In fantasy football, there is a clear delineation in value between running backs who are and who are not involved in the passing game. With the majority of scoring formats incentivizing running backs with receiving abilities, they are some of the most valuable players in all of fantasy football. With the draft season quickly closing in, here are the top pass-catching running backs to target in fantasy football in 2021.
Why prioritize pass catchers when looking for fantasy running backs?
Before I get into the pass-catching running backs to target in fantasy, I should at least explain why I feel they are more valuable. We always say that targets are worth more than a rush. But without context, those are just words. Let’s put some numbers behind this to help paint a clearer picture.
In 2020, 72 running backs recorded at least 30 rushing attempts. Of those rushes, the average was 4.25 yards per rush or 0.4 fantasy points per rushing attempt. Those same 72 RBs then averaged 5.64 yards per target (0.56 pts) and a whopping 7.38 yards per reception. In PPR formats, that’s 1.73 fantasy points on a single snap. That is a 1.33 fantasy points per touch increase when it comes from a reception versus a rush.
Of the top 40 fantasy RBs in scoring in 2020, all but three had a minimum of 20 targets. Those were Nick Chubb (RB11 with 18 targets), Gus Edwards (RB38 with 13 targets), and Adrian Peterson (RB40 with 18 targets). Out of the top 24 running backs, only three had less than 20 receptions. Those were Chubb (16), Derrick Henry (RB3 with 19), and J.K. Dobbins (RB24 with 18).
Outside of arguably the best pure rushers in the NFL (Henry and Chubb), if you want an elite RB, you must chase targets when filling out your roster on draft day.
Top pass-catching running backs to target in fantasy football in 2021
These running backs are highly involved in the passing game, and therefore, are heavily targeted in PPR leagues.
Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
I have been on record saying that Austin Ekeler is arguably the best fantasy pick you can make in the middle of Round 2, and nothing has swayed my opinion. He has league-winning upside in 2021, especially in PPR formats.
Since 2019, Ekeler is second amongst running backs in targets (173) despite missing seven games in 2020. In 2019, Ekeler averaged 8.3 rushes per game for 34.8 yards and 0.2 TDs, along with 5.8 receptions (6.8 targets) for 62.1 yards. In 2020, he averaged 12.67 rushes, 57.5 yards, and 0.1 TDs per game, with 5.9 receptions (7.1 targets) for 44.5 yards.
Coming off his breakout 2019 season (RB4), Ekeler was the RB6 before his hamstring injury, averaging 19.9 ppg. Once he made his return in Week 12, Ekeler was again the RB6 through the end of the season, averaging 17.2 ppg.
Ekeler proved it was not a fluke, and the Chargers did nothing but improve in the offseason. Justin Herbert has only gotten better, and the offensive line saw substantial improvements with Corey Linsley, Matt Feiler, and first-round pick Rashawn Slater added.
Throw in Joe Lombardi, who comes from the Saints’ system, and Ekeler is primed to explode in 2021. He is — by far — one of the best receiving running backs to target in 2021 for fantasy.
Alvin Kamara, New Orleans Saints
Since 2017, no running back in the NFL has more targets, receptions, or yards than Alvin Kamara of the Saints. Kamara has amassed 326 receptions on 409 targets for 2,824 yards and 15 touchdowns in his four seasons. After three straight seasons of 81 receptions, Kamara ended 2020 with 83 to finally break the streak.
The elephant in the room, however, is the absence of Drew Brees. In their 52 games together, Kamara averaged 22.36 ppg on 10.7 rushes for 55.1 yards with 7 targets and 5.62 receptions for 49.6 receiving yards. In the eight games without him, he drops to 16.98 ppg because of a drop in passing volume to 5.5 targets, 4.38 receptions, and 30 yards per game.
We are well aware of the downside if Taysom Hill is the QB, but Jameis Winston will likely be the QB under center for 90% of the snaps. While not Brees (28%), Winston has shown the ability to target RBs but never over 18%. With that said, I do think Kamara regresses a bit. But given his incredible volume, that still places him in the upper echelon of fantasy running backs.
Kamara is one of the best running backs in the NFL and fantasy. You don’t need me to tell you that. I am telling you not to be afraid of drafting him when targeting pass-catching running backs in 2021 for fantasy.
Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
I’ll make this short and sweet. Christian McCaffrey is good at football. I know that you know that, and so does your dog.
In 2019, McCaffrey became the third player in NFL history to record 1,000 yards rushing and 1,000 yards receiving in a season. In his three games last season, McCaffrey averaged 30.1 ppg.
The conversation for the best running back in football begins and ends with McCaffrey. That goes for both the NFL and fantasy.
Tarik Cohen, Chicago Bears
Tarik Cohen is a forgotten name given the “what did you do for me recently?” nature of fantasy football. His missed 2020 season (torn ACL) has caused many to forget that from 2017-2019, Cohen was fourth in targets (266) and receptions (203) with 1,535 yards (fifth) and 9 TDs (seventh). In 2019, he was second on the Bears in targets (104) behind only Allen Robinson.
While some might be deterred given the end-of-season play of David Montgomery, I’m not. It was a perfect storm for Montgomery that led to facing the bottom-of-the-barrel defenses to end the season.
Cohen is one of the most dynamic players in the NFL and is not coming off the boards until the RB40 range. With value in mind, Cohen is one of the best values when targeting pass-catching fantasy running backs in 2021.
D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions
I refuse to believe the Detroit Lions are going to Lions and mess this up. D’Andre Swift is going to break out in 2021.
The Georgia Bulldog played in 13 games (four starts) and rushed 114 times for 521 yards and 8 touchdowns. Additionally, he caught 46 passes for 357 yards and 2 scores. Swift recorded double-digit fantasy points in 10 of his 13 games, including six above 15 PPR points.
One overlooked factor for Swift is the addition of Anthony Lynn (despite how awful he was at managing games). Since 2016, running backs in Lynn’s offense have averaged 28.3% of the team’s targets and never less than 24.1%. Just look at Ekeler for evidence of how this can affect someone’s fantasy value. Swift was arguably the best pass catcher in last year’s class and should thrive in this offense.
While I think the 20-touches-per-game narrative is hard to believe, 14 to 16 is very much in play, with 4 to 6 of those coming via the air every game. Despite the seemingly crowded backfield, the cream rises to the top. Swift is an excellent RB2 option in 2021 and one of the best pass-catching running backs to target in fantasy this season.
Aaron Jones, Green Bay Packers
I want to list Aaron Jones on this list, but the risk is evident. His value and ceiling are directly tied to Aaron Rodgers’ future and if he remains on the team. If Jordan Love runs this offense, it’s hard to imagine any fantasy player retaining their current value.
As a player alone, Jones is as good as they come. He is one of the most efficient rushers (5.5 ypc) and finished as the RB3 and RB5, respectively, in the past two years. A staple in the passing game of the offense, Jones has averaged 65 targets since 2019 and 414.5 receiving yards.
So long as Rodgers stays in Green Bay, Jones is a locked-in RB1. Without him, he comes in as a mid-RB2 but does have upside given his pass-catching ability, which could save his fantasy value in 2021.
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