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Best and Worst Running Backs at Creating Yards in 2021 (Fantasy Football)

by Scott Youngson | @jscottyoungson | Featured Writer
Jan 14, 2022
Best and Worst RBs at Creating Yards in 2021

To be a great fantasy football running back, you must have talent. Opportunity and circumstance play a significant role, but if the talent isn’t there, the player won’t produce and will ultimately lose his job. But how do you measure skill in today’s NFL? An excellent place to start is by looking at which RBs are best at creating yards.

A less talented back can still be wildly productive if he’s running behind a great offensive line or catching passes out of the backfield from Tom Brady (QB – TB). The players who are less reliant on their o-line and QB for productivity are the ones who generate yards after contact and after the catch. These are different skill sets, though. Some RBs may be great running between the tackles, while others shine “in space.”

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We pulled some yards-after-contact (YAC) data to measure which backs were the most effective between the tackles in 2021. Rather than base effectiveness on the player’s total YAC, which favors those who got the most carries, we focused on two other metrics: Average YAC and % of total yards after contact. To ensure the sample size was large enough, we filtered the data to only include players who had 100 or more rushing attempts in 2021.

These players were the best

Player Team Att Yds YAC Avg YAC YAC %
Javonte Williams DEN 203 903 665 3.3 73.6
Derrick Henry TEN 219 937 681 3.1 72.7
Rhamondre Stevenson NE 133 606 411 3.1 67.9
D’Ernest Johnson CLE 100 534 333 3.3 62.4
AJ Dillon GB 187 803 531 2.8 66.1
Alexander Mattison MIN 134 491 336 2.6 69.9

Derrick Henry (RB – TEN) and AJ Dillon (RB – GB) are massive human beings, so it is not surprising to see them on this list. Henry’s fantasy value is well known, while Dillon’s is tied to Aaron Jones (RB – GB). Unless something dramatic happens in Green Bay this off-season, they’ll likely be splitting carries again in 2022.

Javonte Williams (RB – DEN) showed what he could do this season and should be a top 10 RB next season in 2022 drafts if Melvin Gordon (RB – DEN) departs via free agency.

Rhamondre Stevenson (RB – NE) was up and down this year, but like Dillon, he appears to be headed for another year in a committee with Damien Harris (RB – NE) next season.

The most surprising players on this list are D’Ernest Johnson (RB – CLE) and Alexander Mattison (RB – MIN). Both have been backups their entire careers but probably warrant more playing time. Should a better opportunity arise for either next year, they appear to have tremendous upside.

These players fared the worst

Player Team Att Yds YAC Avg YAC YAC %
Myles Gaskin MIA 173 612 241 1.4 39.4
Devonta Freeman BAL 133 576 218 1.6 37.8
D’Andre Swift DET 151 617 253 1.7 41.0
Darrell Henderson LAR 149 688 277 1.9 41.7
Darrel Williams KC 144 558 248 1.7 44.4

It’s no wonder that Coach Brian Flores didn’t want to commit to Myles Gaskin (RB – MIA) based on these numbers. He’s better served as a pass-catching back than a runner.

Devonta Freeman (RB – BAL) was signed off the scrap heap by the Ravens after injuries decimated their backfield. He did a credible job for them, but he may have trouble finding a job again in 2022.

D’Andre Swift (RB – DET) and Darrell Henderson (RB – LAR) had the best seasons of the RBs on this list. They both thrive in space more than between the tackles, though. The Rams planned to use Henderson as a 3rd down change-of-pace option this season, but the injury to Cam Akers (RB – LAR) forced them to expand his role. Swift’s fantasy value in 2022 may be diminished if the Lions add another RB who thrives on contact this off-season.

Neither Darrel Williams (RB – KC) nor Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB – KC) produced after contact this season, which could lead the Chiefs to seek a different type of RB to complement CEH next season. Should this happen, Williams would slide further down the depth chart.

Since pass-catching is such a huge part of fantasy success in most leagues these days, we didn’t want to ignore backs whose productivity comes from receptions. While much of an RBs success in the passing game is linked to targets and receptions, those who make plays after the catch have a greater chance of producing big fantasy numbers. Thus, we pulled the average yards-after-catch and % of yards-after catch data for running backs who caught 20 or more passes in 2021.

These players were the most productive

Player Team Rec Yds YAC aDOT Avg YAC YAC %
Jonathan Taylor IND 40 360 405 -1.0 10.1 112.5
Miles Sanders PHI 26 158 215 -1.1 9.0 150.3
Dalvin Cook MIN 34 224 276 -1.7 8.6 124.9

Jonathan Taylor (RB – IND) and Dalvin Cook (RB – MIN) are fantasy stars well known for their explosiveness, so it’s not surprising to see them atop this list. Miles Sanders (RB – PHI) seems to underachieve perpetually, often due to injuries. However, his big-play potential will likely continue to make him appealing to fantasy managers in 2022.

It’s important to notice that each of these players aDOT (average depth of target) was behind the line of scrimmage. Thus, these players did most of their damage via the dump-off or screen pass. The nature of these plays tends to lend itself to more yards after the catch, but that shouldn’t diminish the explosiveness these guys showed in 2021.

These players were the least productive

Player Team Rec Yds YAC aDOT Avg YAC YAC %
Kyle Juszczyk SF 30 296 162 6.3 5.4 54.7
Rex Burkhead HOU 25 186 141 1.6 5.6 75.8
JaMycal Hasty SF 23 157 129 2.7 5.6 82.2
DeeJay Dallas SEA 21 133 101 0.7 5.6 82.8

These players all produced positive aDOTs, indicating they ran routes more often than those listed in the preceding table. Kyle Juszczyk (RB – SF) was used much like a Tight End based on his aDOT. His value, however, is limited even in the deepest of leagues. His teammate, JaMycal Hasty (RB – SF), was also used in this regard to a certain extent. He’s a good pass-catcher but, in his two seasons, hasn’t proved very adept at making defenders miss.

Rex Burkhead (RB – HOU) has been an efficient pass-catcher throughout his career but has never been known for his explosiveness. Deejay Dallas (RB – SEA) is pretty deep down on the Seahawks bench and hasn’t shown much to warrant an expanded role.

While statistics like yards-after-contact and yards-after-catch don’t always sync with fantasy success, they do offer some insight into a player’s potential. When debating between players come draft day 2022, it’s preferable to rely on the RB’s who are good at creating yards as they are less reliant on the circumstances surrounding them.

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Scott Youngson is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Scott, check out his archive and follow him @FantasyMutant.

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