Although we’d all love for running back production to be as simple as “the best running backs always perform the best”, it can’t be that easy! Between offensive line, box counts, and opposing defense, there are a lot of factors that have been found to be more significant to running back production than the player himself. With that in mind, the best way to get the best bang for your buck is to target running backs who are guaranteed to receive a lot of touches. These players not only have high floors since their volume statistics will be boosted, but the upside associated with them is also much higher should their efficiency numbers also be strong. When in doubt, always build your teams around three-down running backs.
These seven players are likely to be given opportunities to contribute as three-down running backs. Between their skillset and little other competition on the roster, we should expect to receive a strong workload both as a runner and in the passing game. As such, they are the type of three-down running backs to build your roster around.
Advanced Statistics via Pro Football Focus
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7 Three-Down Running Backs to Build Around
Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
After receiving 403 touches in 2019 and signing a $64 million extension with the Panthers, it was pretty clear heading into 2020 that Christian McCaffrey was the premier three-down running back to target. Unfortunately, he only played in three games as he dealt with various injuries, yet the process behind the decision to select him with the first overall pick was sound. In the three games he played in, McCaffrey was on pace to receive even more touches (405) than he got in 2019, while his 30.1 fantasy points per game were definitively the top mark in the NFL.
The 25-year-old isn’t someone who creates a lot of yardage after contact, so with there being some concerns about Carolina’s offensive line, it’s unclear how efficient of a runner he’ll be. When you’re a candidate to lead the league in carries, though, that matters much less. Add in his prowess (92.4 PFF receiving grade, 1,005 receiving yards in 2019) as a receiver, and he’s a very easy choice with the first overall pick in 2021. In this case, simplicity is welcome!
Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
Remember when Dalvin Cook was considered injury-prone and never someone who could handle a major workload? Well, those concerns did not turn out to be valid! Over the past two seasons, Cook has averaged 337.5 carries+targets, providing tremendous value for those who maintained faith in him. This is precisely why you shouldn’t assume that just because a player has been hurt before, he will easily struggle with that in the past. Heck, Cook actually didn’t play in two games last season, and still managed to post such lofty numbers!
Last season (5 YPA) marked a career-high for Cook in terms of efficiency, so you wonder if that will regress. At the same time, Minnesota did attempt to improve their offensive line this offseason, and some of the boost in efficiency can be attributed to him improving as well; he earned a career-high 90.2 PFF rushing grade and averaged 3.33 yards after contact/attempt. There is nothing to suggest that the Vikings won’t continue to be at the top of the league in early-down rushing percentage, making Cook the definite RB2 after McCaffrey. Meanwhile, Alexander Mattison holds clear value as one of the premier handcuff running backs in the NFL. Sometimes, a coach’s old-school run-first mentality can play to our advantage!
Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
This selection isn’t as much of a “sure thing” as the first two, with Barkley working his way back from a torn ACL he suffered in Week 2 last season. However, all indications are that he’s on track to be ready to start the season, giving him clear upside based on the role he is likely to have.
When you select a running back with the second overall pick, you do so with the intent to rely on him often. That is exactly what the Giants did, giving Barkley 375 touches in 2018 and giving him a similar workload in 2019. Heck, in the one full game he played, he had 24 touches! While they may try to work him back slowly, the process for this will likely be escalated given that the front office is reported to be on the hot seat. They’re clearly trying to win in 2021, and they know that Barkley gives them the best chance of doing so. On a touch-for-touch basis, you can make the argument that the 24-year-old is the most talented running back in the NFL. You obviously will want to monitor his recovery from the injury, yet he’s someone who starting to hold a lot of value as the RB5 in terms of average draft position (ADP). Should it be reported that he’s on track for a proper workload in Week 1, I expect him to see his stock rise significantly.
Ezekiel Elliot, Dallas Cowboys
Speaking of running backs who were selected in the top five in the draft, Ezekiel Elliot is another case study for what early draft investment can do for a running back’s workload. Prior to last season, the Cowboys running back received over 300 carries in back-to-back seasons, in addition to 159 combined targets. While that workload was cut into in 2020, it is worth noting that playing behind in games due to the loss of quarterback Dak Prescott likely played a major role here.
Money talks, as they say, and Dallas has $90 million reasons to give Elliot a notable workload in 2021. The 26-year-old’s yards/attempt (4) was well below his career norms, as you’d expect considering that the entire offensive line dealt with injuries last season. With the unit, in addition to Prescott, back healthy, expect a major improvement in that regard. Some may be worried about completion with Tony Pollard on the roster, yet it was proven last season that both can co-exist at the same time, and Elliot’s targets are in a great position to increase with Prescott under center. Despite last year’s struggles, you can make a very strong case for him as the RB3 this season.
Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
“Wait, Joe Mixon is injury prone, so he can’t be on this list”. If you’re wondering this, see Dalvin Cook. The “injury-prone” label has shown to be tremendously overused, and for those that are willing to look past it, Joe Mixon is someone to target. He played a full season in 2019, yet with him only participating in six games last year, his stock has taken a hit going into 2019.
The strange part about this is that Mixon is in a better position than ever to be a three-down running back. There is little competition on the roster following the departure of Giovanni Bernard, and all indications are that Mixon will be leaned on heavily. In the six games he played in 2020, he averaged around 20 carries/game, so if the receiving production is going to be there, he’s in a position to “boom” this season. Simply based on points per game, he was a top-ten player when healthy last year, with the improved offensive line likely to do wonders for his efficiency. Please jump on the opportunity to secure a three-down running back who is being selected well outside the top 10 at his position.
Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers
If you haven’t caught on by now, early-round draft position correlates significantly with a high workload. Teams want to be able to “justify” selecting a running back with a high back, allowing them to be given the chance to thrive as a three-down running back. This year, Najee Harris appears the be the running back who will benefit from this.
With three straight seasons with a PFF grade of 88.1 or higher at Alabama, Harris cemented himself as a very complete prospect in college. Although he provides less after contact compared to the likes of Travis Etienne and Javonte Williams, he is the one that has proven to be most effective with a large role, significant for fantasy purposes. In a recent interview with NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport, general manager Kevin Colbert specifically labeled him as a three-down running back. Sometimes, it’s as simple as that. While there are concerns about Pittsburgh’s offensive line, the value Harris is going to provide from the number of touches he gets makes up for that. Given his immediate value and Pittsburgh’s history of giving running backs a strong trend, he’s not only someone to target in redraft leagues, but someone to covet to a great extent in dynasty formats. I’m really excited to see what he can do with the role he is going to be given.
Mike Davis, Atlanta Falcons
What if I told you that you could secure one of the top three-down running backs outside of the top-20 at his position? Would that intrigue you? If so, let me introduce you to Mike Davis.
Remember that Christian McCaffrey missed 13 games last season? Well, Davis ended up being the one to benefit from the new opportunity, finishing as the RB12 in Carolina despite not playing a significant role in the games that McCaffrey played in. He parlayed that into a two-year contract with the Falcons, and with little competition on the roster, it’s looking that Davis will once again be asked to assume a three-down role. We haven’t seen him prove to be capable of handling such a role, but, hey, volume wins above anything else! As long as head coach Arthur Smith sticks to having one featured three-down running back, there is a strong chance he’ll end up as one of the best values in fantasy football drafts. Consider him an optimal target should you not be able to solidify your running back corps earlier in the draft.
Since it is so difficult to project efficiency for running backs, looking at which players are most likely to be three-down running backs can give an edge when it comes to identifying ideal targets. All of these seven players are great values at their current ADPs, combining a high floor with a high ceiling. Players like Derrick Henry and Jonathan Taylor, for instance, likely won’t factor greatly into the passing game, while Nick Chubb, Josh Jacobs, David Montgomery, JK Dobbins, and D’Andre Swift are among the several players who will need to be very efficient to make up for fewer touches than the typical three-down back. It can be difficult to get into a coach’s head, but isn’t that the fun in all of this! Just remember, it is never a bad idea to draft a three-down running back!
For more great rankings and analysis, check out our full 2021 Fantasy Football Draft Kit.
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