What Changed in 2021: Running Backs


On Monday we took a look at some changes from the quarterback position over the course of the 2021 season. The running back position is up next, a position that is always changing year over year. 

Let’s take a look at what stood out from this past season, shall we?


Cordarrelle Patterson becomes an RB1 in fantasy football

During the summer, there were many debates regarding whether Mike Davis made for a strong fantasy option as the starting running back of the Atlanta Falcons. Would there be a ceiling? Could anyone compete for touches? 

About that…

Like a well-timed RKO, Cordarrelle Patterson came out of nowhere and not only carved out a role in the Atlanta offense, but for most of the season, he was the offense. He operated as both a running back and wide receiver for the Falcons, ultimately finishing the season averaging nearly 13 touches per game. His 52 receptions were fifth most among all running backs, while his 63 targets were eighth. Patterson lined up all over the formation, lining up out of the slot just over 18% of the time and out wide 31.7% of the time. The efficiency was through the roof, as Patterson was just 31st at the position in snaps but averaged 0.50 fantasy points per snap, a top-five number in football. He scored 11 touchdowns, helping him finish as the RB9 in PPR formats. Patterson was consistently involved in the passing game, as quarterback Matt Ryan did not take many shots down the field, sporting the eighth-lowest average depth of target (7.8 yards). As a result, only Leonard Fournette saw more first-read targets at the running back position than Patterson’s 43. 

It was awesome to see Patterson thrive in this new role, but entering the 2022 campaign, he is set to become a free agent. And although he’ll be 31 in February, this past season was the first time Patterson saw a full-time role on an offense. It’ll be interesting to see where he lands this offseason. 


The Buffalo Bills Backfield

Heading into the 2021 season, the Buffalo backfield was likely off many fantasy radars. Both Devin Singletary and Zack Moss were likely to split carries, while quarterback Josh Allen scores so many touchdowns on the ground. And as the season started, it appeared that both Singletary and Moss were going to be major busts. 

However, Moss dealt with some injuries and Singletary took over as the clear lead back. From Week 12 on, Singletary ranked seventh among all running backs in both carries (105) and rushing yards (455). During that span, he also scored the second-most rushing touchdowns in the league (5), while his 29 red zone carries were good for third in football. And keep in mind that Moss was healthy for most of those games but was inactive for many. Singletary posted a 74% snap share during the final seven weeks, while logging a total of 128 snaps during that stretch, sixth among running backs. He was the RB6 in fantasy during those seven games and it was legitimately shocking to see Singletary find the end zone. Bills running backs scored 12 rushing touchdowns this past season, up from the eight in 2020. While they had some issues in pass protection, Buffalo’s offensive line did succeed in the run game, as they created 1.91 yards before contact per rush (fifth best). 

Playing in Buffalo’s high-powered offense, Singletary won’t draw much attention from opposing defenses. In fact, according to NFL’s Next Gen Stats, Singletary saw a stacked box on just 13.8% of his carries, good for the eighth-lowest rate in football. That shouldn’t change going forward, especially if opposing defenses continue to play a ton of two-high looks against Buffalo. If the Bills don’t add much to their backfield this offseason, Singletary should be viewed as a solid RB2. 

Austin Ekeler’s Role

Austin Ekeler flirted with greatness in the 2020 season, averaging 16.5 PPR points per game in 10 outings. It was his first season as the starting running back for the Chargers, but even with Melvin Gordon gone, Los Angeles still didn’t fully commit to Ekeler, as he averaged just over 11 carries per game. He also only handled 19.6% of the team’s carries from inside the 10-yard line, easily a bottom-10 rate among running backs. Meanwhile, in his 10 active games, Ekeler only saw two carries from inside the 5-yard line, as Kalen Ballage and Joshua Kelley were often used in short-yardage situations. 

Fast forward to 2021 and Ekeler had one of the best roles in all of fantasy. Not only did Ekeler haul in 70 passes and lead all running backs in targets (94), but he also saw a huge uptick in red zone work. In fact, his 12 carries from inside the 5-yard line were tied for sixth among all running backs. He even saw over 52% of the Chargers rushing attempts from that part of the field, while his 10 goal-line carries were the seventh most in the league. Ekeler was efficient, too, converting seven of his 12 looks from inside the 5-yard line into touchdowns. Given the immense talent and outstanding role in a great offense, it shouldn’t be a surprise to see Ekeler finish as the RB2 in all of fantasy football behind only Jonathan Taylor.


Running Back Receptions

In 2021, rookie Najee Harris led all running backs with 74 receptions. Ekeler was right behind him with 70, but they were the only two running backs to catch at least 70 balls. It was the first time since the 2013 season where a running back failed to reach the 80-reception mark. Of course, Christian McCaffrey playing just seven games certainly impacts things, as he’s averaged 101 receptions during his three healthy seasons in the league. Pass-catching specialist James White played just three games. Alvin Kamara missed four games Still, no running back reached a 15% target share this past season, as the overall target share at the running back position over the course of the season was 19%, the second-lowest mark since the 2016 campaign. 

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