The Best of the Rest
True North's Jason Ferris (@jferris72) looks at eight RBs from the 2021 draft class and analyzes which ones may help you or leave you disappointed for the upcoming season.
The 2021 NFL Draft produced three consensus top fantasy football RBs - Najee Harris (Pittsburgh Steelers), Travis Etienne (Jacksonville Jaguars), and Javonte Williams (Denver Broncos). These three RBs have been soaring up fantasy managers’ draft boards and they are ready to produce this upcoming season. However, there is a whole cohort of other RBs that were also drafted in the 2021 NFL Draft and choosing the right one(s) may just help you dominate your league this year and beyond.
The fantasy value rankings for the following RBs apply only to the 2021 season and fall into a High, Moderate, or Low category. Here are the best of the rest, the rookie RBs to target once the big three are off the board.
Trey Sermon , San Francisco 49ers
In the Big Ten Championship game in 2020, Trey Sermon rushed for 331 yards, the most ever in a single game by an Ohio State player. Two weeks later at the 2021 Sugar Bowl versus Clemson, Sermon ripped off another 193 yards on the ground, 63 more through the air, and scored a TD. In that 49-28 win, Sermon was named MVP and his college legacy as a big game performer was solidified.
Sermon’s college career started at Oklahoma in 2017 and ended in a transfer to Ohio State in 2020. On the ground he rushed 455 times for 2,946 yards and 26 TDs. Sermon added 48 receptions for 486 yards and 3 TDs. At 6'1" and 215 pounds, it is not hard to see why the 49ers selected him with their 89th pick overall in the third round.
When Jeffery Wilson went down early this spring with a torn meniscus in his knee, it was a big blow to the 49ers' backfield. But for Sermon fantasy owners, it has put him in a situation where he will be able to contribute immediately.
Even during a year where the offence was decimated by injury, the 49ers were still able to produce the NFL’s 15th ranked rushing attack in 2020. The 437 attempts that led to 19 TDs and a 4.3 yards/attempt came from a committee of RBs that included Wilson (126 carries), Raheem Mostert (104 carries), and Jerick McKinnon (81 carries). In addition, 49ers RBs played an important role in the team's passing game. Last year McKinnon saw 46 targets, Wilson 28 targets, and Mostert 19 targets.
With the injury to Wilson and the departure of McKinnon to the Kansas City Chiefs, the 49ers RB depth chart sees Mostert at the top followed by new free agent Wayne Gallman and rookies Sermon and Elijah Mitchell. With Head Coach Kyle Shanahan’s offensive game planning likely to include a committee of RBs, gauging fantasy value becomes a lesson on statistics and probability.
With the departure of McKinnon and the injury to Wilson, a massive 281 vacated touches are up for grabs. With many mouths to feed, how is Shanahan going to distribute the ball?
It is safe to assume that the incumbent Mostert, is going to start the season atop the 49ers depth chart. He knows the system and has been productive in it. He has a career 5.6 yards per rushing attempt and has scored 14 total TDs in the offense. However, the shine on those stats fades a bit when you add in the fact that Mostert has also fumbled six times, a habit that can become fatal to a RBs career.
Are we really buying into Wayne Gallman? In four seasons with the New York Giants, Gallman ran 338 times for 1,444 yards and 11 TDs. The 4.3 yards per attempt puts him in the average range for NFL backs but his seven fumbles certainly raise issues of his ball security. The one thing NFL coaches despise more than penalties are turnovers!
Ball security is where Sermon can assert himself. In 452 rush attempts in his college career, he has fumbled the ball just twice. That includes the 48 times he caught the ball out of the backfield. Combine that with his 6.5 yard per rush attempt and 10.1 yard per reception average and you have a rookie ready to compete with the veterans for snaps. Sermon may not steal the RB1 job in his rookie season but he will certainly get touches and targets, making him a viable fantasy option.
2021 Fantasy Value - High
Michael Carter, New York Jets
Which NFL rookie RB had one less carry than fellow rookie Javonte Williams (drafted 35th overall) but who actually had more yards and a better yards per attempt than Williams? The answer is none other than Williams’ North Carolina teammate Michael Carter. Carter ran for a sizzling 8.0 yards per attempt to Williams’ 6.6 and had 205 more yards on the ground.
When the New York Jets drafted Carter with the 107th pick in the 4th round, they got more than the 5'8”, 201 pound back whose speed tops out at a quick 4.54 40. They drafted a workhorse who touched the ball 596 times for 4,060 yards and 28 TDs. In 2020 alone, Carter handled the ball 177 times without putting it on the ground and gained an astonishing 4.47 additional yards after contact per rushing attempt. Carter is a beast with the ball.
Offensively, the 2020 Jets were atrocious. It ranked dead last in the NFL in total offense and managed only one TD from the backfield. With Father Time Frank Gore gone, what’s left of the inept running back room is Tevin Coleman, La’Mical Perine, Ty Johnson, and now Carter. The depth chart may seem crowded but with no solid incumbent, the RB1 for the Jets is up for grabs.
With the removal of Adam Gase, new Head Coach Robert Saleh and Offensive Coordinator Mike Lafleur have an enormous task ahead with the Jets offense in 2021. With rookie quarterback Zach Wilson joining Carter, look for the coaching staff to implement an offensive scheme similar to the one they developed with Kyle Shanahan in San Francisco, featuring prominent running back roles and quarterback check downs.
With no clear bell cow in the Jets backfield, Carter’s potential ceiling in this offense is the RB1, especially with Gore’s 203 vacated touches available. He may start off being eased into game situations, but Carter certainly will see his fair share of action. Coleman has had a mediocre last two years where he touched the ball 190 times and scored only 7 TDs. That’s a far cry from the 29 TDs that he scored the previous four years in Atlanta. Coleman has lost a step and is no real threat to Carter.
Johnson and Perine simply do not have Carter’s explosiveness. Both backs combined for 118 rush attempts in 2020 yet only managed 486 yards in total. Even more concerning, was the inability of either back to break tackles. Between the two of them, they managed three broken tackles. On the contrary, Carter bulldozed his way to 720 extra yards after contact, a rate of 3.85 yards after contact per rush attempt. The Jets have replaced Gore’s power running with a younger version of himself in Carter.
2021 Fantasy Value - Moderate
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Chuba Hubbard, Carolina Panthers
When Chuba Hubbard left Canada to take his talents south to Oklahoma State University, a future football star was born. The 6'0’, 210 pound RB had 638 plays from scrimmage totaling 3,938 yards and a whopping 36 TDs. In those 33 games, he gained 6.2 yards every time he touched the ball. The Carolina Panthers selected Hubbard with the 126th overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Hubbard beat out fellow Canadians Chase Claypool of the Pittsburgh Steelers for the 2019 Jon Cornish Trophy, which is awarded to the best Canadian player in NCAA Division One football. He also led the Big 12 with 351 plays, 2,292 yards and 21 TDs from scrimmage. Much like his new teammate Christian McCaffery, Hubbard was utilized all over the field.
The problem for potential Hubbard owners is that he landed on a team that in 2019, had the most productive RB in football. Before his litany of injuries in 2020, McCaffery set the fantasy football world on fire with 403 touches for 2,392 yards and 19 TDs. He played 93% of the Panthers offensive snaps and became the third player in NFL history to both rush and receive for 1,000 yards.
With Mike Davis now the lead back for the Atlanta Falcons, the Panthers’ running back room will feature McCaffery, Trenton Cannon, Reggie Bonnafon, and Hubbard. Playing a small role in 2020, Cannon rushed 68 times for 306 yards and a TD. He was unimpressive with his one broken tackle and 2.4 yards after contact average. Bonnafon did not fare any better rushing for only 185 yards and one TD over the past two years. Other than McCaffery, and potentially Hubbard, there is no real fantasy football value from the Panthers’ RBs.
There is no question that Hubbard can ascend the Panthers depth chart to RB2 behind McCaffery before the season starts.
In 2020, the Panthers had a 59.0 to 41.0 pass to run ratio. In offensive coordinator Joe Brady’s system, the RBs have to be able to catch the ball. Carolina will look to target their RBs around 80 times in the passing game. Both Bonnafon and Cannon had a total of five catches between them and these numbers don’t fit with the system. Hubbard, on the other hand, caught 53 passes in college for a healthy 9.0 yards per catch.
Trying to predict Hubbard’s fantasy value is difficult. If McCaffery is fully recovered from his injuries, Hubbard’s role will be limited to a change of pace back. If McCaffery suffers any setbacks at all, Hubbard has the pedigree to be the every down back. At the very least, Hubbard is an excellent handcuff in all fantasy leagues and at the very worst, he is a worthy bench stash in leagues with deep rosters.
2021 Fantasy Value - Moderate
Rhamondre Stevenson, New England Patriots
When you look at Rhamondre Stevenson, you know you are looking at a football player. The 6'0’, 231 pound RB was the 120th selection overall by the New England Patriots. The bruising north/south runner tops out at a 4.64 60 speed and brings a mean streak to the line of scrimmage.
In two seasons at Oklahoma, Stevenson rushed 165 times for 1,180 yards and 13 TDs. He added 28 receptions for 298 yards to finish second in the Big 12 with a 6.6 yard average every time he touched the ball. Stevenson went on to be named the 2020 Cotton Bowl MVP.
The Patriots run the ball a hefty 51.3% of the time and they share that load with a committee. In fact, seven different RBs handled the ball for the Patriots. James White was on the field for 33% of the offensive snaps, Damien Harris 25%, and Sony Michel took 18%. The team was third in the NFL in rushing attempts, fourth in rushing yards, sixth in rushing TDs, and eighth in rushing yards per attempt. Bill Belichek and Josh McDaniels had the ground game humming.
When you break down the numbers, the involvement of Patriot running backs in the offemse is staggering. Harris and Michel combined for a total of 216 rushing attempts while the other five backs shared the other 130. In the passing game, White and Rex Burkhead saw 95 targets while the rest of the crew had 32 combined. To top it all off, Cam Newton rushed the ball 137 times for 592 yards and 12 TDs. So where does Stevenson fit in with all of this?
In his case, it is not so much as finding a place on the depth chart but rather, it is about vying for a role and a share of the offensive snaps. One role in particular that suits Stevenson’s running style will be goalline looks. Redzone turnovers are a killer in the NFL and Stevenson’s lone college fumble spraks to his dedication to ball security, a trait Belichek is sure to favor and reward.
2021 Fantasy Value - Moderate
Javian Hawkins, Atlanta Falcons
In three seasons at Louisville, Javian Hawkins rushed 399 times for 2,355 yards, 16 TDs and a stellar 5.9 yards per rushing attempt. He added 21 catches for 189 yards and another TD.
Hawkins is a tough and explosive runner, two qualities every NFL team looks for in a RB. Of his 399 rush attempts, 65 went for 10 or more yards with his longest being a 90-yard TD run. Add to that a 3.71 yards after contact average and it is no wonder Hawkins broke the school rushing record in 2019 with 1,525 yards. The Atlanta Falcons liked what they saw and signed the undrafted free agent.
In 2020 the Falcons ranked dead last in the NFL in yards per rush attempt and 27th in rushing yards. As a team that ran only 37.6% of the time last year, new head coach Arthur Smith and offensive coordinator Dave Ragone look to revamp the Falcon run game. Both coaches came from run-oriented offenses in Tennessee and Chicago and with new free agent Mike Davis taking over as RB1 from departed Todd Gurley, the Falcon run game looks to improve from last year's performance.
The Falcon depth chart is odd to say the least. Generally thought of as a WR or kick returner, Cordarrelle Patterson sits as the RB2 on the depth chart. In 2020 with Chicago, Patterson rushed 64 times for 232 yards and one TD in 199 snaps. His 3.6 yards per rushing attempt does nothing to clarify what his role in Atlanta will be. Qadree Ollison and Tony Brooks-James round out the backfield but it is hard to imagine, based on past performance, that either of the two are set to have breakout years. Ollison touched the ball only once in 2020 and Brooks-James rushed a mere three times for four yards.
The 5'9’, 196 pound Hawkins has a legitimate chance to elevate to the RB2 on this shallow Falcons roster. Simply put Patterson, Ollison, and Brooks-James are not the answer for Atlanta. Smith also brings over an offensive philosophy with him that saw his Titans run the ball 112 more times than the 2020 Falcons, a workload fit for Derick Henry, not Mike Davis.
Two issues need to be addressed by Hawkins during OTAs and the pre-season. First, he displayed a bad habit of putting the ball on the ground in 2020. Three fumbles on 131 rushing attempts does not breed confidence from a head coach. Secondly, Hawkins needs to show that he can be a weapon in the passing game as well. Unfortunately, his 21 receptions in three years of college do not exactly make him a threat on passing downs.
2021 Fantasy Value - Low
Kenneth Gainwell, Philadelphia Eagles
When Memphis Tiger Kenneth Gainwell touched the ball in college, he scored an incredible 5.8% of the time. In 2019, he finished first in the ACC with 2,069 yards from scrimmage with 38 runs of 10 yards or more.
Gainwell finished the 2019 season as a threat in the running and receiving game. He lined up on 283 of the passing downs, slightly more than the 243 running snaps he lined up for. Gainwell finished the season with 292 total touches for 2,069 yards, 16 TDs and a 7.6 average yards per touch. His power was on display with his 791 total yards after contact, an impressive average of 3.45 yards after contact.
The good news for Gainwell is that the pass heavy Eagles (62.4%) are an excellent fit for his skill set and 12.0 yard per reception average. The bad news, on the other hand, is that the Eagle RB room is standing room only.
Miles Sanders: Hamstring injury aside, 2020 saw Sanders play in 12 games where he averaged 5.5 yards per touch and he scored six times. In 22 career games Sanders has rushed 343 times for 1,685 yards and caught the ball 78 times for another 706 yards. He has scored 12 times and averages 4.9 yards per run and 9.1 yards per catch. In games that he plays in, Sanders is on the field for 53.27% of the snaps.
Boston Scott: In relief of Sanders last season, Scott started four games where he rushed 80 times for 374 yards and caught another 25 passes for 212 yards. Scott owns a career catch rate of 79% with an 8.5 yard average per reception and 4.4 yard average per rush.
Jordan Howard: Definitely on the down turn of his career Howard can still score TDs. Since 2019 the goalline back has rushed 189 times for 645 yards and 14 touchdowns.
Kerryon Johnson: Johnson has never really had the faith of his coaches only garnering 32% of available snap counts but looking at the numbers shows that he can be a weapon. In 34 career games Johnson has 344 touches for 1,752 yards and 11 TDs.
On a team that was 23rd in the NFL in rushing attempts but was 9th in yards and 3rd in yards per rushing attempt, how is Gainwell going to make any headway in the Eagles muddled backfield? The answer is simple. Ball security.
Despite being at the bottom of the ladder, Gainwell does have an opportunity to establish himself as the RB2 in the Eagles offense. Despite all of the offensive prowess of the RBs in front of Gainwell, they all have fumble issues. For their careers, Sanders has six fumbles, Scott has six fumbles, Jordan has six fumbles and Johnson has three. Gainwell fumbled only twice in college.
The RB competition battle is one that will probably last all training camp and into the pre-season. Gainwell is the perfect candidate to replace Howard’s goal line looks, which amounted to four TDs on nine attempts inside the 10. But trying to leapfrog Scott as the RB2 in the offense this upcoming year is an aggressive goal. Gainwell is an excellent add to any fantasy roster but will be most valuable in Dynasty or Keeper leagues.
2021 Fantasy Value - Low
Jermar Jefferson, Detroit Lions
With the 257th pick of the 2021 NFL draft, the Detroit Lions turned in Oregon St. RB Jermar Jefferson’s card. As a true freshman in 2018, Jefferson won the PAC-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year with 1,527 yards from scrimmage and 12 TDs. An ankle injury in 2019 held Jefferson out but he bounced back nicely in 2020 with a First-Team All PAC-12 team, and a ranking of 4th in the FBS with 143 rushing yards per game.
Jefferson’s collegiate career ended with 557 touches for 3,222 yards, 29 TDs and a 5.8 yard average per touch. His explosiveness was highlighted by his 78 runs of 10 or more yards, the longest being 82. He showed a decent ability to break tackles running for an additional 1,617 yards after contact.
Heading into the 2021 season, new head coach Dan Campbell will need to address a running game that ranked 30th in rushing attempts, 30th in rushing yards, and 26th in rushing yards per attempt. With the exodus of starters Matthew Stafford, Adrian Peterson, Kerryon Johnson, Marvin Jones, and Kenny Golladay, Campbell will look to right the listless ship that is the Lions offense.
The feeling around the league is that the time is now for D’Andre Swift. Drafted 35th overall in 2020, Swift has the table set for him to take the RB1 job and run with it. He saw action in 13 games during his rookie season, touching the ball 160 times for 878 yards and 10 TDs. His 5.5 yard average per touch was impressive but his three fumbles were not.
Currently sitting second on the depth chart, newly acquired Jamaal Williams poses the biggest threat to Swift’s fantasy value. In four seasons with the Green Bay Packers, Williams saw 622 touches for 2,946 yards, and 18 TDs. Just as impressive is that Williams did not have a single fumble. Williams is most certainly to be involved in the Lions offense in 2021.
2021 is going to be a difficult season for Jefferson to make any real fantasy noise. Swift ranked fourth in the NFL for passing targets with 57 and his 38% snap share will increase with Peterson’s 168 vacated touches. Some of those will fall to Williams who was on the field for 40% of the Packers’ offensive snaps. His 4.2 yards per rush average and 4.7 yard average per touch make Williams a vital part of the Lions offense, and not simply as a backup to Swift.
Jefferson will seek to carve out his piece of the pie during training camp but realistically, barring injury, he will be a change of pace back that sees mop up duty when warranted. Both Swift and Williams have demonstrated the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, something Jefferson will need to improve on in order to function in an NFL offense.
2021 Fantasy Value - Low
Kylin Hill, Green Bay Packers
In terms of a collegiate career, it is hard to top Mississippi State’s Kylin Hill. Hill was a First-Team All SEC in 2019 and won the Conerly Trophy for being the best player in the state of Mississippi. Hill was a horse in 2019 leading the SEC in rush attempts. His career numbers are robust with 519 touches for 3,166 yards, 22 TDs and a 6.1 yard per touch average. Hill had 74 runs of 10 or more yards and his yards after contact averaged 3.4 per attempt. Hill left college with a solitary fumble to his name.
Have you ever bought a brand new car and just sat admiring it in your driveway? Well this offseason the Packers bought two when they re-signed Aaron Jones for $48 million and A.J. Dillion for $5 million. As a 7th round draft pick, Hill has some work to do.
Pass catching is vital in Matt Lafleur’s system for RBs. Aaron Jones was the Packers’ third leading receiver with 63 targets and former Packer Jamaal Williams was sixth with 35 targets. Much of what Aaron Rodgers does downfield is predicated on the Packers’ RBs drawing coverage as receivers. Hill is very well suited for this role averaging 9.4 yards per receptions and scoring nine TDs through the air.
The good news for Kylin Hill hopefuls is that he should slide right into third place on the depth chart rather quickly. Undrafted free agent Patrick Taylor has yet to see an NFL snap as has Mike Weber. Dexter Williams has not impressed in his two seasons with seven rush attempts for a mere 19 yards. There is an opportunity for Hill to move up the depth chart.
With Jamaal Williams now in a Lions’ uniform, his 150 touches will fall to Dillion, whose yard per touch average is even better at 5.5. Jones saw the lion share of the RB touches last year with 248. Lafleur will look to preserve the health of his lead back and increase Dillion’s workload from the 48 touches he saw last year.
Hill's fantasy value is no more than a deep stash on your roster. In a best case scenario for 2021, Hill climbs the ladder to third on the depth chart and gets some change of pace opportunities or plays to close out blowout games. Unless a significant injury occurs to Jones or Dillion, Hill does not forecast to have much of a fantasy impact in the coming season.
2021 Fantasy Value - Low
So there you have it folks. Even after the big three in Najee Harris, Travis Etienne and Javon Williams are off the board, there is still value to find with other rookie RBs. Knowing how each back’s skill set fits in with their new team’s offensive scheme, as well as evaluating their fantasy football ceiling for 2021, is critical in determining which rookie can be that missing ingredient to your championship run!
Thank you for reading my article. Do you agree or disagree with my analysis of any of these 8 RBs? Please leave a comment or message me @jferris72
Editor: Joe Simonetti (@joesimonetti77)
Graphic work: Dan Made Graphics (@DanMadeGraphics)