9 Running Backs Primed to Break Out in 2021
Workhorse running backs are few and far between in today’s NFL, and the obvious ones are pretty easy to peg. Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, and Ezekiel Elliot all accounted for at least 68% of their backfield’s touches in 2020 and figure to keep that sort of usage in 2021, with healthy seasons from Christian McCaffrey and/or Joe Mixon sure to swell the ranks of that elite-usage tier. Other backs like Jonathan Taylor, Aaron Jones, and Austin Ekeler are all but guaranteed to handle a majority of their respective teams’ running back touches, and that’s also why they’re all going in the first round of fantasy drafts.
What we’re doing here today is looking for candidates who could either come out of nowhere and earn that sort of usage or give us fantasy production in other, more niche ways like catching the ball out of the backfield or converting ample goal-line opportunities. First, we’ll take a look back at some running backs who fit the criteria of breaking out in 2020, and then, nine potential breakouts in the middle-to-late rounds for the summer of 2021.
A Look Back at 2020
An undrafted free agent rookie, injury beneficiaries, and a surprising receiver-turned-running back top the list of 2020 breakouts. Most of the players listed below were part of ambiguous backfields, and give us at least one criteria of what to look for in future candidates.
|Player||Team||2020 ADP (Position Rank)||Half-PPR PPG Finish|
|James Robinson||Jaguars||14.03 (RB56)||RB7|
|David Montgomery||Bears||6.08 (RB30)||RB8|
|Antonio Gibson||Football Team||7.12 (RB34)||RB17|
|D'Andre Swift||Lions||5.11 (RB27)||RB18|
|Mike Davis||Panthers||18.12 (RB87)||RB20|
|Ronald Jones||Buccaneers||8.03 (RB37)||RB23|
|Nyheim Hines||Colts||13.05 (RB52)||RB32|
- James Robinson was the clear 2020 running back breakout, but sadly, it was nearly impossible to predict as late as August of last summer. It took the release of Leonard Fournette and Devine Ozigbo landing on the IR for the undrafted Robinson to shine, but shine he did. He handled a whopping 77.9% of his backfield’s touches (third-highest mark of 2020) and proved why it is so important to keep up with player news, especially the closer it gets to the regular season.
- David Montgomery was already pegged for a majority workload ahead of his sophomore season but his touch share skyrocketed after Tarik Cohen tore his ACL in Week 3. There were a lot of Montgomery detractors due to Chicago’s easy schedule down the stretch, but his league-leading 88.5% backfield touch share is nearly unheard of in the modern NFL.
- Myles Gaskin and much of the rest of the list should be a breath of fresh air when trying to project what kind of player we can look towards to capitalize on in the upcoming season. Gaskin didn’t “luck out” with an injury ahead of him; he was simply in an ambiguous backfield and was coming out of drafts very, very cheaply (or freely).
- The bottom two running backs in the chart represent the validity of selecting specialists in fantasy football. It’s not always exciting, but selecting a grinder in Ronald Jones or a pass-catcher in Nyheim Hines has its perks when they outpace their average draft position by 15-20 positional spots.
2021 Breakout Candidates
Let’s apply some of the scenarios in which we could find some fantasy gold in the middle-to-late rounds of your upcoming —or ongoing— drafts. Some of the frameworks from above will of course be repeated in our coming season, and it’s also important to keep the most predictable running back stats in the back of our minds as well.
Raheem Mostert, 49ers
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