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Fantasy Football running back outlook 2021: Projections, sleepers, breakouts, busts, zero-RB targets and more – CBS Sports

The running back position causes the most contentious debates in Fantasy. Most agree on the depth of wide receiver, the importance of an elite tight end, and the folly of drafting a quarterback in Round 1, but we find no such consensus at running back. 

Whether it’s the Zero-RB vs. robust RB, the age that running backs start to decline, or the running back dead zone, we seemingly always have something to argue about. So before we get too far into any strategy or potential league winners, I should probably give you a quick breakdown of how I view the state of the position. 

As you can see below, Christian McCaffrey and Dalvin Cook are the cream of the crop and should be the first two picks in any league where you’re only allowed to start one quarterback. After that comes a mess of running backs who have flashed top-five ability, but also have at least one major question. For most people that group starts with Alvin Kamara or Derrick Henry and ends somewhere around the back of the top 12.

What makes this year so unique is how many running backs from Tier 4 through Tier 6 (more tiers at the bottom of the article) have such short track records. Most of the second-year backs in that range, and there are a bunch of them, gave us about half a season, at most, of elite production in their rookie year. In that same group you have three backs who appear to have very little competition for touches, but also don’t exactly profile as workhorse backs.

I stopped at Tier 6 because those are the guys I think you should feel comfortable with as a starter. But the next four tiers have just as much intrigue, just no floor. There are talented rookies who could have second-half surges like their 2020 counterparts, as well as productive veterans who could start the year off hot. Then there are plenty of committees yet to be decided. If you draft the winner of those battles you’ll get a bargain, if you draft the loser they may end up on the waiver wire. 

If there was one difference I’d mark in 2021, it’s that there appears to be more potential volatility outside of the top 15. It’s not hard to imagine guys like Mike Davis, Myles Gaskin, Javonte Williams, or even Melvin Gordon putting together top-12 campaigns. And there are a dozen more like them. But it’s just hard to get comfortable with the idea of them keeping their job for 17 games. How does that affect strategy at the position? Glad you asked.

Running back draft strategy

I never go into a draft locked into one strategy, but there are certain league types that take away some of the flexibility. For instance, in non-PPR leagues, I am almost certainly taking a running back in the first round and I would really like to have two by the end of the third round. The need isn’t quite as pressing in 0.5 PPR but in most of those drafts, I’ll take at least one running back in the first two rounds. Full PPR is where things open up a lot more.

If I pick early in a PPR league, that’s where I’m likely to try what some are now calling Hero-RB, where you draft a running back in the first round and then fill the rest of your starters out (or go five-to-six rounds at least) before you take another running back. I like this strategy most if I’m able to land McCaffrey or Cook in Round 1. Then again, most strategies look better with McCaffrey and Cook on your team.

In the middle or end of the draft, Zero-RB becomes more desirable, but maybe not quite as desirable as it was last year. it definitely depends on what the rest of your league does, but if you can start with Travis Kelce and a top-five wide receiver that’s a tough start to beat. The Round 3-4 turn has historically been where the breakout running backs dry up, hence the “dead zone” but there are some backs who could turn that on its head this year. A couple of those guys are in the breakouts section below, more of them are in the Zero-RB section.

When you get to the later rounds, backs you take should be influenced by your early-round backs. If you’re going Zero-RB, or even Hero RB you should be more likely to draft guys like Gordon and Raheem Mostert, because of their floor early in the year. But once you have three solid backs you should shoot more for upside, with guys like Trey Sermon, A.J. Dillon and the Tampa Bay backs. 

Finally, if catches don’t count in your league, you should probably cross most of the third-down backs off your list. Even if they project as RB3s, those are not winning players in non-PPR.

Now, let’s get into sleepers, breakouts, and busts:

Projections powered by

Projections powered by

Projections powered by


Numbers to know

26.36 — Fantasy points per game for Christian McCaffrey the past three seasons. That’s 4.5 Fantasy points better than any other running back.
— Running back opportunities per game for Anthony Lynn’s running backs the past two seasons. Only the 49ers and Vikings have had more.
7.9 — Mike Davis broke a tackle once every 7.9 attempts in 2020, the best mark in the league.
3.3 — Yards per attempt before contact for Raheem Mostert, which led running backs. 
98 — Rushing first downs for Derrick Henry last year. Dalvin Cook was the only other back with more than 70.
6.3 — Career yards per target for Giovani Bernard. That’s a full yard better than any Tampa Bay Back in 2020.
4 — No running back has scored more than four rushing touchdowns for the Bills since Josh Allen became quarterback.
17.4 — Myles Gaskin averaged 17.4 PPR points per game in his final eight games. Only seven running backs were better than that in 2020.
12.3% — Only 12.3% of the Steelers passes went to running backs last year, the lowest mark in the league.

So which sleepers, breakouts and busts should you target and fade? And which QB shocks the NFL with a top-five performance? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy cheat sheets for every single position, all from the model that called Josh Allen’s huge season, and find out.

Zero-RB targets

July ADP suggests the path to a Zero-RB build is as inviting as ever in 2021. This is especially true if you include Round 5 running backs, which include Myles Gaskin and Mike Davis. But even starting with the more traditional Round 6 range, it’s not hard to find a combination of early stability and late upside. I am not taking this path if I have a top-five pick this year and I’m not considering it at all unless receptions count for something. This list will change as we get more training camp news and ADP updates, but there’s no chance we’re going to run out of good options, I had to cull this list down more than I wanted to. 

Round 6 Chase Edmonds, Raheem Mostert, Damien Harris, Darrell Henderson
Round 7
 — Trey Sermon, Melvin Gordon
Round 8 — Michael Carter, James Conner, Ronald Jones
Round 9 — Jamaal Williams, A.J. Dillon, Devin Singletary
Round 10 — Tony Pollard, Sony Michel, James White
Round 11 — Alexander Mattison, Nyheim Hines, Giovani Bernard
Round 12 or later Wayne Gallman, Rhamondre Stevenson, Ty’Son Williams, Justin Jackson

Handcuff rankings

Below are the top 10 PPR handcuffs to draft on Draft Day. Obviously, Kareem Hunt is much more than a handcuff, but the reason he’s on this list, and not someone like Giovani Bernard is the fact that Hunt could be a league-winner in the event Nick Chubb gets hurt. Bernard’s role wouldn’t likely change. So, while Hunt can be a flex in a PPR league even without an injury, he’s also the No. 1 handcuff.  I don’t traditionally draft handcuffs to my starters, but I don’t mind taking someone else’s. Also, if you’re in a non-PPR league, guys like Trey Sermon, A.J. Dillon, and Gus Edwards deserve a boost.

  1. Kareem Hunt
  2. Jamaal Williams
  3. Kenyan Drake
  4. A.J. Dillon
  5. Justin Jackson
  6. Tony Pollard
  7. Alexander Mattison
  8. Sony Michel
  9. Darrel Williams
  10. Carlos Hyde



So which sleepers, breakouts and busts should you target and fade? And which QB shocks the NFL with a top-five performance? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy cheat sheets for every single position, all from the model that called Josh Allen’s huge season, and find out.

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