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AFC Team-by-Team Backfield Breakdowns

By Jared Smola 2:08pm EDT 8/4/21


Whether you’re loading up on RBs early in your draft, going Zero RB or deploying a more balanced strategy, deciphering all 32 backfields is key to winning your fantasy league. Committee attacks have made those true 3-down workhorses more rare (and valuable). But they’ve also deepened the pool of viable fantasy RBs.

So let’s dive into the AFC backfields and determine how the touches and fantasy points will be divvied. The “top fantasy target” for each team below is the best value at ADP, not necessarily the highest-ranked player in that backfield.

Don't forget to check out the NFC Backfield Breakdowns.

Baltimore Ravens

Top fantasy target: Gus Edwards

Others in the mix: J.K. Dobbins and Justice Hill

The Ravens have finished top 3 in rushing attempts, yards, yards per carry and TDs in 2 straight seasons. QB Lamar Jackson obviously has a lot to do with that. But Baltimore has also ranked top 7 in total RB rushing yards and TDs in both of those years.

That production has been divvied between 2, and sometimes, 3 RBs. In 2019, Mark Ingram carried 202 times with Gus Edwards at 133. Last year, it was Edwards with 144 totes, J.K. Dobbins with 134 and Ingram with 72.

Ingram’s departure should turn this back into a 2-man committee this season. He was actually phased out over the final 11 games of last year. In those contests, Dobbins averaged 11.6 carries per game to Edwards’ 9.5.

Look for a similar split this season. Dobbins was awesome as a rookie, averaging 6.0 yards per carry and ranking 11th among 47 RBs in Pro Football Focus’ rushing grades. But Edwards averaged 5.0 yards per carry and ranked 4th -- ahead of Dobbins -- in PFF rushing grade. Edwards got a 2-year, $10 million extension in June and isn’t going away as a significant piece of this rushing attack.

Also hurting Dobbins’ chances of paying off his 3rd-round price tag is the fact that Ravens RBs have not been very involved in the passing game with Lamar Jackson under center. The group TOTALED 51 targets in 2019 and 50 last year. For perspective, 18 RBs topped 50 targets by themselves last year.

Dobbins needs to slip into Round 4 of PPR drafts before you should consider him. He’s fine in the 3rd round of non-PPR drafts. But Edwards -- with a 10th-round ADP -- is the better value in this backfield.

Justice Hill might mix in for a few passing-down snaps here and there but would need a Dobbins or Edwards injury to sniff fantasy value.


Buffalo Bills

Top fantasy target: Zack Moss

Others in the mix: Devin Singletary and Matt Breida

The 2020 Bills finished 2nd in both total yards and points. Yet they didn’t produce a top 30 PPR RB.

The biggest problem for the backfield was that Buffalo was 1 of the league’s pass-happiest offenses, ranking 3rd in situation-neutral pass rate. And when they did go to the ground, it was QB Josh Allen doing a lot of the work. His 102 carries ranked 4th among all QBs and 3rd on the Bills. More notably, Allen led Buffalo with 9 carries inside the opponent’s 5-yard line.

So there wasn’t much left to go around for Zack Moss and Devin Singletary, who basically worked in an even committee. In 14 games together (including playoffs and omitting the 5 Moss missed), Moss handled 119 carries and 22 targets vs. Singletary’s 117 carries and 41 targets. So Singletary had the clear edge in the passing game -- but Moss was the preferred RB near the goal line, out-carrying Singletary 8 to 5 inside the 5-yard line.

The result: Neither guy was a real fantasy asset. Singletary finished 32nd among RBs in PPR points and 37th in non-PPR. Moss matched Singletary in non-PPR points per game, but that tally was good for just 50th at the position. He ranked 57th in PPR points per game.

The Bills return Allen and OC Brian Daboll this season, so expect a similar pass-heavy attack. And word out of Buffalo is that this will again be a committee backfield. There’s even been some training-camp buzz on free-agent addition Matt Breida, who could turn this into a 3-headed monster.

If you’re drafting a Bills RB, you’re basically hoping the other gets hurt -- or your guy stumbles into a bunch of TDs in this high-scoring offense. The latter is more likely to be Moss, making him the top target here. But he’s certainly not a priority pick in fantasy drafts. You’re better off investing in this passing game.


Cincinnati Bengals

Top fantasy target: Joe Mixon

Others in the mix: Samaje Perine, Trayveon Williams and Chris Evans

If you drafted Joe Mixon last year, you probably didn’t win your fantasy league. But don’t let that scare you off him in 2021.

In 6 outings before that season-ending foot injury, Mixon averaged 19.8 carries and 4.3 targets per game. Only 2 RBs averaged more carries per game last year; 11 averaged more targets. Mixon’s 24.1 opportunities (carries + targets) per game trailed only Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey and Derrick Henry.

And that came alongside Gio Bernard, who averaged 2 carries and 3.3 targets over those first 6 games. Bernard is gone now, leaving Samaje Perine, Trayveon Williams and rookie Chris Evans behind Mixon on the depth chart. So there’s a chance that Mixon carves out an even bigger piece of the backfield pie this year.

And if you’re worried about the injury stuff, remember that Mixon missed just 4 games total over his first 3 NFL seasons.

Cincinnati’s offensive line is still a potential problem area. The unit ranked 21st in Pro Football Focus’ run-blocking grades and 31st in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards last year. They did add veteran OT Riley Reiff in free agency and will hope to get steps forwards from youngsters Jonah Williams and Jackson Carmen. This unit could at least be league-average this season.

The argument for Mixon, though, is that he’s a high-end talent set to get big volume in what looks like an ascending offense with QB Joe Burrow and WRs Ja’Marr Chase, Tee Higgins and Tyler Boyd. We like Mixon anywhere in Round 2 of fantasy drafts.

Perine closed last season with a couple of solid outings and is the favorite to be Mixon’s backup. 6th-round rookie Chris Evans looks like the biggest challenger. He was lightly used at Michigan but tested as a 98th percentile athlete at his Pro Day and drew praise for his pass-catching ability this spring. We’ll monitor the situation, but Cincinnati’s #2 RB will be just a Mixon handcuff.


Cleveland Browns

Top fantasy target: Nick Chubb

Others in the mix: Kareem Hunt

The Browns boast all the ingredients for big backfield production: a run-leaning scheme, a pair of talented RBs and a beastly offensive line.

Let’s start with that O-line. It returns all 5 starters from last year’s unit, which ranked 1st in Pro Football Focus’ run-blocking grades and 6th in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards. It might just be the best O-line in the NFL.

Good news for Nick Chubb and Kareem Hunt, who form arguably the league’s top RB duo. They propelled the Browns to a 2nd-place finish in total RB rushing yards and a 3rd-place finish in total RB rushing TDs last year.

Chubb’s 2020 season was interrupted by an MCL injury that cost him 4 games and most of a 5th. In the other 11, he averaged 16.7 carries for 93 yards and 1.1 TDs -- plus 1.6 targets, 1.5 catches and 13.6 yards. He ranked 6th among RBs in non-PPR points per game and 9th in PPR points per game.

In those 11 games with Chubb, Hunt averaged 11.1 carries for 47 yards and .4 TDs -- plus 3.4 targets, 2.5 catches, 21 yards and .3 TDs. His scoring averages in those contests would have ranked 27th among RBs in PPR points and 29th in non-PPR for the season.

Expect a similar division of labor in 2021 -- with 1 potential exception. We saw Chubb’s role in the passing game grow late last season. After averaging just 1 target per game through Week 12, he spiked to 2.9 over the final 6 games, including playoffs. Hunt’s volume stayed flat: 3 targets per game both with Chubb through Week 12 and over the final 6 contests.

If Chubb continues seeing close to 3 targets per game, he’s a lock for top-10 RB production. For now, we’re projecting him for 2.3 targets per game. That leaves him at RB11 in PPR; but RB7 in non-PPR. Chubb looks good in the back half of the 1st round of non-PPR drafts and anywhere in Round 2 in PPR.

Hunt, meanwhile, is straddling the line between standalone fantasy option and elite handcuff. He’s a bit overvalued at his early-5th-round ADP.


Denver Broncos

Top fantasy target: Melvin Gordon

Others in the mix: Javonte Williams and Mike Boone

The Broncos traded up -- sending their 2020 2nd-rounder and 2021 4th-rounder to Atlanta -- to grab Javonte Williams with the 35th overall pick of this spring’s draft.

The North Carolina product goes 5’10, 212 pounds and ripped off 1,140 yards and 19 TDs on 7.3 yards per carry last year. He registered the best broken tackle rate since Pro Football Focus started charting college players in 2014.

Williams also caught 50 balls and averaged a strong 10.8 yards per catch across 3 college seasons. GM George Paton called him a “3-down back” shortly after the draft, and HC Vic Fangio believes Williams is “capable in all downs and distances and all situations.”

He’ll be vying for touches with veteran Melvin Gordon. The 28-year-old is entering the final year of his contract and likely isn’t in Denver’s long-term plans. But he remained effective on the ground last season, averaging 4.6 yards per carry and ranking 10th among 47 qualifying RBs in Elusive Rating and Pro Football Focus rushing grade. Gordon wasn’t good in the passing game, though, finishing dead last in yards per target and yards per route run among 41 RBs with 30+ targets.

The battle between Gordon and Williams figures to last throughout August and probably even into the season. The Denver Post's Ryan O'Halloran predicted in July that Gordon could open the year as the starter but that Williams would end up leading the Broncos in carries by season’s end. Benjamin Allbright of KOA Radio in Denver reported from training camp that Gordon is “CLEARLY RB1 for this team so far.”

Williams currently sits about 4 points ahead of Gordon in our PPR projections and 10 in non-PPR. But the rookie tends to go 2-3 rounds earlier in drafts. That makes Gordon the better value -- although we’re generally avoiding this backfield.

Boone is a long shot for tangible fantasy value but could make this a 3-man committee. He inked a 2-year, $3.85 million deal with the Broncos in free agency, following former Vikings assistant GM George Paton from Minnesota to Denver.


Houston Texans

Top fantasy target: David Johnson

Others in the mix: Phillip Lindsay, Mark Ingram, Rex Burkhead

This is a crowded backfield on an offense that’ll probably stink -- not a recipe for big fantasy production. Everyone knows it, though, so no Texan RB is going inside the first 80 picks of drafts.

Here’s what we’re most confident about here: David Johnson will lead the group in targets. He’s easily the most accomplished pass-catcher, with a pair of 50+ catch seasons and at least 33 grabs in all 5 of his healthy NFL campaigns. Even last year, Johnson still averaged a big 9.5 yards per catch.

Considering Houston’s weak WR corps -- and the fact that they figure to be playing from behind early and often -- Johnson has a chance to soak up a surprising number of targets this season. That’s a big reason he currently checks in as our RB28 in PPR.

We expect Johnson and Phillip Lindsay to battle for the bulk of the Texans’ RB carries. Lindsay got a 1-year, $3.25 million deal in free agency after an injury-riddled 2020 season. Don’t forget, though, that he topped 1,000 rushing yards in each of his first 2 years in Denver, averaging 5.4 and then 4.5 yards per carry. Lindsay ranked top 8 in Pro Football Focus rushing grade both years. He could certainly lead this backfield in carries.

31-year-old Mark Ingram looked like a guy out of gas last season. He signed a 1-year, $2.5 million deal with the Texans -- but he got just $500,000 guaranteed and has already been mentioned as a cut candidate.

Rex Burkhead got even less than Ingram ($125,000 guaranteed) and is a 31-year-old coming off a serious knee injury.


Indianapolis Colts

Top fantasy target: Nyheim Hines

Others in the mix: Jonathan Taylor and Marlon Mack

It was a tale of 2 seasons for Jonathan Taylor as a rookie last year.

Over his first 10 games, he averaged 13.5 carries for 51.8 yards -- just 3.8 yards per carry. Taylor ranked 55th among 60 qualifying RBs in Pro Football Focus’ Elusive Rating during that stretch. And he sat 16th at his position in PPR points; 17th in non-PPR.

But over his final 6 games (including playoffs), Taylor ripped off 121.5 rushing yards on 19.7 carries. That’s a big 6.2 yards per carry. Taylor ranked 8th among 51 qualifiers in Elusive Rating. And his scoring averages would have ranked 3rd in PPR and 2nd in non-PPR over the course of the season.

So which Taylor will we get in 2021? We’re betting it’ll be much closer to the guy we saw late last year. Remember that Taylor averaged 2,058 rushing yards per season at Wisconsin -- an NCAA record. He’s a 226-pounder with sub-4.4 speed and 90th percentile athleticism. He looked like an elite rushing prospect coming out.

The question is how big a role Taylor will play in the passing game. Even over that big 6-game stretch to close last season, he averaged just 2.7 targets and 2 catches per game. Nyheim Hines remained the Colts’ lead pass-catching back, averaging 4 targets and 3.3 catches over those 6 contests.

Hines is excellent in that role -- he led all 41 qualifying RBs in Pro Football Focus receiving grades last year -- so expect him to continue soaking up significant target volume.

The Colts’ division of passing-down snaps got a bit more important with the injury to QB Carson Wentz. We still don’t have a great idea of when he’ll be back. But with QB Jacob Eason the likely replacement, the Colts might spend a bunch more time playing from behind than we thought they would. That’d mean more snaps for the passing-down back.

As talented as he is, Taylor’s target-volume question makes him a fade at his 1.06 PPR ADP. He’s fine as a mid-to-late 1st-rounder in non-PPR.

Hines is checking in at RB42 in PPR ADP -- 1 spot below where he sits in our rankings.

Marlon Mack has reportedly made a nice recovery from last September’s torn Achilles -- although he admitted recently that he still doesn’t feel like he’s back to 100%. He’s unlikely to be more than a Taylor handcuff this year.


Jacksonville Jaguars

Top fantasy target: Travis Etienne

Others in the mix: James Robinson and Carlos Hyde

The Jaguars’ plan for Travis Etienne was 1 of the big storylines of the spring.

Shortly after the draft, HC Urban Meyer called Etienne a “a third-down back” and “a matchup issue for the defense,” while calling Carlos Hyde and James Robinson the “1-2, downhill, powerful running backs.”

Meyer later mentioned Percy Harvin, Parris Campbell and Curtis Samuel -- 3 guys he coached in college, and 3 NFL WRs -- when discussing Etienne’s role. Etienne then practiced exclusively at WR during rookie minicamp.

What’s it all mean? Probably not much. It seems to us that the Jaguars know what Etienne is as a runner but want to expand his capabilities in the passing game.

When you boil it down, this new Jaguars regime just spent a 1st-round pick on Etienne -- a 4-year producer at Clemson who registered a 4.45-second 40 time and 91st percentile Relative Athletic Score at 5’10 and 215 pounds. It’d be a surprise if he didn’t play a big role this season.

Robinson, of course, was arguably the biggest surprise in football last year, going from undrafted free agent to top 8 fantasy RB. He was largely a product of volume, though, finishing top 11 in snaps, carries and targets. He was just average in most efficiency metrics, ranking 33rd in avoided tackles per attempt, 12th in yards after contact per attempt, 16th in Pro Football Focus rushing grade and 26th in Football Outsiders DVOA among 47 qualifiers. And this new coaching staff has no ties to him.

Hyde inked a 2-year, $4.5 million deal with Jacksonville in free agency. He reunites with Meyer, who coached Hyde for 2 years at Ohio State. Hyde dealt with shoulder, hamstring and toe injuries last year, was below-average in most advanced metrics and turns 31 in September. He’s likely an insurance policy for the Jags.

We’ll be keeping a close eye on Jacksonville’s backfield usage in preseason action. But for now, we’re projecting Etienne to edge Robinson in carries but dominate the RB targets. The rookie sits 21st in our PPR rankings -- a few spots ahead of ADP. Robinson, meanwhile, is ranked a few spots below ADP at PPR RB36.


Kansas City Chiefs

Top fantasy target: Clyde Edwards-Helaire

Others in the mix: Darrel Williams and Jerick McKinnon

We saw Clyde Edwards-Helaire in a workhorse role early last season. And he performed well.

Over the first 6 games, CEH averaged 17.8 carries for 84 yards -- a hefty 4.7 yards per carry. He also turned 5.2 targets per game into 3.5 catches and 29.5 yards. Despite scoring just once during that stretch, Edwards-Helaire was sitting 11th among RBs in PPR points and 12th in non-PPR.

Then the Chiefs added RB Le’Veon Bell -- and Edwards-Helaire’s volume cratered. Over his final 9 games, the then-rookie averaged just 9.9 carries and 3.1 targets. His scoring averages across those games would have ranked 33rd in both PPR and non-PPR.

The good news for CEH is that the Chiefs did not bring back Bell for 2021 and made no significant additions to the backfield. So Edwards-Helaire has every opportunity to re-capture that feature role.

And if he does, he’ll have a great shot at RB1 production. He’s playing in a Patrick Mahomes-led offense that’s finished top 6 in yards and points in 3 straight seasons. HC Andy Reid has produced a top 16 PPR RB in 16 of 22 seasons, including 10 top-10 finishes. And the Chiefs bolstered their offensive line this offseason, most notably adding OT Orlando Brown and G Joe Thuney.

Two areas in which Edwards-Helaire must improve:

  1. Pass protection - He ranked 31st among 37 qualifying RBs in Pro Football Focus pass-blocking grade.
  2. Near the goal line - He scored on just 1 of 9 carries inside the opponent’s 5-yard line. That 11.1% conversion rate ranked 47th among 48 RBs with 5+ chances inside the 5.

If Edwards-Helaire stumbles or misses time, Darrel Williams would likely be next in line. With 3 seasons of experience in the Chiefs offense, he seems to have the trust of the coaching staff. He came up big in last year’s Divisional Round and AFC Championship games, totaling 26 carries for 130 yards and a TD and catching all 5 targets for 25 yards.

Jerick McKinnon inked a cheap, 1-year deal with Kansas City in free agency. After missing all of 2018 and 2019 with knee trouble, he played 16 games for the 49ers last year. McKinnon averaged just 3.9 yards on 81 carries but caught 33 of 46 targets for 253 yards. He ranked 8th among 37 qualifying RBs in Pro Football Focus’ receiving grades.

“He’s a talented receiver,” HC Andy Reid said of McKinnon. “He brings great experience, but he sure has a knack for the pass game. He does a nice job with that.”

We’ll see if McKinnon can carve out a passing-down role in Kansas City, but he’s not worth drafting at this point. Williams is the preferred handcuff to Edwards-Helaire.


Las Vegas Raiders

Top fantasy target: Josh Jacobs

Others in the mix: Kenyan Drake and Jalen Richard

It’s become clear that Vegas views Josh Jacobs as more of an early-down grinder than 3-down, feature back. He’s ranked 4th league-wide in carries per game in each of the past 2 seasons. But he’s finished 46th and then 30th among RBs in targets per game.

The usage has been enough to make him a top 16 RB in PPR points per game both years; top 12 in non-PPR. But there are a couple of reasons to believe he won’t reach those heights in 2021.

For starters, the Raiders’ offensive line looks shaky after losing C Rodney Hudson and G Gabe Jackson this offseason. Expected replacements C Andre James and G Richie Incognito project as downgrades.

Then there’s the arrival of RB Kenyan Drake, who got a surprisingly lucrative 2-year, $11 million deal in free agency. It makes him the league’s 13th-highest-paid RB in terms of average annual salary.

The talk since Drake signed has been about his pass-catching ability. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport said that he’ll “figure prominently in the passing game.” And Drake himself said that HC Jon Gruden will use him “in a multitude of ways, playing receiver, playing running back.”

So, at minimum, look for Drake to soak up the majority of the 50 targets that Jalen Richard, Devontae Booker and Theo Riddick combined for last year -- maybe more. How much action he sees on the ground will determine whether he’s a standalone fantasy option or just a Jacobs handcuff.

That will also determine whether Jacobs is under or overvalued at his current RB20 PPR ADP. He sits 22nd in our PPR RB rankings.


Los Angeles Chargers

Top fantasy target: Austin Ekeler

Others in the mix: Justin Jackson, Joshua Kelley and Larry Rountree

Ekeler was awesome when healthy last year. He missed most or all of 8 games with a hamstring injury and then a concussion. In the other 8, he averaged 13.4 carries for 62.5 yards, plus 7.1 targets, 5.9 catches and 46 yards. His scoring averages in those games would have ranked 7th among RBs in PPR and 15th in non-PPR.

That came under a different coaching staff than Ekeler will play for this season. But that change might be good news for his fantasy production. New OC Joe Lombardi spent 12 years in New Orleans working under HC Sean Payton. The Saints were regularly among the league leaders in targets to RBs during that time. Alvin Kamara, of course, has been a fantasy stud -- thanks largely to his average of 102 targets and 82 catches per season over the last 4 seasons.

Lombardi “envisions using [Ekeler] in similar ways as Alvin Kamara was utilized when Lombardi was with the Saints,” NFL Network’s James Palmer confirmed earlier this offseason.

Ekeler should also get a boost from an improved offensive line after the Chargers added free-agent C Corey Linsley, free-agent G/OT Matt Feiler and 1st-round rookie OT Rashawn Slater this offseason. Linsley notably led all 32 qualifying Cs in Pro Football Focus’ 2020 run-blocking grades.

We love Ekeler anywhere in the back-half of Round 1 in PPR drafts. He often makes it into the early 2nd. He checks in at RB13 in our non-PPR rankings.

There’s a battle for touches behind Ekeler between Justin Jackson, Joshua Kelley and rookie Larry Rountree.

Jackson easily out-performed Kelley last year, ranking top 10 among RBs in both Pro Football Focus Elusive Rating and yards per route run. But he missed 6 games with injury and was a healthy scratch for another. Durability has been an on-going problem for Jackson, who has now played in just 29 of 48 games over the past 3 seasons.

Kelley’s 2020 rookie campaign was ugly. Among 47 RBs with 100+ carries, he ranked 47th in yards per carry, 46th in Elusive Rating, 45th in Pro Football Focus’ rushing grades and 47th in Football Outsiders’ DVOA. He was better in the passing game (15th among RBs in PFF receiving grade) and was a 4th-round pick just a year ago, so he might still be the favorite for the #2 RB job.

Rountree was a 6th-round pick this spring, is already 23 years old and tested as a 21st percentile at his Pro Day. Not very exciting.

It’s worth noting that in Ekeler’s 8 healthy outings last year, other Chargers RBs averaged just 8 carries and 3.1 targets per game. So we’re not expecting the #2 RB to be a reliable fantasy option without another Ekeler injury.


Miami Dolphins

Top fantasy target: Myles Gaskin

Others in the mix: Malcolm Brown, Salvon Ahmed and Gerrid Doaks

Gaskin was Miami’s clear lead back when healthy last year. From Week 1 to 8, he averaged 14.3 carries and 5 targets per game while playing at least 63% of the offensive snaps in all of them. Gaskin missed 6 of the final 9 games -- first with a knee injury and then with COVID. But in the other 3, he still averaged 14 carries and 4 targets.

In total, Gaskin ranked 14th among RBs in carries per game and 8th in targets per game. The result was a 12th-place finish in PPR points per game; 13th in non-PPR.

Now, Gaskin didn’t exactly light it up in the efficiency department. He averaged 4.1 yards per carry and ranked 27th in Elusive Rating among 47 qualifying backs. He was much better in the passing game, posting an 87% catch rate and 9.5 yards per catch. He ranked 3rd in yards per route run among 37 qualifiers.

The offseason was a big win for Gaskin. The only additions to the Dolphins backfield were free-agent Malcolm Brown on a 1-year, $1.75 million deal and 7th-round rookie Gerrid Doaks.

Brown is a league-average talent at best, sporting a career 4.0 yards-per-carry average. He did lead Rams RBs with 23 catches last year -- but Gaskin easily beat him in yards per route run and Pro Football Focus receiving grade.

Doaks is a 228-pounder with an 83rd percentile Relative Athletic Score. But he totaled just 1,712 rushing yards across 3 seasons at Cincinnati, is already 23 years old and was a 7th-round pick. He’s a long shot.

Salvon Ahmed returns after flashing a few times in place of Gaskin last year. But he never topped 9 touches in any of Gaskin’s 10 healthy games.

The Dolphins’ offensive line remains a concern. And the team has new co-offensive coordinators in George Godsey and Eric Studesville. So there are some lingering questions here. But Gaskin has a chance to be 1 of the cheaper clear lead backs in fantasy drafts. His ADP is sitting in Round 5.


New England Patriots

Top fantasy target: James White in PPR, Damien Harris in non-PPR

Others in the mix: Sony Michel, Rhamondre Stevenson and J.J. Taylor

The battle for the starting QB job in New England will have a big impact on the fantasy viability of this backfield.

Cam Newton crushed Patriots RBs last year. He averaged 9.1 carries across his 15 games -- or 29.3% of the team’s total rushing attempts. More notably, Newton hogged 73.1% of New England’s carries inside the 5-yard line. He scored 9 TDs in that range, while all Patriots RBs combined for just 4.

Newton also hurt the RB target count. The Pats went super run-heavy, ranking 31st in both pass rate and pass attempts. The RBs combined for a 25.7% target share -- well above league average. But that still resulted in a relatively modest 113 targets. By comparison, Patriots RBs totaled 148, 155 and 164 targets under QB Tom Brady the previous 3 seasons.

So if Newton remains under center for all or part of 2021, the fantasy production in the backfield will suffer.

It’ll be a different story if and when QB Mac Jones takes over. The rookie is a traditional pocket passer. He’d steal hardly any carries. And New England would also likely throw it at a higher rate under Jones. That’d make Damien Harris and James White, in particular, stronger fantasy options.

Harris is the clear favorite to be New England’s lead ball-carrier this year. He averaged a big 5.0 yards on 137 attempts last season, finishing 3rd in Pro Football Focus rushing grades among 47 RBs with 100+ carries. Harris will need to fend off Sony Michel and Rhamondre Stevenson for that role. But Michel continued to struggle with injuries last year and has been mentioned as a potential cut this summer. And Stevenson is a 4th-round rookie.

ESPN’s Mike Reiss called Harris the “surefire #1 option” in the backfield in July. The issue is that he doesn’t project for much in the passing game. Harris totaled 5 catches on 7 targets in 10 games last year.

White is locked in as New England’s pass-catching back. While Newton hurt his raw numbers last year, White remained plenty effective, ranking 2nd in yards per route run and 3rd in Pro Football Focus receiving grade among 28 RBs with 40+ targets. He averaged 94 targets and 69 catches per season over the previous 4 years. His PPR finishes those seasons: 26th, 38th, 7th and 19th. With an ADP outside the top 50 RBs, White could be a big value if he gets Jones at QB for most of the season.


New York Jets

Top fantasy target: Michael Carter

Others in the mix: Tevin Coleman, La’Mical Perine, Ty Johnson and Josh Adams

Michael Carter has been a buzzy player in fantasy circles. And there are reasons to be optimistic.

The North Carolina product averaged a gaudy 6.6 yards per carry over 4 college seasons, including 8.8 on 156 totes last year. He was also busy and effective as a receiver, snaring 71 balls for 556 yards (7.8 YPC) across the last 3 years. In 2020, Carter beat 1st-rounders Najee Harris and Travis Etienne in missed tackles forced per attempt, yards after contact per attempt and Pro Football Focus rushing grade. He ranked 2nd -- behind only Etienne -- in PFF receiving grade among 14 of this year’s top RB prospects.

And it’s not like Carter faces stiff competition in the Jets backfield. Tevin Coleman arrived via free agency but got just $400,000 guaranteed on his 1-year deal. The 28-year-old mustered only 28 carries for 53 yards in an injury-wrecked 2020 season. The rest of the depth chart is a bunch of holdovers from the previous regime: La’Mical Perine, Ty Johnson and Josh Adams.

The arguments against Carter? He was a 4th-round pick in what was considered a weak RB class, so the NFL clearly wasn’t as high on him as some fantasy folks. He’s a bit undersized at 5’8, 201 pounds. And most Jets insiders expect this to be a committee backfield. New OC Mike LaFleur comes from the Kyle Shanahan coaching tree, which tends to use multiple RBs.

So while we do expect Carter to lead this group in touches this season, we currently project him for a modest 10.4 carries and 2.7 targets per game. There’s upside beyond that, of course. And Carter is fairly priced at his 7th-round ADP.

Coleman looks like the next best bet for touches thanks to his NFL experience and familiarity with that Kyle Shanahan-style offense. Perine, Johnson and Adams are likely battling for 1 or 2 roster spots.


Pittsburgh Steelers

Top fantasy target: Najee Harris

Others in the mix: Anthony McFarland, Benny Snell, Kalen Ballage and Jaylen Samuels

There’s not much mystery as to what Pittsburgh’s backfield will look like this year. The Steelers spent the 24th overall pick of this spring’s draft on Najee Harris and have talked up his 3-down skill set ever since.

“He’s a three-down back that played in an NFL system,” GM Kevin Colbert said right after drafting Harris. “His one hidden trait is that he finds invisible yards at that second level. There are times when you think he should be going down and he finds 6, 7, 8 yards. It is really exciting to get a three-down back and add him to the team.”

Harris spent some time lining up at WR at rookie minicamp and impressed QB Ben Roethlisberger with how quickly he settled into the offense. At 230 pounds with 70 receptions over his final 2 college seasons, Harris certainly profiles as a high-volume back.

His competition for backfield snaps and touches is weak. And HC Mike Tomlin has a long history of favoring a workhorse back -- from Willie Parker to Rashard Mendenhall to Le’Veon Bell. In fact, Bell averaged 18.8 carries and 5.1 targets per game as a 2nd-round rookie back in 2013, which is well within Harris’ 2021 range of outcomes. We currently have him projected for 17.2 carries and 3.9 targets per game.

The concern is Pittsburgh’s offensive line. They lost 4 veteran starters (Alejandro Villanueva, Matt Feiler, David DeCastro and Maurkice Pouncey) this offseason. Chuks Okorafor is the only returning starter -- and he’s transitioning from RT to LT. The Steelers’ offensive line wasn’t good last year, ranking 31st in Pro Football Focus’ run-blocking grades and dead last in Football Outsiders’ Adjusted Line Yards. But we’re not expecting this 2021 version to be tangibly better. It might be worse.

Volume trumps all else in fantasy football, though. So Harris still looks like a potential RB1. He’s a nice pick in the back half of the 2nd round.

None of Pittsburgh’s other RBs are worth drafting. A Harris injury would likely mean a committee attack behind that shaky offensive line.


Tennessee Titans

Top fantasy target: Derrick Henry

Others in the mix: Darrynton Evans and Brian Hill

You know the deal here. It’s the Derrick Henry Show.

Henry’s 2,027 rushing yards last season were the 5th most in NFL history and 470 more than any other player tallied in 2020. He also led the league with 378 carries and 17 rushing scores. That followed a 303-1,540-16 rushing line in 2019. Henry ranks 1st in total carries, rushing yards and rushing TDs over the past 2 seasons.

Now, his passing-game usage has remained disappointing. He caught 18 of 24 targets in 2019 and 19 of 31 targets last year. At this point, there’s no reason to believe his role in that facet of the game will grow significantly.

Of course, it doesn’t need to if the rushing production remains elite. Henry ranked 5th among RBs in PPR points in 2019 and 3rd last year; 2nd and 1st in non-PPR.

The Titans added WR Julio Jones this offseason and have a new OC in former TEs coach Todd Downing. But we’re expecting this to remain a run-leaning offense centered on Henry. He’s still only 27.

Henry’s massive share of the RB work doesn’t leave much for the other guys. Tennessee’s other RBs have combined for 150 carries and 55 targets over the last 2 seasons.

Evans, last year’s 3rd-rounder, has created some buzz this offseason for his work in the passing game. But his best-case scenario looks something like Dion Lewis’ 2019 in Tennessee: 54 carries and 32 targets.

If Henry misses time -- and he’s missed just 2 games through 5 NFL seasons -- we’d likely get a committee attack with Evans and 219-pound Brian Hill. Neither guy is an exciting fantasy pick.


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