Evaluating Expected Running Back by Committees (2021 Fantasy Football)
Fantasy football has come a long way over the years. I believe that the game we play today would be unrecognizable to someone living in the early 2000s. I first played fantasy football in 2003, and back then, 13 running backs carried the ball over 300 times. In 2020, that number was just two.
Over the past two decades, the NFL has become increasingly pass-heavy, and more teams have transitioned toward using multiple running backs. In evaluating teams taking the running back by committee (RBBC) approach, we must factor in how few teams use a true workhorse. Ten years ago, any team with a 60-40 snap split between running backs would be viewed as an RBBC. In 2021, we have to adjust our definition of what constitutes an RBBC. In evaluating expected RBBCs, I will examine teams without a clear primary back. For example, we know Aaron Jones will probably get a 60% snap share, but I wouldn’t classify Green Bay’s backfield as a committee.
Zack Moss (BUF) and Devin Singletary (BUF)
In 2020, Zack Moss played 45% of the snaps, and Devin Singletary played 57%. This was a full-blown committee, with both backs receiving equal usage. Entering 2021, camp reports pointed to Moss taking hold of the primary role. However, Moss missed some time due to injury, and Singletary has looked good in preseason action. Additionally, the team brought in Matt Breida, who presumes to be the RB3.
The Bills are one of the most pass-heavy teams in the NFL, so neither Moss nor Singletary has much upside. If I had to pick one, I would go with Singletary both because he is cheaper and because I believe Moss is a sub-replacement level talent. Moss is likely to be the early-down back, while Singletary should remain the preferred back on passing downs. Given that Josh Allen is the team’s primary goal-line back, this is mostly a situation to avoid.
Tevin Coleman (NYJ) and Ty Johnson (NYJ)
Perhaps the most ambiguous backfield in the NFL at the moment belongs to the New York Jets. After jettisoning a completely washed Le’Veon Bell, the Jets didn’t make a big move to upgrade their running back room. The team signed Tevin Coleman in free agency and waited until day three to draft Michael Carter. The two running backs joined incumbents Ty Johnson and La’Mical Perine.
If the preseason is any indication, Coleman is the starter — he sat out the first preseason game before starting the second game. After Coleman went out, Johnson was the next guy in. I expect Coleman to open the season as the most valuable member of this backfield, but that’s not saying much. This could very well be a 50-40-10 split between Coleman, Johnson, and Carter. It is worth noting that Johnson was listed atop the Jets’ depth chart following the final preseason game, but I’m not sure that means much.
For some reason, Carter is the most expensive, going as early as the sixth round. Taking Carter anywhere before round 10 is straight lunacy. Day three picks, in general, are extremely low probability bets. Day three picks as rookies are even lower. Carter is the most expensive day three rookie running back redraft pick in the history of fantasy football by a wide margin. He is one of the easiest fades ever. Meanwhile, Coleman and Johnson are both worthy dart throws in the double-digit rounds.
Melvin Gordon (DEN) and Javonte Williams (DEN)
In 2020, Melvin Gordon was clearly the main running back in Denver. However, Gordon is 28 years old and in the final year of his contract. There is exactly a 0% chance he remains in Denver beyond the 2021 season. We can be certain because the team just traded up in the second draft to select Javonte Williams.
The rookie has immediately stepped in as the RB2. He has looked good in training camp and preseason action, and in contrast, Gordon has missed time due to injury. Gordon will undoubtedly open the season as the starter, but Williams can quickly turn this into a relatively even split.
Williams is going multiple rounds ahead of Gordon, and I support it. Williams may be nothing more than a weak flex to start the season, but if you look at the trajectory of 2020 rookies like D’Andre Swift and J.K. Dobbins, you start to get an idea of what Williams could become. He has all the makings of being a difference-maker down the stretch of the 2021 season. He is worth drafting as long as he doesn’t creep into the early part of the fourth round.
Phillip Lindsay (HOU), David Johnson (HOU), and Mark Ingram (HOU)
I’ll be straightforward with you all — I have no idea what to make of this, and, quite frankly, I really don’t care that much. The Texans are going to be awful. Phillip Lindsay is probably the best bet of the bunch because he’s the youngest, but David Johnson is still an excellent pass catcher, and he’ll likely retain that role. Also, I guess the team likes Mark Ingram, which I can’t understand, as Ingram has no business playing in the NFL anymore. There’s a reason John Harbaugh deactivated him over the second half of the 2020 season and in the playoffs. But a team incompetent enough to sign Ingram is incompetent enough to play him. Just avoid them all.
Raheem Mostert (SF) and Trey Sermon (SF)
If there’s one thing we can be sure of at running back, it’s that we want the 49ers’ RB1. If there’s another thing we can be sure of at running back, it’s that we have no idea who the 49ers’ RB1 will be on any given week. In 2020, three different running backs posted RB1 weeks throughout the season: Raheem Mostert, Jeff Wilson, and Jerick McKinnon.
This season, the 49ers have Mostert returning, and they drafted Trey Sermon in the third round. Mostert should be the lead back with Sermon mixing in plenty. Wilson is out at least half the season with a knee injury. It’s also worth noting that the team signed (and recently cut) Wayne Gallman and drafted another running back, Elijah Mitchell, in the sixth round. It wouldn’t surprise me if even Mitchell had his moment of relevance.
Sermon is the most expensive of the bunch, as he is going in the sixth round. Mostert usually goes about one round later. I am fine with drafting either one, as I expect both to have their moments. The concern for fantasy owners is predicting when to start whom. However, that’s a problem for a later date. For now, take talented running backs that can produce and figure it out later.
Leonard Fournette (TB), Ronald Jones (TB), and Giovani Bernard (TB)
Tampa Bay’s backfield is like the NFC version of the Texans, except for the part where the Bucs’ offense has a ton of talent, and the Texans have almost none. The Bucs have three running backs that could legitimately have value. My money remains on Leonard Fournette, who posted RB1 numbers during the Bucs’ Super Bowl run.
However, I would be negligent in ignoring Bruce Arians’ glowingly praise of Giovani Bernard and Ronald Jones’ superior play before his injury last season.
Fournette is likely to start Week 1, but this could be a 40-40-20 split — an absolute nightmare for fantasy. An injury to one of these guys would solidify the value of the other two. That said, it feels very much like a guessing game early on. I don’t have an issue if you want to take a shot at the lead back on one of the NFL’s best offenses, but your guess as to which one is as good as mine.
Other Potential RBBCs
New England Patriots: This is Damien Harris’ backfield, but he won’t play on passing downs. That role remains with James White. I like Harris in Half-PPR formats and have no interest in White in any format.
Las Vegas Raiders: Josh Jacobs is the clear lead back, but he isn’t anything more than a replacement-level talent, and the team gave Kenyan Drake a hefty two-year contract. Drake should be the passing down back and could eat into Jacobs’ early-down work if he plays well but Jacobs struggles.
Cleveland Browns: Both Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt are talented. They also both have clearly defined roles. Chubb is the early-down and goal-line back. Hunt is the passing down back. Hunt’s presence caps Chubb’s ceiling, but Chubb is as safe as it gets.
Washington Football Team: This is not a true RBBC. Antonio Gibson is the feature back, but J.D. McKissic will play on most passing downs, so he’s worth mentioning. I still like Gibson at his ADP because we know he is a talented pass catcher. McKissic has no upside unless Gibson gets hurt.
Arizona Cardinals: I’m not sure if this will be an RBBC. James Conner is a sub-replacement level talent, but it’s not like Chase Edmonds is a superstar. Edmonds will be the primary back, but Conner could handle goal-line work. Still, I prefer Edmonds because he is going to dominate passing down snaps.
Detroit Lions: D’Andre Swift has been dealing with a groin injury, and Dan Campbell openly questioned whether Swift’s conditioning would have him ready for Week 1. I think that’s a bunch of noise and that Swift will be out there, but Jamaal Williams will be heavily involved. He’s looked like his usual replacement-level self in the preseason. I like both at their respective ADPs.
Green Bay Packers: Aaron Jones got paid this offseason. He is the guy. However, he won’t play more than 60% of the snaps. A.J. Dillon will have his moments and could siphon a few touchdowns, but his value rests entirely on a Jones injury. I love Jones in the middle of the first round.
Whether you’re new to fantasy football or a seasoned pro, our Fantasy Football 101: Strategy Tips & Advice page is for you. You can get started with Starting Your Own Fantasy Football League or head to a more advanced strategy – like What is the Right Amount of Risk to Absorb on Draft Day? – to learn more.