Must-Have Running Backs (2021 Fantasy Football)
My must-have running backs are an easily attainable group, with only one commanding a top-70 pick. The other three featured backs have an average draft position (ADP) north of 135.
Mike Davis (RB – ATL): 65.34 ADP in 12-team BestBall10s (All Drafts) from 5/1/21-6/6/21
I’ve previously sung the praises of Mike Davis, and his stock is only slightly up from a 68.26 ADP when I analyzed his 2021 outlook on May 22. My analysis still holds. However, a sizable event has taken place since that analysis. The Falcons have agreed to a trade with the Titans, shipping out Julio Jones.
Davis’ pass-catching chops are all the more intriguing now. Jones vacates 68 targets accumulated in nine games last year. Calvin Ridley, Kyle Pitts, and Russell Gage are the top candidates to absorb the vacated targets. Still, Davis could nab a few extra looks after averaging 3.9 receptions and 24.9 receiving yards per game with the Panthers in 2020. I have Davis ranked as my RB17, and I’ll go out of my way to secure his services in drafts.
Kenneth Gainwell (RB – PHI): 136.15 ADP
Kenneth Gainwell lasted until pick 150, landing with the Eagles. Admittedly, it’s not an ideal landing spot with Miles Sanders entrenched as the lead back. Regardless, Gainwell’s pre-draft evaluations from the likes of Lance Zierlein and our own Kyle Yates, as well as his college production, are too good to ignore at his ADP.
Gainwell’s greatest skill — and most fantasy-friendly one — is his receiving ability. He opted out of the 2020 season, but he hauled in 51 receptions for 610 receiving yards and three scores as a redshirt freshman in 2019. He wasn’t a slouch as a runner, either, piling up 1,459 yards at a gaudy 6.3 yards per carry with 13 scores.
New Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni has deployed a running-back-by-committee in three years as the offensive coordinator for the Colts from 2018 to 2020, finding a role for pass-catching back Nyheim Hines. At worst, I envision Gainwell filling that role for him with the Eagles. However, he was a more productive college runner, providing me optimism he might be a souped-up Hines, offering more as a runner.
Darrell Henderson (RB – LAR): 142.78 ADP
Gamers are hyped about Cam Akers, making him the 10th running back off the board with a 12.52 ADP in 12-team BestBall10 leagues since May 1. The rookie was used as a workhorse down the stretch, so I get the infatuation. Having said that, Henderson wasn’t overwhelmed when given chances, flashing fantasy utility as well. The following table showcases his weekly running back finish in point-per-reception (PPR) formats last season.
As you can see, Henderson produced three top-12 finishes, another top-15 finish, and three more top-30 finishes. Compared head to head with Akers, Henderson actually outproduced him in numerous measures.
*Yards before contact per attempt (YBC/Att), Yards after contact per attempt (YAC/Att), and Attempts per broken tackle (Att/Br) are from Pro-Football-Reference.
** Pro Football Focus (PFF) Run rank is out of 47 backs with a minimum of 100 rush attempts in 2020.
The end-of-season usage in the backfield supports the fantasy community's love for Akers. However, it would be foolish to ignore Henderson's success in his second season completely.
Malcolm Brown's departure to the Dolphins via free agency removes a running back from the backfield, reducing a threat to Henderson's 2021 value. Henderson is a premium handcuff. In fact, he's my favorite handcuff.
If Akers were to miss time, Henderson would profile as a bellcow and an RB1. However, even if Akers stays healthy, Henderson's play last year could result in carving out a big enough change-of-pace role to provide flex appeal.
Matt Breida (RB - BUF): 240.94 ADP
I'm more intrigued by Matt Brieda in best ball formats than in traditional season-long formats. Regardless, I might take some stabs in standard leagues, too. Drafting cheap pieces of elite offenses is my jam, and they don't get cheaper than selecting Breida with a last-round pick.
The Bills were rumored to be in the NFL Draft market for a running back due to the dissatisfaction with the running back production for the team voiced by general manager Brandon Beane and head coach Sean McDermott. Despite that dissatisfaction, they didn't select one at all. However, they did sign Breida.
He adds an element of speed to the backfield it previously lacked. How fast is Breida exactly? Well, he posted the fastest sprint speed in 2019, reaching 22.3 miles per hour on a Week 5, 83-yard rushing touchdown, according to NFL Next Gen Stats.
Breida's only season with the Dolphins last year was a disappointment. Although, according to Player Profiler, he averaged 4.9 yards per carry against light fronts and 4.9 yards per carry from shotgun. In 2019 with the 49ers, he averaged a scintillating 6.3 yards per carry against a light front and 4.1 yards per carry out of shotgun. Additionally, his 6.5% breakaway run rate (carries of 15 yards or more) was the sixth-highest percentage among backs.
Buffalo's personnel usage from 2020, if utilized similarly in 2021, could provide Breida ample opportunities against light boxes. According to Sharp Football Stats, the Bills were tied for the sixth-highest percentage of 11-personnel (one running back, one tight end, and three wide receivers) groupings at 71%, and they used 10-personnel (one running back, zero tight ends, and four receivers) at the second-highest percentage (15%).
Breida's signing wasn't met with any fanfare. Still, I think he might be a sneaky-good fit in Buffalo's high-octane, receiver-heavy offense. His home-run speed needs only a crease to rip off long gains. Even a few long touchdown runs could provide a great return on investment for a last-round pick in best ball leagues.