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Second-Year Breakout Running Backs (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Raju Byfield | @FantasyContext | Featured Writer
Jun 4, 2021
2nd Year Breakout Running Backs

There is often tremendous value to be had in pinpointing which second-year running backs are ready to take the leap from a fantasy perspective. We saw some of these running backs come on strong as their rookie seasons progressed, and as of now, the first five running backs selected in the 2020 NFL Draft are all set to operate as lead backs for their respective teams. However, there are some interesting names beyond them who should make impacts in 2021. Instead of just discussing those backs at length, we have decided to briefly touch on every running back drafted last season (and James Robinson). Let’s dig in. 

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The Fab Five

Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB – KC)
CEH is still the same running back that leapfrogged Swift and Taylor in many eyes by landing with the Kansas City Chiefs. He has very little competition currently on the roster and could see north of 250 touches if he can stay efficient and healthy. He is an RB2 with RB1 upside for the 2021 season. 

D’Andre Swift (RB – DET)
D’Andre Swift will be the lead back in Detroit but is set to cede a frustrating amount of touches to Jamaal Williams. Williams is barely above average as a runner but is sound in pass protection and has plus receiving ability. Swift is good in these departments in his own right but will likely see the former Packers’ running back siphon 8-12 touches per game. Swift will see some variance but is right on the RB1 periphery.

Jonathan Taylor (RB – IND)
Jonathan Taylor is the undisputed lead back in Indianapolis but still has to contend with Nyheim Hines and Marlon Mack stealing touches. Taylor is one of the rare workhorse types of talents and has been working heavily on his routes this offseason. He is still likely capped at about 50 receptions for the season, but Mack’s presence should help keep him fresh throughout the season. Taylor is an RB1 for 2021 and beyond. 

Cam Akers (RB –  LAR)
Cam Akers has been freed from Malcolm Brown but will still have the impressive Darell Henderson breathing down his neck. Akers is the unquestioned lead back in this backfield, but improved play from Henderson could force this into a more even split than many have envisioned. Still, the smart money is on Akers seeing 250+ touches, especially with the extra game added to the schedule. Akers has no doubt RB1 upside in the revamped Rams offense but may prove to be more of a peak and valley player than desired.  

J.K. Dobbins (RB – BAL)
J.K. Dobbins, like the other top-five running backs from the 2020 NFL Draft, is locked in as the lead back. Mark Ingram is now a member of the Houston Texans, which should allow Dobbins to see a heavy workload on a consistent basis. There will be some inconsistency, but we are looking at a 1.000 yard rusher who should threaten at least 40-50 receptions. Gus Edwards, and perhaps even Justice Hill, will get some work as well, making Dobbins more of an RB2 with weekly RB1 upside. 

Breakout Upside

Antonio Gibson (RB – WAS)
Antonio Gibson has a relatively clear path to a large workload but does not boast the weekly RB1 upside of the ‘Fab Five’. Head coach Ron Rivera has stated that he plans to give Gibson more receiving work this season, but he will need to steal targets from JD McKissic who saw 110 targets just last season. Add that to an improved receiving corps that added Dyami Brown, Adam Humphries, and Curtis Samuel, and there will be fewer targets overall for the running back position this season. Still, Gibson has enough talent to finish as an RB1 on any given week and should be a strong RB2 for Washington. He will likely see regression in his touchdown rate but should have more volume overall to help make up for it. Gibson was not grouped with the top five due to being a candidate to take a step back from an efficiency standpoint.

Breakout potential with depth chart issues

A.J. Dillon (RB – GB)
A.J. Dillon will have a chance to establish standalone value this season. He will not be the Packers new starting running back with Aaron Jones re-signed but should be a solid flex option with RB2/3 upside. If Aaron Jones is forced to miss any time, we could get a true glimpse of Dillon’s massive upside as a rare breed of size and talent. Dillon immediately enters the RB1 conversation if Jones misses any time. 

Ke’Shawn Vaughn (RB – TB)
Ke’Shawn Vaughn has been impressing this offseason but looks to be stuck as the fourth running back on the depth chart. Leonard Fournette and Ronald Jones will continue to dominate touches, with new addition Gio Bernard seeing some time as well. Where this leaves Vaughn on a weekly basis is a legitimate question mark. He has talent and a supporter in Bruce Arians, but barring injury, he will need to be ready to beat out all three of the veterans ahead of him in order to see any sort of consistent workload. 

Zack Moss (RB – BUF)
Zack Moss was highly impressive when healthy and looks to be the favorite to lead the Bills backfield in rushing attempts. Moss has better hands than advertised and could work his way to RB2 value for a Bills team that wants someone to establish themselves. The presence of Devin Singletary ensures Moss will be ranked as a borderline RB2 most weeks, but outside of the top five running backs discussed above, it is Moss who has the best chance at a true breakout. 

What will their roles be?

Darrynton Evans (RB – TEN)
Evans remains a handcuff only for managers with Derrick Henry on their rosters. Brain Hill and Jeremy McNichols will likely join Evans in a committee if the Titans war horse misses any games.

Joshua Kelley (RB – LAC)
Joshua Kelley failed spectacularly as a rookie despite being tabbed as one of the most pro-ready prospects at his position. He was unable to beat out JAG Justin Jackson and now has to contend with a new coaching staff that felt compelled to add Larry Rountree late in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Lamical Perine (RB – NYJ)
When beat reporters discuss this backfield, they mention Tevin Coleman, Ty Johnson, and of course, exciting rookie Michael Carter Jr. Perine is a forgotten man who may need to bulk back up to his junior playing weight if he wants to earn a role in this backfield. He should see some touches in the RBBC if active but is more of a best ball target or deep league bench depth. 

Anthony McFarland Jr. (RB – PIT)
Anthony McFarland failed to make his mark as a rookie and has now been relegated to permanent backup status. Najee Harris is a special talent who will dominate the touches in Pittsburgh. Benny Snell will likely remain ahead of McFarland on early downs, making McFarland more of a change-of-pace option who will spell Harris on some third downs. 

DeeJay Dallas (RB – SEA)
DeeJay Dallas remains a strong talent who could see his role expanded in 2021. He has some juice as a runner and is strong enough in the passing game to operate as Chris Carson‘s primary backup. Rashaad Penny lurks as someone who could make an impact if he proves to be healthy, so nothing will be handed to Dallas. 

Jason Huntley (RB – PHI)
Huntley is already on his second team and looks like a practice squad candidate for the 2021 season. If he could not make it on the Lions, he will have a hard time in a backfield with Miles Sanders, Kenneth Gainwell, Kerryon Johnson, Jordan Howard, and Boston Scott

Eno Benjamin (RB – ARI)
Eno Benjamin is in a fascinating situation in Arizona. He is clearly the third fiddle at best at the current time as he has both Chase Edmonds and James Conner ahead of him, two backs who have the versatility to play on all three downs. Benjamin also boasts that ability but will have to prove that he is clearly the better option before ascending the depth chart. However, he does have the talent to make that happen. We may not see Benjamin become a 20 carry lead back, but working his way into a committee with either or both of Edmonds and Conner is a very distinct possibility. He is more of a deep league stash and best ball target but does not come without league-winning upside. 

Raymond Calais (RB – TB)
Calais has special teams value, so he may remain on the roster, but he can be safely ignored in fantasy until further notice. He is a practice squad candidate. 

UDFA Extraordinaire/Post Breakout

James Robinson (RB – JAC)
James Robinson had an electric rookie season in which he saw 300 opportunities (240 rushing attempts and 60 targets). He looked more than competent enough to be a starter in the NFL but was always going to be viewed as a replaceable talent. Enter Travis Etienne and Carlos Hyde. Etienne is arguably the most talented running back to enter the league in the past couple of years and will be playing with his college quarterback Trevor Lawrence

For one reason or another, Hyde is viewed highly by Urban Meyer, leading the coach to state that Robinson and Hyde will get the early down work while Etienne gets the third down snaps. Hyde is better than many give him credit for, and Meyer knows this well from their time together at Ohio State. Still, it is fair to question whether or not he should even be in the conversation to lead a backfield that also consists of Travis Etienne and James Robinson. 

Despite the rookie head coach’s proclamations, it will likely not play out in that fashion. However, it lets us know that Meyer will have no problem forming an RBBC until such a time that Etienne or Robinson proves that they deserve the majority of the snaps. Robinson is still an RB2 option, but one that will come with a bye week filler floor.

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Raju Byfield is a featured writer for FantasyPros. For more from Raju, check out his profile and follow him @FantasyContext.

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