2021 Fantasy Football Preseason RB Rankings

Hello, fantasy friends. It’s year three of TDN’s fantasy football rankings and this season they’re out earlier than ever. If this is your first time coming to TDN for fantasy content, or if you just want a refresher, here is some background on how these rankings were determined. 

More than 40 hours of research went into the ranking process, starting with custom stat projections for more than 250 NFL players—those projections will be publicly available here on TDN in mid-June. After making those projections, I determined the order you’ll see below based on potential upside, injury risk, likelihood of reaching the projected total, how many games they’ll play, etc. Please keep in mind that the rankings below are not simply in descending order of projected fantasy points—although the rankings are very heavily weighted by those projections.

All of my rankings reflect the order in which I would take players if I were drafting today in a 12-team, full-PPR, single-QB league with ESPN scoring and no bonuses.

If you have any specific questions or want to know more about what I think of certain players, follow me on Twitter (@JaimeEisner) or Instagram (@JaimeEisnerTDN). I’d be happy to chat with you! Also, be sure to tune in to the TDN Fantasy Podcast for in-depth audio breakdowns of these rankings, my projections, and all the latest fantasy football news throughout the 2021 football season. 

Let’s get into the rankings! Here are my top 65 running backs, broken down into tiers:

Other RankingsQB | WR | TE

TIER 1

1. Christian McCaffrey (RB - CAR)

2. Dalvin Cook (RB - MIN)

3. Jonathan Taylor (RB - IND)

4. Derrick Henry (RB - TEN)

5. Aaron Jones (RB - GB)

6. Alvin Kamara (RB - NO)

The tippy-top of the running back fantasy class now has more question marks than we’re used to. McCaffrey is the clear RB1 and would be in a tier of his own if not for an injury-filled 2020 campaign. It was the first time he was truly hurt, but now that we’ve seen it we can’t ignore it. Henry has a new offensive coordinator and a defense that’s poor enough to make us wonder if he’ll get as much work as we’re accustomed to. Kamara has a new quarterback and some concerning with-Brees/without-Brees splits we must account for.

On the other side of the coin, Cook put together another relatively healthy season and was sensational yet again in 2020. Taylor is an ascending young talent the Colts leaned on heavily late last season, and Jones continues to be highly productive and underrated in fantasy. 

You’d be happy starting your team with any of these players, but a few of the top stars give us slightly more pause this year as compared to prior seasons. 

TIER 2

7. Ezekiel Elliott (RB - DAL)

8. Saquon Barkley (RB - NYG)

9. Austin Ekeler (RB - LAC)

10. Joe Mixon (RB - CIN)

The rest of the round-one-caliber running back talents land in this tier. I’m expecting a bounce-back season for Elliott with Dak Prescott back, but some of the warts that showed up last season are real—and Dallas’ offensive line is still problematic. Ekeler is always productive when he’s on the field and should thrive in Joe Lombardi’s offense. Just factor in a couple missed games. Speaking of, Mixon has the upside to be a top-five running back—especially with Giovani Bernard gone—but you’ll be betting on his health status. Still, he’s a clear top-10 running back.

Barkley is the player I’ll be lambasted for the most this offseason, but the injury optimism coming off an ACL tear (and a multi-week ankle injury the year prior) is crazy to me. A study from Fantasy Labs in 2015 discovered that: “Since 1999, running backs coming off ACL surgery have produced right around two-thirds of the fantasy points on a per-game basis as compared to their pre-ACL selves.” While I’m not projecting a dropoff quite as severe, paying full price for Barkley given the injury context is ludicrous. 

TIER 3

11. Cam Akers (RB - LAR)

12. D’Andre Swift (RB - DET)

13. Nick Chubb (RB - CLE)

14. Antonio Gibson (RB - WSH)

15. Najee Harris (RB - PIT)

16. Miles Sanders (RB - PHI)

17. David Montgomery (RB - CHI)

18. Chris Carson (RB - SEA)

19. Myles Gaskin (RB - MIA)

There are a lot of exciting young players in this grouping. The first three (Akers, Gibson, Swift) are coming off strong rookie seasons and are poised to be the lead backs for their respective teams in 2021—keep an eye on Gibson’s toe, though. Montgomery really thrived once Bill Lazor took over play-calling duties in Chicago—and the quarterback upgrade doesn’t hurt, either—but Matt Nagy is calling plays again and Tarik Cohen is returning. Chubb feels like a lock to finish in the top five in rushing yards, but his lack of pass-catching knocks him down here.

Harris earned a third-round valuation in my projections. The rookie will be flooded with volume and has all the tools to be successful right away. Sanders had a bit of a resurgence once Jalen Hurts took over as the starter in Philadelphia. I’m optimistic about Sanders’ potential success, but the overall instability of the Eagles’ offense and franchise as a whole is cause for concern.

The tier wraps up with two backs who will be highly productive when healthy but have notable injury concerns. Carson is going to provide high-end RB2 production when he’s on the field, but some missed time needs to be accounted for. Same with Gaskin, who thrived for fantasy purposes as Miami’s lead back in 2020, but has only played 17 games over his two NFL seasons.

TIER 4

20. Melvin Gordon (RB - DEN)

21. Mike Davis (RB - ATL)

22. Josh Jacobs (RB - LV)

23. J.K. Dobbins (RB - BAL)

24. Chase Edmonds (RB - ARI)

25. Clyde Edwards-Helaire (RB - KC)

26. Travis Etienne (RB - JAX)

27. Michael Carter (RB - NYJ)

As we round out RB2 territory and start getting to top-tier flex options, we see a wide variety of running backs. Players like Gordon and Jacobs have the lead role for their respective teams but have strong competition behind them. Davis and Edmonds are entering 2021 as the lead back for their teams for the first time in their careers. Both have proven successful in short-to-intermediate stretches, but how they’ll fare over a full season is still to be determined. Dobbins and Edwards-Helaire enter their sophomore seasons with high expectations despite workloads that are far from set in stone. Etienne and Carter should see significant work as rookies—particularly in the pass-catching department—but more projection is needed from fantasy managers with them as opposed to the half-dozen players ranked above them.

TIER 5

28. David Johnson (RB - HOU)

29. Leonard Fournette (RB - TB)

30. Nyheim Hines (RB - IND)

31. Kareem Hunt (RB - CLE)

32. Ronald Jones (RB - TB)

33. Raheem Mostert (RB - SF)

There’s a lot of sameness, fliers, and handcuffs after this tier, so this is the last grouping that deserves a long look before passing up. Players like Johnson and Mostert are productive on a per-game basis, but you basically know they’re not playing a full season. Fournette and Jones will continue to frustratingly split time in Tampa Bay, but their end-of-season numbers will be decent and they could pop on any given week. Hines should have a consistent pass-catching workload with limited rushing work, while Hunt is limited to being more of a flex option while Nick Chubb is healthy.

TIER 6

34. J.D. McKissic (RB - WSH)

35. Devin Singletary (RB - BUF)

36. Tevin Coleman (RB - NYJ)

37. James White (RB - NE)

38. Latavius Murray (RB - NO)

39. James Conner (RB - ARI)

40. Kenyan Drake (RB - LV)

41. Jamaal Williams (RB - DET)

42. Damien Harris (RB - NE)

43. Trey Sermon (RB - SF)

44. James Robinson (RB - JAX)

Many fantasy managers will have a favorite in this tier, and quite frankly, this grouping can really land in any order. There are some pass-catching specialists (McKissic, White), No. 2s that’ll get plenty of work (Murray, Conner, Drake, Williams), potential starters (Singletary, Coleman, Harris, Robinson), and a rookie in an ever-shuffling running back room (Sermon). Putting a couple of these players on your bench would not be the worst thing in the world.

TIER 7

45. Tarik Cohen (RB - CHI)

46. Gus Edwards (RB - BAL)

47. A.J. Dillon (RB - GB)

48. Javonte Williams (RB - DEN)

49. Wayne Gallman (RB - SF)

50. Zack Moss (RB - BUF)

51. Tony Pollard (RB - DAL)

52. Salvon Ahmed (RB - MIA)

This is the “better than a pure handcuff, but you kinda sorta need someone to get hurt or benched to really feel good about playing them” tier. All of these running backs will have a weekly role and could even have a huge week here or there, but a door needs to be opened for consistent fantasy production. 

TIER 8

53. Alexander Mattison (RB - MIN)

54. Darrell Henderson (RB - LAR)

55. Phillip Lindsay (RB - HOU)

56. Javian Hawkins (RB - ATL)

57. Rashaad Penny (RB - SEA)

58. Chuba Hubbard (RB - CAR)

59. Darrel Williams (RB - KC)

60. Joshua Kelley (RB - LAC)

61. Benny Snell (RB - PIT)

62. Marlon Mack (RB - IND)

63. Larry Rountree III (RB - LAC)

64. Kenneth Gainwell (RB - PHI)

65. Sony Michel (RB - NE)

This is the official handcuff tier. Select players accordingly based on your personal handcuff drafting philosophy. 

Top 65 RBs

  1. Christian McCaffrey
  2. Dalvin Cook
  3. Jonathan Taylor
  4. Derrick Henry
  5. Aaron Jones
  6. Alvin Kamara
  7. Ezekiel Elliott
  8. Saquon Barkley
  9. Austin Ekeler
  10. Joe Mixon
  11. Cam Akers
  12. D'Andre Swift
  13. Nick Chubb
  14. Antonio Gibson
  15. Najee Harris
  16. Miles Sanders
  17. David Montgomery
  18. Chris Carson
  19. Myles Gaskin
  20. Melvin Gordon
  21. Mike Davis
  22. Josh Jacobs
  23. J.K. Dobbins
  24. Chase Edmonds
  25. Clyde Edwards-Helaire
  26. Travis Etienne
  27. Michael Carter
  28. David Johnson
  29. Leonard Fournette
  30. Nyheim Hines
  31. Kareem Hunt
  32. Ronald Jones
  33. Raheem Mostert
  34. J.D. McKissic
  35. Devin Singletary
  36. Tevin Coleman
  37. James White
  38. Latavius Murray
  39. James Conner
  40. Kenyan Drake
  41. Jamaal Williams
  42. Damien Harris
  43. Trey Sermon
  44. James Robinson
  45. Tarik Cohen
  46. Gus Edwards
  47. A.J. Dillon
  48. Javonte Williams
  49. Wayne Gallman
  50. Zack Moss
  51. Tony Pollard
  52. Salvon Ahmed
  53. Alexander Mattison
  54. Darrell Henderson
  55. Phillip Lindsay
  56. Javian Hawkins
  57. Rashaad Penny
  58. Chuba Hubbard
  59. Darrel Williams
  60. Joshua Kelley
  61. Benny Snell
  62. Marlon Mack
  63. Larry Rountree III
  64. Kenneth Gainwell
  65. Sony Michel

Written By:

Jaime Eisner

Managing Editor

Managing Editor of The Draft Network. He’s a former editor for Sports Illustrated, FanRag Sports and Arizona Sports. He’s the co-host of the TDN Fantasy Podcast and has an extensive background covering fantasy sports and sports betting.

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