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Draft Strategy

2021 RB Strategy Guide

By Kevin English 9:08am EDT 8/24/21


You could call RBs the backbone of any fantasy team.

They’re undeniably drafted as such:

That’s 9 RBs in Round 1, up from 8 in 2010; 7 in 2019.

So drafters really want a foundational back to build fantasy teams around.

The question is: Should you?

Generally, given historical levels of WR depth… we say yes.

(Note: For specific recommendations tailored to your league, head to the Draft War Room. And view our Perfect Draft series for more strategy talk.)


Round 1 Landscape

Up top, Christian McCaffrey is projected for 411.2 PPR points — most among non-QBs. Not a shocker.

The gap between he and Dalvin Cook, our RB2, is 70.8 points. That’s the biggest side-by-side difference in our projections.

From Cook down to our RB3, Alvin Kamara, it’s a drop off of 13.2 points.

So if you’re sitting top-2 — don’t overthink it. Get CMC or Cook and move along.

The decisions quickly become tougher. Only 3 PPR points separate our RB5 (Derrick Henry) and our RB7 (Aaron Jones). Henry gets the edge with help from 14 projected TDs — most among the group. Austin Ekeler — buoyed by 81 projected catches — sits just ahead of Jones.

Low-end RB1 range turns up a DS favorite (obsession) in Joe Mixon. Here’s the bottom line: Mixon’s our RB9, and he routinely comes at an RB13 (or better) price. We love him in the middle of Round 2.

Conversely, Round 1 also turns up a pair of riskier picks: Saquon Barkley and Jonathan Taylor. Barkley at least presents 3-down value whenever he hits the field. Taylor’s pass catching upside isn’t nearly as high — and he’ll likely need a healthy Carson Wentz to deliver top-12 numbers. Even with Wentz returning to practice on Monday, there’s cause for concern regarding Taylor.


Round 2

Round 2 turns up no shortage of interesting RBs. Again, Mixon will be available here. And Najee Harris, Antonio Gibson and Clyde Edwards-Helaire each last into the 2nd. Just keep an eye on CEH’s health ahead of Week 1. We're still waiting for Gibson's role to expand to 3rd down work, too.

Exiting Round 2, plan to have at least 1 RB — especially if you have a late draft position.

Our top-16 RBs all have ADPs inside 3.10. And there’s a tier drop — 25.2 points — from our RB16 (Chris Carson) to our RB17, J.K. Dobbins. In fact, with Dobbins’ ADP ahead of Carson’s, the gap between the Seahawk and the next best expected available RB (Miles Sanders, 4.03) is nearly 30 points.


Rounds 3-4

We’re not outright avoiding RBs in this range. But this is where we see RBs with clear downside pop up…

D’Andre Swift, Lions

Pros:

- 2nd-year Round 2 pick. At 22, he should be just hitting his stride.

- 3-down skill set. Snagged 46 balls (13 games) as a rookie.

Cons:

- Missed most of camp with a groin injury.

- New arrival Jamaal Williams figures to have a role.

- New coaching staff has talked up a hot hand/timeshare approach.

Chris Carson, Seahawks

Pros:

- Undisputed lead back on offense that’s historically leaned run

- A proven RB1 when healthy

Cons:

- Injury history: hip, ankle and foot injuries have sprung up in recent years

- Low reception ceiling

J.K. Dobbins, Ravens

Pros:

- Efficient, dynamic talent

- Tied to a run-heavy offense

Cons:

- Timeshare with Lamar Jackson/Gus Edwards

- Likely capped receiving upside

David Montgomery, Bears

Pros:

- Clear lead back

- Should handle goal line work

- Eventual move to Justin Fields could boost macro outlook for O

Cons:

- Lopsided 2020 production.

- Threat of Tarik Cohen (when healthy) or Damien Williams stealing receiving work.

- O-line looks suspect

Miles Sanders, Eagles

Pros:

- Electric ability

- Philly’s O-line — if healthy — looks strong

- Weak competition for carries

Cons:

- Drops in 2020 season and 2021 training camp might limit receiving opportunities

- New HC Nick Sirianni had a designated receiving back for all 3 years in Indy

Josh Jacobs, Raiders

Pros:

- Go-to early-down/goal line option

- Rush volume looks secure

- Proven production — back to back seasons of 1,300+ total yards

Cons:

- Limited receiving upside

- New arrival Kenyan Drake received legit $

- Transitioning O-line


At cost, Carson looks most appealing with a late 3rd-round ADP. He’s locked into 250+ touches if healthy. And there’s a chance this offense reaches another level under new OC Shane Waldron.

Sanders is a fine bet on talent. Even if he only catches ~35-40 balls, there’s a path to double-digit TDs.

Jacobs sticks out as a really high-floor target. Given his small receiving role, though, he just doesn’t profile as a potential league-winner.


Mid- Round Targets

Darrell Henderson, Rams

We keep waiting for the Rams to add another backfield piece. Odds are, it’ll happen when teams trim their rosters to 53 by 4pm ET on August 31.

So sure, Henderson’s a Round 4/5 gamble right now. Attached to a dynamic Rams offense, though, he’s one worth taking. While Henderson’s never handled full-time touches as a pro, he’s stout (5’8, 208) and explosive. It also seems like he dodged a recent injury bullet.

Damien Harris, Patriots

Harris has seen the bulk of 1st-team snaps in preseason action. No surprise there, as he excelled in 2020. His 5.0 yards per carry was backed up by a #3 rank in Pro Football Focus’ rushing grades.

While he lacks receiving upside, Harris could see a spike in TDs if Mac Jones starts the season (or takes over early). Cam Newton will miss the next few days of practice, opening the door for the rookie.

Chase Edmonds, Cardinals

Edmonds played 7 of 9 first-team snaps in Week 2 of the preseason. James Conner was at 3.

It’s an encouraging split for drafters of Edmonds, who’s typically leaving boards in Round 6. There’s not a high ceiling here — especially with Conner and Kyler Murray factoring into the goal line rush attack. Still, ~150 carries and ~50 catches would put the contract-year back in line for low-end RB2 totals.

Trey Sermon, 49ers

As noted in our recent article on upside picks, you want Kyle Shanahan RBs.

Jamaal Williams, Lions

Williams’ ADP sits ~7 rounds behind D’Andre Swift’s. Believe the coach speak, and Williams looks like a strong pick at cost.

"We’re going to use both of those guys [Williams and Swift], they know that," HC Dan Campbell said back in July. "A guy gets a hot hand, he’s rolling. If Jamaal is in there, we’re rolling. Jamaal is going to be rolling and we’ll use Swift for other things. Which is fine. That’s a good problem to have. I’m glad we got him, I know that.”

Campbell also comped Williams to Mark Ingram and Latavius Murray, a duo he saw up close in New Orleans.

Even if the offense stinks, it’s tough to find a ~200-touch back this cheap.


Late-Round Fliers

Nothing exciting here. But they're all in play as your final RB. (Typically, there's no need to roster more than 5/6 RBs in a 16-18-round draft.)

Devin Singletary

Gio Bernard

Rashaad Penny

Justin Jackson

Damien Williams

Tony Jones


What About Handcuffs?

We typically shy away from handcuffing in best ball leagues. Doing so simply takes away from your roster’s ultimate upside.

Taking another owner’s RB handcuff is a different story. Think Alexander Mattison, assuming you didn’t land Dalvin Cook.

Handcuffs are fine in lineup setting leagues as RB4s/RB5s, but the same dilemma shows up. Plus, there are so few true handcuffs around the league to even chase:

Mattison

Tony Pollard

Kenyan Drake

Rashaad Penny (?)

Recent history says these guys are unlikely to be difference-makers, anyway. Mike Davis might have kept Christian McCaffrey owners afloat last year but ultimately finished 16th in PPR points per game.

No other preseason handcuff has cracked the top-20 since Jay Ajayi tallied 14.5 PPR PPG in 2016.

So, overwhelmingly, we’re talking about stopgap fantasy options — ones reliant on an injury to see the field.

In general, target RBs that also have a performance-based path to additional touches. Reinforce that notion if your league doesn't allow a deep bench (and petition for a change next season).


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