Late-Round Draft Targets: Running Back (2021 Fantasy Football)
Few things are more rewarding in fantasy football than absolutely nailing a late-round selection. In addition to that feeling of being correct, a valuable late-round player can make your team a championship contender.
Today, we are going to take a look at the running back position. Imagine being the person who drafted James Robinson in 2020 or Alvin Kamara in 2017, as examples. While success stories of that caliber are rare, that doesn’t mean there isn’t a process we can use to give ourselves the best opportunity at identifying those unexpected breakout running backs.
Numberfire’s J.J. Zachariason identified three main characteristics of breakout running backs in this 2020 article. To summarize, they are
- Rarely pure handcuffs;
- From ambiguous backfields; and
With that in mind, this article is not specifically targeted at breakout running backs, but rather any running back currently being drafted as an RB5 or worse (outside the top 48) that has a realistic chance at being a value for your fantasy team in 2021. In an ideal world, all of the backs on this list would check all three of J.J.’s boxes, but there are only so many players to go around. We are essentially looking for any running back with what I consider a clear path to volume.
When I say “clear path,” what I mean is there is one specific event that needs to occur in order for that running back to shoot up in value. The first thing to pop into your head is the most obvious one – injury. Pure handcuff running backs may not be ideal breakout targets, but once the prototypical breakout targets are gone, the next best thing is a running back that is one injury away from relevance.
Alternatively, we can also try and capitalize on starters with shaky job security (which, coincidentally, is its own article I’ll be dropping later this month). Those are running backs that are at risk of playing their way out of jobs.
Now that we’ve covered what we’re looking for, let’s get into some players.
Darrell Henderson (RB- LAR)
For those of you following me on Twitter, you’re probably thinking, “Wow, what a hypocrite!,” after I’ve spent countless tweets touting Cam Akers (RB – LAR)while being adamant that the Rams will never feature Darrell Henderson. I stand by my belief that the Rams will do everything in their power to avoid giving Henderson any meaningful work. However, Henderson is the clear RB2 on the Rams. When Akers and Malcolm Brown (RB – MIA) were both injured last season, Henderson was forced into a feature role. In the four games where Henderson had at least 15 total opportunities to touch the ball (carries + targets), he averaged 17.65 ppg. Henderson has exactly a 0% chance of having any fantasy value as long as Akers is healthy, but given the absence of anyone other than a couple of seventh-round picks behind him on the depth chart, we can be quite confident this will be the Darrell Henderson show if Akers got hurt. At worst, Henderson would be a strong weekly RB2 if thrust into a starting role. With an RB50 ADP, he is someone worth throwing on your bench as your final running back and leaving there for as long as roster space permits. If you get a couple of weeks into the season and need the spot, you can just drop him.
Samaje Perine (RB – CIN)
It’s kind of shocking to me that Samaje Perine’s ADP is as low as it is. He’s currently the RB77, which means he’s not even being drafted. I understand it’s difficult to put someone like Perine on your bench in a standard-sized league, but if your league has even a couple extra bench spots, you should consider Perine. Last season, we saw proof of concept with Perine. In Week 16, he carried the ball 13 times and caught all four of his targets for 136 total yards and two touchdowns. He scored 29.6 fantasy points, finishing as the overall RB3. Giovani Bernard (RB – TB) is now in Tampa, making Perine the primary backup to Joe Mixon (RB – CIN). If there’s one thing we know about Mixon, it’s that he hasn’t exactly been the pinnacle of health during his career. Although Mixon in 44 of a possible 48 games during his first three seasons, he appeared on the injury report numerous times with various ailments from concussions to ankle sprains to foot injuries. It was the latter that ended his 2020 season after just six games. You don’t need me to tell you that Perine has no chance of usurping Mixon, but Perine could end up taking over Bernard’s role as the third-down back and would be the first in line for primary back duties if Mixon were to get hurt again. There’s little chance that Perine would be a true bell cow, but he could very well be the 1a in a 60-40 backfield and we know he’s at least capable of producing. Unless Mixon plays all 17 games, I’d be surprised if Perine didn’t emerge at some point this season as a recommended spot start at running back.
Devontae Booker (RB – NYG)
In 2020, we watched Wayne Gallman (RB – SF) post high RB2/low RB1 numbers for seven consecutive weeks before completely falling off a cliff down the stretch. Gallman is gone and the Giants replaced him with Devontae Booker to be Saquon Barkley’s (RB – NYG) primary backup. When Gallman was the starter, he was consistently seeing above 50% of the snaps. Booker is a superior talent to Gallman and Barkley is one injury away from being slapped with the dreaded “injury-prone” label. Some are already putting it on him. Barkley had the high ankle sprain that derailed his 2019 season and then the torn ACL in 2020. There have also been reports that Barkley will be eased into action early in the 2021 season. Booker could open the season with a larger than normal workload and would be an every-week RB2 if Barkley got hurt. With an RB78 ADP, much like Perine, Booker is also free.
Matt Breida (RB – BUF)
Out of all four players on this list, Matt Breida comes with the lowest ceiling. He also comes with the most paths to being useful in some capacity. Henderson, Perine, and Booker all need injuries to end up being worth starting in fantasy. Breida, on the other hand, could end up with increased usage due to either injuries or poor play by the guys in front of him. The Bills drafted Devin Singletary (RB – BUF) in the third round in 2019 and were so enamored with his talent that they spent another third-round pick on Zack Moss (RB – BUF) the very next year. In 2020, Singletary and Moss averaged 9.0 and 7.8 ppg respectively. Neither was impressive and the Bills’ response was to just call a bunch of pass plays. Breida enters 2021 definitively third on the depth chart, but he’s still just 26 years old and has plenty of games on his resume with three or more receptions. He is competent in the passing game and, despite his size, is effective as a runner between the tackles as he proved during his time in San Francisco. The odds Breida ends up being a fantasy starter this season certainly isn’t high, but Singletary and Moss are nothing more than replacement-level talents. Breida may not be much better, but if Singletary and/or Moss fail, Breida could benefit. His RB81 price also means he’s not being drafted, but there is flex upside here if things break right.
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