10 upside RBs to draft in 2021


As I mention in my recent article on my 2021 fantasy football rankings, I place a premium on upside:

When I play fantasy, I don’t want just to make the playoffs. I want to win the league. And that requires capturing some ceiling performances from a few players. If you want to win in fantasy, you don’t hunt for bargains: You hunt for dragons.

Beating average draft position (ADP) across the board is nice, but what matters most is destroying ADP with a few season-altering players — the guys who actually win fantasy championships.

It’s the degree — not the frequency — of your victories that matters most. Winning a war is more important than winning almost every battle. Just ask Robb Stark.

When I draft — even in the early rounds, but especially in the later rounds — I’m looking for kings. Like Littlefinger, I want everything.

Yes, I happen to be rewatching Game of Thrones right now, why do you ask?

Based on our FTN ADP tool, here are 10 running backs I like right now at cost, given the upside they have and the heights to which they might climb on the ladder of chaos.

Antonio Gibson, RB13

Even in May, Derek Brown identified Antonio Gibson as a strong buy candidate “who could be a league winner if he hits his ultimate ceiling.”

I respectfully disagree: I think Gibson could be a league winner even if he doesn’t hit his ultimate ceiling — because his true upside is RB1.

Gibson is basically the arbitrage version of Jonathan Taylor: He’s firmly in his second- and third-year breakout window, he’s coming off a 2015 David Johnson-esque rookie season (1,042 yards and 11 touchdowns from scrimmage in 14 games), and he flashed an elite combination of size and athleticism (228 pounds, 4.39-second 40-yard dash) at the 2020 combine.

More of a receiver than runner in college, Gibson has the requisite pass-catching ability to be a true three-down lead back in the NFL, and with quarterback Ryan Fitzpatrick, the Washington Football Team should have a significantly better offense this year.

It’s not a certainty that Gibson will take a 2018 Christian McCaffrey-like second-year step forward under offensive coordinator Scott Turner, but he certainly has the potential to do so.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB16

In Episode 1 of the Primetime Fantasy Football podcast, high-stakes dominators Nelson Sousa and Matthew Davis talk about all the reasons you should be bullish on Clyde Edwards-Helaire in 2021.


Sousa in particular is very high on Edwards-Helaire, who is one of his breakout running backs of 2021. For more of Sousa’s thoughts on Edwards-Helaire, check out his fantasy football bold predictions.

And of course, I cannot recommend highly enough Sousa’s high-stakes fantasy package, which comes with coach sessions and his rankings.

Here’s why I’m high on Edwards-Helaire: He’s a second-year lead back with a first-round pedigree and three-down skill set. Even in a disappointing rookie campaign, he had 1,100 yards and five touchdowns on 181 carries and 54 targets in 13 games last year.

The Chiefs have overhauled their offensive line, which should be significantly better this year with the additions of left tackle Orlando Brown, left guard Joe Thuney and center Austin Blythe.

With the departure of veteran Le’Veon Bell, Edwards-Helaire now has little competition for snaps on the depth chart, which means he has a legitimate shot at 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns as the top back in an offense guided by quarterback Patrick Mahomes and head coach Andy Reid. 

Myles Gaskin, RB25

Early in July, I jumped onto the Fade the Chalk podcast to talk with Derek Brown and Adam Pfeifer about some bold calls.


As I mentioned on the pod and later again in a piece on my top bold predictions for 2021, I believe that Myles Gaskin will be a top-12 fantasy back:

“He opened 2020 as a rotational player and missed six games to injury and COVID-19, but once he became the clear lead back in Week 3, Gaskin was an undeniable producer with 126-498-3 rushing and 31-326-2 receiving in his final eight games.

Gaskin is undersized: He’s currently listed at 5-foot-10 and 194 pounds. He will never be a Derrick Henry-like high-volume rusher. But he has a well-rounded three-down skill set, and with his receiving ability he can still capture a high percentage of his team’s touches: Last year starting in Week 3, Gaskin was No. 7 among all backs with a 33% share of his team’s opportunities (carries plus targets).

The Dolphins are likely to have an improved offense this year, and Gaskin’s competition on the depth chart (Malcolm Brown, Salvon Ahmed, Patrick Laird) is uninspiring. He should be the lead back once again, and if his 2021 usage looks anything like that of 2020 then he will be a fantasy RB1.”

In a recent FFPC Pros vs. Joes slow draft, I was very happy to get Gaskin as the RB26 near the end of Round 5.

Damien Harris, RB34

Ace beat reporter Mike Reiss of ESPN views Damien Harris as the “surefire No. 1 option” in the Patriots backfield, so he has significant upside.

Last year, Harris was No. 6 with a 14% gash rate among all running backs with 100-plus carries (per our Advanced Rushing Stats Tool). Entering his third year, Harris has underappreciated talent as a rusher, and he’s also capable as a receiver: In college, he was 22-204-0 receiving as a senior.

Plus, we ought not forget about his all-important longstanding Alabama connection with rookie first-round quarterback Mac Jones

I’m joking (probably), but the addition of Jones to the Patriots is worth considering. Last year, Harris had 10-plus carries in all but one of his 10 active games, and he played well with 5.0 yards per carry and 7.4 yards per target – but he had just three carries inside the five-yard line and only seven targets.

But that was in a COVID-impacted season with quarterback Cam Newton, who hogged all the goal-line carries for himself and rarely checked the ball down to running backs.

Jones isn’t guaranteed to win the starting job at any point this year –  but if he does then Harris will likely see more high-value carries and targets in 2021, and if the Pats offense improves even a little bit, then Harris could find himself with a 1,200-yard, 12-touchdown campaign as the top back in a run-heavy offense propelled by perhaps the league’s best run-blocking offensive line, which produced an NFL-high 2.13 yards before contact on non-quarterback runs last year. 

Michael Carter, RB35

Michael Carter is one of the rookies I’m betting on for 2021. Literally. I’ve bet the over on his rushing prop of 575.5 yards at BetMGM.

To see the other bets I’ve made for the upcoming NFL season — including a side or total for every Week 1 game — check out our FTN Bet Tracker.

Carter is one of Derek Brown’s favorite breakout running backs for this season.

Under OC Mike LaFleur, the Jets are likely to utilize a Shanahan-style zone-blocking run scheme, and that should suit Carter well, who has a three-down skill set and little competition on the depth chart.

In his final year at North Carolina, Carter put up 1,512 yards and 11 touchdowns from scrimmage with an average of 8.0 yards per carry and 10.7 yards per reception.

Even as a rookie, Carter could drastically outperform his ADP with a top-15 season.

Trey Sermon, RB36

Trey Sermon impressed in his lone season at Ohio State, where he displayed great vision and tackle-breaking ability as a zone-scheme steamroller

Now with the 49ers, Sermon – the No. 4 back selected in the draft – could emerge as the lead rusher in Kyle Shanahan’s running back-friendly offense. 

Sermon is one of Nelson Sousa’s mid-round running back targets, which automatically makes him someone to consider in fantasy drafts.

A.J. Dillon, RB37

It has been almost a year since A.J. Dillon almost broke Twitter with his thighs …

The dude’s quads are nicknamed “Quadfather” and “Quadzilla,” and he can literally crush a watermelon with his legs.

Quarterback Aaron Rodgers will in fact play for the Packers this year – what a surprise! – so the Green Bay offense should continue to put up points, and Dillon is slotted for a contributing role now that running back Jamaal Williams is gone.

And if starter Aaron Jones suffers an injury or underperforms and loses his job as the No. 1 back, then Dillon could dominate. In his three years at Boston College, Dillon was the entirety of the offense with 4,382 yards and 38 touchdowns rushing in 35 games, and in his one game last year as a lead back, Dillon did his best Derrick Henry impersonation with 21-124-2 rushing.

Dillon isn’t especially likely to overtake Jones, but if he somehow becomes the lead back, he could finish as a top-six back. 

Gus Edwards, RB43

Adam Pfeifer thinks that Gus Edwards is the best fantasy value on the Ravens, and I agree.

Sure, Edwards is likely to play behind running back J.K. Dobbins in 2021, but over the past three seasons, only two players in the NFL have had 100-plus carries and averaged at least 5.0 yards per carry each year: Nick Chubb … and Edwards.

With quarterback Lamar Jackson, the Ravens have a voluminous and prolific rushing attack that opens up running lanes for the backs, and Edwards is slated for regular usage this year as a trusted-and-efficient between-the-tackles grinder at worst – and if Dobbins doesn’t live up to the hype for whatever reason, then Edwards could be in line for a 2019 Mark Ingram-like 1,200-yard, 15-touchdown season.

Since entering the league in 2018, Edwards has been one of the league’s most north-south hit-the-hole running backs (based on his Efficiency Metric at Next Gen Stats): 

  • 2020: 3.2 Efficiency (No. 3)
  • 2019: 2.93 Efficiency (No. 1)
  • 2018: 2.78 Efficiency (No. 1)

His talent and potential in the Ravens offense are undeniable.

Alexander Mattison, RB48

Alexander Mattison is a solid producer with 4.6 yards per carry and 7.7 yards per target for his career, and the Vikings selected him as a 21-year-old rookie with third-round draft capital two years ago, so the team at least values him.

Mattison won’t see much work as a change-of-pace option behind lead back Dalvin Cook, but Mattison is one of the best pure handcuffs available. He was disappointed last year in Week 6 filling in for an injured Cook, but in Mattison’s seven career games with 12-plus carries, he has averaged 85.6 scrimmage yards.

And in his two games with 16-plus carries, he has averaged 140.5 yards. The sample is small, but it is encouraging. If Cook misses time for some reason, Mattison will be a top-12 back for the duration. 

Latavius Murray, RB49

Latavius Murray is already 31 years old and a relatively unexciting player – but over the past two years with the Saints, he has averaged 852 yards and 5.5 touchdowns from scrimmage as the change-of-pace option behind Alvin Kamara.

Without longtime franchise quarterback Drew Brees, the Saints might rely more on the running game, which could result in more overall usage for Murray, especially near the beginning of the season when the team is expected to be without No. 1 wide receiver Michael Thomas.

And if Kamara happens to suffer an injury, then Murray will be a league winner. Over the past two years, Murray has averaged 127 yards and 1.5 yards from scrimmage in his four games with 16-plus carries.

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