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Which RBs will Fall from the Fantasy Top Ten in 2021?

By Joseph Hutchins | 7/26/21

For the past decade, I’ve been attempting to identify which top performers at the quarterback, running back, and wide receiver positions will fail to maintain their elite fantasy status moving forward. I’ve used a mix of look-back analysis, rudimentary statistical projection or “trendcasting,” and some good ol’ gut instinct to call these shots, which have been right enough to keep me coming back year after year. Or maybe that’s just what I tell myself to justify firing up the laptop and writing the same article every summer, which I thoroughly enjoy and which now seems to mark the unofficial start of football season in my mind. Here’s what I’m hoping YOU get out of it, even if the details are quickly forgotten: The top performers in 2021 won’t look very much like the top performers in 2020, which didn’t look very much like the top performers in 2019...and so on. That’s my thesis, it will never change, and I have 10 years’ worth of data to prove it.

Without further ado, here’s this year’s take on the most likely Top 10 dropouts for the coming NFL season.

Note: All rankings are based on FFToday’s Non-PPR league scoring.

  Top 10 Running Backs - 2019
Rank Player
1 Christian McCaffrey
2 Derrick Henry
3 Aaron Jones
4 Ezekiel Elliott
5 Dalvin Cook
6 Nick Chubb
7 Austin Ekeler
8 Mark Ingram
9 Chris Carson
10 Saquon Barkley
  Top 10 Running Backs - 2020
Rank Player
1 Derrick Henry
2 Alvin Kamara
3 Dalvin Cook
4 Jonathan Taylor
5 Aaron Jones
6 David Montgomery
7 Josh Jacobs
8 James Robinson
9 Nick Chubb
10 Kareem Hunt

Who Missed the Cut in 2020 (6/10): C. McCaffrey, E. Elliott, A. Ekeler, M. Ingram, C. Carson, & S. Barkley

It gets widely panned by fantasy “experts” and I’m not actually brave enough to execute it in my big money leagues, but I’m guessing those who spent first-rounders or beaucoup budget bucks on Christian McCaffrey and Saquon Barkley last year really wish they’d have just swallowed hard and run with the Zero RB strategy. There was no way of knowing the two studs would make a combined five appearances—high ankle sprain and shoulder injury for McCaffrey, ACL tear for Barkley—but you can pretty much take a catastrophic RB injury or two (or more) to the bank every year, with that what you will. For the record, I typically employ more of a One RB strategy and hope the one isn’t “that guy.”

Chris Carson maybe isn’t “that guy” because he’s not highly regarded enough for folks to miss dearly. He probably should be, though, after finishing up as RB14, RB9, and RB16 the last three years. 2020’s RB16 performance was pretty impressive, actually, considering Carson missed four full games and carried the ball half as many times as he had in 2019. The same can’t be said of Austin Ekeler, who toppled all the way to RB36 thanks to a balky hamstring. Undaunted, pundits are giddy about a 2021 collaboration with Justin Herbert, a revelation in his first season as LAC’s franchise flinger (GO DUCKS!!!).

The last two 2020 dropouts also missed some time and in Ezekiel Elliott’s case, that made all the difference. Zeke missed his Week 15 tilt and was a mere nine YARDS away from slipping past Kareem Hunt for that RB10 spot. Mark Ingram, on the other hand, missed six games but may as well have missed six more since he only averaged 4.3 FPts/G, plummeting all the way down to RB71.

Most Likely Candidates to Fall from the Top 10 This Year:

Josh Jacobs

Josh Jacobs, LV: I correctly pegged Jacobs as a Top 10 Riser last summer and he did not disappoint. At least, not me. His owners probably had a right to expect more production from the second-year back considering he tallied 306 touches, good for third overall at the position, yet finished as RB7. His fantasy bottom line was buoyed by increased TDs and slightly better production as a receiver, but his YPC average dropped almost a full yard, from 4.8 as a rookie to 3.9 as a sophomore. For perspective, Nick Chubb rushed for two more yards on 83 fewer carries.

Maybe that dip in per-carry production explains why the Raiders went out and nabbed Kenyan Drake in the offseason. It was a real head-scratcher to most, especially considering the high price tag. $11M over two years is a LOT of money to pay a backup running back, unless what Las Vegas has in store for the other Bama product is more of a 1B role to Jacobs’ 1A. Whatever the case, Drake’s presence is the primary reason I’m bearish on his teammate’s chances to reclaim Top 10 status in 2021.

The other reason is what Mike Mayock did to a once-great Vegas O line: he blew it up. On consecutive days in March, the Raiders traded away Trent Brown, Rodney Hudson, and Gabe Jackson, 60% of what had been considered the strength of the squad and one of the league’s best front fives. Though injuries ravaged that group last season—the starting core appeared together on just three PLAYS—it’s unknown how the younger, mostly unknown replacements will fare moving forward. Pro Football Focus, for one, ranks the unit as the 25th best in the league, and other publications are similarly skeptical. Jacobs is still valuable, but temper expectations.

James Robinson, JAX: Robinson doesn’t have a first-round pedigree like the guy we just talked about, but that didn’t keep him from exploding onto the fantasy scene last year to the tune of 1,414 total yards, 10 TDs, and an RB8 finish just one year after leading the mighty Redbirds of Illinois State to the FCS semis. The undrafted rook was the lone bright spot for an atrocious Jaguars squad and all new management did to reward him for that effort was load up on competition for his touches in 2021.

To be fair, Robinson didn’t have much of ANY competition for touches last season. Only Tennessee’s Derrick Henry commanded more of his team’s carries (72.6%) than Robinson (71.2%) and only Chicago’s meal ticket, David Montgomery, netted a larger share of his squad’s RB-specific carries (91.5% v. Robinson’s 85.4%). Put another way, Urban Meyer pretty much HAD to add some horses to the stable if the Jags were going to compete in today’s NFL. Carlos Hyde is the most immediate threat to steal touches and did serviceable work subbing for Chris Carson in Seattle last season. First-rounder Travis Etienne is the longer-term threat, though Meyer and the Jacksonville brass are shaping him to be a third-down back or, inexplicably, a receiver? Don’t ask.

The head man is actually another, gut-based reason I think Robinson could struggle to reproduce his stellar rookie year. The history of college coaches making a successful jump directly to head man in the pros since 2000 is pretty ugly (.480 winning percentage). Only three had winning records (Bill O’Brien, Chip Kelly, and Jim Harbaugh) and none of those three are still in the bigs. Could Meyer be another successful outlier? He’s taking over a 1-15 team, so consider me very dubious.

Kareem Hunt, CLE: Only 11 of last year’s top 50 running backs managed to play in all 16 games and of those 11, only 2 (Derrick Henry and Hunt) merited Top 10 status when the dust finally settled. That seems like an important data point as training camps start opening up in preparation for the league’s first 17-game season. Presumably, what is already pretty uncommon, RBs making it through the slate unscathed, will become downright rare in the coming years. Just ask Cam Akers, who didn’t even make it to training camp before succumbing to a season-ending injury.

Lucky for Cleveland, Hunt was Steady Eddie last season and a mostly fungible fill-in for Nick Chubb when the latter missed four games in the season’s first half. Though his YPC rate was a pedestrian 4.2, Hunt made up for it by excelling as a pass receiver. Despite serving in a mostly part-time role, he tallied 38 receptions on 51 targets and parlayed all that passing game attention into five receiving scores, tied with Alvin Kamara for most at the position. Those five receiving scores are likely the margin he needed to narrowly eke past Zeke, as previously mentioned, into the Top 10 club.

Hunt’s role in the passing game seems very secure (Chubb was targeted only 18 teams all season), but it would be foolish to assume he’ll gain market share in the Cleveland running game this season, especially if his more dynamic cohort stays healthy. Chubb’s 5.6 YPC average was second overall at the position (behind only J.K. Dobbins) and he was actually RB6 in FPts/G. Moreover, per his FFT player card, Chubb averaged a whopping 7.2 YPC in the second half of games. NFL coaches love closers and the Brownies have a great one.

Next: Wide Receivers

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