25 RB Stats from the 2021 Fantasy Football Season
We’re keeping the momentum going in the 25 Statistics series with the most important position in fantasy: Running Back. Stay tuned for the TRUTH podcast episodes coming soon.
Note: All scoring is Half-PPR. Scoring data is from nflfastR, while ADP data is from FantasyPros.
1. Studs Slide: The top-12 RBs this year averaged 14.2 fantasy points per game over a 17-game season pace. That’s the second lowest mark of the past two decades; in general, RB scoring has been down relative to the early 2000s. It didn’t help that Christian McCaffrey, Derrick Henry, Dalvin Cook, and Alvin Kamara all missed significant time this season. Still, this is a reminder that elite RBs – like Jonathan Taylor and Austin Ekeler this year – are extremely valuable.
2. Rookie Wonders: Of the seven rookie RBs drafted in the Top-200 ADP this year, all but one outperformed expectation. The outperformers were Najee Harris (drafted RB11, finished RB4), Javonte Williams (RB28 vs. RB17), Michael Carter (RB35 vs. RB29), Chuba Hubbard (RB55 vs. RB33), Rhamondre Stevenson (RB50 vs. RB41), and Kenneth Gainwell (RB60 vs. RB42).
If you drafted the lone underperforming rookie RB, Trey Sermon, your process was correct: Elijah Mitchell took over the reins of Kyle Shanahan’s vaunted rushing attack and scampered all the way to RB25 on the year, despite missing multiple weeks due to injury.
These results are partially a function of ‘skew’: it’s easier to significantly outperform as the RB50 (around where most rookies are ranked) than as the RB5. In the latter case, you can only be a couple of slots better: the best possible ranking is RB1. Injuries also propelled some of these backs into the limelight, especially players like Chuba Hubbard. Another crucial factor is that these RBs were drafted to teams dedicated to running the football well.
Still, the lesson remains: don’t be afraid to take a shot on a rookie RB next year!
3. (Many) Top Dogs: There were a whopping 16 different players who were the weekly RB1 this season. Derrick Henry pulled off the feat thrice; no other back, even the indomitable Jonathan Taylor, found the top spot more than once (to be fair, Jonathan Taylor was the RB2 five different times). That’s the highest number of unique weekly RB1s over the past decade. Granted, there’s one more extra game this season!
4. Caught Something: The average weekly RB1 averaged 116 yards on the ground and 50 yards receiving per game. That’s 0.43 receiving yards for every rushing yard, the second-highest ratio since 2014 (in 2019 Christian McCaffrey was frequently the RB1, and caught a ton of passes). It shouldn’t come as a surprise that receiving is growing more important every year for NFL running backs.
5. Steady as she goes: In terms of minimizing variance, Josh Jacobs was the most consistent RB on the year among backs who scored at least 150 points, followed by Melvin Gordon. Jacobs was quietly a steady fantasy force: he finished outside the weekly Top 24 at the position just three times, and outside the Top 36 just once (barely, as the RB38 in Week 10); the flip side is that he never had a week-winning, Top-5 performance. Unsurprisingly, Rashaad Penny was by far the least consistent among all backs! He averaged 2.2 points through Week 13 and 21.5 points from there on out.
6. Polar opposites: The two most extreme single-game performances in 2021 came from “J.Taylor” running backs. The high water-mark was, of course, Jonathan Taylor in Week 11 (51.9 points). The worst performance was J.J. Taylor for the New England Patriots in Week 4, who caught one pass for zero yards, fumbled, and was sent immediately to Belichick’s doghouse. Fortunately, there’s a redemption arc to this story: J.J. Taylor ended up as the RB13 in Week 7 after scoring two rushing touchdowns during the rout of the New York Jets.
7. Team Strength: The Philadelphia Eagles had the most rushing yards per team by far this season (2,715) despite not having an RB in the top 40 (Kenneth Gainwell finished as the RB42, Miles Sanders as the RB45); Jalen Hurts, with 784 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns, was the de facto RB1 on the team. Jonathan Taylor dragged the Colts to second place, Lamar Jackson carried the Ravens to third. The Houston Texans, clearly relying on the passing prowess of General Davis Mills, were the least prolific ground-attack, rushing for just over half as much as the Eagles did (1422).
8. Team Weakness: The Pittsburgh Steelers gave up the least rushing yards in the decade from 2010-2020. In a stunning turn of events – despite having TJ Watt on their defensive line – they gave up the most rushing yards in the NFL this year (2,483, with the Houston Texans in second place at 2418). It’s the first time in recent memory that the worst rushing defense made the playoffs. The Baltimore Ravens were the stoutest run defense, allowing just 1436 yards on the ground; of course, the Steelers managed to beat the Ravens in a Week 18 overtime clash to reach the postseason.
9. Caught Something Part II: Among RBs that scored at least 150 points, Cordarelle Patterson was the only player to score more points as a receiver (receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns) than as a rusher (rushing yards, rushing touchdowns). Aaron Jones, D’Andre Swift, and Austin Ekeler were close, scoring less than 10 points more as a rusher than as a receiver. On the other end of the spectrum, Jonathan Taylor, Damien Harris, and Nick Chubb scored 140+ points more as a runner than as a receiver. Among all players, Branden Bolden had the biggest discrepancy: he scored 44.4 more points as a receiver.
10. Nearly There: Jonathan Taylor led all backs in ‘almost scoring’: there were 18 different drives where he was tackled on a rushing play inside the five-yard line, and didn’t end up scoring on that drive. Leonard Fournette comes in second place with 12 ‘almost-TDs’ and, incredibly, Eagles QB/RB1 Jalen Hurts tied for third with Austin Ekeler, A.J. Dillon and Joe Mixon (ten times).
11. Caught Something Part III: Receiving was, unsurprisingly, a more important part of the fantasy RB landscape. Among backs with 150+ points scored, points as a receiver (receptions, receiving yards, receiving touchdowns) consisted of 32.5% of all points scored. That’s a sizable jump from 29.5% last year.
12. Caught Something Part IV: Austin Ekeler was a checkdown maestro in 2021, averaging 27.3 receiving YPG for passes that travel two yards or less in the air. Najee Harris lands in a distant second place with 20.1 YPG, while Branden Bolden was a surprising sixth with 17.2 YPG (half a yard more than Jonathan Taylor). Before he went down, Christian McCaffrey was leading RBs with 12.4 YPG from ‘short’ passes (2-10 air yards). Leonard Fournette was second with an impressive 11.0 YPG mark.
13. Efficiency: Tony Pollard gained 1,056 yards from scrimmage (rushing and receiving) and scored two touchdowns in 2021, which means he gained 528 yards per touchdown. Chase Edmonds was close on his heels: 903 yards, two touchdowns (451.5 yards per touchdown). Miles Sanders had the most frustrating year, gaining 912 yards despite never finding pay-dirt once. On the opposite end of the spectrum, James Conner was incredibly efficient with his scoring: 1,127 for his 18 touchdowns, or 62.6 yards per score.
14. Trends: Sony Michel saw nine more rushing attempts per game from Week 10 onwards, which is the largest jump in the league. Jonathan Taylor saw the second-highest jump (15.6 to 24.4) once the Indianapolis Colts realized their best course of action was to feed the overall RB1.
Poor Khalil Herbert, who shined so brightly when David Montgomery missed time, saw 7.4 less carries per game from Week 10 on. Chuba Hubbard and Mike Davis saw the second- and third-biggest drop-offs in workload over the back half of the season.
Up in Lambeau, A.J. Dillon saw one of the biggest workload bumps (5.5 more carries per game), while Aaron Jones saw one of the largest slides (3.7 less). Something to keep in mind this offseason…
15. Don’t Quit Your Day Job: Running backs are not good at throwing the ball. Only two completed passes this year: Derrick Henry and Ezekiel Elliott. Of course, in King Henry fashion, the Yeti tossed a touchdown to MyCole Pruitt in Week 7. Zeke had to settle for a mere four-yard completion. Still, both achieved a perfect 100% completion rate.
16. Maybe Quit Your Day Job: RBs fare better, naturally, as WRs. Cordarelle Patterson caught three TDs in Week 4, the highest ‘points scored from receiving’ among all RBs and good enough for 24th among all WRs in general. Aaron Jones had the second-highest ‘receiver’ game among RBs – also catching three TDs in Week 2 – while Myles Gaskin came in third with a 10-74-2 receiving line in Week 5 (compared to just 25 rushing yards against the stout Tampa Bay Buccaneers front).
17. Spread the Wealth: Seven teams (San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, New York Jets, New Orleans Saints, New England Patriots, Kansas City Chiefs, and Houston Texans) had nine different players see 5+ rushing attempts this year. Some of these teams are committee-based by design (49ers and Patriots, especially) whereas other faced injuries/aging vets (Seahawks, Chiefs, Texans). The Denver Broncos were satisfied with Melvin Gordon and Javonte Williams, and had only four players get 5+ carries.
18. The Long and Short of it: The longest run of the year was courtesy of Jonathan Taylor, who galloped for 83 yards before getting tackled on the five-yard line against the Texans. The longest touchdown run was Derrick Henry (76 yards), and the shortest run was poor Darius Slayton losing 13 yards against the Eagles. Sadly, that was Darius Slayton‘s first and last run of the year; 2021 is now his second season with negative rushing yardage (-1 yards on two carries in 2020).
19. Efficiency Part II: Rashaad Penny had a whopping 6.3 yards per rush this year, the highest mark among all players that ran for 200 yards or more. Rashaad, Dontrell Hilliard and Tony Pollard are the only running backs in the top ten of this metric; the rest are quarterbacks and Deebo Samuel. Phillip Lindsay has the dubious honor of the lowest YPC mark: just 2.8 with the Houston Texans (he averaged 5.4 a carry during his 2018 rookie season).
20. Moving the Chains: Unsurprisingly, Jonathan Taylor had the most total first downs among RBs this year: he passed the yellow line a whopping 107 times. Second place was a distant, but surprising, Antonio Gibson, who ended up finishing as the RB10. David Johnson of the Houston Texans carried the ball for 228 yards but only seven total first downs, or 32.5 yards for every first down; that was the highest ratio among all players with 200+ rushing yards.
21. About the size of it: If we take a weighted average (backs that score more get a higher weight) of all RBs in 2021, we get that the average back was just under 71 inches tall (5′ 11″) and just over 216 pounds. The height is standard, but the weight is down two pounds from 2020 and is the lowest mark of the last five years. Derrick Henry and his 238 pounds missing time certainly influenced that decrease but, in general, we’re seeing a transition to smaller, pass-catching RBs instead of big, run-heavy backs.
22. Proud Alumni: Former Alabama RBs scored, in aggregate, over 1,028 fantasy points in 2021. That’s the highest total of any school/season combination since 1999, thanks to Najee Harris, Damien Harris, Josh Jacobs, Kenyan Drake, Derrick Henry, and Mark Ingram. The 2007 University of Miami alumni, a group that included Frank Gore, Clinton Portis, and Willis McGahee, scored slightly more per game. Still, the 2021 ‘Bama squad was without Derrick Henry for half of the season and would have easily passed the mark set by ‘The U’ if the Yeti stayed healthy all year.
23. Drawn and Quartered: Jonathan Taylor had the most aggregate rushing yards in each quarter among all players; that is, he had the most first-quarter rushing yards, second-quarter rushing yards, etc. His most prolific quarter was the third quarter (636 total yards), which makes sense: that’s the time to ‘run clock’, and there also isn’t a half-or game-ending scenario at the end of the quarter where the team needs to throw a lot.
Dalvin Cook had the second most yardage in the first quarter (33% of his total yardage), Najee Harris the second most in the second quarter, and Nick Chubb the second-most in both the third and fourth quarters. Josh Jacobs led all players in overtime rushing yards (87), including the post-Brandon-Staley-timeout scamper to end the season of the Los Angeles Chargers.
24. ADP Heroes: James Conner was the biggest outperformer against ADP this season, finishing as the RB5 after being drafted as the RB37. Devontae Booker, due in part to injuries to Saquon Barkley, was second on this list: drafted RB65, finished RB34. On the flip side, Clyde Edwards-Helaire was the biggest disappointment this year, finishing as the RB40 after being drafted as the RB14. Ronald Jones fell almost as much: drafted RB32, finished RB59; Leonard Fournette ended up taking over the Buccaneers backfield and himself was the third-largest outperformer against ADP (RB7 vs. RB33). This is among players who played in 9+ games to (mostly) screen out injuries.
25. RB in Sheep’s clothing: Jalen Hurts led all QBs in fantasy points from rushing, netting 782 rushing yards and ten touchdowns. He scored more on the ground than Sony Michel, who finished as the RB30 on the year. Josh Allen was a close second with 763 rushing yards and six touchdowns, which is more points than Jamaal Williams, the RB43. These numbers weren’t historically great, though: Kyler Murray and Lamar Jackson both had slightly better rushing years than Jalen Hurts in 2020.
Deebo Samuel had 365 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns this year. Only eight RBs had more rushing touchdowns! This was the best rushing performance by a wideout in at least the last decade. Jamal Agnew was a distance second with 111 rushing yards and one rushing score.