Three “Safe” Middle-Round Running Backs for 2021 (Fantasy Football)

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Is it safe to draft running backs in the mid rounds?

Unfortunately, the answer is no.  Alright folks, well thanks for reading my article – see you next year!

But seriously… It is risky to draft running backs in the middle rounds of fantasy drafts.  That being said, in this article I will provide my opinion about three middle-round running backs worth targeting.  I am specifically picking players that are available toward the back of the middle rounds because the hit rate of landing a top-24 RB is about the same from Rounds 5 – 9…AND the hit rate for middle-round WR is greater.  It’s all about playing the odds.  They don’t call me the bad boy of fantasy for nothing.

Before we get into it…This is my third year writing this article series.  In 2019, I picked Sony Michel, Chris Carson, and Tarik Cohen as “safe”.  In 2020, I picked David Montgomery, Kareem Hunt, and Jordan Howard.  Three of those six names ended up helping fantasy managers, which means I’m a little above average.  I’m bringing this up for two reasons: (1) to keep myself accountable and (2) to demonstrate how difficult it is to hit on middling running backs.  Conversely, wide receivers in the middle rounds tend to be safer and more productive than running backs.  For these reasons, I tend to draft RB’s early and often in the first 3-4 rounds and then smash wide receiver for the middle rounds.

Running Back Hit Rate (2015-2020)

Now back to my original point about the risk of drafting middle-round running backs.  I looked back at the average draft position (ADP) of running backs drafted in the top-9 rounds for the past six years (2015-2020).  I analyzed the hit rate of productive running backs, broken down by draft round.  Ultimately, I found out that running backs with ADPs in the first three rounds have a high hit rate (66% become top-24 producers).  Then there is a drop-off in the fourth round (54% become top-24 producers).  After Round 4, it’s a mess – your odds of drafting a top-36 running back are about the same as a coin flip. Also keep in mind that the disparity between elite running backs and average running backs is greater than any other position group.  Both of these statistically proven trends tell us that we should try to draft multiple running backs in the first four rounds and then fill our roster with other position groups afterward.  While you can certainly be successful by taking a different approach, my recommended approach presents you with the greatest chance of success (assuming you’re not “reaching” for an RB with any picks).

The table below summarizes my findings.  Keep this in your back pocket come draft day!  All data is based on average points per game in ½-PPR scoring.

Three “Safe” RBs to Target in 2021

I present to you three “safe” running backs to draft in 2021.  Keep in mind that in this case, “safe” is a relative term.  As I’ve learned from analyzing RB data over the past six years, mid-round running backs have a relatively poor hit rate.  The goal here is to project workload and opportunity.  I want to remind you again that I personally recommend drafting running backs early and often and then using the middle rounds for wide receivers this year, but it’s important to stay fluid and take the value presented to you in drafts.  For example, I’m currently in the middle of a slow draft where I only drafted one RB (CMC) through the first eight rounds.  Now it’s time to take some shots on RBs.

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Let’s get to it!  Here are running backs to keep your eye on as you’re drafting this season.

Gus Edwards (ADP 10.06…and climbing)

Gus Edwards is the most underrated running back in the NFL (yea I know I have probably said this about other players in the past, but just like…chill dude).  Gus Bus has had over 100 rush attempts each of the past three seasons while averaging five yards per carry (ypc) each season.  Gus was on pace to become a flex-worthy player with upside all offseason.  Then unfortunately on Saturday 8/28, J.K. Dobbins had a knee injury.  As of this writing, it has been reported that Dobbins will miss the entire 2021 season.  Dobbins was one of my favorite players this season… a bummer.  Hopefully, he’s back better than ever next season.

As far as fantasy football goes, this means I’m targeting Gus Edwards in drafts in the 5th round.  Edwards should perform in the RB10-20 range in my opinion.  I believe Edwards is safer than any other RB being drafted after Round 4.

It really comes down to the fact that I want a  piece of the Ravens rushing offense.  The Ravens have a prolific offense and run…A LOT.  In fact, the Ravens have been top-2 in both rush attempts and rushing yards in each of the past three seasons.  Last season, the Ravens had 555 (NICE!) rush attempts as a team.  Let’s break down a very realistic workload scenario:

  • Lamar Jackson could easily see 170 attempts, which would be more than last season.
  • Gus could easily see 255+ rush attempts.
  • That would still leave 130 rush attempts for whoever inevitably steps up behind Gus.  We know the Ravens like to spread the ball around, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they sign an RB to the squad…but I’m not worried.  Gus should easily separate himself as the alpha and demand a heavy workload.

I’m trusting the talent and opportunity of Gus Edwards in fantasy with a mid-round pick this season.  He is more talented than anyone else that will compete with him for touches this season, and I think the path for him to get a heavy workload is very likely.  I would be happy to draft Gus Bus in the 5th or 6th round, and I think he’ll probably land right around there in ADP as the dust settles.

Damien Harris (ADP 7.11)

Damien Harris is a talented player for a team that has historically spread the ball around in the backfield.  He’s received positive buzz in camp and now has a more secure role as the starter with Sony Michel being shipped off to the LA Rams.  He also appears to be a player that Bill Belichick trusts, which is important in New England.  I think Harris will be a weekly flex play with upside to be a top-25 RB this season.

How does he get there?  OK let me paint you a narrative.  Mac Jones is on track to be the starter sooner rather than later, especially considering Cam Newton’s recent Covid exposure.  If Mac Jones starts and plays the entire season, that means that 216 rush attempts are up for grabs compared to last season (Cam Newton + Sony Michel).  That’s almost 14 rushes a game!

Last season, the Patriots ran the third most run plays per game.  Harris could easily see 15-20 rushes per game and possibly work in the passing game.  That would still leave 7+ touches for others like James White and preseason phenom Rhamondre Stevenson.  It’s worth mentioning that was drafted in the 4th round of the NFL draft this season and has done well in the preseason… however, it’s a small sample size.  It’s Harris’ job to lose this year.

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In addition to more touches, Harris should see a significant increase in red-zone usage.  Last year, Cam Newton had the 10th most red-zone rushes in the league (42).  He also had the fourth most inside the 5-yard line, which is more than Derrick Henry and more than double the amount that Josh Allen had!  If Mac truly is the starter, he will be more of a pocket passer.  That opens the door for Harris to score touchdowns.  Keep in mind that in Damien Harris’ 12 games played, he’s only scored two total touchdowns.  There is a ton of room for improvement here this season.

Damien Harris ranked 9th in yards created per touch last year, and the door is open for him to take a step forward this season.  Harris is a great target at the 7/8 turn this season.

A.J. Dillon (ADP 9.09)

A.J. Dillon is expected to play second fiddle to Aaron Jones, who’s an elite talent.  Still, there is a case to be made for drafting A.J. Dillon, who could have standalone value as a weekly flex play.  Additionally, he would immediately produce as an RB1 if Jones misses any games.  Dillon is a former 2nd round draft pick hand-selected by the current Green Bay front office.  He was a touchdown machine at Boston College and is ranked in the 97th percentile in both speed and burst scores according to PlayerProfiler.  I’m taking a shot on A.J. Dillon in the 9th round of fantasy drafts this season after I lock down solid WR depth.  At this point in the draft, the opportunity cost is very minimal… so I’m looking for players who have the potential to become high-level producers if things fall their way.  Dillon has the talent to be successful and fits this description to a T.

First off, Green Bay has the fourth-best strength of schedule for fantasy running backs in the first month of football.  While the strength of schedule data will shift as we see real NFL football play out, it’s still a good sign for Aaron Jones and A.J. Dillon.

How do we think Dillon will perform if given an opportunity?  Well, it’s hard to say because it’s a small sample size.  A.J. Dillon has touched the ball 7+ times only ONCE in an NFL game: Week 16 last season. In that game, he had 21 rushes for 124 yards & two TDs, and one reception for five yards.  Pretty good if you ask me.  The fact is that he didn’t need to be used last season because he was buried in the depth chart behind stud Aaron Jones and underrated back Jamaal Williams.  Williams is no longer on the team, which opens up the door for Dillon to see more touches.  Williams was a good runner and a good pass catcher.  However, Dillon is more of a prototypical bruiser that will be used almost exclusively in the running game.

Aaron Jones is going to be the alpha as long as he remains healthy.  How much work is going to be leftover for Dillon?  I actually think we’ll see a reasonable workload.  If we look back at Jones’ last 12 games played, he has averaged 13 rushes per game.  Jamaal Williams and A.J. Dillon averaged 9.3 rushes per game over those games.  Furthermore, Jamaal Williams has averaged 40 targets per year over the past two seasons…I expect Jones to see a significant increase in targets.  Ultimately, I project an increase in carries for Dillon while Aaron Jones sees a decrease in carries but an increase in targets.

I’m targeting A.J. Dillon in the 9th round of fantasy drafts this season.  I think A.J. Dillon will see 10-15 carries per game.  I also think there’s a good chance Dillon is the primary recipient of goal-line work for the Packers.  Draft Dillon with confidence.

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