Fantasy football projections in February might seem a little silly. Truth be told, a lot is going to change between now and the traditional draft season. But it's also true that Best Ball drafts are happening right now, and besides, who doesn't want to start thinking about next season already? Later in the offseason, these projections will be updated and included in our position previews, just like last year. For now, let's just take a look at the first (or second) run and what it's telling us.
In this first run, you won't see names like Aaron Jones, Chris Carson, James Conner or Kenyan Drake. They're all unrestricted free agents and we have no idea where they'll be playing in 2021. In their stead, there's either a vacuum or I've projected a feature back currently on the roster. In most places, it's a mixture of both. For that reason, you may see Benny Snell, Ito Smith, and DeeJay Dallas projected higher than you would expect. Many of these teams will sign a free agent or draft a high profile rookie, but the 2021 salary cap situation is such that there may be more than one team attempting to go cheap at running back in 2021. One team with an easy path to that is the Green Bay Packers.
Technically the Packers have two free agent running backs, but Jamaal Williams figures to see much lower demand than Jones. Williams has said publicly that he wants to stay in Green Bay and his skill set seems to fit perfectly with A.J. Dillon, who the Packers drafted in the second round of the 2020 NFL Draft.
Dillon's build and athletic prowess are eerily similar to that of Derrick Henry, even if such a comparison is unfair to the 22-year-old back. In the one game he saw a feature role as a rookie, Dillon rumbled for 124 yards and two touchdowns against the Titans. But even if he proved himself as a runner, he leaves much to be desired in the passing game, and Matt LaFleur loves to use his backs in that area.
Over the past two seasons, the Packers have thrown 268 passes to their running backs. If that type of approach is going to continue in 2021 they'll need to keep at least one of their running backs (or sign someone) to tandem with Dillon. Williams is not just the cheapest, he's also shown the surest hands, catching 87.5% of his targets over the past two seasons.
If Jones really does leave Green Bay and Williams stays, it's easy to imagine a scenario where both Dillon and Williams are top-25 backs. In PPR it's even possible Williams could be the better option. There's a long way to go until that type of thinking shows up in the projections, but virtually everyone is excited about the potential of what Dillon could be in 2021, making Williams the better deep sleeper bets in early drafts.
Here are my early 2021 running back projections. Try not to make too much out of the outliers on teams with current openings. Teams like the Falcons and Packers are amongst the most likely to not spend at running back, but they could still add talent there for cheap in the draft. It will be a while before we can feel good about the running back projections outside of the top 15.