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RB3s with RB1 Potential (2021 Fantasy Football)

Jul 29, 2021

Quality running backs are the most valued asset in most fantasy football leagues, which is why 13 of the first 20 picks are running backs in the average 2021 fantasy league. In most cases, you are going to have a hard time competing if you don’t have a pair of running backs you can rely on each week, which is why it’s vital to build up running back depth in your fantasy drafts. And in order to build up quality depth at the position, you’re going to need to successfully pick out some running backs that are ranked outside the top 24 backs.

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This article will take a look at some running backs ranked outside the top 24 that have the potential to provide big returns at their current ADP. Before diving in, it’s important to note that this article is not necessarily projecting these guys to have top-12 performances, but rather, figuring out who may potentially have the ceiling to do so. Without further ado, let’s dive in.

Got A Chance

These are the players who are currently ranked in our Expert Consensus Rankings (ECR) as RB3s in all three of the major scoring formats (Standard, 0.5 PPR, and PPR). This means that players like Travis Etienne (RB – JAC), Myles Gaskin (RB – MIA), and Mike Davis (RB – ATL) are not eligible for this list, but there are still a few players in this range that have an outside shot to finish as a low-end RB1. The Expert Consensus Rankings (ECR) provided in this section are for 0.5 PPR formats.

Chase Edmonds (RB – AZ): ECR RB26
Yes, James Conner (RB – AZ) has landed in Arizona. But this doesn’t mean that we should completely discount Chase Edmonds’s fantasy potential for the 2021 season. Dual-threat backs are the name of the game in the modern NFL, and Chase Edmonds has blossomed into a very solid one.

During the 2020 season, Edmonds carried the ball 97 times for 448 rushing yards on the ground and caught 53 passes (7th most among RBs) on 67 targets for 402 receiving yards. He played well in 2020 and will be one of 10 running backs to meet all the criteria of “The Swift Formula” (formerly known as “The Mixon Formula”) in 2021, which is a set of criteria used to identify running backs that have the potential of a fantastic fantasy season. The basic criteria of this formula are…

  • The RB must have had 30 or more receptions the previous season
  • The RB must be age 26 or younger by the start of the upcoming fantasy season
  • The RB must have had 65 or more rushing attempts the previous season
  • The RB must have had over 200 rushing yards the previous season
  • The RB has played three seasons or less prior to the start of the upcoming fantasy season
  • The RB can’t be on a team that drafted an RB in the 1st round of the most recent NFL draft
  • The RB must have only played for one NFL team
  • The RB averages at least 5.5 yards per reception
  • The RB averages greater than three yards per carry

Being able to meet all of the criteria of "The Swift Formula" shows that Edmonds has legitimate RB1 potential in 2021 and makes him one of the better high upside gambles outside the top 24 running backs.

Javonte Williams (RB - DEN): ECR RB27
Talent and opportunity are two of the essential factors to consider when looking for a running back with RB1 potential. And Javonte Williams may have both this year.

Looking at the opportunity part of the equation, there are quite a few positive signs. The Broncos made the move to trade up for the 35th overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft, so they clearly are big fans of what Javonte brings to the table. We are also already hearing rumors that Javonte Williams is the favorite to the be Broncos lead back over Melvin Gordon III (RB - DEN). Given Denver Broncos offensive coordinator Pat Shurmur has generally preferred a bell-cow approach on the ground over the course of his 12 season career as an offensive coordinator or head coach, winning the starting job would give Javonte Williams a great fantasy ceiling in 2021.

Looking at the talent part of the equation, Javonte Williams did a great job showcasing his abilities in his collegiate career at North Carolina. He broke the most tackles in college football (75) and posted the 4th most yards after contact (831) on the way to his 1445 scrimmage yards, 22 touchdown season last year. Williams's power and rushing talent will translate well to the NFL level. This talent combined with the potential opportunity to be the lead back in Pat Shurmur's offense gives Javonte Williams a very appealing fantasy ceiling for 2021.

Damien Harris (RB - NE): ECR RB29
Fantasy players have become conditioned to the idea of "don't draft a New England Patriots running back" over the last 15 seasons. But this might not be the right play for the 2021 season because of Damien Harris's potential in this offense.

Harris quietly had a great season last year where he took 137 carries for 691 rushing yards (5.0 YPC) and scored 2 rushing touchdowns in just 10 games. He created 1.70 yards per touch (9th best among RBs), had seven carries for 15+ yards (18th best among RBs), and posted a juke rate of 28.2% (8th best among RBs). He's an above-average talent on the ground and should have value as long as he gets touches.

In addition, there are quite a few situational factors that should help Damien Harris out in 2021. For starters, Harris reportedly has the 'decisive edge' as the Patriots lead back.

If this is true and Damien Harris does indeed have the lead role in Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels's offense, there's value to be had. Over the course of his 236 game career as an offensive coordinator or head coach, Josh McDaniels's running back room has averaged 24.32 carries, 103.95 rushing yards, 0.85 rushing touchdowns, 5.16 receptions (7.10 targets), 45.06 receiving yards, and 0.28 receiving touchdowns per game. We've seen running backs have monster fantasy seasons in his offense when they get the majority of the carries (like LeGarrette Blount (RB - FA) did in 2016) and from the sounds of it, there's a good chance this happens with Harris in 2021.

The second major situation factor that should help Damien Harris's fantasy potential in 2021 is the offensive line. The New England Patriots are projected to once again have one of the best offensive lines in the league for the 2021 season. Having a great line in front of him will help Damien Harris keep up his excellent efficiency from last year and make it easier for him to put up quality fantasy numbers.

Overall, there's a lot to like about Damien Harris's fantasy profile once you look past the "don't draft a Patriots running back" narrative. The key with Harris hitting his fantasy ceiling is going to be if he can take one of two roles - the role as the team's primary goal-line back or the team's primary pass-catching running back. Given James White's (RB - NE) presence, the pass-catching role will be harder to earn. However, the goal-line touches are very doable and will likely explode for Damien Harris once Mac Jones (QB - NE) takes the starting quarterback job from Cam Newton (QB - NE). If you are looking for an RB3 with good upside, Harris is a great player to roll the dice on.

If The Stars Align...

This group consists of players that are currently ranked as RB4s (ECR: RB37+) that should outperform their ADP and have a chance to carve out a bigger role than expected. They might not quite have RB1 potential, but they are solid investments. If the stars align, these players have high-end RB2 potential. The Expert Consensus Rankings (ECR) provided in this section are for 0.5 PPR formats.

Michael Carter (RB - NYJ): ECR RB36
Michael Carter has become a trendy late-round pick in a lot of leagues and for good reason. For starters, he's got a pretty good opportunity with the New York Jets. The Jets don't have an established #1 running back on their roster and there's a good chance that Michael Carter can take over the #1 role over Tevin Coleman (RB - NYJ), La'Mical Perine (RB - NYJ), and Ty Johnson (RB - NYJ). In addition, the New York Jets' new offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur comes from the Shanahan coaching tree that has had a lot of success with running backs in the past.

The other factor in Michael Carter being a trendy late-round pick is his talent. In his college career at North Carolina, Michael Carter showed he is capable both on the ground and through the air. Over the course of his collegiate career, Carter carried the ball 514 times on the ground for 3404 rushing yards and 22 rushing touchdowns on the ground and caught 82 passes for 656 receiving yards and 6 receiving touchdowns through the air (44 games). He didn't make many mistakes in his college career with zero fumbles in his last two seasons at North Carolina, which will help get him snaps for the Jets in 2021.

He may not quite have RB1 potential, but Michael Carter has a great opportunity to outproduce his current ADP and potentially be a high-end RB2 in 2021.

Kenneth Gainwell (RB - PHI): ECR55
Kenneth Gainwell fell to the fifth round in the 2021 NFL Draft, but he actually landed in a pretty solid situation. The Eagles' offensive line should be healthier this season and both of the new Eagles offensive coaches Nick Sirianni (head coach) and Shane Steichen (offensive coordinator) have shown that they like to utilize their running backs frequently, with both coaches ranking in the top 10 in RB opportunities per game.

Kenneth Gainwell's ability as a pass-catcher will be utilized by these coaches as the offensive system that Nick Sirianni was a part of in Indianapolis helped Nyheim Hines (RB - IND) flourish (12.1 fantasy PPG in PPR in 2020), and the offensive system that Shane Steichen was a part of in Los Angeles helped Austin Ekeler (RB - LAC) flourish (16.5 fantasy PPG in PPR in 2020). Kenneth Gainwell projects to be the best fit for the pass-catching role in this offense, as Miles Sanders (RB - PHI) dropped 13.5% of passes his way last year and he should have some standalone value in 2021. The Eagles backfield is a good one to invest in right now and Gainwell could be a massive value at his current ranking.

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Eli Grabanski is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Eli, check out his archive and follow him @3li_handles.

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