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Boom, Bust, and Everything In Between – Running Backs (2021 Fantasy Football)

by Mike Tagliere | @MikeTagliereNFL | Featured Writer
Aug 2, 2021


Boom, bust, and everything in between. What does that mean, exactly? If this is your first time reading this piece, you might be wondering that.

When someone mentions that “Player X recorded five RB1 performances last year,” it irks me a bit. It’s like saying something to the effect of “Kareem Hunt was the RB10 last year, so he was a solid low-end RB1.” Ask anyone who rostered him in fantasy last year if he was the 10th best running back. He scored fewer than 12.2 PPR points in 8-of-16 games. Stating where someone finished for a particular week doesn’t do us any good, either, because variance is a real thing.

To better help you understand what I’m talking about, the average top-12 running back performance in 2020 was 17.6 PPR points. What you don’t know is that Josh Jacobs scored 20.4 PPR points in Week 15 but wasn’t awarded a RB1 performance because it just happened to be a high-scoring week for running backs. On the flip side, Todd Gurley scored 13.5 PPR points in Week 9 and was awarded with a RB1 performance because it was a low-scoring week for running backs.

The player’s performance should not be graded on a curve, because we have no control on predicting what that curve is for any particular week. Our goal as analysts is to predict who will have RB1 performances in any given week, which stood at 17.6 PPR points in 2020.

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The numbers vary from year-to-year, which is where the research comes into play. While the RB2 (top-24 performance) number was 11.5 PPR points in 2017, it went up to 12.5 PPR points in 2018, then back to 11.5 PPR points in 2019 and 2020. Every position is different, but know that I’ve gone through each year, each position, and each player, charting how many top-12, top-24, top-36 performances they’ve had according to that year’s stats. Not just that, though, as I’ve added boom and bust categories, which showcases their ceiling and floor on a week-to-week basis. This research is done on PPR leagues because it’s the format that presents the most consistency, which makes it the most predictable.

The number to achieve boom or bust status varies per position, as some have it harder than others. With running backs, the number to “boom” wound up on 25.0 PPR points because it would have amounted to 100 rushing yards, four catches for 50 yards, and a touchdown. That number can obviously be accomplished in a variety of different ways, but again, we just want them to reach that number. A “bust” on the other hand amounted to less than 7.0 PPR points. Below, you can find the chart with the parameters for each position.

Position Boom Bust
QB 26.0 13.9 or less
RB 25.0 6.9 or less
WR 25.0 7.9 or less
TE 20.0 6.9 or less

 

To give you an idea as to something you may find below, here’s an example: Myles Gaskin performed as an RB2 or better in 80.0 percent of his games in 2020 and is going as the RB22 in drafts, while Antonio Gibson hit that mark in just 57.1 percent of his games but is going inside the top-12 running backs.

For the fifth time, welcome to Boom, Bust, and Everything In Between. Here are the running backs, while the other positions will be released throughout the rest of the week. You’ll be able to find the links below once they go live.

Quarterbacks
Wide Receivers
Tight Ends

Running Backs

Top-10

Let’s start by taking a look at the workhorse running backs being taken inside the top-10, highlighting which ones stand out, as well as which look like they don’t belong. It’s important to note that for a player to accumulate a game played in this study, they had to garner at least one target or carry. If he was on the sideline starting the year and not getting any targets, it shouldn’t affect his percentages.

ADP Player Tch/gm RB1 % RB2 % RB3 % Boom % Bust %
1 Christian McCaffrey 25.3 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 66.7% 0.0%
2 Dalvin Cook 25.4 71.4% 92.9% 100.0% 42.9% 0.0%
3 Derrick Henry 24.8 50.0% 75.0% 87.5% 37.5% 12.5%
4 Alvin Kamara 18.0 80.0% 86.7% 93.3% 33.3% 6.7%
5 Saquon Barkley 12.5 0.0% 50.0% 50.0% 0.0% 50.0%
6 Jonathan Taylor 17.9 40.0% 73.3% 86.7% 13.3% 13.3%
7 Ezekiel Elliott 19.7 46.7% 66.7% 86.7% 6.7% 13.3%
8 Nick Chubb 17.2 58.3% 75.0% 83.3% 16.7% 16.7%
9 Aaron Jones 17.7 42.9% 85.7% 100.0% 7.1% 0.0%
10 Austin Ekeler 17.0 40.0% 70.0% 90.0% 10.0% 10.0%

 

The territory of the workhorse running backs. It’s pretty rare to find a running back who gives you RB1 performances more than half the time, which is what makes Christian McCaffrey so good. Over the last three seasons, he’s produced RB1-type numbers in 29-of-35 games, or 82.9 percent of them. That’s higher than most of these first-round running backs post RB2-type numbers. Dalvin Cook is the other one who deserves a locked-in top-two pick in drafts, as he’s posted RB1-type numbers in 18 of his last 28 games, or 64.3 percent. Some will wonder if Kamara deserves to be in that range, but his touchdowns carried him so much in 2020. Prior to 2020, his RB1-type performances were (most recent first): 42.9, 53.3, and 50.0 percent. His touches are also significantly lower than those of McCaffrey and Cook.

If you like Kamara, but not enough to spend a top-four pick on him, the discounted version of him is Aaron Jones. Here are their numbers over the last two years combined.

Player RB1 % RB2 % RB3 % Boom % Bust %
Alvin Kamara 62.1% 86.2% 89.7% 24.1% 6.9%
Aaron Jones 46.7% 76.7% 93.3% 23.3% 10.0%

 

Don’t forget that while Kamara lost Drew Brees, which could certainly impact Kamara’s numbers in a negative way, Jones lost Jamaal Williams, which could impact his in a positive way. While Jones is a discounted Kamara, I’d say Nick Chubb is a discounted Derrick Henry.

Despite Ezekiel Elliott having what most would describe as a “poor” season in 2020, he fits right in with the running backs drafted around him, highlighting those who want him top-three aren’t crazy at all. 2020 was the first year his RB2 or better rate was lower than 90.0 percent. He’s one of the safest picks in the first round, assuming everyone remains healthy.

11-20 Range

We’re now outside of the elite tier; the players who are supposed to be can’t miss. This next tier is the one you’re hoping to find a player who can reach that elite tier in 2021. Most consider this a “dead range” of running backs where most fantasy owners are reaching just because of position scarcity, but is that true?

ADP Player Tch/gm RB1 % RB2 % RB3 % Boom % Bust %
11 Antonio Gibson 14.7 28.6% 57.1% 85.7% 7.1% 14.3%
12 Najee Harris DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP
13 Joe Mixon 23.3 16.7% 66.7% 83.3% 16.7% 16.7%
14 JK Dobbins 10.1 13.3% 53.3% 66.7% 6.7% 26.7%
15 Clyde Edwards-Helaire 16.7 30.8% 69.2% 84.6% 0.0% 15.4%
16 Josh Jacobs 20.4 33.3% 60.0% 80.0% 13.3% 20.0%
17 Miles Sanders 16.0 33.3% 58.3% 83.3% 8.3% 16.7%
18 D’Andre Swift 12.3 23.1% 69.2% 84.6% 15.4% 15.4%
19 David Montgomery 20.1 53.3% 73.3% 86.7% 26.7% 6.7%
20 Chris Carson 14.8 50.0% 58.3% 91.7% 8.3% 8.3%

 

The first thing that jumps off this chart is David Montgomery and Chris Carson being at the bottom of it despite posting RB1-type numbers at least half the time, which is better than five running backs who are being selected in the top 10. What blows my mind is that Carson did it with just 14.8 touches per game. We know Pete Carroll wants to run the ball more, and they just signed Carson to a fresh two-year deal. He’s a tremendous value where he’s going in drafts. Montgomery has some things to be factored in, like a new offensive line, new quarterback, the return of Tarik Cohen, and the addition of Damien Williams. I feel like Montgomery is a safe RB2 to draft, but I’m not expecting a repeat of his 2020 performance. In fact, there’s probably a middle ground between his 2019 and 2020 performance:

YEAR RB1 % RB2 % RB3 % Boom % Bust %
2020 53.3% 73.3% 86.7% 26.7% 6.7%
2019 18.8% 31.3% 50.0% 0.0% 50.0%

 

Antonio Gibson may have finished as the RB12 in 2020, but he wasn’t the 12th-best running back. In fact, his RB2 or better percentage ranked 24th, so he was a low-end RB2/high-end RB3 most weeks. We can expect him to take a big jump forward this year, that’s fine, but we must acknowledge there’s risk drafting him as a low-end RB1. The same can be said about J.K. Dobbins, though he’s a bit cheaper, and the situation around him has gotten better with Mark Ingram gone. It’s worth noting Dobbins averaged 14.0 touches per game in the games Ingram was held out.

If you want the discounted Austin Ekeler, look no further than Clyde Edwards-Helaire.

Player Touches RB1 % RB2 % RB3 % Boom % Bust %
Austin Ekeler 17.0 40.0% 70.0% 90.0% 10.0% 10.0%
Clyde Edwards-Helaire 16.7 30.8% 69.2% 84.6% 0.0% 15.4%

 

And keep in mind these are the numbers from last year, which included Edwards-Helaire averaging just 12.7 touches per game with Le’Veon Bell on the roster and scoring just five touchdowns on the year. He may not reach the 21.3 touches per game he was averaging before Bell got there, but should he be near the 18-touch range? Yep.

The last thing I’ll note from this chart is that Joe Mixon‘s touches were ridiculous in 2020, though his performance didn’t match them. But what we do know about running backs is that opportunity is king, and now that Giovani Bernard is gone, that volume should be here to stay. To me, he’s a discounted RB1 with the touches he’s expected to get.

21-30 Range

We’re now entering the area of drafts where most are searching for a back-end RB2 or filling their RB3/flex spots. It’s extremely rare to find a bonafide workhorse in this territory, as those are typically reserved for the first four rounds.

ADP Player Tch/gm RB1 % RB2 % RB3 % Boom % Bust %
21 Myles Gaskin 18.3 30.0% 80.0% 100.0% 10.0% 0.0%
22 Kareem Hunt 14.8 31.3% 56.3% 81.3% 6.3% 18.8%
23 James Robinson 20.6 35.7% 78.6% 100.0% 21.4% 0.0%
24 Chase Edmonds 9.4 12.5% 43.8% 62.5% 0.0% 37.5%
25 Mike Davis 14.9 28.6% 50.0% 100.0% 14.3% 0.0%
26 Raheem Mostert 15.0 25.0% 37.5% 75.0% 12.5% 25.0%
27 Javonte Williams DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP
28 Melvin Gordon 16.5 26.7% 60.0% 80.0% 6.7% 20.0%
29 Ronald Jones 15.7 21.4% 50.0% 78.6% 7.1% 21.4%
30 Darrell Henderson 10.3 20.0% 26.7% 46.7% 0.0% 53.3%

 

There are two players who stand out head and shoulders above everyone else on this list. Both Myles Gaskin and James Robinson posted RB2 or better numbers more than 75 percent of the time. Gaskin’s 80 percent mark ranked fifth behind only Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, and Aaron Jones. He has a new offensive coordinator but not much new talent at the running back position. Meanwhile, Robinson’s situation has changed dramatically, as he has a new head coach, new play-caller, new quarterback, and new talent in the backfield, including first-round pick Travis Etienne. Getting the 20.6 touches per game he got last year, his numbers were pretty much in line with where they should’ve been. I just worry he won’t average more than 12.0 touches per game in 2021.

When I saw Kareem Hunt up at No. 22 in ADP, I thought that seemed too high, but his numbers seem to justify the spot. It certainly helped that Nick Chubb missed some time last year, but Hunt was arguably better with Chubb on the field. Going by this list, Melvin Gordon appears to be too low, though the arrival of Javonte Williams certainly has a lot of drafters spooked. Will he take over the Phillip Lindsay role, or will he replace Gordon as the primary back?

Two running backs who could be moving up these charts a bit more over the coming weeks are Chase Edmonds and Darrell Henderson, as both have had the starter role vacated. The Cardinals brought in James Conner, but Edmonds is expected to get first crack at the starting job. It’s encouraging that Edmonds produced RB2 or better numbers 43.8 percent of the time despite averaging single-digit touches in 2020. Meanwhile, the Rams have said they’ll rest Henderson through the preseason, which tells us they’re planning on him as the workhorse of this offense. If you’re looking for a potential RB1 in this territory, he’s certainly in that conversation.

31-40 Range

This is where you’d typically find pass-catching/satellite running backs, as they lack upside but can fill a role as a high-floor flex-type player. However, with the uncertainty of health around the league, we’re seeing more and more handcuffs/timeshare running backs move into this range.

ADP Player Tch/gm RB1 % RB2 % RB3 % Boom % Bust %
31 Travis Etienne DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP
32 Leonard Fournette 10.2 16.7% 33.3% 58.3% 8.3% 41.7%
33 Damien Harris 14.2 0.0% 30.0% 60.0% 0.0% 30.0%
34 David Johnson 15.0 33.3% 66.7% 83.3% 8.3% 8.3%
35 Michael Carter DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP
36 James Conner 15.7 23.1% 61.5% 69.2% 0.0% 30.8%
37 Zack Moss 9.7 7.7% 30.8% 53.8% 0.0% 46.2%
38 AJ Dillon 4.4 11.1% 11.1% 11.1% 11.1% 88.9%
39 Kenyan Drake 17.6 13.3% 60.0% 80.0% 6.7% 20.0%
40 Trey Sermon DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP

 

It would seem that no one wants a part of the Texans this year, and it’s hard to disagree considering Deshaun Watson is unlikely to play for them. If he does, however, David Johnson‘s numbers look mighty appealing for a running back being taken as the 34th one off boards. In fact, his numbers were better than Josh Jacobs‘ last year despite averaging 5.4 fewer touches per game.

Player Touches RB1 % RB2 % RB3 % Boom % Bust %
Josh Jacobs 20.4 33.3% 60.0% 80.0% 13.3% 20.0%
David Johnson 15.0 33.3% 66.7% 83.3% 8.3% 8.3%

 

We all know Kenyan Drake wasn’t great last year, right? Still, he produced RB2 or better numbers 60 percent of the time, which is why we have to pay attention to how the Cardinals are planning to use James Conner alongside Chase Edmonds. This chart also shows why I’m not particularly exited about Damien Harris. Despite Sony Michel missing much of last year, Harris produced RB2 or better numbers just 30 percent of the time, which stems from his lack of usage in the passing game. Unless they go to Mac Jones, Harris has very minimal upside/consistency.

41-60 Range

We’re starting to see third-down backs fall into this territory, which can be used by those going with Zero RB strategies, and that’s highlighted in the RB3 or better column.

ADP Player Tch/gm RB1 % RB2 % RB3 % Boom % Bust %
41 Devin Singletary 12.1 6.3% 18.8% 50.0% 0.0% 50.0%
42 Gus Edwards 9.6 6.3% 18.8% 56.3% 0.0% 31.3%
43 Tony Pollard 8.1 6.3% 18.8% 31.3% 6.3% 68.8%
44 Nyheim Hines 9.5 18.8% 43.8% 68.8% 12.5% 25.0%
45 Latavius Murray 11.3 13.3% 20.0% 40.0% 6.7% 53.3%
46 Jamaal Williams 10.7 21.4% 28.6% 57.1% 0.0% 42.9%
47 JD McKissic 10.3 25.0% 37.5% 75.0% 6.3% 18.8%
48 Alexander Mattison 8.4 7.7% 23.1% 30.8% 7.7% 69.2%
49 Rashaad Penny 3.7 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 100.0%
50 Marlon Mack 7.0 0.0% 0.0% 100.0% 0.0% 0.0%
51 Phillip Lindsay 11.4 0.0% 9.1% 36.4% 0.0% 54.5%
52 Tarik Cohen 6.7 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 66.7%
53 Tevin Coleman 4.0 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 100.0%
54 Chuba Hubbard DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP
55 James White 6.0 0.0% 35.7% 50.0% 0.0% 50.0%
56 Kenneth Gainwell DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP
57 Damien Williams DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP
58 Giovani Bernard 10.7 25.0% 31.3% 50.0% 0.0% 43.8%
59 Xavier Jones DNP DNP DNP DNP DNP
60 Anthony McFarland 3.5 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% 100.0%

 

Guys like Nyheim Hines and J.D. McKissic were valuable last year, though many are writing them off as a one-time thing. It’s crazy when you compare their numbers to someone like Leonard Fournette (who’s going four-plus rounds earlier).

Player Touches RB1 % RB2 % RB3 % Boom % Bust %
Leonard Fournette 10.2 16.7% 33.3% 58.3% 8.3% 41.7%
Nyheim Hines 9.5 18.8% 43.8% 68.8% 12.5% 25.0%
JD McKissic 10.3 25.0% 37.5% 75.0% 6.3% 18.8%

 

I guess we can see it with McKissic because Antonio Gibson is expected to get more touches this year, but do they make McKissic obsolete? Don’t forget that the Bucs allowed Fournette to go out there in free agency and see what he could get before he ultimately came back on a one-year deal worth just $3.2 million. If you want to lower McKissic and Hines due to the ascension of Gibson and Jonathan Taylor, I get it, but then why are we overvaluing Fournette?

What We Learned

It’s rare to find a running back who produces RB1-type numbers more than half the time, so if you have a chance to draft one, you really should. Here’s a good template to use in general: You want your RB1 to produce those numbers about half the time. You want your RB2 to produce RB2 or better numbers about 60 percent of the time, ideally with RB1 upside 30-plus percent of the time to make up for when your top running back struggles. Consistency is the name of the game at running back.

If you’re taking place in auctions, remember than Aaron Jones is a discounted Alvin Kamara, Nick Chubb is a discounted Derrick Henry (and Jonathan Taylor), and Clyde Edwards-Helaire is a discounted Austin Ekeler.

It’s also important to remember that you don’t always need to shoot for the ceiling. If you land Myles Gaskin in the fifth round as your RB2 and Ronald Jones in the seventh round as your RB3, you shouldn’t be upset about that because you’re likely stacked everywhere else on your roster. Both of those running backs should hit RB2 and RB3 numbers more than 60 percent of the time with some upside mixed in. As is the case with most things in life – balance is not only recommended, but necessary.

Stay tuned, as the wide receivers, quarterbacks, and tight ends will be posted over the next few days.


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Mike Tagliere is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Mike, check out his archive and follow him @MikeTagliereNFL.

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