2021 Fantasy Football RB Tiers: Christian McCaffrey stands alone

With tier-based drafting becoming more popular, here is a look at the RBs in fantasy football and how they group together in 2021.

Missing out on an entire section of talented players can leave you scrambling during your fantasy football draft and leave you playing catch up to the rest of your league. To help you navigate your upcoming drafts, we’ll take a look at which RBs to target in your upcoming fantasy football drafts using a tier-based approach.

Why use RB “tiers” rather than rankings for fantasy football?

We would all love to live in a perfect world where we take our top-ranked player at every selection, but that’s just not realistic during the draft. Name recognition plays a massive role in how we perceive talent and upside. But odds are, they are not the only player with a similar fantasy outlook.

If you knew four players were projected to finish with identical fantasy seasons but were going nearly a round apart in ADP, you would always choose the latter player who is the better value. That is what tier-based drafting is all about — looking for players at a value. In this case, we are looking at RBs and using tiers to find the better pick in fantasy football drafts at their given value.

Each position has a different point where there’s a considerable drop-off in talent and opportunity. This is especially the case for running backs — fewer and fewer teams have a “three-down back” approach. Most teams instead have elected to run a committee approach.

It also depends on the role of the player. Are they a first-and-second-down back, or is their role in the receiving game? 

As with any draft strategy, it is essential to remain fluid and not get stuck on targeting a specific name but target a range of players within a range of outcomes. This is where tier-based drafting, especially for RBs, becomes a valuable approach.

2021 Fantasy Football RB Tiers 

Which RBs belong in the elite tier of fantasy football?

Tier 1: Christian McCaffrey

When on the field, Christian McCaffrey is in a league of his own for fantasy production at the RB position. If you were told that McCaffrey would play in every game, you would be shocked if he was not the RB1. 

In 2019, he outscored the RB2 (Aaron Jones) by over 150 points and became the third player ever to record a 1,000 yards rushing and receiving in a single season. The injuries last year do not scare me. Even in his three games, McCaffrey averaged 30.1 PPR points. If Mike Davis can be an RB1 in this Matt Rhule/Joe Brady system, imagine what McCaffrey will pull off in 2021.

Tier 2: Dalvin Cook and Derrick Henry

While considered “injury-prone,” Dalvin Cook has missed just four games over the last two seasons. He has racked up 3,572 total yards and 30 touchdowns, finishing as the RB6 and RB2, respectively, in PPR formats during that time. The crazy thing is, he can be better. Despite recording 97 receptions and 880 yards receiving, Cook has only 1 receiving touchdown.

In a league full of freakishly athletic humans, Derrick Henry is built different. Over the last two seasons, he’s averaged 340 rushes for 1,783 yards and 16 rushing TDs. At some point, the volume will catch up to Henry. But until that day comes, he is one of those must-draft players in fantasy football.

Tier 3: Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott

Tier 3 of RB rankings is almost a continuation of Tier 2, as they could be easily combined for simplicity.

Alvin Kamara is one of the most talented running backs in the NFL. However, there are legitimate concerns about his role on the New Orleans Saints this season. We don’t yet know who the starting QB will be between Jameis Winston and Taysom Hill. However, the Saints will use Kamara regardless of who is under center. Therefore, he is still worth a top-five selection in 2021 fantasy football drafts.

Saquon Barkley dominated his rookie season for over 2,000 total yards and 15 touchdowns. He missed three games in 2019 but still cranked out an RB10 performance. In 71% of his games, Barkley has scored 16+ PPR points, which is the kind of floor that’s hard to find. He is coming off an ACL tear, and there are questions about when he will be ready. Nevertheless, when on the field, Barkley is a Tier 2 RB who can single-handedly win weeks.

Even when the rest of the Dallas Cowboys’ offense was falling apart, Ezekiel Elliott recorded his fifth-straight RB1 performance. Is there a reason why he is no longer being considered one of the elite RBs in the NFL? All he has done is finish as the RB2, RB12, RB5, RB3, and RB9, respectively, while averaging 1,276 rushing yards, 391 receiving yards, and 11.2 total touchdowns.

In 2020, with Dak Prescott in the lineup (Weeks 1-5), Elliott was the RB3 (22.3 ppg). He averaged 107 total yards and a touchdown on 24.4 opportunities per game during that time. The Cowboys could be the top-scoring team in the NFL in 2021, with Elliott right in the middle of it. He remains in the elite tiers of fantasy RBs.

Tier 4: Jonathan Taylor, Nick Chubb, Austin Ekeler, and Aaron Jones

Jonathan Taylor was “my guy” as a rookie last season, and he showed everyone how special of an RB he can be. In Weeks 13-17, Taylor was the RB1 in fantasy with 130 points (651 rushing yards and 8 total touchdowns). He finished the season as the RB6 despite Indianapolis doing everything possible to use either Nyheim Hines or Jordan Wilkins. While we can not overlook his competition in these weeks, I cannot hold that against him either. If you are looking for an RB who will jump into the elite tier for 2022, Taylor might be the guy to do it.

Nick Chubb might be criminally low here in RB tiers for fantasy in 2021, and I fully get it. Since coming into the league in 2018, all he has done is put up ridiculous numbers. Amongst running backs who have played in 15 or more games since 2018, Chubb is third in yards (3,557), sixth in touchdowns (28), and fourth in yards per game (80.8). Even with Kareem Hunt on the roster, Chubb averaged 17.3 pts per game and 1.0 pts/opportunity. Hunt does diminish his ceiling, but Chubb remains a top-end RB for fantasy.

Aaron Jones’ RB tier ranking depends on who is under center; Ekeler returns from injury

For Aaron Jones to remain in this tier of RBs, he needs Aaron Rodgers to return. While Jones has been one of the most efficient rushers in the NFL, we have no idea what this offense will look like under Jordan Love. He has the upside to record his third-straight top-five season, but it all comes down to who is under center. Until something changes, I have to assume Rodgers is the starting QB and rank the players accordingly.

I’ve said this numerous times, but Austin Ekeler could be a league winner in 2021. He is the best second-round pick in fantasy. In 2019, Ekeler was the RB4 while averaging 19.3 opp/game and posted a career-high 1,550 total yards and 11 touchdowns.

Although a hamstring injury marred his 2020 season, Ekeler didn’t miss a beat when on the field. He was the RB6 in his first three games (19.9 ppg), and from Weeks 12 through 17, he was the RB6 again, averaging 17.2 ppg. His draft stock is starting to rise as more people catch on, but I believe he is in an RB tier higher than most are currently drafting him at.

Tier 5: Najee Harris, Cam Akers, Antonio Gibson, Joe Mixon

In my eyes, Najee Harris can do no wrong. I have loved him for several years at Alabama. And now, my favorite college prospect just so happens to land in a dream spot for fantasy with the Pittsburgh Steelers. While I have zero concerns with his talent, I have issues with the offensive line — which worsens by the day.

I don’t care if you are Jim Brown, Santa Clause, or the Easter Bunny — if someone like Myles Garrett is getting to you four yards behind the line of scrimmage, you’re going to have a bad time. Still, I believe Harris will prove he belongs in this tier of RBs and could approach 300 touches as a rookie.

Two second-year RBs are primed for big seasons in 2021

Once he broke through the Los Angeles Rams’ committee, Cam Akers ended 2020 on fire. Over the final five weeks (four games), Akers rushed 86 times for 340 yards and a touchdown. He also caught 8 passes on 11 targets for 96 yards. Akers was the RB23 (13.9 PPR) over this stretch, and the only fault was the lack of touchdowns.

If you include his two playoff games, Akers averaged 24.3 opportunities per game (0.67 pts/opp) and 118 total yards after becoming the lead back. While he won’t see this level of volume again, 18 opportunities per game is well within reason on what should be a more explosive offense with Matthew Stafford at the helm.

Enjoy the draft day value of Antonio Gibson while you can because it won’t be like this for long. Finishing as the RB13 in PPR formats (14.4 ppg), Gibson amassed 795 rushing yards (4.7 ypc), 247 receiving yards, and 11 touchdowns. That’s a touchdown on every 15.5 touches or 6.5% of his attempts.

After the bye week, Gibson went on a ridiculous run where he scored 7 touchdowns on 55 carries from Weeks 9-12. It goes without saying this is not sustainable. But it highlights Gibson’s knack for finding the end zone. As a converted receiver, he is only getting better as an RB. Thus, he should see more work in the passing game this season (44 targets in 2020). As one of the best fantasy RBs, Gibson could end up jumping two tiers by the time 2021 is over.

Can 2021 be the year for Mixon to put it all together?

Yes, I know. Here we go again on the Joe Mixon roller coaster. But can we at least consider what could happen if he stays healthy? In 2020, he averaged 24.1 opportunities per game and 16.6 ppg. In the three games without Giovani Bernard, Mixon saw 77% of the snaps and a wild 27.7 opp/game. Even in Week 6, when he was injured in the first half, he had 21.

Bernard is now gone, which frees up the long-elusive receiving work for Mixon we have all desired. Based on volume and talent, a top-five finish is in the range of outcomes. However, it’s more likely Mixon ends up as a Tier 4 RB in 2021.

Tier 6: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Chris Carson, D’Andre Swift, J.K. Dobbins
Tier 7:
David Montgomery, Miles Sanders, Myles Gaskin, Mike Davis, Kareem Hunt, Josh Jacobs
Tier 8:
Travis Etienne, Raheem Mostert, Javonte Williams, Melvin Gordon, Michael Carter, James Conner, Gus Edwards, Chase Edmonds, Damien Harris
Tier 9:
David Johnson, James Robinson, Ronald Jones, Tony Pollard, Zack Moss, Leonard Fournette, Jamaal Williams, Nyheim Hines, Trey Sermon

Want more fantasy football analysis and news?

Be sure to follow us on Twitter (@PFN365) to stay current with all things around the NFL and the upcoming 2021 fantasy football season. Also, continue to visit Pro Football Network for NFL news and in-depth analysis while also visiting our fantasy football section for more coverage.

Tommy Garrett is a writer for Pro Football Network covering the NFL and fantasy football and a member of the FSWA (Fantasy Sports Writers Association). You can read more of his work here and follow him at @TommygarrettPFN on Twitter.

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