One of the "tiebreakers" I use when choosing between two players is the schedule. Every year I go through a process of grading each defense in a number of areas, then plug it into each player's schedule. This helps me figure out which decent players might overachieve because of a favorable slate, and which solid players might disappoint because of a bad slate.
You can read up more on my Projected Strength of Schedule Rankings (PSoS) process and which players have good/bad season-long schedules by position here:| | | .
But I also want to know which running backs have a chance to start the season hot because of a bunch of weak opponents in Weeks 1 through 4. Those tiebreakers also come in handy, especially if I am trying to find some cheap starting options to begin the regular season.
So go ahead and put a star next to a rusher's name on your pre-draft list if they're ranked high here. It means they're projected to face easy opponents early on. Hey, we need all the help we can get.
Week 1-4 Projected Strength of Schedule RB Rankings
Biggest Early Winners
Najee Harris: Harris has a great schedule for all of 2021, but seeing the Raiders and Bengals in two of his first three games should push his maiden voyage off to a smooth beginning.
Miles Sanders: Playing at the Falcons in Week 1 and at the Cowboys in Week 3 should provide favorable matchups for Sanders. Yeah, he'll share touches, but he's still the Eagles' best running back. We'll have a good idea of just how effective he is from these games as well as his Week 2 tilt with the 49ers.
Leonard Fournette: There are some major questions about how the Buccaneers run game will look. Giovani Bernard is a fit for passing downs, leaving the rushing work to Fournette and presumably Ronald Jones. But if Fournette is as fit and ferocious as he was during the postseason, he'll benefit from taking on the Cowboys and Falcons in Weeks 1 and 2 before dealing with the Rams and Patriots in Weeks 3 and 4. Fournette is at least a starter for the first two games, if not a No. 3 running back for the entire season.
James Robinson: Travis Etienne's arrival dimmed Robinson's upside considerably, but taking on the Texans in Week 1 and then the Cardinals, Bengals and Titans in Weeks 3 through 5 brightened his purview. Unless Etienne is a smash hit in practice and the preseason, Robinson figures to be tasked with handling the primary rushing duties to begin the season. The easy schedule gives him a chance to rack up some touchdowns and maybe prove all over again that he deserves plenty of work. Fantasy managers in need of early-season rushing help can capitalize.
Raheem Mostert: No one's denying Mostert's ability, but everyone is worried about his availability. He missed eight games last season and has been dealing with nagging injuries each of his past two seasons. The good news is that if he doesn't get hurt during the preseason then he'll be ready to roll Week 1 at the lowly Lions, then has modest matchups with the Eagles, Packers and Seahawks. Better yet, the Niners' schedule remains Fantasy friendly all year. Hopefully Mostert can do what Jeff Wilson already can't do and stay healthy for it. Mostert is among the best mid-round starting running backs you can start the year with.
David Johnson: Friends don't let friends draft Texans, but you've got to admit that taking on the Jaguars in Week 1 and the Panthers in Week 3 does provide a sliver of optimism. It's certain he will share touches in the Texans backfield, and it's likely most weeks he won't get many because the team will play from behind, but at least he offers Fantasy managers something attractive to begin the year.
Melvin Gordon: Everyone wants to draft Gordon ... is something I might have typed three years ago. Now? Everyone wants to draft Javonte Williams, the Broncos' new rookie running back. But Gordon remains, and his incumbent status combined with his early-season schedule gives him a chance to post some nice statistics against the Giants, Jaguars and Jets. You could begin the season with him in your lineup.
Gus Edwards: The Ravens open up against the Raiders, Chiefs and Lions. This is going to mean a great start for J.K. Dobbins, but we know he won't get every carry. Edwards ended 2020 with 9.6 carries per game in his final eight (six regular-season games, two playoff games). He's going to get some work. If you find yourself in Zero RB draft mode, Edwards should be on your want list since he'll see touches in some favorable outings.
Fantasy Football Today Newsletter
Know What Your Friends Don't
Get tips, advice and news to win your league - all from the FFT podcast team.
Thanks for signing up!
Keep an eye on your inbox.
There was an error processing your subscription.
Michael Carter: No one's counting on the Jets' run game to be special, but the reality is that the offensive line is improving, the coaching staff figures to focus on running to take pressure off the rookie quarterback, and no back on the roster is as talented as Carter. The Jets see the Patriots and Broncos in Weeks 2 and 3 -- from that point on, Carter should have his feet wet and ready to handle a decent chunk of the run game against a mostly favorable schedule.
Aaron Jones: How about this start -- the Saints, 49ers, Steelers, Bears and Washington are all part of Jones' first seven games. Not that tough matchups have slowed Jones down before, but if he doesn't have a future Hall of Fame quarterback to keep defenses from cheating up to the line of scrimmage, this could be a very difficult beginning.
Cam Akers: The presumed Rams workhorse has to conquer the Bears, Colts and Bucs to begin the year. Given Sean McVay's impatience with his run game, there's a small chance Akers loses his grip on every-down work if he stinks. However, the rest of the schedule is pretty great, so if he can survive this trio and still get 20 touches a week, he'll be a delight. Either draft Akers with a top-15 pick and deal with the harsh start, or try trading for him on the cheap before Week 4.
Joe Mixon: He runs in the AFC North, so of course there will be some tough weeks. But only one AFC North opponent comes in the first six weeks. Isn't that great?! Not really. The Vikings, Bears and Steelers welcome Mixon into the 2021 season. We had to endure a tough opening from Mixon last season, and it's likely to happen again.
Clyde Edwards-Helaire: The Browns and Ravens as season-opening opponents won't be easy to deal with. His road to rebound won't start in earnest until Week 3.
Biggest Early Losers
D'Andre Swift: There's a lot of trepidation in drafting Swift given the other running backs in Motown. Matchups against the 49ers, Packers, Ravens and Bears to begin the year doesn't help. The upside in Swift's game is in his receiving ability and yard creation, two things he should be able to get regardless of the opponent. But that won't help him rack up carries or touchdowns, which are kind of important for Fantasy Football. Swift's potential to finish as a top-12 back, even in PPR, is vanishing. Plan on taking him closer to 24th overall.
Myles Gaskin: Most of Gaskin's biggest workloads and best games came in easy matchups last season, something he doesn't have a lot of to begin the year. Leading off against improved run defenses in New England and Buffalo isn't great for Gaskin, who failed to total even 85 yards in three games against those defenses in 2020 (with one total touchdown). Then Gaskin has to handle the Colts and Buccaneers in Weeks 4 and 5. It gets way better from there, so either be patient with Gaskin if you draft him or trade for him before Week 6.
Chris Carson: If you were already nervous about Carson's ability to receive and handle a lot of touches in Seattle, his schedule makes his outlook worse. The Colts in Week 1 is just the beginning -- Week 3 at Minnesota through Week 7 versus the Saints make for a heck of a gauntlet. It won't get easier as the season marches on, either. I'm letting other people draft and deal with Carson this year.
Mike Davis: Given the chance to be the Falcons' primary running back, Davis heads into matchups against the Eagles, Bucs, Giants and Football Team. Maybe two of those four matchups will end up being OK, but it's not going to help deliver the bang-up start you might have hoped for. Perhaps Davis can come through as a pass catcher in those games. You'll still draft and start him as a low-end No. 2 Fantasy running back, but if I had to choose between him and Gaskin, the PSoS says to take Gaskin.
Josh Jacobs: The Ravens and Steelers are his first two opponents. Yuck. Pile on everything else that's happened to Jacobs' outlook this offseason and he's become an undesirable No. 2 Fantasy rusher.
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.