We are now in the thick of summer when baseball is just treading water until the NFL preseason starts. Have no fear! I have my top 10 running backs post-draft.
Without getting too technical, my process heavily weighs volume for running backs. It has been shown that usage in college projects usage in the pros, with the occasional exception. Other college production metrics come into play such as efficiency AND volume is better than volume alone and of course draft capital equals opportunity which must be considered. Finally, yes, I do turn on the tape and see what traits jump out and how they convert their skills into the production the stats show.
This list reflects who I would prefer in a vacuum on talent alone. Landing spot is a bigger consideration for me at the running back position than it is for quarterbacks or receivers. So, there will be a higher likelihood of shuffling post draft on this list compared to other positions. Still, I think we should pick players mostly on talent first and the other factors are more like tie-breakers rather than a major consideration. See my pre-draft article for additional insight.
RB1 – Najee Harris – Pittsburgh Steelers
This is no surprise. Harris was the first back taken in the draft and lands on a team desperate for a lead runner. Additionally Mike Tomlin’s offenses have historically featured a single bellcow running back and Harris fits that mold perfectly. While I have some reservations about Harris as an elite athlete, there’s no denying he’s the RB1 in this class and I am comfortable drafting him as a back end RB1 immediately.
RB2 – Javonte Williams – Denver Broncos
Despite falling to the second round (as expected), Williams remains my second favorite back in this class. He has bellcow size and a surprisingly good production profile despite “breaking out” as a junior. He displayed great nuance for the position and while he can be a bully, I also think Williams can get small and avoid contact when appropriate. Denver is an interesting landing spot as they are still going to give touches to Melvin Gordon but lost Philip Lindsay to free agency. Royce Freeman remains on the last year of his rookie contract, but had failed to establish any type of consistent role. I’m sure the usage will be frustrating early for Williams backers, but be patient. A second half surge is likely, setting him up to be a buzzworthy 2022 asset.
RB3 – Travis Etienne – Jacksonville Jaguars
The first round draft capital really should propel Etienne ahead of Williams, but it’s not like he was a top 5 pick. His selection to Jacksonville wasn’t enough to make me forget about his inadequacies as a runner. I do think that an Urban Meyer spread is likely to enhance his skills stretching the field horizontally then using one cut to find a lane and go. My concern is that everything will be tighter in the NFL and Etienne doesn’t have the pure rushing ability/agility to make defenders miss. If he can routinely read blocking and diagnose lanes, my ranking may looks very foolish by October.
RB4 – Trey Sermon – San Francisco 49ers
My top 4 running backs remain the same after the NFL draft and I correctly pegged Sermon as the fourth guy in line. Kyle Shanahan agreed, and finally used a high draft pick at the position to select the Ohio State product. The 49ers made due with undrafted free agents as their top 2 producers in 2020, and let free agents Jerick McKinnon and Tevin Coleman walk in the offseason. Sermon and Elijah Mitchell come in and both have the highest draft capital on the depth chart. The big red flag on Sermon is that he never commanded a backfield in college, and may not in the NFL either. However, he has the size and physical attributes to have a chance. I think he’s the last back in the class that you can envision in a true feature role in the NFL.
RB5 – Michael Carter Jr. – New York Jets
The biggest post draft riser for me is Carter. I still have doubts about his long term viability but for 2021 he’ll presumably have a chance to prove his worth in short order. Any day 3 running back faces an uphill battle for fantasy relevancy, much less sustained success. However, former San Francisco passing game coordinator Mike LaFleur is now calling the shots in New York and we know the 49ers’ model has maximized a number of backs who were overlooked on draft day. Carter’s strengths line up with what the scheme features so it may be a good match, at least given the current depth chart. I wouldn’t reach over a day 2 receiver for Carter, but you could do worse somewhere in the second round of your rookie draft.
RB6 – Kenneth Gainwell – Philadelphia Eagles
After the top 4, this class really falls apart. If we squint real hard, Carter has an opportunity but from here on out these are long shots to become fantasy relevant. Gainwell earns this position due to the high likelihood he will be used or even featured in the passing game. In formats that earn points for receptions, the former Memphis Tiger can be a pleasant surprise. He was shorter than I was expecting and given his overall frame I don’t see him challenging Miles Sanders. His role is likely as an upgrade to what Boston Scott was doing in Philadelphia.
RB7 – Rhamondre Stevenson – New England Patriots
As the NFL zigs towards high volume passing, 3 wide base sets, and mobile QBs, the Patriots are signing tight ends and drafting statues in the pocket along with 240 pound sledgehammers in the backfield. Stevenson is a big back who plays more like Gio Bernard than Jerome Bettis. He can catch a little but ultimately I see him as an early down banger at best. I won’t pretend to know what the Pats have in mind, but the roster is a bit of a mess to me, and I am not really excited about any of their pieces this offseason.
RB8 – Chuba Hubbard – Carolina Panthers
With the departure of Mike Davis, Hubbard seems likely to slide in as the backup to Christian McCaffrey. In deep leagues, this is a noteworthy role and his long speed makes him an exciting stash. The draft capital does him no favors but there is room on the depth chart, so follow along this offseason to see if he can secure a “next man up” position in Carolina.
RB9 – Elijah Mitchell – San Francisco 49ers
Mitchell weighed lighter but tested faster than expected at his pro day. I don’t think his impressive athletic testing showed up in-game though. Much like a power hitter who can’t access his power in games, I did not see Mitchell tap into his agility or long speed very often on tape. He frequently was limited to the yards that were blocked, but rarely created new opportunities. Like Sermon, he lands in an extremely efficient rushing attack that has elevated marginal talents before. By virtue of playing for Kyle Shanahan, he stays on the top 10 fringe.
RB10 – Jermar Jefferson – Detroit Lions
A 7th round RB in the top 10? Sadly, that’s the case in this class. He get’s placed here because it is obvious the Lions will try to run the ball consistently and Swift does not seem to be a clear workhorse based on both his college use and some of the whispers out of Detroit. They brought in Todd Gurley for a workout and probably want to use multiple runners in a ground based offense. Jefferson could work his way into a top 2 spot on the depth chart given the weak nature of the roster and that makes him worthy of a late rookie draft pick.