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Running Backs to Avoid (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Jared Lese | @JaredL_FF | Featured Writer
Jun 18, 2021
Nick Chubb

Running backs are the prized commodity in fantasy football. This is the position that oftentimes wins or loses leagues for fantasy managers. As the NFL has transitioned into a more pass-happy league that utilizes split backfields more commonly, obtaining a bellcow or receiving specialist running back is crucial in fantasy football. Many times, the team has the highest-scoring running back – or at least the most well-round starting running back corps – wins their championship. Who didn’t win their championships last year when you had Alvin Kamara or Dalvin Cook? Or Christian McCaffrey the year prior?

However, it’s not all pretty for the running back position in fantasy. As high as their ceilings may get, they also retain increased risk due to injury, environment, and game-script dependencies. More so than any other position, top-performing fantasy running backs are usually on high-scoring offenses and either winning most of their games – for running backs that want to grind out the game clock, like Derrick Henry – or trail and get garbage time points – as McCaffrey did in Carolina a few seasons back.

As such, which running backs should you avoid in 2021? Let’s take a look at three players who stand out the most for me at their current expert consensus ranking (ECR) and average draft position (ADP), whom I’ll most likely be passing on in my drafts (for 0.5 PPR leagues).

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Nick Chubb (CLE)

Nick Chubb has been sensational since entering the league in 2018, ranking in the top 3 in overall offensive grade per PFF every season. Furthermore, regarding yards after contact per attempt – one of the most critical statistical metrics in measuring how good a running back actually is since it limits external factors impacting rushing performance – Chubb has finished 1st, 2nd, and 1st in the three years since 2018. He’s simply amazing. So why do I have him on this list of RBs to avoid? Value and cost.

Chubb is currently ranked as the RB8 in 0.5 PPR leagues, just behind Saquon Barkley, Alvin Kamara, Jonathan Taylor, and Ezekiel Elliott. Although he’s every as good as these other RBs, he’s the only one who splits time with another premier RB: Kareem Hunt. Furthermore, Chubb has never topped 36 receptions in a season, including just 16 in 12 games last season. His upside is severely capped in this split backfield unless Hunt goes down or Chubb’s receiving role expands. I’d rather take those other RBs listed in the late first over Chubb or go the WR route and then select a second-tier RB in the 2nd round.

Melvin Gordon III (DEN)

A great fantasy option for the past several seasons, including an RB13 finish last season in his first season with the Denver Broncos, Melvin Gordon III finds himself on this list for one primary reason: Javonte Williams. Denver traded up in the 2021 NFL Draft to select Williams in the 2nd round, which speaks volumes to their valuation of him as a prospect, and how they envision this backfield going forward. Teams generally don’t trade up for an RB to sit him on the bench. Williams was also ranked in the top three RBs in this past class from any draft analysts, and even number one overall occasionally, due to his – similar to Chubb – immense rushing ability. Even if Gordon III retains the starting job at the beginning of this season, this backfield may infuriate fantasy managers who anticipate the usual Gordon III workload. At RB26, I’d prefer selecting Travis Etienne, Mike Davis, Chase Edmonds, or even Williams himself, at that point in my drafts.

James Robinson (JAC)

As much as it pains me to put everyone’s fantasy darling of 2020 on this list, I had to do it. There’s no denying that James Robinson was arguably the fantasy MVP last season, going from undrafted rookie on the worst team in the NFL to finish as the RB7 in 0.5 PPR leagues. He was amazing, and no one saw it coming, especially in the COVID-19-stricken season. However, teams’ actions speak louder than their words, and “what have you done lately” matters greatly.

In the 2021 NFL Draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars used their second pick, number 25 overall, on Travis Etienne – RB out of Clemson. Why would they do this if they believed in Robinson as their bellcow back? They have so many holes on this team, so why attack the most replaceable and team-dependent position with one of their most valuable picks? Because they believe Etienne is a game-breaker and difference-maker. Just as we saw with Adrian Peterson and Chester Taylor in 2007, or Dalvin Cook and Latavius Murray a few seasons ago, teams don’t care about an RB’s performance the past season if they have a perceived rookie star. They’ll play that rookie and utilize him greatly. As such, at RB29, I think Robinson is basically being drafted at his ceiling in 2021, while other RBs like the aforementioned Etienne, Davis, Edmonds, or even Raheem Mostert, may be better picks at this point in your drafts.

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Jared Lese is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Jared, check out his archive and follow him @JaredL_FF.

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