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2021 Rookie Review: Running Backs (Fantasy Football)

Jan 16, 2022
2021 Rookie Review: Running Backs

The Rookie Running Back Class of 2021 was met with question marks and muted appreciation. After all, the 2020 Rookie Running Back Class produced a plethora of talent in the form of Jonathan Taylor, D’Andre Swift, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Antonio Gibson. It was so good, rookie stud Running Back James Robinson couldn’t even get drafted.

So whilst the ceiling for the Class of 2021 wasn’t as high or as deep, there was certainly some talent in it. And so, nine months after their names were called in the NFL Draft by the Commissioner, and with their first season under their belts, it’s time to look at these Running Backs in more detail. And get a sense of what they achieved and what their 2outlook for 2022 is.

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Najee Harris (RB – PIT)

  • Team: Pittsburgh Steelers
  • Draft: Round 1, Pick 24
  • 2021 ADP: 15

How did he do?

Najee Harris was nothing short of incredible in his first year in the league. He was just the 6th Rookie Running Back since the merger to have 380+ touches (381), and just the 6th Rookie Running Back in the last 10 years to have over 1,650 scrimmage yards (1,667). Despite being drafted incredibly high in Rookie Drafts, Dynasty Start-up Drafts, and Redraft leagues, he still delivered beyond expectations. Because of his elite production, Harris finished as the RB3 in PPR scoring, breaking the 300 point barrier (300.7).

He ended up as the bell cow back that everyone hoped he would be when he was going as the first overall rookie pick in 1QB Rookie Drafts back in May/June. And for that, we are grateful. His season is still not finished, however. At the time of writing, he still has a playoff game to look forward to against the Kansas City Chiefs this weekend. A just reward for all of his hard work this season.

What is his 2022 outlook?

On the surface, it looks very much the same. There is not a lot of Running Back competition behind him. His coach will remain in his role in 2022. As will most of his position coaches at the time of this writing. The only situation that looks likely to change is who will be under center for Pittsburgh in 2022. With Ben Roethlisberger looking likely to leave the Steelers, there remains a certain level of uncertainty as to who will be leading this offense in September.

However, with a weak Free Agency class ahead at Quarterback, and a Quarterback class in 2022 that doesn’t look like will offer any immediate help to the Steelers, it should mean another solid year of production ahead. He could see a small arrow of regression just purely down to the number of touches he had in 2021. However, with this new Offensive Line having more time to play together, he has room to grow on his 3.9 yards per carry and increase his efficiency.

All in all, it’s hard at this stage to make a case for Najee Harris to do anything but produce similar figures in 2022.

Travis Etienne (RB – JAC)

  • Team: Jacksonville Jaguars
  • Draft: Round 1, Pick 25
  • 2021 ADP: RB11

How did he do?

The answer is, he didn’t. Etienne played just 16 snaps in the preseason before suffering a season-ending Lisfranc injury. He never got on the field. The only silver lining for Etienne is that he suffered the injury earlier enough, and had surgery early enough, that he will be set to go for camp workouts in July 2022. And he is expected to be fully healthy.

What is his 2022 outlook?

It’s really fascinating for Etienne. The coach that drafted him has been fired, and the General Manager could potentially be on the block, depending on who gets the Head Coaching job next. Etienne has a lot of talent and he can line up outside, in the backfield, and inside also. He is the definition of a playmaker. And the Jaguars do not have many of those on offense. He also has a really strong ally in Quarterback Trevor Lawrence, who is the beacon of hope and light for Jacksonville. If anybody knows how to utilize Etienne it’s going to be his Quarterback.

However, there are some real question marks as to what this team does in the draft. There are some talented Wide Receivers who could block the path for opportunities for Etienne. You also have James Robinson, who looked more than explosive for the second season in a row before injury prematurely ended his season.

The first signpost to look out for is will an offensive or defensive-minded Head Coach be hired? If it’s defensive, Etienne might benefit from more opportunities as they are likely to use those high draft picks on skill players on the defensive side of the board. The key indicator point will be what they do with pick 33. There will be some talented Wide Receivers primed for the picking there.

Either way, I find it unlikely we will see a ceiling for Etienne we could have expected nine months ago when he was drafted. However, he is a Dynasty hold right now as the uncertainty will drive his value to the floor.

Javonte Williams (RB – DEN)

  • Team: Denver Broncos
  • Draft: Round 2, Pick 35
  • 2021 ADP: RB27

How did he do?

Javonte Williams showed a lot on tape as to why he was drafted in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft by the Denver Broncos. Because, according to PFF, Williams’ 0.31 missed tackle per carry tied Marshawn Lynch (2014) and Nick Chubb (2020) as the highest rate by a Running Back since 2006. Williams also led all Running Backs in total missed tackles in 2021 (31), and was 8th in Rushing Yard per Carry after Contact. Therefore, we know Williams is tough to stop once he gets going.

However, the biggest obstacle for Williams was Melvin Gordon in 2021. Whilst Williams did marginally out snap his counterpart in 2021 (51%-47.5% in favor of Williams), Gordon was able to make the most of his opportunities in the Redzone. However, despite the perception that Gordon vultured all the goal-line carries and Redzone work, both backs carried the ball 9 times each inside the 5-yard line. It’s just Gordon was better at punching it in, scoring on 4 of those 9 carries, compared to just 2 for Williams. Also, whilst Gordon did have 8 more Redzone carries than Williams (37-29), he rushes for over twice as many yards in the Redzone (37 attempts for 91 inside the Redzone for Gordon compared to 29 attempts for 45 yards for Williams).

As a result, both players finished with respectable average Points Per Game. However, durability meant Williams finished ahead of his more senior teammate to record a WR17 finish in PPR. This is a very respectable finish for a Rookie Running Back in a committee situation.

What is his 2022 outlook?

Things look very positive for Williams in 2022. Melvin Gordon is set to hit Free Agency in his Age 29 year. And whilst I wouldn’t be surprised if the Broncos brought him back in 2022, I am not so confident this will happen.

Also, Vic Fangio and his coaching staff were fired after the Broncos’ last NFL regular season game. A new coaching staff will mean a new opportunity to impress and carve out an even bigger role for himself.

It is also expected that he will receive an upgrade at the Quarterback position. Quite who that will be at this moment of time remains to be seen. However, it is likely to be someone who will be able to have greater command of this offense than Teddy Bridgewater.

The key thing for Williams is opportunity share and improving his efficiency in the Redzone. It’s not unrealistic to see him gain an extra 10-15% of the workload, whilst also improving his Redzone efficiency. An arrow up in both these areas could see Williams on the fringe of the RB1 conversation next winter.

Trey Sermon (RB – SF)

  • Team: San Francisco 49ers
  • Draft: Round 3, Pick 88
  • 2021 ADP: RB29

How did he do?

In truth, Sermon might have been the most disappointing player on this list. Sermon was a healthy scratch Week 1. It looked like he was simply outperformed by Elijah Mitchell and JaMycal Hasty in the preseason. As a result, he was always behind the curve throughout the season, finishing as the RB99 in PPR Scoring with just 167 rushing yards, 26 receiving yards, and just one rushing Touchdown.

So, what went wrong with Sermon? After all, the 49ers traded up in the draft to get Sermon.

There is no definitive answer to this question. He was hurt during the preseason and could have been slow picking up the offense or the playbook. He also went on Injured Reserve after Week 12 when he injured his ankle fielding a punt. This could be a simple case of players like Elijah Mitchell and Jeff Wilson Jr. earning the trust of the coach and therefore got the ball more.

Overall, it is not the rookie season anybody expected Sermon to have.

What is his 2022 outlook?

Sermon’s situation is complicated. On the one hand, his coaching staff has not shown any faith in him. He was usurped by a lower drafted rookie on the depth chart. However, those that could and would be ahead of him on the depth chart other than Mitchell might not be on the team. Raheem Mostert, on IR most of the year, is a Free Agent. As too is Jeff Wilson Jr. Whilst JaMycal Hasty is an Exclusive Free Agent. Meaning that if the 49ers wish to retain him, they just need to offer him a one-year contract at the league minimum. Then he won’t be able to negotiate with other teams.

Will Kyle Shanahan look to the draft once more for Running Back help? In truth, we will know a lot more about the Running Back room by the end of March. However, I wouldn’t throw Sermon on the scrapheap just yet. Cris Carter made the Hall of Fame despite rushing for only five yards in nine games in his rookie season. Melvin Gordon also struggled massively in his rookie season, failing to find the endzone before being elected to the Pro Bowl twice.

And, since Sermon’s value can’t plummet much lower, he is not worth shifting off your Dynasty roster anyway. Just hold and see how things develop for the talented Running Back in 2022.

Michael Carter (RB – NYJ)

  • Team: New York Jets
  • Draft: Round 4, Pick 107
  • 2021 ADP: RB33

How did he do?

Overall, Michael Carter did about what we expected. He showed he was a talented rookie, on a poor offense and bad team. Carter flashed brilliance and took some opportunities when they were presented to him in 2021. However, a few niggling injuries, mixed in with playing on a team that just simply didn’t get in the lead often, meant his opportunities were capped.

Having said that, he did manage 964 scrimmage yards and 4 Touchdowns. The highlight was a bursting 55-yard carry against the Tampa Bay Buccaneers that was overshadowed by the antics of Antonio Brown in the 3rd Quarter. He also had to face a lot of adversity in the beginning, with different bodies in the committee such as Tevin Coleman, Ty Johnson, and La’Mical Perine. However, he was confident opportunities would come. By week 4, he was playing 50% of the snaps. After the week 6 bye, that number peaked at 72% before averaging off to a season average of 50%.

All in all, it was a decent, but slightly unremarkable rookie season for Carter. However, plenty to build on.

What is his 2022 outlook?

In short, he needs the Jets to take a step forward and start leading in football games if he is going to improve on an RB29 finish and be anything more than an afterthought in drafts in 2022. Carter did his job. And with that, I would expect more opportunities for him in 2022. However, if Zach Wilson cannot get this offense moving, then it could be much of the same for Carter in 2022; Unremarkable, but useful.

There is room for his numbers to climb. The coaching staff would have had another year of working with the players. And they showed signs towards the end of the season of at least being competitive. However, we have seen this before with the Jets. It appears, on the surface, Carter is likely to be nearer the fringe of the RB2 conversation in 2022 than challenging for higher standing.

Rhamondre Stevenson (RB – NE)

  • Team: New England Patriots
  • Draft: Round 4, Pick 120
  • 2021 ADP: RB46

How did he do?

The poster boy for the zero RB community started extremely badly. He had just 1 rushing attempt for 2 yards in week 1 before not being seen again until week 5. However, the tide started to turn in week 9, when Stevenson managed 106 yards from scrimmage. After this breakout, Stevenson’s snap shares and workloads started to increase. He backed up his week 9 breakout with a 100-yard rushing game in week 10.

All in all, Stevenson averaged 50.5 rushing yards per game in the games he played in. He also punched in 5 Touchdowns. He was a more than adequate understudy to Damian Harris. So much so, he now has an important role in this offense heading into 2022.

What is his 2022 outlook?

Stevenson has shown he can handle a load in 2022. However, with Damian Harris really managing to put it all together and finishing just outside the RB1 spots (RB14), it’s hard to see Stevenson becoming anything other than a flex/handcuff option in 2022. He will still have a valuable role, and will likely be drafted higher than RB46 in 2022. Nonetheless, Stevenson will still be fantasy-relevant in 2022 and beyond.

Elijah Mitchell (RB – SF)

  • Team: San Francisco 49ers
  • Draft: Round 6, Pick 194
  • 2021 ADP: RB74

How did he do?

In short, outstanding. A 6th Round Running Back who was buried on the depth chart behind the incumbent Running Back and a fellow rookie who was drafted much higher than he was. However, from day one of training camp, he came in with the mission to not only make the team but also to contribute.

When Raheem Mostert when down in Week 1, with Jeff Wilson Jr. on IR and Trey Sermon buried on the depth chart, Mitchell became the hot Waiver Wire add of 2021. Many folks spent every single FAAB dollar they had on Mitchell. How did it work out? Well, despite some injuries, it worked out well. Mitchell finished the season with 1,110 scrimmage yards, six touchdowns, and the RB20 on PPG. The only downside was he played 12 games due to injury. Otherwise, he would have finished above RB26 in PPR Scoring and well inside the top 20 overall.

Also, his 4.65 Yards per Carry were good enough for tied 3rd overall of Running Backs with over 200 carries in the 2021 season, with Dalvin Cook, and behind Nick Chubb and Jonathan Taylor. That’s elite company.

Overall, Elijah Mitchell overachieved beyond everybody’s preseason expectations. He showed great athleticism, burst, and the ability to use his power to break tackles.

What is his 2022 outlook?

Similar to Sermon, there is potentially a lot of upheaval. However, because he is currently on top of the depth chart, with the trust of the coach, it is essentially his starting job to lose. The one worry we have with Coach Shanahan and Running Backs, is that there is always change. We cannot assume that just because Mitchell looks good in 2021, he will get the job in 2022. Having said that, I can’t see how he won’t have at least a 1a/1b role in 2022. There isn’t enough talent in the room right now.

Another factor will be can Trey Sermon show in camp why he was taken 3 rounds higher. I would certainly be looking to sell Mitchell in Dynasty formats right now. His stock and price might never be higher. But I can also respect holding him and seeing if his role expands further in 2022. I would certainly advocate caution on Elijah Mitchell until the end of the 2022 NFL Draft. Once we know the full picture, we can evaluate one again.


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Adam Murfet is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Murf, check out his archive and follow him @Murf_NFL.

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