Must-Have Running Backs (2021 Fantasy Football)

Every offseason, everyone compiles their own personal list of players that they intend to vehemently target when it comes time to draft in fantasy football leagues. Running backs are typically the consensus top picks in fantasy football drafts, and securing guys that can contribute in multiple phases of the game can pave the way to a fantasy championship.

With the events that have taken place thus far in the offseason, some running backs have emerged as high-value options. Ahead of what could unfold in the 2021 NFL Draft, these are a few must-have running backs for the 2021 season.

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Austin Ekeler (RB – LAC)
After a stellar showing in his rookie season, Justin Herbert has been labeled by some as a must-have quarterback in fantasy football moving forward. While Herbert has gotten his just due — and then some — the Chargers’ offensive weapons have gotten overlooked.

Besides Keenan Allen, who is perennially underrated, Austin Ekeler hasn’t gotten much attention this offseason. Ekeler finished 2020 as the RB29 despite missing six games due to an assortment of injuries, scoring 13.8 fantasy points per game in half-PPR formats. Before the hamstring and knee ailments Ekeler suffered in Week 4, he looked poised to be one of the top performers in fantasy football.

Luckily for Ekeler, he is fully recovered and should regain his role as the workhorse back for the Chargers. Plus, Los Angeles added Corey Linsley in free agency, showing their efforts to improve their run blocking after finishing as the 32nd-ranked team in run block win rate in 2020. With Ekeler’s consistent role as a pass-catcher (he has seen an impressive 14.7 percent of the Chargers’ targets in the past three seasons) unlikely to waver next season, he could finish as the RB5 or better if he can find the end zone more often.

J.K. Dobbins (RB – BAL)
In recent seasons, we all have been begging the Baltimore Ravens to surround Lamar Jackson with more prominent weapons in the passing game. Jackson could also benefit from a slight adjustment to the offensive scheme by Greg Roman to help aid the improvement of Baltimore’s aerial attack. However, those cries have seemingly gone unheard, as the Ravens haven’t added a true No. 1 wide receiver yet.

Even if Baltimore did add an elite wideout, their scheme won’t dramatically change under Roman. Provided that, J.K. Dobbins is set to have a breakout season for the Ravens in 2021. During his rookie year, Dobbins forced Baltimore to make Mark Ingram a healthy scratch for five weeks as he shared the backfield with Gus Edwards.

While Edwards earned himself a role in Baltimore’s run-heavy offense, Edwards ran only 78 routes in 2020 compared to the 191 Dobbins ran. The rookie was limited to only 134 rushing attempts in 2020, and he should see upward of 200-plus carries in 2021. If you factor in the system and assume an increased target share, Dobbins is positioned to exceed his current placement of RB16 in the Expert Consensus Rankings.

Kareem Hunt (RB – CLE)
Targeting a running back who is forced to split playing time can sometimes be a risky move in fantasy football. However, there aren’t many situations like the one in Cleveland. The Browns have two fantasy-viable running backs in Nick Chubb and Hunt. Chubb deserves to be one of the first running backs off of the board in drafts, while Hunt is being taken as an RB2 in most leagues.

Hunt proved that he could notch RB1 numbers in the four games that Chubb sat out during the 2020 season. From Weeks 5-8, while Chubb was out with an MCL sprain, Hunt compiled 49.5 fantasy points in half-PPR leagues (RB10 through that span). Even when Chubb was on the field for the Browns, Hunt was still an elite RB2 option in fantasy football.

Kevin Stefanski has shown that he’d prefer to utilize both Chubb and Hunt in Cleveland’s offense, with Hunt getting the majority of the passing work (Hunt saw a 10.9 percent target share compared to Chubb’s 5.1 percent target share in 2020). Aside from being a possible RB1 if Chubb sustains another injury during the 2021 season, Hunt has cemented himself as a perfect running back to target in the middle rounds as a top-tier RB2 or flex option in an offense that is predicated on involving their dynamic backfield duo.

Chase Edmonds (RB – ARI)
Throughout free agency, some running backs saw their roles slightly altered by certain signings. One running back who has actually seen his outlook trend upward — for the time being — is Arizona’s Chase Edmonds. In a surprising turn of events, Kenyan Drake signed with the Las Vegas Raiders, putting a dent into Josh Jacobs’ value in 2021.

While Jacobs could see fewer touches for the Raiders, Edmonds is now the lead back for the Cardinals. Of course, that could be subject to change if Arizona chooses to use one of their draft picks on one of the incoming rookie rushers. That said, the Cardinals traded their third-round pick to acquire Rodney Hudson (giving them fewer chances to draft a running back), and it’s highly improbable they take a running back with the 16th overall selection.

Edmonds flashed loads of potential in 2020, and he proved to be more effective in Arizona’s offense than Drake, who had over a third of his fantasy output come from rushing touchdowns. Despite an inconsistent role, Edmonds averaged 5.7 yards per touch in 2020, and as of this moment, he could be the starter for the Cardinals alongside Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins. Unless Arizona crushes everyone’s dreams of seeing Edmonds with an increased workload, Edmonds will drastically outproduce his spot at RB27 in the ECR.

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Whether you’re new to fantasy football or a seasoned pro, our Fantasy Football 101: Strategy Tips & Advice page is for you. You can get started with Starting Your Own Fantasy Football League or head to more advanced strategy – like What is the Right Amount of Risk to Absorb on Draft Day? – to learn more.

Skyler Carlin is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Skyler, check out his archive and follow him @skyler_carlin.