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Must-Have Running Backs (2021 Fantasy Football)

Jul 28, 2021

A running back is to your fantasy football team as a steak is to your dinner plate. A great one can make your year, but a bad one, especially when you paid handsomely for it, is supremely disappointing. In my list of must-have running backs, I’m deliberately leaving off consensus first-rounders and focusing on players being criminally underdrafted.

Average Draft Position (ADP) is based on FantasyPros consensus ADP for half-PPR formats.

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Josh Jacobs (RB – LV)
Overall ADP: #28 (RB16)

Despite finishing as the RB8 in 2020, the third-year running back is being banished from some draft boards, and his ADP is plummeting. That’s exactly why I’ve left almost every mock draft with Jacobs on my team. Last season, he led the NFL in carries inside the 20 (64) and 10 (35, tied). He’s also a capable pass-catcher, reeling in 33 receptions. It appears as though the main argument against Jacobs is the presence of free-agent addition Kenyan Drake. I’m not worried. The 27-year-old has been given a chance after chance to prove he can lead a backfield and hasn’t capitalized. In 2020, Devontae Booker (RB – NYG) received 110 touches as Jacobs’ backup, with Jacobs getting 306. I see Drake sliding into Booker’s role. Jacobs hasn’t done anything to warrant fears that he’ll be unseated as the Raiders RB1 in 2021. 

Mike Davis (RB – ATL)
Overall ADP: #62 (RB25)

Davis is the last presumptive “workhorse” being taken right now in drafts, and I’m here for it. Here are the 2020 carry totals for the non-rookie RBs on Atlanta’s roster: Cordarelle Patterson – 64, Tony Brooks-James – 3, Qadree Ollison – 1. Davis’ opportunity to lead Atlanta’s backfield is being handed to him on a silver platter, and similar to last season, when his opportunity came after Christian McCaffrey was sidelined with an injury, I expect Davis to capitalize. He’s a sure-handed receiver out of the backfield (59 catches on 70 targets in 2020) and will be on plenty of championship fantasy teams this year, considering his ridiculously low ADP. 

Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB – KC)
Overall ADP: #25 (RB15)

CEH raked in 217 touches, 1,100 scrimmage yards, and 5 touchdowns as a rookie in 2020. Now, his backfield competition (Le’Veon Bell) is no longer there, and the Chiefs upgraded their offensive line, but he’s still being drafted behind J.K. Dobbins, Austin Ekeler, Cam Akers, and Antonio Gibson. What am I missing? Obviously, the team with Patrick Mahomes in his prime will never be a run-first offense, but the ballistic passing threats make Edwards-Helaire’s job easier. 

Damien Harris (RB – NE)
Overall ADP: #78 (RB33)

New England’s receiving corps and quarterback situation are both suspect, leaving plenty of room for a running back to put the team on their back. Even if they’re not the Patriots of old, Bill Belichick and Josh McDaniels will be competitive in football games. This year, that’s likely to mean running the football. In 10 games in 2020, Damien Harris averaged 5 yards per carry. This year the Patriots will roll out a revamped offensive line, a key component of the elixir that will make Damien Harris a draft day steal. 

Tony Pollard (RB – DAL)
Overall ADP: #114 (RB43) 

If you draft Ezekiel Elliott, you need to draft Tony Pollard before anyone even considers looking in his direction. Peace of mind is priceless. The 24-year-old averaged 4.8 yards per carry over his first two NFL seasons in addition to 43 receptions. He played more than 50 percent of the Cowboys’ snaps last year once, and in that game, he rattled off 12 carries for 69 yards and 2 touchdowns, as well as 6 receptions for 63 yards. In his rookie year, Pollard ran for more than 100 yards twice despite never eclipsing 36 percent of offensive snaps. I’m not saying Pollard will threaten the workload of a healthy Zeke, but if Zeke goes down for even a game, you have the league’s best insurance policy.

Darrynton Evans (RB – TEN)
Overall ADP: #218 (RB65)

Evans is my ultimate sleeper handcuff. Derrick Henry has been run into the ground for two straight years. In 2019 and 2020, Henry carried the ball 681 times. That’s the most carries over two years since Edgerrin James in 2005 and 2006. If Henry’s workload catches up to him, Evans, a 2020 3rd-round pick, is the next man up. At 5’10, 203, Evans profiles as an every-down back. In his sophomore and junior seasons at Appalachian State, he ran for 2,667 yards and 25 touchdowns, adding 285 yards and 6 touchdowns through the air. He’s currently going undrafted in 12-team leagues, but I’m taking him in the first tier of handcuffs with Pollard, Latavius Murray, Alexander Mattison, and AJ Dillon

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TJ Horgan is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from TJ, check out his archive and follow him @tjhorgantv.

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