2021 NFL Draft Rookie RB Landing Spots: Rounds 1-3 (Fantasy Football)
Draft capital for running backs is incredibly important in fantasy football, more so than any other position. Third-round running backs historically provide value for fantasy owners, but the hit rates are a lot lower than in earlier rounds. Second-round running backs are my personal favorite targets because they often go to teams that are in better positions to take a skill position player. Both Cam Akers and De’Andre Swift landed in great spots last year despite their second-round capital, and the same could be said for Javonte Williams and third-rounder Trey Sermon in 2021. The most polarizing of the picks will always be the guys taken in the first 32 spots, for obvious reasons. In case you missed my Twitter rants, I’ll remind everyone that first-round running backs drive me absolutely mad, from a real football perspective. But they are GREAT for fantasy. Taking a running back in round one all but guarantees a large workload for the player, and typically results in a very productive fantasy asset. The draft capital spent on someone in round one is significant enough to warrant a VERY big opportunity for whatever player a franchise selects. If they’re a quarterback, you typically see them on the field quickly. If they’re a receiver or tight end, you see heavy target volume. If they’re a running back…. you see a workload that should make your fantasy glands drool.
Time to ring Pavlov’s bell:
Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers
Round 1, Pick 24
The first running back off the board was also the consensus top player at his position. Long before the Steelers were on the clock, speculation was building that they would take Harris in an effort to replace James Conner who walked in free agency. At first glance, this looks like a slam dunk landing spot, and in a lot of ways, it is. The talent is clearly there, and the opportunity is excellent. Conner only accumulated 169 carries in 2020, but he was on and off the exercise bike all season long. He also added 35 receptions on 43 targets which put him in the middle of the pack in terms of overall usage. The Steelers have typically favored a one running back approach, so it’s safe to assume that last season was an anomaly for Conner and not due to a big change in the Steelers’ philosophy. Harris projects as a 250+ touch back which warrants low-end RB1 consideration in redraft leagues based on volume alone. He’s a solid pass catcher and fits the mold of a goal-line back in the modern NFL. All the workhorse boxes are checked, it’s just a matter of how high his upside will be in relation to his ADP.
When examining a landing spot like this it’s also important to consider the downsides. An efficient running game starts with the offensive line, moves through the scheme, and finally ends at the running back. A talented player can do more with less, but few players can do anything with nothing. Najee will need good protection and strong play-calling, both of which were in short supply last season for the Steelers. Ben was able to get the ball out at the second-best rate in the league, but their play-action tendencies left something to be desired. They finished the year with the 2nd worst run-blocking unit in the league per PFF, and the scheme will be a work in progress under new OC Matt Canada. I’m bullish on Harris as a reliable back from a volume standpoint, but I think his upside may be capped by a poor offensive situation and a lack of identity in the running game. Harris will have to catch a lot of passes and convert near the goal line to return value on an RB1 price tag in his first season. On the low end, I could see him producing similarly to CEH in 2020, with James Robinson-like output as his ceiling. Note: For more on Harris, here is a link to his 2021 Rookie Profile.
Projection: Low-End RB1 in redraft, top-3 dynasty rookie pick.
Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars
Round 1, Pick 25
This pick was a shocker for me. The Jags have a lot of holes on their roster, and running back was far from the top of the list. James Robinson performed very well in 2020 and was one of the surprise rookies in dynasty leagues. His financial cost to the franchise is minimal at this point, so the only real reason for this pick was Urban Meyer. Etienne was a teammate of Lawrence’s in college and it just so happens that both of them were a part of the undefeated Clemson team that beat Meyer’s Buckeyes one season after he stepped down. There must have been something really special in the game film for Meyer to spend this kind of capital on Etienne. At first glance, this was one of the more bizarre picks of the draft.
At second glance, that’s still the case. But – that doesn’t mean he can’t succeed. In fact, I think he will be a star. I’m going to go out on a limb here that may break later on, but it’s a chance I’m willing to take. I think Etienne will be the RB1 of this class when it’s all said and done. Despite a murkier backfield situation and a less attractive draft profile than Najee Harris, I think he ends up the top dog. Or should I say, top Jag? While Urban was at Ohio State, he oversaw the architecture of a scheme that completely dominated the Big Ten in every way, and his running backs were a huge reason why. The starting running back in his offense rushed for 1000 yards or more in every single season from 2013 until Meyer departed. In 2018 he nearly had two rushers eclipse the 1k mark, with Mike Weber just barely falling short. In Urban’s first year out of college football, his scheme continued under Ryan Day and helped produce a 2000 yard rusher in JK Dobbins. It was a truly elite offensive structure and it manufactured excellent production from the primary ball carrier in its backfield, year in and year out.
Enter Travis Etienne. An exceptionally explosive player who fits perfectly into the scheme Urban is likely to build in Jacksonville and a guy who has the high-level pass-catching ability. He’s everything that J.K. Dobbins was under Ryan Day, and he’s very similar to the Ezekiel Elliott that we saw dominate under Urban’s ever so watchful eye. You don’t draft a player like this in the first round unless you have a good use for him, and Meyer is one of the most meticulous planners in football history. He selected the back that fits what he wants to do, and he will have his college signal-caller right next to him while he does it. Lawrence and Etienne could very easily mirror Fields and Dobbins, who mirrored Haskins and Dobbins, who mirrored Barrett and Zeke, who mirrored Miller and Hyde. Sensing a pattern here at all? Urban wants athletic quarterbacks who make great decisions, standing in his backfield next to explosive, reception-focused running backs. Check, and Check.
Pass-catching running backs are king in fantasy football. Etienne is the best one in this class. He’s walking into a scheme built perfectly for him, next to a potentially generational quarterback that he knows better than anyone. This is going to be a fantasy dream. I will confidently trade Harris for Etienne plus, and won’t look back. I would take him straight up over Najee, and I will sign my receipt in writing here. Note: For more on Etienne, here is a link to his 2021 Rookie Profile.
Projection: Top Ten RB in Redraft, Top Two pick in Dynasty Rookie Drafts.
Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos
Round 2, Pick 3 (35th overall)
This is another slam dunk pick for fantasy purposes and the perfect example of why plenty of teams can still succeed by holding off until the second round to prioritize the running back position. Williams is a powerful runner who doesn’t shy away from contact, and he’s exactly what the Broncos need long term. Melvin Gordon is on the wrong side of 28, and Phillip Lindsay walked in free agency this offseason. Williams and Mike Boone will compete for the 1B spot in a run-heavy offense during camp this year, but I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see Williams emerge as the lead back if Gordon slips up since his draft capital is significant. Gordon has a lot to prove, but not a lot of time left to prove it. The only real downside of this landing spot is the Bronco offense as a whole. Drew Lock has to take the next step this year, but a lot of question marks remain. Denver ranked in the top half of the league in rush attempts but finished 23rd in the league in rushing touchdowns. Goal-line opportunities are created by productive offenses, and right now the Broncos are not one of them. Hopefully, Williams will have more opportunities to find the end zone over the course of his rookie contract, because his upside is very enticing. Note: For more on Williams, here is a link to his 2021 Rookie Profile.
Projection: RB3 with immediate Upside, Top-8 Pick in Dynasty Rookie Drafts.
Trey Sermon, San Francisco 49ers
Round 3, Pick 24 (88th overall)
It’s not often that I’m caught pleasantly by surprise during the draft, but this was one of those times. Sermon is an underrated back with a really strong burst through the line of scrimmage and solid vision and patience. The primary reason he fell into the third round was his lack of top-end speed and somewhat underwhelming production numbers in an offense that has churned out juggernauts from their backfield. It’s not that Sermon does anything poorly, it’s just that he didn’t come out of college with that one ‘special’ trait that coaches often look for. His draft spot made perfect sense, but his fantasy fit has more upside than people think. Tevin Coleman wasn’t an exceptional prospect, and Raheem Mostert came on to the scene from nowhere. Mostert’s elite speed certainly helped his meteoric fantasy rise, but the scheme that Kyle Shanahan deploys is an excellent one for running backs. Mostert just turned 29 in April which feels like 75 in running back years, and the next man up in the offense is Jeff Wilson. Sermon has a very clear path to playing time quickly, and any elite skills he lacks will be covered up by a dynamite offensive scheme. Sermon should be on your radar as early as the middle of the second round in dynasty drafts. Note: For more on Sermon, here is a link to his 2021 Rookie Profile.
Projection: RB4 with immediate upside, 2nd Round Pick in Dynasty Rookie Drafts.