RB3s with RB1 Potential (2021 Fantasy Football)

 

The running back position looks to be extremely deep for the 2021 season, much like wide receiver looked a season ago. According to the early ECR, J.K. Dobbins sits at RB16, followed by Clyde Edwards-Helaire at RB17 and James Robinson at RB18 in half-PPR. Any one of those three could easily finish as a top-10 RB in 2021.

While the top-20 rushers offer a relatively stable floor with upside, there’s a significant drop-off afterward. The reason players are ranked as an RB3 or RB4 is because their role may be unclear or undefined. But there is hope for some of them ranked between RB25-RB36.

The common denominator for all three backs I highlight below is the real possibility they see a majority of their respective team’s work. Two have flashed potential, and one was a bell-cow back in a previous life. All three can exceed value compared to their current ECR.

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Leonard Fournette (TB): RB32 ECR
After the Jaguars released him last offseason, the Buccaneers swooped in and signed the former fourth overall pick to a one-year, $3.5 million “prove it” deal. Ronald Jones‘s fantasy managers were less than pleased.

Who was going to be Tampa Bay’s feature back? Would it be Fournette? Would it be Jones? Or would it be the ever-dreaded timeshare? The answer was unclear for most of the season, which frustrated fantasy managers trying to decide which running back (if either) would be fantasy relevant in a given week.

But then we saw the Bucs turn to “Playoff Lenny” down the stretch.

In the Divisional Round, Conference Championship, and Super Bowl, when both Fournette and Jones were active, Fournette shouldered the load out of Tampa Bay’s backfield. He averaged 20.7 opportunities (rushing attempts + targets) on 70% of the snaps in those games compared to just 12.3 opportunities on 30% of the snaps for Jones.

Many believe Jones wasn’t fully healthy, but I attribute the snap-count differential to Bruce Arians trusting Fournette more in key situations. His playoff performance led the Buccaneers to re-sign him to a one-year, $3.25 million deal.

Here we are again, another season with both Fournette and Jones manning the backfield in Tampa Bay. Yet this time, Fournette has already built a rapport with not only the coaching staff, but with Tom Brady.

When Jones made a mistake last season, whether it was missing a block, dropping a pass, or fumbling the ball, the coaches wouldn’t hesitate to pull him out of the game. Fournette, on the other hand, had a longer leash. It became evident who was going to get the valuable touches.

While it’s not an exact science, Fournette averaged 19.5 half-PPR points in the playoff games with both tailbacks active. That’s more than Aaron Jones (16.8), Nick Chubb (16.6), and James Robinson (16.1) averaged per game on the season. Jones will undoubtedly have his moments, but with the Buccaneers gunning to repeat as Super Bowl champions, expect them to lean heavily on Fournette once again.

Chase Edmonds (ARI): RB27 ECR
Kenyan Drake signed with the Raiders, so by default, Edmonds is currently the Arizona Cardinals’ starting running back. Of course, that could change with just one pick in the NFL Draft. However, the Cardinals haven’t signed a veteran to compete with or complement Edmonds.  All he has to do now is hope Arizona doesn’t draft a new featured back.

All offseason, Arizona brass has talked up Edmonds as a starting running back who is more than capable of handling a large workload.

“I think Chase having this opportunity is going to be huge for him,” Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said, per USA Today‘s Jess Root.

Based on what happened in Week 9 against the Dolphins last season, they might be willing to give him a huge workload in 2021. With Drake nursing an ankle injury, Edmonds played on 96% of the snaps. He had 25 rush attempts and three targets. It wasn’t the most efficient performance, as he ran for just 70 yards, but the workload was key.

With Drake gone, there are now 239 vacated rush attempts and 31 targets. Even if the Cardinals draft a running back in the early rounds, Edmonds will still see a workload uptick. He finished as the RB25 in PPR leagues last season with just 97 carries and 67 targets. If you figure he’s in line for at least 150 carries and 75 targets, he could sneak into the top-20, if not top-15 running backs next season.

Now imagine if the Cardinals don’t bring in any competition. Edmonds could find himself as a fringe-RB1 with 200+ carries in a featured role. And it’s not just because of sheer volume that he could emerge as a top fantasy back in 2021; recall his 97th percentile agility score, per Player Profiler. Edmonds is a legitimate talent with legitimate upside in 2021.

Harris was one of 12 running backs to average 5.0 yards per carry in 2020. He played just 10 games last season, but still managed to rack up 691 rushing yards. Project that out over a 16-game season, and we’re looking at over 1,100 rushing yards.

Just four running backs (Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, Jonathan Taylor, Aaron Jones) topped 1,100 rushing yards in 2020. A couple of others (James Robinson, Nick Chubb)would have gotten there if they played full a season, but it’s nevertheless an exclusive group. When healthy, the Patriots showed a willingness to hand the ball off to Harris.

Harris turned 21 red-zone carries into just two touchdowns last season (9.5%). Chubb scored 12 touchdowns on 37 red-zone carries (32.4%), Kenyan Drake turned 28 red-zone carries into nine touchdowns (32.1%). The takeaway here is two-fold. Harris had to contend with Cam Newton for goal-line carries. Newton had 12 rushing touchdowns last season to Harris’s two. In eight full seasons prior, Newtown averaged closer to seven rushing touchdowns per season, so he could be in for some negative touchdown regression, while Harris is sure to add a few more to his total in 2021.

I brought up Chubb to get an accurate comparison for Harris, who also doesn’t see much work in the passing game. Chubb received just 18 targets a season ago, but he still averaged 16.6 half-PPR points per game. While Harris averaged just 8.9 half-PPR points per game, he also had 10 fewer rushing touchdowns. If Harris positively regresses to a modest eight rushing touchdowns and has similar rushing yardage, he could be in line for close to 13 half-PPR points per game. Ezekiel Elliott averaged just over 13.0 half-PPR points per game in 2020.

Why should we expect Harris to all of a sudden hit eight touchdowns in 2021? If history tells us anything, Newton won’t rush for 12 touchdowns again. Second, this Patriots offense is primed to bounce back after a slew of free-agency moves this offseason. They brought in Jonnu Smith, Hunter Henry, Nelson Agholor, and Kendrick Bourne to rely less on their defense. More focus on other offensive weapons should open up more running lanes for Harris, who averaged 5.0 yards per carry on a bad offensive team.

Oh, and he’s also really good.

While his PPR appeal is limited, Harris has legitimate RB1 upside in non-PPR leagues. He could still become a mid-range RB2 in half-PPR leagues due to his rushing ability, projected volume, and a stellar offensive line.

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Adam Koffler is a featured writer at FantasyPros. For more from Adam, check out his archive and follow him @AdamKoffler