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Running Backs Primed For Increased Touches (2021 Fantasy Football)

by David Zach | @DavidZach16 | Featured Writer
Jul 22, 2021

A new fantasy season is upon us, but sometimes the same old trends continue to remain effective and underused. Whether it’s the time spent researching, or unwillingness to grasp the concept, significant vacated touches remains one of those trends.

My annual piece on significant vacated touches continues to boast an attractive hit rate on finding increased volume for running backs. Returning backs with 100-plus touches on a team that just saw a fellow running back departure who had 100-plus touches are heavy favorites to see more action as a result. Coaches and schemes have tended to rely on the proven, known commodity over a newcomer trying to fill that void. High-caliber draft picks or free agency will affect this, and while a multitude of additional factors is at play, this simple method can provide us with reliable odds on who will see more volume in the upcoming year.

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Historical Proof

Take a look at my breakdown from earlier this summer. You’ll clearly see why this study has become a favorite of mine for projecting volume:

As shown, an average increase of 2.1 touches per game, and that is before including any glaringly obvious adjustments. A three to five touch increase or even more is much more likely for people on this list who did not add meaningful competition.

As always, we need to be wary of strictly satellite backs or those teams who added a highly drafted rookie. A great example being the Steelers this year. They will certainly lean on Najee Harris far more than giving more work to Benny Snell.

The 2021 list is included below before we breakdown each qualifier:

I like to use two categories as they relate to fantasy. The first group having the greater odds of increased volume and production, and the second being slightly more ambiguous.

  1. High opportunity with less competition
  2. Good opportunity, but solid competition

Let’s get to it.

High Opportunity with Less Competition

This section of players is normally draft day targets of mine. The industry doesn’t always see eye to eye on how the volume will be split up, and we can take advantage of the variance in ADP. 

  1. D’Andre Swift (DET)

There’s so much to love about Swift this year, but Detroit’s offensive scoring isn’t one of them. What he lacks in touchdown opportunities, I’m projecting he makes up for in volume. He already saw great work as a receiver as a rookie, and now the whole offense is in a shift with fewer playmakers to compete with than before. Jamaal Williams can have pretty much all the volume left by Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson, and Swift could still see an increase even in light of that.

Forgive the typo of 2020 instead of 2021 in the tweet, but the amount of volume in this offense is glaring and attractive:

  1. Joe Mixon (CIN)

Is this finally the year? Mixon has had some of the biggest boom weeks, followed by some very average weeks or missed time to injury. With Giovanni Bernard now out of the picture, there is very little competition for Mixon to have one of the highest backfield snap shares in the league. He simply just needs to stay healthy.

  1. Aaron Jones (GB)

There is so much uncertainty around this offense without the confirmed participation of one of the league’s best quarterbacks in Aaron Rodgers. Isolating the backfield still gives us a rosy picture, however. Jamaal Williams has forever been a thorn in the side of Jones’ usage, and while many will say AJ Dillon simply feels his shoes are speculating. Jones is being paid as a top back in the league for a reason, and expecting Dillon to immediately take on a sizable role may be a bit premature. Jones is solidly in play as another top-10 RB for 2021.

  1. Cam Akers (LAR) & Darrell Henderson (LAR)

The number of people assuming Akers is an immediate and all-season workhorse is at an all-time high. Akers ended the season very well last year, but did so as Henderson went onto the IR, and Jared Goff was playing with a severely injured thumb in the playoffs. Both of these issues inflated Akers numbers to a rate that is neither sustainable nor realistic for the 2021 season. Malcolm Brown‘s departure actually opens up opportunities for both, and while Akers appears to be the better player, the discount you can get Henderson for is a very attractive play. Both backs should see usable volume in a new-look, high-scoring Rams offense.

UPDATE: Akers tore his Achilles in practice. Henderson will likely be the undisputed workhorse with a free agent RB signing to be announced at a later date.

Good Opportunity, but Solid Competition

  1. Chase Edmonds (ARI)

Kenyan Drake heading to Las Vegas has opened up all kinds of possibilities in the Cardinals’ backfield. The addition of James Conner is noteworthy, but so is the scoring potential of this offense. Their top running back of the week regularly put up 17+ fantasy points, so it’s worth taking a risk on either of these backs at cost. My preference will be Edmonds.

  1. Melvin Gordon (DEN)

Gordon saw over 240 touches last year and returns to the same team and offensive line. The Broncos did add Javonte Williams, so it very much looks like this will be a committee between the two unless Williams shows out to be very impressive early.

  1. Benny Snell (PIT)

This will be the Najee Harris show, so Snell is a name we can pretty much ignore this year apart from being a nice handcuff. James Conner’s departure is filled by Harris, and they will give him all that he can handle.

Significant vacated touches are one of the easiest ways to identify the opportunity for more volume. And as we all know, in fantasy, volume is king. Keep this as a valuable resource when approaching your drafts in the upcoming weeks.

Thanks for reading, and stay golden! If you like what you learned, follow me @DavidZach16 for more interesting stats and tidbits throughout the year.

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David Zach is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from David, check out his archive and follow him @DavidZach16.

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