The 2021 NFL Draft is this week! After months and months of mock drafts, debates, rumors, pro days, character reports, 40 times, etc., we’ll finally be able to talk in absolutes instead of hypotheticals. Teams will be married to players and we can break down what it all means in real-life football and fantasy football. However, there’s still a bit more time to speculate.
What are the ideal landing spots for several of the top rookie running backs from a fantasy football perspective for the 2021 season? Powered by Underdog Fantasy, I took a look at the best-case-but-realistic scenarios for the top running backs in the 2021 class.
Scouting Report: “A tall and upright runner, Harris is a blend of power, determination, and versatility as both a between-the-tackles runner and perimeter rushing threat. A comfortable pass-catcher out of the backfield, he’s made strides in his pass-catching ability every season.”
Underdog ADP: 32.1
Ideal Teams: Steelers, Falcons, Dolphins, Jets
Betting odds say that if a running back is going in Round 1, it’s most likely Harris. The teams most likely to take a rusher in the first round are the Dolphins (No. 18), Jets (No. 23), and Steelers (No. 24). If Harris falls to Round 2, the Jets (No. 34), Falcons (No. 35), and Dolphins (No. 36) own three of the first four picks to begin the day. Honestly, any of those destinations would be a good fit for Harris. Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and New York offer the best opportunities to play the most total snaps as a rookie, but Miami’s large offensive line might allow Harris to be more effective on a per-touch basis. However, with most fantasy managers playing in some sort of PPR format, the Steelers have the least worrisome passing-down alternatives on the roster—especially compared to Mike Davis in Atlanta and Myles Gaskin in Miami. You want volume in all areas of the game if you’re investing a third- or fourth-round pick in fantasy drafts on a rookie, and the Steelers offer that opportunity for Harris.
Scouting Report: “His burst and contact balance make him a big-play back that is capable of taking it the distance from any part of the field. While he’s an explosive back, Etienne is disciplined and doesn’t try to do too much and put his team in bad positions. He’s grown wonderfully as a receiver and is a nightmare matchup for linebackers in coverage.”
Underdog ADP: 38.1
Ideal Teams: Falcons, Jets, Steelers, Dolphins
Etienne’s stock has been a bit volatile since he decided to go back to Clemson for the 2020 season, but he still has an outside chance of being the RB1 at the end of the week. His conscious effort to grow as a pass-catcher is a boon for his fantasy value.
The Falcons making a concerted effort to have a viable running game with Arthur Smith at the helm is a nice change of pace. While Davis is a solid player, he’s not nearly as explosive as Etienne and the upside isn’t even close. Using Etienne as an offensive weapon on a unit that has Julio Jones, Calvin Ridley, and maybe Kyle Pitts? That’s music to fantasy managers’ ears.
The Jets under Mike LaFleur’s offense is also a fun spot for Etienne, who will really only be competing with Tevin Coleman and La’Mical Perine for touches in any circumstance—he should be a three-down back almost immediately. The Steelers have a void to fill, as mentioned above, but it feels like Harris or Javonte Williams are a better fit for them. However, I have little doubt Etienne can be successful in Pittsburgh if they can solve some of their offensive line issues. It’s not listed above, but landing in Arizona in Kliff Kingsbury’s Air Raid offense would be a sight to see long-term, but there is too much competition for 2021 touches at the moment.
Scouting Report: “A big, physical, and powerful runner, Williams complements his bruising style with compact elusiveness which leads to frequent broken tackles and production after contact. An every-down threat, Williams is very good in pass protection and as a receiver out of the backfield. Williams is capable of ripping off big chunks of yardage with his ability to see the field cleanly, string together moves, take smart angles, and accelerate.”
Underdog ADP: 51.7
Ideal Teams: Falcons, Steelers, Jets, Dolphins
Although his 40 time did disappoint some people, when you watch the film, Williams does it all. He can run with power and finesse. He can catch the ball and pass protect—the latter affords him opportunities to do the former. Simply put, he’s able to play all three downs from the jump, serving as a lead back or a player who gets the lion’s share of a time split. There is a bit of a tier break after the top three backs, so the usual suspects for “ideal fits” are the same here as above.
Scouting Report: “Gainwell has good vision, elusiveness, footwork, pass-catching ability, and a surprising amount of power given his build. Memphis featured him as both a runner and receiver and his pass-catching skills should be a big part of his role in the NFL. The Tigers got him involved in the screen game and from the slot, where he features good route-running skills, reliable hands, and creativity in space.”
Underdog ADP: 108.8
Ideal Teams: Bills, Panthers, Falcons
Gainwell is raw, but so was Antonio Gibson last season and we all know how that turned out. It’s not fair to helmet scout, so the analysis can’t stop at “Memphis running back with limited positional experience turns pro and is a fantasy star,” but there is some more comfortability this year for fantasy managers taking that risk after seeing it play out so successfully last season.
For Gainwell to make a Year 1 impact he’ll need to land somewhere where he can carve out a specific role. In Buffalo, he can be the passing-down back for an offense that throws a ton but doesn’t have a reliable pass-catcher out of the backfield. In Carolina, he can serve in the hybrid Curtis Samuel role that is now vacated. For the Falcons, he can form a 1-2 punch with Davis and serve as a check-down option for Matt Ryan—Atlanta is going to have to throw plenty to overcome their porous defense, after all.
Scouting Report: “Sermon has the physicality, contact balance, ball security, and toughness to be an early-down back and shoulder the majority of the load for an NFL team—he’ll be an economic option for zone-based teams looking to boost their ground game and add some toughness into the mix.”
Underdog ADP: 115.5
Ideal Teams: Falcons, Steelers
The fantasy hype on Sermon is ramping up as we get closer to draft day. He fits the mold as an early-down back that could get plenty of work if a team like Atlanta or Pittsburgh elects to take premium positions in the first two rounds of the NFL draft. For fantasy purposes, I get nervous drafting mid-round running backs with no clear path to a pass-catching role—the easiest way for a young player drafted outside of the first two rounds to get on the field—but the chance he winds up with Smith in Atlanta or as the Steelers’ starter is enough to make him an intriguing option.
Scouting Report: “Hubbard is a patient and confident runner that runs well behind his pads. Keeping a low center of gravity, he’s a one-cut-and-accelerate runner that’s had lots of success in the wide-open Air Raid offense. With adequate vision and the athleticism to take advantage of small spaces, he’s a threat that could thrive in a zone-based blocking scheme that leverages angles and relies on quick cuts from rushers.”
Underdog ADP: 135.1
Ideal Teams: Falcons, Jets, 49ers, Cardinals
Hubbard’s draft stock took a hit over the last calendar year, but those who remember his pre-2020 flashes are no doubt putting a gold star by his name in fantasy drafts. He’s got speed to burn and could be an incredibly dynamic player on a per-touch basis for teams like Atlanta, New York, San Francisco, and even Arizona, but I have no idea how long it will take for him to get on the field consistently for passing downs until his improvement as a blocker and pass-catcher becomes evident. He’s a fantasy best-ball or bench flier with the hope that a team with injury or depth concerns at running back drafts him.
Scouting Report: “Carter has terrific vision, burst, elusiveness, receiving skills, and decision-making as a runner that makes him so productive. While he is on the leaner side, Carter is a good inside and outside runner. He does well to make intelligent and timely cuts while blending patience with decisiveness, making his blocks right, and running to daylight. While he isn’t overly dynamic when it comes to contact balance and breaking tackles, he is slippery and his wiggle enables him to find yards after contact.”
Underdog ADP: 137.8
Ideal Teams: Broncos, Bills, Jets, Falcons
Carter might be the most undervalued rookie in the entire class for fantasy purposes. No, he’s not Harris, Etienne, or Williams, but he shouldn’t be the seventh rookie running back off the board, either. Given his skill set, Carter has a clear path to a passing-down role and could be an asset as the 1B for several teams. The Broncos and Bills can both use some immediate pass-catching help out of the backfield—for Denver, they just need depth behind Melvin Gordon in general. The Jets and Falcons can easily work Carter into a fruitful timeshare that is worthy of a primary bench spot in most fantasy leagues. Carter in the 12th round? Sign me up.
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