steelers have the second-most favorable schedule for running backs this season, according to FantasyPros. So it won’t be surprising if Harris creeps into the second round of drafts by summer’s end.

Travis Etienne (JAX)
There is concern about Travis Etienne sharing the backfield with incumbent starter James Robinson. The two are expected to split reps for the Jaguars early, but the better talent should prevail. Robinson will likely get the early-down work and goal-line carries but will lose playing time on passing downs to Etienne. Etienne is a top-notch pass catcher and the most dynamic running back from the 2021 class. As another back with first-round draft capital, he could gain meaningful work as the season progresses. Aside from Kareem Hunt of the Cleveland Browns, Etienne has the most fantasy upside of all the backup running backs in the league.

Javonte Williams (DEN)
The fantasy appeal of Javonte Williams in Denver is his immediate threat to Melvin Gordon’s stranglehold on the Broncos’ backfield. Williams was the consensus third-best running back in this year’s class, only behind Harris and Etienne. With Gordon in the final stage of his contract, the Broncos selecting Williams 35th overall signifies their investment in the future. At a minimum, Williams should share time with Gordon with the opportunity for his role to expand. A complete transition to Williams could occur even sooner if the Broncos fall out of contention early. That is not out of the equation, considering their current quarterbacks are Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater. If Denver does start the season with a losing record, the team should convert to evaluation mode to give their newcomers a look. If there is a changing of the guard at running back, Williams could be a league winner.

Trey Sermon (SF)
The recent knee injury to backup running back Jeff Wilson boosts Trey Sermon’s value. Sermon was already on the fantasy radar simply due to San Francisco’s utilization of a running back-by-committee. That committee is now narrowed down to two players by default as Wilson will miss 4-6 months. As a great fit in the 49ers zone-blocking running attack, Sermon could emerge as an enormous factor at some point in the season. Wilson’s absence also makes Sermon the de factor No. 1 if primary back Raheem Mostert succumbed to injury. The chance of that occurring isn’t a long shot. Mostert is oft-injured and is already dealing with a mild knee sprain in OTAs.

Michael Carter (NYJ)
With Le’Veon Bell out of the picture, the Jets’ backfield is up for grabs. According to The Athletic’s Connor Hughes, the team could deploy a rotation similar to that of the San Francisco 49ers.

“The Jets want to rely on the run, similar to the 49ers,” per Hughes. “Also like the 49ers: They will use just about everyone at their disposal. New offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur rotated Ty Johnson, Tevin Coleman, and rookie Michael Carter throughout practice without any frontrunner for the lead job. All three have skill sets the Jets want, and they will use each depending on the situation.”

While it would be somewhat surprising, Carter could emerge as the top dog by September. Due to his smaller size, he was viewed more as a complementary piece than a prototypical workhorse. But in the past, Carter has proven he can handle a substantial workload and shined when given the opportunity. He rushed for over 1,000 yards in both of his final two seasons at North Carolina. Given his potential for a considerable slice of this backfield, he’s worth drafting in the later rounds.

Kenny Gainwell (PHI)
While Miles Sanders is the clear-cut starter here, the backup job in Philadelphia is ripe for the picking. The Eagles have a crowded but uninspiring backfield, and with Kenny Gainwell’s high-level combination of power and receiving ability, he should be able to pull away from the pack. Compared to a poor man’s version of Alvin Kamara, Gainwell is a playmaker, particularly in the passing game where Sanders hasn’t been utilized much (he had two fumbles in 2020). Gainwell will likely see meaningful reps in 2021, more so if Sanders continues to deal with injuries.

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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 a more advanced strategy – like What is the Right Amount of Risk to Absorb on Draft Day? – to learn more.

Bonnie Robinson is a featured writer for FantasyPros. For more from Bonnie, check out her profile and follow her @FantasyQueenB.

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