I went over my first-draft QB rankings for the 2021 Fantasy Football season, and now it's time for running back. And I've gotta be honest: I'm a little nervous. At quarterback, the stakes are relatively low; it's a position with a lot of viable starting options, so if you miss on one, there's usually someone else you can fall back on. If you miss on your star running backs, it could really cost you.
That means you don't want to mess up. That doesn't mean you have to invest heavily at running back -- the fact that running backs tend to miss more than other positions is a good argument against investing heavily in them. That being said, looking ahead to 2021, I think I'm going to have a lot riding on my early-round running backs. My ideal strategy right now looks something like this: Grab at least one, maybe two, running backs along with one of the three elite tight ends with my first three picks, and then basically ignore those positions until the double-digit rounds. I have 22 running backs in the top 30 of my overall rankings, because the position is unusually heavy with young, dynamic, every-down backs, and those are the only guys you should really be investing in. The reason why I want two backs in with my first two picks? Just eight of my next 40 players are running backs. It gets barren quickly, and I don't want to feel like I have to reach for someone who isn't good just because I feel like I "need" a running back.
The middle class at running back is the worst place to invest your picks. Round 3 through 8 is where the busts lives, and it's where you should be getting your wide receivers and maybe quarterback from. Check out my running back rankings below, with a breakdown for the top-24 plus the next 24 in the rankings and let me know where you disagree by emailing me at Chris.Towers@CBSinteractive.com -- I'm sure you'll find plenty, so make your case!
Now, here's what RB looks like for 2021, to me, at least.
Too-Early 2021 RB Rankings
We'll have everyone's full rankings for every position on CBSSports.com this week, but I'll be giving you all the first look at my rankings this week, continuing with running backs here. To build my first set of rankings for 2021, I put together a quick, rough projection for each team, based on an estimate of total play volume, run-pass split, touch share and other pertinent details. It's not perfect; it will be adjusted as the offseason goes on and I can incorporate more data from the 2020 season, but it's a good starting point.
At running back, I try to focus on players who catch passes, because it ensures a player will be involved no matter what the game flow is, and because ... well, you get points for catches. I know that seems obvious, but you would be surprised by how controversial things can get when discussing how to rank running backs who don't catch passes. Even in non-PPR leagues, those receptions are generally plays the back wouldn't have touched the ball on otherwise, so you still want pass catchers, all other things being equal. There's no magic number I'm looking for, but ideally I want a back who catches at least 50 passes while having a robust rushing role as well. And I'll tend to downgrade those who don't.
Here's my top 36 right now. A lot can and will change in the next few months leading up to free agency and the draft, but this is where I'm at right now. And, by the way, I'm ranking for PPR leagues here:
- 1. Christian McCaffrey -- There's no question in my mind McCaffrey should be the No. 1 pick in 2021. None of his injuries were the type we should expect to recur, and there was no sign from the three games he did play this season that the coaching change had impacted his value at all.
- 2. Alvin Kamara -- It gets a lot more interesting after McCaffrey, but I think Kamara is the choice -- assuming Drew Brees returns or Jameis Winston replaces him. If it's Taysom Hill, it's a much tougher question because Kamara averaged half as many targets per game with Hill at QB as he did with Brees.
- 3. Saquon Barkley -- This one might be controversial, but I stand by it. He's coming off the torn ACL, but he'll have had essentially a full year to recover by Week 1, and Barkley is averaging 21.3 PPR points per game since entering the NFL. It's a bad offense that likely won't get much better, but Barkley has the best chance of replicating a McCaffrey season of anyone on the board.
- 4. Dalvin Cook -- I would have zero issue if you had Cook No. 2 on your personal board. Cook has earned that right after racking up 22.4 PPR points per game over the past two seasons. However, his relatively middling work in the receiving game means a random low-touchdown season or an inefficient year as a rusher could knock him out of the elite tier. Injuries are less of a concern for me at this point in Cook's career, but your mileage may vary.
- 5. Austin Ekeler -- Here's Ekeler's 16-game pace for 2020: 910 rushing yards and 85 receptions for 657 yards. He's 11th in per-game scoring at running back while scoring just two touchdowns in nine games, which is just plain bad luck. And all of that is true even counting the Week 4 game where he played just three snaps. He's basically a less proven Alvin Kamara, but after doing it for two years, what's left to doubt?
- 6. Ezekiel Elliott -- Yep, this one's gonna be controversial, but I really don't think it should be. Elliott fell victim to the Fantasy community's tendency to fall in love with backup running backs who spark, but there is essentially no reason to think he's going to lose his grip on the No. 1 job in Dallas. Will he cede carries to Tony Pollard? Sure -- I've got Elliott projected for 16.9 carries per game, two fewer than any season in his career except 2020. However, I think some people might need a reminder of how good Elliott was before Dak Prescott's injury, so here's his 16-game pace from the first five: 1,165 rushing yards, 77 receptions for 554 yards, and 19 total touchdowns. Assuming Dak is back, why wouldn't Zeke be an elite Fantasy option? If others are willing to let him slip to the second round because he struggled with Andy Dalton at QB, I'm going to have a lot of Elliott on my teams.
- 7. Derrick Henry -- Oh boy, here's another one I'm going to get yelled at about, but I'll put this out there first before you accuse me of short-changing him: I have Henry projected for 64 more rushing yards than anyone in the league and two more rushing touchdowns than anyone else. Henry doesn't catch passes, but he's managed to be an elite Fantasy option the past two seasons by being the most dominant rusher in the league over the last two seasons. He finished with a whopping 2,027 rushing yards and 17 touchdowns, which is a simply dominant season; he's also averaging 20.1 PPR points per game, or roughly the same as Elliott in 2019 when he finished with nearly 250 fewer yards and two fewer touchdowns. When the other elite running backs are catching 50-plus passes, Henry doesn't just need to be the best runner in the league to make up for his lack of catches; he needs to run away from the field. Maybe he can do that for a third year in a row.
- 8. Aaron Jones -- Jones definitely regressed from his breakout 2019. He's only RB5 in points per game. He wont average 5.6 yards per carry again, but if he's back with the Packers in 2021, it would just be stubborn to fade him. He doesn't have the volume typically associated with a No. 1 Fantasy RB, but he's a safe bet for 10-plus touchdowns in this offense. If not him, A.J. Dillon could end up a top-12 RB.
- 9. James Robinson -- It's going to be fascinating to see what happens with the Jaguars this offseason. We know they'll have a new QB, almost certainly with the No. 1 overall pick in the draft, and they'll likely have a new coaching staff in place as well. Will they still view Robinson as an every-down back? He obviously showed he could handle it, and a better offense around him could lead to a big second season.
- 10. Josh Jacobs -- Year 2 didn't go as hoped for Jacobs, with a major step back in his rushing efficiency and only a limited increase in his role in the passing game. However, few running backs come close to being guaranteed 275 touches, and Jacobs is one of them. He'll improve his yards per carry and could have a Dalvin Cook-esque third-year breakout.
- 11. Miles Sanders -- Consistency was an issue for Sanders, but he showed significant upside in a difficult situation as the Eagles offense collapsed around him. He didn't always help matters -- he dropped several potential big plays in the passing game -- but Sanders is a home-run hitter, and I'm willing to bet on that upside coming through.
- 12. Jonathan Taylor -- Taylor averaged 25.6 PPR points over his past five games, and you could argue this ranking is too low. I won't argue too much, but I have enough questions about the Colts offense and Taylor's role in the passing game to be just a little more cautious with his ranking for now.
- 13. D'Andre Swift -- Swift showed the kind of passing game skills that are worth getting excited about for Fantasy, and the Lions have essentially no competition for him returning. I'm just not sure what the offense around him is going to look like, but if the Lions make some upgrades, I could see him sneaking into the top 10 by draft time.
- 14. Antonio Gibson -- Curiously, the converted wide receiver saw a much more consistent role in the running game while ceding time to J.D. McKissic as a third-down back. The thing is, we know he has the skills to be a weapon out of the backfield, and he answered the biggest questions about him by rushing for 4.7 yards per carry and showing a nose for the end zone in short-yardage situations. He won't have to prove himself this time around, and if the receiving role improves, Gibson has top-six upside, even with a messy offense around him.
- 15. Joe Mixon -- Mixon hardly impressed before a foot injury in Week 6 ultimately ended his season, but there were reasons to be optimistic. The offense as a whole looked much better under Joe Burrow, and Mixon averaged a career-high 4.3 targets per game. If Burrow is healthy around the start of the season, Mixon still has plenty of potential as a high-usage back, and his long-term contract means he shouldn't be at any risk of losing playing time.
- 16. Clyde Edwards-Helaire -- It's going to be interesting to see what kind of role the Chiefs have for Damien Williams when he returns from his opt-out, but Edwards-Helaire's upside was clear in a handful of boom games. This is still an excellent offense that has produced tons of running back value in the past, so you almost have to assume Edwards-Helaire will at least be a solid No. 2 back again even though he was pretty underwhelming overall.
- 17. Nick Chubb -- Everything I said for Henry about how not being a pass-catcher makes it harder to produce? It's even more true for Chubb, except he also has the misfortune of splitting carries with Kareem Hunt. Chubb is an elite runner who has averaged 82.5 rushing yards per game with 13 touchdowns in 19 total games alongside Hunt, and he's been even better in 2020. But he doesn't just need to be great as a runner to be an elite Fantasy option -- he needs to be one of the two or three best in the league and score a ton of touchdowns. His 16-game pace in that time is 1,389 yards and 8.5 touchdowns, but he also has just 27 receptions in those 19 games, which has led to a good, but not elite 15.6 PPR points per game. Or what Elliott is averaging in his wildly disappointing 2020. Chubb is an easy top-10 option in non-PPR leagues, but there are too many dual-threat backs to justify the kind of investment you'll likely need to get Chubb.
- 18. Myles Gaskin -- Gaskin kind of highlights the point with Chubb. He had just 16 carries in his first two games and only four touchdowns in nine games, and yet he managed to average just 0.8 fewer points per game than Chubb thanks to his four catches per game Like I said, it's a math problem. If Gaskin remains the Dolphins' lead back, he'll likely remain in an every down role and he's already proven he can be a difference maker.
- 19. Chris Carson -- A foot injury hindered Carson for much of the second half of the season, but he continues to be extremely productive when given the opportunity, ranking 12th in points per game despite playing fewer than 50% of the snaps in four of his 11 games. If the Seahawks don't bring in another back, he'll likely be competing with just Rashaad Penny and should remain the lead back. He'll be a No. 2 back with No. 1 upside every week that he's healthy.
- 20. David Montgomery -- The pendulum is going to swing too far on Montgomery, who might be a top-12 back in ADP next season when he was a punchline less than two months ago. Closing out the season with a dominant run like Montgomery's will do that, but he's benefited a lot from Tarik Cohen's absence, capping his great stretch with nine catches and 27 PPR pointsin Week 17. As the 80th pick, Montgomery ended up a league-winner in 2020, but you shouldn't overreact to this recent stretch.
- 21. J.K. Dobbins -- I can see the Dobbins debates getting pretty heated this offseason. Some people just really like him, and it's not hard to see why -- he's an impressive back in an offense designed to create a lot of opportunities for running backs. The problem -- and stop me if you've heard this one before -- is the pass catching. Dobbins has the skills for it, but the Ravens have thrown just 100 targets their running backs the past two seasons. Given their proclivity for splitting carries and the fact that Lamar Jackson is a threat to take a handful of touchdowns for himself near the goal line, and Dobbins' upside might be capped. Just look at his Weeks 13-16 games, where he's found the end zone in each one but averaged 14.7 PPR points per game.
- 22. Melvin Gordon -- Gordon is just about getting to that age where you start to worry about running backs falling off a cliff, but we didn't really see many signs of that this season. The problem is, this is likely still going to be a pretty mediocre Broncos offense, one that didn't use the running backs much in the passing game this season. With Courtland Sutton set to return, is that likely to change? It's easy to see Gordon being a starting Fantasy RB next season and really hard to see him being a top-12 one.
- 23. James Conner -- Conner is a free agent, so a lot will depend on where he ends up playing in 2021. If it's back in Pittsburgh, maybe he moves up a slot, though that would require having faith in the Steelers offense reversing its current slide. If he signs somewhere he'll be splitting carries, this will probably be too high after two disappointing seasons.
- 24. Ronald Jones -- I can definitely be convinced this is too low for Jones, who will be just 24 in Week 1. He's impressed this season, and if it wasn't for the presence of Leonard Fournette, Jones could have had a real breakout. However, Bruce Arians seems like he may never fully trust Jones, especially in the passing game, and this is a Tampa offense built around a quarterback who is exactly 20 years older than Jones, so a lot can go wrong.
- 25. David Johnson
- 26. Kenyan Drake
- 27. Kareem Hunt
- 28. Cam Akers
- 29. Devin Singletary
- 30. Tarik Cohen
- 31. Chase Edmonds
- 32. Raheem Mostert
- 33. La'Mical Perine
- 34. Nyheim Hines
- 35. Leonard Fournette
- 36. J.D. McKissic