2021 Fantasy Football League Winners: Running Backs
As fantasy football becomes ever more popular, much discussion increasingly centers around statistical analysis of regression and outliers. Savvy fantasy football GMs should keep in mind that it’s difficult for any player to continually score at a higher rate above the mean, but they should also understand that a very specific set of variables can align for a player to have a true outlier season.
We should be cautious about outliers, but at the same time, we should embrace outliers or at least search for them. Strong rosters are built upon productive players who outscore those being drafted in the same range, and the ability to find players who can significantly outperform their ADPs can turn said rosters into championship teams. These potential league winners can be the difference between a team finishing with a middling 7-7 record and that same team taking home the trophy.
So who are some players who could be fantasy football league winners in 2021? I’ll share a couple of running backs currently being drafted outside of the top 10 who could end up producing as elite fantasy scorers at their position. These are players I’m generally willing to reach for above ADP to ensure that they end up on my rosters. You can also check out my league winners at quarterback, wide receiver, and tight end.
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2021 Fantasy Football League Winners
This year’s biggest post-hype sleeper might just be Clyde Edwards-Helaire. As a rookie, his ADP climbed into the mid-first round of drafts last year, and he ultimately disappointed fantasy GMs who selected him in the first round. Lack of volume and lack of efficiency each contributed to a lackluster performance, so the question is whether Edwards-Helaire can overcome these struggles in his sophomore season.
Workhorse running backs are optimal for fantasy football because we know that volume of touches is among the biggest factors in finding league winners at running back (or any position for that matter). Many know that Edwards-Helaire was a workhorse in his final college season at LSU in 2019, having logged 215 carries and 55 receptions en route to a national championship. However, it might shock some to know that prior to the arrival of Le’Veon Bell last year, Edwards-Helaire was in all senses a workhorse back.
From Weeks 1 through 6, the rookie played on 66 percent of the Chiefs’ offensive snaps, and only Joe Mixon, Ezekiel Elliott, and Derrick Henry saw more touches over that span. His per-game touches would’ve equated to 285 carries and 56 receptions over a 16-game season. And in PPR formats, Edwards-Helaire was the No. 11 fantasy running back for the first six weeks of the season. With Bell gone, it wouldn’t be far-fetched to expect a similar lead role for Edwards-Helaire in 2021 with only journeymen Darrel Williams and Jerick McKinnon vying for touches in a change-of-pace role behind him.
In addition to pure volume, passing volume matters for running backs’ fantasy success in PPR scoring. Some have speculated that Patrick Mahomes is so good at scrambling and buying time outside the pocket that he rarely targets his running backs with check-down passes. That’s true to some extent. In 2018, Mahomes’s first year as the starter and MVP season, the Chiefs’ running backs saw just 97 total targets, which ranked 25th in the NFL. Mahomes’s 9.2 average intended air yards (IAY) also ranked sixth-highest among quarterbacks that season.
But once defenses somewhat adjusted to Andy Reid’s high-flying passing attack that took the league by storm, Mahomes’s IAY dropped to 8.6 in 2019 and 8.5 in 2020, which ranked 13th and 14th among quarterbacks, respectively. Correspondingly, the Chiefs’ running backs saw higher target volume with 111 total running back targets in each of the last two seasons, which ranked 16th and 13th in the league, respectively.
From Weeks 1 through 6 last year, Edwards-Helaire averaged 3.5 receptions on 5.2 targets per game. Kansas City drafted him in part due to the pass-catching prowess he displayed at LSU, and the expectation from beat reporters is that he will continue to be heavily involved as a receiver in 2021. So far in camp, “the Chiefs have had Edwards-Helaire run more routes in the middle of the field” and expect him to “run more sophisticated routes this season”. The workload can be there in 2021 for Edwards-Helaire to be an elite fantasy running back, both on the ground as well as through the air. The only remaining obstacle is efficiency.
As a runner, Edwards-Helaire’s 4.5 yards per carry over the first six weeks was uninspiring. However, his 2.3 yards before contact per carry (YBC/Att) ranked 21st among running backs who saw 100 or more rushing attempts last year. Simply stated, the Chiefs’ offensive line, which suffered a litany of injuries, afforded little help to their runners. Still, Edwards-Helaire’s 2.1 yards after contact per carry (YAC/Att) was nothing spectacular, ranking just 23rd among running backs with 100 or more rushing attempts in 2020. Even so, it’s hardly distressing, as Jonathan Taylor and Cam Akers both logged the same 2.1 YAC/Att last year, and Antonio Gibson and D’Andre Swift each came in lower at 2.0 and 1.7 YAC/Att, respectively.
While Edwards-Helaire may never be a 2,000-yard phenom like Derrick Henry on the ground, help is on the way. After an injury-riddled 2020 season, the Chiefs have rebuilt their offensive line from the ground up. This offseason, Kansas City poured resources into upgrading their offensive line into a juggernaut. They signed left guard Joe Thuney in free agency, traded for Pro Bowl left tackle Orlando Brown, and drafted center Creed Humphrey in the second round. Right tackle Lucas Niang is back after opting out of the 2020 season, as is backup guard Laurent Duvernay-Tardif. For good measure, they even coaxed Kyle Long out of retirement for further depth.
Edwards-Helaire looks to have far better run-blocking in 2021, which bodes well for his rushing efficiency and touchdown upside. After all, he saw 19 red-zone carries in the first six games but scored just once despite the heavy usage. And as a receiver out of the backfield, Edwards-Helaire was already incredibly efficient. As a rookie, he ranked among the highest in forced missed tackles per reception, eighth in yards after the catch per reception (YAC/R), and fourth in yards per reception (Y/R) among running backs.
This segment turned out much longer than anticipated, so kudos if you made it this far. The bottom line is that Edwards-Helaire is projected to see a high volume of touches in 2021, both on the ground as well as through the air. The overhaul to Kansas City’s offensive line provides double-digit rushing touchdown upside, and Edwards-Helaire is already among the most efficient receiving backs in the NFL. Don’t hold his rookie year against him and miss out on a potentially elite sophomore season. Edwards-Helaire is among the league winners at running back, and best of all, he’s available in the second round this year.
There’s a lot of excitement in the fantasy football community surrounding a potential sophomore breakout for J.K. Dobbins. It’s understandable, as Dobbins was among the most efficient runners in the league even as a rookie. However, with Dobbins carrying a pricey third-round price tag, the sharp move is to pivot off him and draft teammate Gus Edwards instead in the double-digit rounds among the potential league winners at running back.
It’s true that the Ravens have been the most run-heavy offense in the league over the last two seasons, so there are certainly plenty of opportunities to go around for both Dobbins and Edwards in that offense. Baltimore also ranked first in red-zone rushing rate last year and second in 2019, so both could be efficient in scoring touchdowns as well. Still, that doesn’t explain the vast gap in ADP between Dobbins and Edwards.
The Ravens essentially phased Mark Ingram out of the offense starting after their Week 7 bye last season. From Week 8 onward, Dobbins and Edwards were both active in nine games together. Over that span, Dobbins played on 53 percent of offensive snaps and averaged 12.1 rushing attempts per game while Edwards played on 32 percent of offensive snaps and averaged 9.7 rushing attempts per game.
There was a fairly even division of red-zone work as well between the two Baltimore running backs. Dobbins saw 22 red-zone carries over the second half of 2020, and Edwards saw 23 red-zone carries. Those splits are hardly encouraging. Even assuming that Dobbins’s role will grow as a sophomore after a full season of experience, the Ravens are expected to continue using a committee approach at running back.
Dobbins was incredibly efficient as a runner in his rookie year. His 2.9 YAC/Att ranked second-best among running backs who saw 100 or more rushing attempts in 2020 behind only Ronald Jones. The problem is that Edwards was likewise an efficient runner. His 2.7 YAC/Att wasn’t far behind Dobbins’s rate, and Edwards’s YAC/Att ranked seventh among running backs who saw 100 or more rushing attempts.
In fact, the Ravens liked what they saw from Edwards enough to retain him on a two-year, $9 million contract extension this offseason. Dobbins should be the lead back, but expect Edwards to be heavily involved again in 2021, including on red-zone work. It might stun some to discover that from Weeks 8 through 16 last season, Dobbins was the no. 19 fantasy running back in PPR scoring whereas Edwards was right behind him as the no. 20 running back. In PPR points per game over that span, Dobbins was the no. 26 running back and Edwards the no. 35 running back.
Both Baltimore running backs have limited fantasy ceilings in PPR scoring with the Ravens’ running backs having seen the fewest targets in the league over the last two seasons. So why draft Dobbins as a back-end touchdown-dependent RB2 in the third round when you can get similar production from Edwards in the 10th round or later? Edwards is a far cheaper investment as a standalone flex option in addition to being among the potential league winners at running back if Dobbins were to miss time.
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