If you are like me, you love taking a good share of running backs early in your fantasy drafts. There are not a ton of workhorse running backs available for the taking, and the ones that are will likely go within the first few rounds. Today, we will rank the top running backs in fantasy football and determine who provides the best value based on where you will have to take them in your fantasy drafts.
These rankings will be based on standard non-PPR scoring, but if PPR is more your thing, I will have an alternate ranking at the bottom of this article.
As for the running backs, this year is a challenging year if you are picking in the mid to late first round. I usually try to take three running backs with my first five picks and at least two in the first three picks, but in the leagues that I am picking at the end of round one, I am not sure I will be able to follow that same philosophy this year. After the top four or five running backs, there are a lot of question marks, whether it be Jonathan Taylor’s usage, Saquon Barkley’s health, or Austin Ekeler’s ability as a pure runner. We will dive into all of it, be sure to stop by the comment section below and share your thoughts on how these players should be ranked.
2021 Fantasy Football RB Rankings (Non-PPR)
1. Christian McCaffrey
McCaffrey is at the peak of his career, and as long as he can stay healthy, he will be one of the best all-around running backs in the league. With a better quarterback in Sam Darnold and an improved corps of weapons, I expect McCaffrey to be running against fewer stacked boxes in 2021.
2. Derrick Henry
Likely the safest play in fantasy football, I still like King Henry as a top-tier running back. The addition of Julio Jones will not make the Titans any less run heavy than they were without him, as Jones will not be getting any targets that were not already taken by Corey Davis and Jonnu Smith last season. This just forces defenses to keep the safeties high, as Tennessee now has two legitimate talents on the outside that can beat defenses over the top. This only helps Derrick Henry, who still has a fantastic run-blocking line in front of him.
3. Dalvin Cook
You always have to hold your breath considering Cook’s injury risk, but he is in a run-heavy offense that just made major improvements to the offensive line. If it puts your mind at ease, grab Alexander Mattison in the 12th or 13th round in case something happens to Cook, but when healthy, this Minnesota offense is going to run through Dalvin Cook. Expect a lot of volume.
4. Nick Chubb
I was a bit hesitant to trust Chubb the last two seasons because of Kareem Hunt’s presence, but after last year, it is clear that Chubb is the top guy in that backfield. Cleveland is such a run-heavy team under Kevin Stefanski that it does not matter whether Kareem Hunt is there or not. His floor is extremely high, and his rushing ability near the goal line gives him a relatively high ceiling.
5. Alvin Kamara
With Michael Thomas sidelined for the first part of the season, Kamara is expected to see a lot of volume. My only worry with him is the loss of Drew Brees. Brees got his running backs involved in the passing game quite often, but Jameis Winston is more of a downfield thrower who does not use his running backs as much. If Taysom Hill is the starter, having two rushing threats could potentially keep some of the focus away from Kamara when he is going against a stacked box, but either way, I think Nick Chubb is a safer play if both he and Kamara are available when you are on the clock.
6. Ezekiel Elliott
Elliott is nearing the end of the “prime” years for a running back, but if their aging offensive line can remain healthy, I like Elliott’s chances of being a top five to seven running back. Although Tony Pollard has become a dangerous weapon out of the backfield, I still expect Elliott to see a large workload and return to his usual fantasy consistency. When Dak Prescott was healthy last season, Zeke was a top five fantasy running back. He may not be a top five back, but he should safely be inside the top ten if both he and his quarterback can remain healthy.
7. Aaron Jones
I had Jones ranked around twenty a couple weeks ago, but with Aaron Rodgers back into the fold, Jones’ stock should rise. I do worry about A.J. Dillon eating into Jones’ workload, but Jones has never survived off a large workload. It is efficiency that makes him relevant. Plus, the Packers would not have re-signed Jones for such a large contract if they only expected him to split carries with Dillon.
8. Najee Harris
We obviously do not know what to expect out of rookies, but Najee Harris’ fit with the Steelers seems like a match made in heaven. Harris’ patient running style, similar to Le’Veon Bell’s, is very challenging for defenses to prepare for, as the unusual timing can throw a defense off very easily. Much will depend on the play of his offensive line, but there is a lot to like.
You cannot win your league with your first round pick, but if you struggle to make good trades during the season, you can definitely lose it with your first round pick. I used to go for players based solely on upside in round one, but after failing several times with that philosophy, I quickly changed to a more conservative approach. Najee Harris definitely has upside in this offense, but other players being drafted around the same time as Harris, such as Jonathan Taylor and Saquon Barkley, definitely bring more upside. However, Harris carries a much higher floor.
Mike Tomlin always prefers having a bell cow running back rather than a committee, and there are very few clear-cut workhorse backs. While Aaron Jones is still the main back, there is always a chance that he concedes goal line carries to A.J. Dillon later in the year. He and Najee are neck and neck in my opinion, and I currently give the slight edge to Jones. Still, he is not guaranteed the large workload that Najee is. Jonathan Taylor is also a lead back, but the Colts chose to re-sign Marlon Mack. Is Mack going to get more carries than Taylor? No, but since they brought him back, you have to imagine they will use him in some capacity. He could get five to seven carries a game, and those are touches being taken away from Taylor.
The Steelers offensive line will have its share of struggles, but they should be a much more aggressive and physical unit. The Steelers also plan to be a more balanced offensive unit under Matt Canada, which should keep defenses more off-balanced. I do not see Najee Harris as a guy who could finish as a top three fantasy running back, but if you are picking at the end of the first round in a ten or twelve team league, Harris is one of the safest plays out there.
9. Jonathan Taylor
We talked some about Taylor already, but the big factors here include Quenton Nelson and Carson Wentz. It is true that the Colts will likely lean heavier on the running game during Wentz’ still possible absence, but this also means that he will be running against more stacked boxes. Not having Nelson is a killer for the running game, but hopefully he will only be out the minimum of five weeks as opposed to ten or twelve weeks. Marlon Mack may take a few carries away from Taylor and cap his ceiling a little, but Taylor will still be the focal point of this offense.
The latest indications point toward Wentz and Nelson being ready to potentially start Week 1, which should be considered positive news if you are a Jonathan Taylor owner.
10. Saquon Barkley
I got bit by the Barkley hype last season, which is why I am staying away from him if at all possible this season. With reports coming out that Barkley may not be ready Week 1, I do not think Barkley can be trusted. He has never lived up to his potential, and that is due to both injuries and poor offensive line play. He has the upside to be the best player in fantasy football, but at this point I would almost be shocked if he stayed healthy all season.
11. Austin Ekeler
In PPR leagues, Ekeler provides much more value, but his ceiling is quite limited in non-PPR leagues. That is why I do not think he is worth a first round pick. Joshua Kelley and Justin Jackson have provided the Chargers with solid contributions, but neither Kelley nor Jackson will seriously battle Ekeler for touches. Ekeler is somewhat of an injury concern, but with Justin Herbert’s emergence, the Chargers have been less reliant on Ekeler in between the tackles and more reliant on him in open space, and that is where Ekeler excels.
12. Joe Mixon
I have gotten burned by Mixon for years now, but I always find away to jump on the Mixon hype train. This year, the reason is his workload. The Bengals let go of long-time receiving back Giovani Bernard this offseason, and Samaje Perine and Chris Evans are the only legitimate options currently behind Mixon. Mixon was a very good receiver out of the backfield in college, and in 2021, he will finally get more opportunities to display his pass-catching abilities. Cincy’s line is still shaky, but the additions of Jackson Carman and Trey Hill should improve their run blocking. If Mixon falls to pick 20, jump all over him.
13. Antonio Gibson
Many people wonder how committed Washington will be to running the football with Ryan FItzpatrick as the quarterback, but Gibson is still a safe play in the late second round. J.D. McKissic could steal a few opportunities from Gibson in obvious passing situations, but his overall role in this offense is steady from week to week. Consistency is rare in fantasy football, but I think Gibson can give it to you in 2021.
14. J.K. Dobbins
The Ravens currently have Gus Edwards listed as the co-starter on the depth chart, but I do not see that lasting for long. I was not a fan of Dobbins coming out of college, but this offense does not require an elite pass catching and pass blocking running back. Having a guy who can hit the hole with power and burst is exactly what Baltimore wants in order to complement Lamar Jackson’s speed and elusiveness to the fullest extent. Gus Edwards will get his carries, but let’s not kid ourselves. Dobbins is the best running back in this backfield.
Update: J.K. Dobbins has suffered a torn ACL and will miss the entire 2021 season. In lue of this, Gus Edwards now slides in as my 28th highest rated running back. Expect Baltimore to bring in someone externally in the coming days.
15. Chris Carson
Most rankings you find will have Carson rated as a top 20 back, but I am slightly higher on him. The Seahawks are expected to get Rashaad Penny more involved this season, but until Penny can prove that he can stay healthy, I am not going to push Carson down because of his presence. Seattle is always a run-heavy team, and despite the addition of Dwayne Eskridge and emergence of D.K. Metcalf, they will continue with that same run-heavy philosophy.
16. James Robinson — Jacksonville Jaguars
17. Chase Edmonds — Arizona Cardinals
18. Clyde Edwards-Helaire — Kansas City Chiefs
19. Mike Davis — Atlanta Falcons
20. Javonte Williams — Denver Broncos
21. David Montgomery — Chicago Bears
22. Miles Sanders — Philadelphia Eagles
23. Damien Harris — New England Patriots
24. Darrell Henderson — Los Angeles Rams
25. Michael Carter — New York Jets
I was a huge fan of Mike Davis at the beginning of the offseason, but the more I have read, the less confident I am that they will be committed to him as the workhorse back. With Arthur Smith coming in as the head coach, I assumed that Atlanta would focus more on running the ball than they have in past years. However, the coaching staff has not seemed thoroughly impressed with any of their running backs thus far into training camp. Edwards-Helaire is valuable in PPR but is not the type of workhorse back you want in non-PPR.
Edmonds and Williams both have competition in the backfield, but both players will likely be atop their respective depth charts by the end of the year. I usually avoid Patriot running backs, but it seems as if Harris has separated himself from the other backs on New England’s roster. While I have been a huge fan of Henderson since his days at Memphis, I do not trust Sean McVay to give him the workload that he is deserving of. The addition of Sony Michel also hurts Henderson, as Michel could very well take a good chunk of the third down work.
I usually like grabbing three running backs in the first five rounds of my fantasy drafts, but many of the players in this tier are being undervalued in fantasy drafts. If you can grab Chase Edmonds in round six or Javonte Williams in round seven, that will allow you to grab an extra receiver, tight end, or even quarterback a couple rounds earlier. All of the players listed in that tier are more than capable of being RB2 caliber running backs on a weekly basis.
26. D’Andre Swift — Detroit Lions
27. Josh Jacobs — Las Vegas Raiders
28. Zack Moss — Buffalo Bills
29. Kareem Hunt — Cleveland Browns
30. Raheem Mostert — San Francisco 49ers
31. Leonard Fournette — Tampa Bay Buccaneers
32. Myles Gaskin — Miami Dolphins
33. A.J. Dillon — Green Bay Packers
34. James Conner — Arizona Cardinals
35. Jamaal Williams — Detroit Lions
Swift is much lower in my rankings than most experts’ rankings, but the Lions seem to like what Jamaal Williams brings to the table on early downs. Although Detroit will likely favor the pass catching running back in Swift once they get behind in games, Swift will still struggle to get a heavy workload on the ground. The addition of Kenyan Drake and the destruction of Vegas’ offensive line have caused Jacobs to slide down draft boards, and the additions of Trey Sermon for the 49ers makes Raheem Mostert’s outlook a little more bleak. I still think Mostert brings solid value in the middle rounds, but he needs to remain healthy for the entire season, something that has prevented breakout seasons in the past. Jacobs will still likely see a lot of early down work, but the addition of Kenyan Drake could take passing down work away from him.
Zack Moss and James Conner both have serious injury concerns, but both players could be in line for goal line opportunities, which means more opportunities for touchdowns. In Moss’ situation, he has the opportunity to cement his status as the lead back in Buffalo and become a reliable weekly flex option. I worry about Fournette with Ronald Jones’ early down ability and Gio Bernard’s ability on passing downs, but Fournette is the most complete running back in that backfield when healthy. I worry about Gaskin because Salvon Ahmed was fairly effective during Gaskin’s absences last year. Plus, the addition of Malcolm Brown could limit his goal line opportunities. That is why I have him so low.
2021 Fantasy Football Running Back Rankings (PPR)
1. Christian McCaffrey — Carolina Panthers
2. Dalvin Cook — Minnesota Vikings
3. Alvin Kamara — New Orleans Saints
4. Derrick Henry — Tennessee Titans
5. Nick Chubb — Cleveland Browns
6. Austin Ekeler — Los Angeles Chargers
7. Ezekiel Elliott — Dallas Cowboys
8. Saquon Barkley — New York Giants
9. Aaron Jones — Green Bay Packers
10. Antonio Gibson — Washington Football Team
11. Najee Harris — Pittsburgh Steelers
12. Jonathan Taylor — Indianapolis Colts
13. Clyde Edwards-Helaire — Kansas City Chiefs
14. Joe Mixon — Cincinnati Bengals
15. J.K. Dobbins — Baltimore Ravens
16. Chris Carson — Seattle Seahawks
17. Darrell Henderson — Los Angeles Rams
18. James Robinson — Jacksonville Jaguars
19. Chase Edmonds — Arizona Cardinals
20. Mike Davis — Atlanta Falcons
21. David Montgomery — Chicago Bears
22. Javonte Williams — Denver Broncos
23. Michael Carter — New York Jets
24. D’Andre Swift — Detroit Lions
25. Miles Sanders — Philadelphia Eagles
26. Kareem Hunt — Cleveland Browns
27. Damien Harris — New England Patriots
28. Raheem Mostert — San Francisco 49ers
29. Zack Moss — Buffalo Bills
30. Josh Jacobs — Las Vegas Raiders
31. Leonard Fournette — Tampa Bay Buccaneers
32. Myles Gaskin — Miami Dolphins
33. Tony Pollard — Dallas Cowboys
34. Sony Michel — Los Angeles Rams
35. A.J. Dillon — Boston College
If you haven’t listened to them yet, make sure you check out one of BTSC’s brand new podcasts, The Steelers Fantasy Football Fix, hosted by Jeremy Betz. He has extensively broken down the quarterbacks, running backs, and wide receivers in the first three episodes, Be sure to listen to those below so that you can dominate your upcoming fantasy drafts.
Which running backs do you think bring the best value in 2021? How would you rank the top running backs? Be sure to share your thoughts on this and all things Pittsburgh Steelers in the comment section below!