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Bounce-Back Running Backs to Target (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Skyler Carlin | Featured Writer
Jul 10, 2021

Expectations are placed upon players in the NFL by the fantasy football community during the offseason. It leads to players being taken at certain points in the draft, giving us their ADP. Sometimes, whether it be due to injuries or other various reasons, a player may not live up to the hype that was surrounding them before the season began. During the 2020 season, we witnessed quite a few running backs fall short of achieving their original projections.

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The running back position remains the most popular position to take early in the majority of leagues due to their contributions on the ground and through the air (unless you’re Derrick Henry or Nick Chubb). So having a running back that you took early in a draft fail to give you consistent production can be detrimental to your success. Following disappointing campaigns from a handful of running backs last season, there are a few of them that are primed to bounce back in a big way in 2021. Neither Christian McCaffrey nor Saquon Barkley is included in the list because both of them are still being taken at the beginning of drafts despite having injury-riddled seasons in 2020.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire (KC)
At the end of the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft, the Kansas City Chiefs selected Clyde Edwards-Helaire with the 32nd overall pick. After securing a Super Bowl, many thought Edwards-Helaire was going to take Kansas City’s offense to another level coming out of LSU. To kick off the season, Edwards-Helaire scampered for 138 yards and a touchdown on 25 rushing attempts versus the Houston Texans en route to an RB10 finish in Week 1. Those that rushed to make him a top 10 running back selected in fantasy football drafts were already preparing their victory laps for the rookie rusher.

Despite his stellar start, Edwards-Helaire would only have two more games where he garnered 20+ carries in 2020. On top of that, there were only three other weeks where he was an RB15 or better. When it was all said and done, Edwards-Helaire concluded his rookie year as RB22, which was nowhere near where he was being drafted. The traits were there for Edwards-Helaire to succeed, but it’s tough to expect a first-year running back to be an RB1, especially in a pass-heavy offense.

That being said, I’m all in on Edwards-Helaire entering the 2021 season. The Chiefs have done a remarkable job bolstering their offensive line this offseason by adding Joe Thuney, Austin Blythe, Orlando Brown, Kyle Long, and Creed Humphrey. Laurent Duvernay-Tardif is also expected to return after opting out of the 2020 season. Along with the new-look offensive line, Edwards-Helaire doesn’t have Le’Veon Bell or Damien Williams breathing down his neck anymore. Edwards-Helaire is currently being taken as RB17 on average, according to FantasyPros’ ADP consensus, making him a nice value at running back right now.

Joe Mixon (CIN)
The 2020 season was shaping up to be a spectacular one for Joe Mixon as the Cincinnati Bengals were entering the Joe Burrow era. In the first six weeks of the season, Mixon was RB9 in half-PPR formats, proving that he’s capable of being an RB1 on a dismal team. Sadly, a foot ailment caused Mixon to miss the final 10 games of the season, causing some to jump off of the Mixon train ahead of the 2021 season.

All of a sudden, there’s a narrative going around that Mixon is injury-prone and that he can’t be trusted moving forward. Outside of his season-ending foot injury last season that sidelined him for 10 games, Mixon has missed just four other games due to injury. While coach speak can be dangerous to use as a be-all and end-all, I believe there is truth in the reports of Mixon seeing a massive workload in the upcoming season. For starters, Mixon doesn’t have as much competition in the backfield for targets with Giovani Bernard now a member of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.

Plus, there’s the fact that Burrow is returning from a serious knee injury that he sustained early last season. Even with Burrow projected to return for Week 1, the second-year signal-caller is likely going to lean on getting the ball out quick to avoid getting hit. That should lead to more usage from Mixon, who registered eight yards after the catch per reception in 2020, which was ninth-best among running backs. Above all, money talks, and the Bengals want to make sure they get their money’s worth from Mixon after signing him to an extension last offseason. Even though Mixon’s stock is plummeting for some, there’s no real explanation as to why he’s being taken after Najee Harris in some drafts. I’ll happily take my chances on Mixon this year ahead of a rookie running back that will be running behind a tattered offensive line for the Pittsburgh Steelers.

Austin Ekeler (LAC)
There are certain players you just have a good feeling about every year, and Austin Ekeler is one of those players for me entering the 2021 season. Amid the hoopla that was going on with Justin Herbert taking over under center for the Los Angeles Chargers, Ekeler suffered a hamstring injury and a knee injury early in the 2020 season. Ekeler would be placed on injured reserve, costing him six games. In the three weeks that Ekeler played before his injuries occurred, he was RB8 with 17.3 fantasy points per week.

The undrafted running back out of Western State would make his return in Week 12, where he caught 11 passes for 85 yards against the Buffalo Bills. From Weeks 12-17, Ekeler was RB8 again, proving that he can be a consistent source of scoring in fantasy football. Ekeler now had the entire offseason to get back to being one-hundred percent, and he gets a full season with Herbert as his quarterback.

Among the running backs that aren’t consensus top-five picks, Ekeler is one of my favorite picks to be the RB1 in 2021. All we need for Ekeler to improve on is finding the end zone on the ground. Up to this point in his career, Ekeler has 16 receiving touchdowns to nine rushing touchdowns in four years with the Chargers. If Ekeler can earn more touches that result in touchdowns this season, we’re looking at a bonafide top-five running back that is wavering around RB10 in terms of his ADP.

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Skyler Carlin is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Skyler, check out his archive and follow him @skyler_carlin.

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