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Fantasy Football

Michael F. Florio's fantasy football top 12 running backs

Fantasy football never sleeps! With just the Super Bowl remaining in this football season, you can already start to turn your attention to the 2021 NFL Draft, best ball leagues and most importantly the 2021 fantasy football season. Last week, I gave you the way too early top-12 fantasy QBs, but now it's time to dive into the real fun and talk about the most debated players in fantasy, running backs!

1. Christian McCaffrey

So, you spent the first overall pick on McCaffrey this season and then you only got three games out of him. Now you may be sitting here and wondering why anyone would make that same mistake again. But let me stop all that right there -- McCaffrey is still the best fantasy asset in the game. He only played three games this season, but in those he averaged over 30 fantasy PPG and scored at least 24 fantasy points in all three. But a three-game sample size is not why you buy in. It's because you get RB1 and WR1 numbers out of McCaffrey. In 2019, he went off for 471.2 fantasy points (29.45 per game), the second greatest fantasy season ever record – behind only LaDainian Tomlinson in 2006. Oh, and in 2018, when he finished as the RB2, he finished less than a point behind Saquon Barkley … only after CMC got pulled in Week 17. In his last two healthy seasons, McCaffrey set and then broke his own record for most catches by an RB in NFL history. He topped 1,300 yards and scored at least 13 touchdowns in each of his last two healthy seasons. Oh, and if you were worried about his role in this new offense, just know that Teddy Bridgewater averaged 7.7 passes per game to RBs in 2020, the sixth-most in the NFL and that was with CMC out for most of the year. Do not overthink this or get too cute and continue to take CMC as the first player off the board in 2021.

2. Dalvin Cook

Cook finished as the RB2 in 2020 and that is exactly where I have him ranked heading into 2021. You may be questioning it because he did finish 40 points behind Alvin Kamara, but Cook doesn't come with any question marks in 2021, such as who will be his team's QB. Cook has averaged over 20 fantasy PPG in two straight seasons, culminating at 24.13 per game this week. He's scored at least 15 touchdowns, topped 1,800 scrimmage yards and recorded at least 349 touches in each of his last two seasons. His 25.4 touches per game this season led the NFL. He put up 44 percent of the Vikings touches and 29 percent of their yards, both the second-most in the NFL. He is a great runner on the ground, is heavily utilized near the goal line, all while still being used in the passing game for the Vikings. He's also finished as a top-three fantasy RB in PPG in each of the last two seasons. The production is as safe as it gets when Cook is on the field. The only concern with him is health, but he's only missed two games in the past two seasons. I would take him second off the board in any draft.

3. Alvin Kamara

Kamara finished the 2020 season as the RB1, so having him third overall may seem disrespectful to some. Look, Kamara has been an absolute stud since entering the NFL. He's topped 81 catches in every season, along with over 1,300 yards in each, including over 1,500 in three of his four years. He's topped 14 touchdowns in three seasons, including scoring a career-high 21 TDs in 2020. He also topped 20 fantasy PPG in all but one season, with a career-high 25.19 fantasy PPG in 2020. There's not really a bad thing you can say about him … or is there? The one big concern for Kamara is who will be his QB in 2020? With it looking more and more likely that Drew Brees will retire, it gives Kamara a sense of unknown that we've never had with him. I think any QB besides Brees would hurt, as Brees would routinely throw to him six or seven times a game. But if the Saints starting QB in 2021 is Taysom Hill, be scared. He averaged just 14.2 fantasy PPG in the four Hill starts this season, compared to 29.2 with Brees. The targets and receptions dropped dramatically, and Hill will also vulture some of those very valuable touchdowns. If it's Hill, Kamara will likely fall to at least RB7 in this list.

4. Derrick Henry

For years I was lower on Henry since he does not catch a lot of passes. But Henry continues to put those concerns to bed, so it's time to rank him as a top-five RB and not overthink it. Henry went off for 2,057 rushing yards this season, the fifth-most in NFL history. He also scored 17 touchdowns; only Kamara had more at the RB position. Look, you are going to get elite numbers in those categories. Henry has topped 1,700 yards in two straight seasons and scored over 12 TDs in each of the last three. It's led to him averaging over 19 fantasy PPG in two straight seasons. Yet, due to the fact that he never caught 20 passes in a season, he's yet to finish as the top RB in any season. He's finished as the RB4 in two straight seasons and has been the RB5 and RB3 in PPG in that span. When you draft Henry, you are not expecting to get the RB1. But you are getting a safe bet to finish as a top-five RB. But his floor and ceiling do need to get questioned compared to the other elite options due to the lack of pass game usage. Perhaps the change in OC will lead to them throwing the ball to Henry more. But perhaps it also leads to them rushing less. If you flip Henry and the next name on this list I have no issues with that.

5. Saquon Barkley

Not that you were going to, but do not forget about Barkley! He has basically been a top-five fantasy pick since he was drafted, and I do not expect that to change this season. This past season was a wash for Barkley as he tore his ACL in the second game of the season. But before that he showed himself to be a fantasy force. Since being drafted in 2018, he's averaged 20.82 fantasy PPG, the third-most among RBs and nearly 21 touches per game. He averaged over 18 fantasy PPG in each of his first two seasons, putting up over 50 catches and 1,400 scrimmage yards in each of those seasons. He finished as a Top-10 back each season, including finishing as the RB1 as a rookie in 2018. Is he the best pure runner in the NFL? If not, he's not off by much. But he belongs in the same discussion with McCaffrey and Cook as the best duel-threat RB in the NFL. The only reason he is five as of now is because he is coming off a serious injury, while the backs ahead of him are fully healthy. But if he continues to rehab well and we get videos of him doing freakish things in the gym or on a field this summer (spoiler alert: we definitely will) then I can see him climbing as high as three on this list.

6. Jonathan Taylor

This may surprise you to see him this high, but come August, I firmly believe this will be the norm. First, in a season where rookies did not have a preseason, and JT at times looked like the third back in the pecking order, he still finished as the RB6 on the year and RB10 in fantasy PPG. His 252.8 fantasy points not only led rookie RBs, but it was the most by any rookie back not named Saquon Barkley has scored since 2018. He also was set free late in the season and it led to a ton of success both for Taylor and for the Colts. He averaged 24.28 fantasy PPG and 139.5 yards per game from Week 11 on, scoring over 19 fantasy points in his final five games, and over 30 in two of those. The one knock on Taylor coming into the NFL was his pass-catching ability. Well, he racked up 36 catches and 299 receiving yards, compared to 42 catches for 407 yards in three college seasons. The kid can do it all and coming into year two, I fully expect him to be the focal point of that Colts offense, running behind their great offensive line. He can go off the board sixth overall and still outperform that draft day price.

7. Aaron Jones

Jones showed this season that he does not need a ridiculously high TD rate to put up good fantasy numbers. But he did find pay dirt 11 times in 2020, which was tied for the seventh-most at the position. While his production did fall off a bit, he was still a great fantasy asset. Jones has averaged 18.5 fantasy PPG or higher in the past two seasons, while putting up over 1,400 scrimmage yards in each of those seasons. Jones is in an interesting position this offseason that will greatly impact his fantasy value. He is a free agent this offseason and could be in for a huge payday. But, will it be from Green Bay? If it is, his value should remain relatively the same. But remember, Jones' usage in Green Bay has often been called into question as the Packers often will take him off the field to get Jamaal Williams or A.J. Dillon in. If he was to walk, it obviously depends on his landing spot. His ranking would be sure to change if he changes teams.

8. Austin Ekeler

I was driving the Ekeler hype train coming into 2020, so it should be no surprise I have him ranked where he is. He missed a lot of time due to a severe hamstring injury, but when he played, he was awesome. He finished as the RB11 in fantasy PPG (16.53) this season, but the number gets even higher in Justin Herbert starts. He averaged 17.3 fantasy PPG in those starts. But what I like even more is how often Herbert threw to Ekeler and the Chargers RBs. Ekeler averaged 7.1 targets per game from Week 2 on, while Herbert averaged a league-high 10.3 passes per game to RBs. Remember when Ekeler returned and he was putting up nine-plus targets weekly? That is so huge in PPR as a target is worth roughly three times as much as a carry. There will be a new coach here, but there should be no reason they move away from Ekeler. There is room for improvement when it comes to Ekeler's fantasy value, if the new coaching staff at least gives him an opportunity near the goal line. In 2020, Ekeler was limited to just three touches inside the 5-yard line, converting one for a touchdown. A larger opportunity there would only propel his fantasy value.

9. Nick Chubb

Despite missing a month due to injury, Chubb still finished as the RB11 in 2020. He was the RB7 in fantasy PPG. There's a lot of reason to feel good about Chubb heading into 2021, in what should once again be expected to be a run-first Browns offense. Under Kevin Stefanski, Chubb had his best season as a pro, so far. He led the NFL with 5.6 yards per carry (min. 150 carries) and scored a career-high 12 touchdowns, in just 12 games. That led to him averaging a career-high 17.31 fantasy PPG. He is one of the best pure runners in the NFL and on the Browns deserves to be valued as an RB1. My only complaint, and the reason I can not have him higher, is cause of his lack of pass catching. I mean, he had just a four percent target share in 2020, averaging just 1.5 targets per game. I spoke with Ekeler that in PPR an RB target is worth about three times as much as a carry. Kareem Hunt will continue to eat into the passing opportunities here, which limits Chubb's ceiling and makes him more of a low-end RB1.

10. D'Andre Swift

Get excited for second-year runners in 2021! Swift's rookie season was interrupted due to injury, but he showed us enough that I have no doubts he can compete at a high level in the NFL. He played just 37 percent of the snaps this past season, but still finished as the RB15 in PPG. He scored 10 touchdowns in just 13 games, finished in the top 10 among RBs in catches per game (3.5) and was 11th among RBs in receiving yards (357). But there was a point last season where the Lions said Swift would be the starter and get the bulk of the work. Well, in that game, he went on to put up a season-high 149 yards, going for over 25 fantasy points. He then suffered an injury and missed some time, but do not overlook that game. Also, he now has Anthony Lynn as his OC, which bodes well for Swift. In Lynn's four years with the Chargers, 26 percent of passes and 41 percent of touches went to running backs, both toward the top of the list during that span. The best part? Swift may not actually go off the board as an RB1 in drafts.

11. James Robinson

This likely seems low for a back that just finished as the RB7 in total points and RB5 in PPG. There was so much to like about Robinson in 2020 – he scored double-digit fantasy points in every game, he averaged 101 scrimmage yards per game, sixth-most of all RBs, and saw 20.6 touches per game. He clearly showed he can play at this level and will be an early round pick in fantasy drafts, after being an unknown all summer last year. There will be even more reason to get excited about him with Urban Meyers as the head coach and likely Trevor Lawrence at the helm. But, prior to getting injured, Robinson did see 87 percent of the Jaguars' touches last year. My podcast co-host Marcas Grant made a great point, every backup RB the Jags had last year had something go wrong for them. Ryquell Armstead missed the season due to COVID, Devine Ozigbo missed a lot of time due to injury and Chris Thompson both missed time and was ineffective. The Jaguars very well may invest in a second running back to help spell Robinson and keep him fresh all season long. That would eat into Robinson's fantasy production, but he should still very much so be valued as an RB1. 

12. Ezekiel Elliott

Elliott… as the RB12? That would have been wild any season of his career, even when he was a rookie. And I get some will be skeptical. First, let me give you the argument that the Zeke defenders will give you. In games with Dak Prescott, he averaged 23.14 fantasy PPG, compared to 11.8 without Prescott. But, it's not just as simple as that, as Zeke has been declining in recent years. First, his rushing yards per game have decreased every year he's been in the NFL, hitting a new low at 65.3 in 2020. He also posted a career low yards before contact (1.88), but before you blame that on not having Dak or the injuries to the offensive line, just know that it was even lower in the first five weeks at just 1.79. I am not saying Zeke cannot bounce back with a healthy team around him and look like a top-five running back again. But, seeing the decline in his performance, tied to the fact that he has 1,654 touches in five seasons, an average of 331 per season, it could just be wear and tear catching up to him. I also fear that to keep Zeke fresh, the Cowboys will use Tony Pollard more in 2021 than prior seasons. Pollard has shown he can play at a highly effective level in this league. All of these concerns are enough for me to have Zeke as a low-end RB1.

Bonus: 13. Cam Akers

I had to go one deeper in order to include my guy Akers on the list. Akers came into 2020 with a lot of hype and then sputtered out the gate. He was part of a trio of backs getting work in the Rams backfield and then missed time due to injury. But he showed down the stretch why so many were excited about him, averaging 14.0 fantasy points from Week 12 through 17, good enough to be the RB18 in that span. He also topped 80 yards in six of his last seven games, and scored a TD in five of his final eight, playoffs included. And in the playoffs, when it matters most, he played 82 percent of the snaps for the Rams. That to me shows that he has taken over as the lead back and clearly is the one that Sean McVay trusts the most. I think Akers will start off in the third round of drafts and potentially climb to be as high as an early second rounder, maybe even a late first-round pick in some drafts come late-August. But, he is someone I am very excited about heading into the 2021 season.

Just Missed: Josh Jacobs, Antonio Gibson, J.K. Dobbins, Miles Sanders, Clyde-Edwards Helaire

Not quiet RB1s but definitely RB2: David Montgomery, Joe Mixon, Kareem Hunt, Chris Carson, Kenyan Drake

You can tell me what I got wrong Instagram or on Twitter at @MichaelFFlorio.

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