The more I think about it, wouldn’t it be great if you had yourself a fantasy football time machine?! Imagine traveling back in time to when your home league drafted. Now imagine you could scoop up all the breakout rookie running backs and then shove it in their faces? Sure, it sounds expensive and to be completely honest like a total waste of time machine equity. But man, would it feel absolutely incredible. Swaggering back in to confidently snag Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt as rookie running backs and gloat all the way to your league championship!
The sad truth is that we cannot predict the future or travel through time (yet). However, I’ll make the case that reading this article might just be the next best thing when it comes to finding breakout rookie running backs. Jump in my Delorian and I’ll crank up the 1.21 gigawatts of energy we need to journey back through RB space and time.
Our mission: Retrieve and analyze NFL running back data from 2015-2020 in order to understand the criteria needed for a rookie running back to successfully break out. We will use the data to help predict which 2021 NFL rookie running backs have a path to breaking out. We will then assign actionable fantasy value to each back so you can look like a rookie genius when you draft them this summer and all without having to build a time machine or buy plutonium.
Rookie Running Backs: Fantasy Football Breakout Backs
Everyone loves a good process story and do I have one for you! Think Rocky in the wilderness training for Drago, only with more website scrolling, so much number crunching, and considerably less lumberjacking. Here’s how it went down. I wanted to better understand how rookie running backs assimilate into the NFL. And how to exploit that information to make as much money as possible off of my family, friends, and sworn enemies in fantasy football this season. That meant using data from FantasyData.com, StatMuse.com, and 4for4.com. I compiled data on rookie running backs from the 2015-2020 seasons and then organized it, sorted it based on a variety of data points, and color-coded it to make it easy to understand and use.
After reviewing the running backs data from 2015-2020, several trends emerged that we can use to evaluate and project the 2021 rookie running back class. The criteria for rookie success that stood out as being most important to rookie success are:
- Pass-catching ability
- Draft capital
Using these data points as predictors, we will evaluate the top 12 running backs selected in the 2021 NFL Draft. We will also predict when they will break out during the 2021 season. “Break out” in this article will be defined as a running back who averages at least 12 points per game, which is RB2/3 range or roughly defined, a player you would start each week on your fantasy team.
Volume is King, Efficiency is Queen
Touches and Efficiency are Key
In an absolute shocker to no one, “running back touches” was the greatest indicator of fantasy success for the majority of rookie backs analyzed. Every back who touched the ball 250 times or more averaged over 14.7 fantasy points per game (except David Montgomery in 2019). In 2020, Ronald Jones was the last RB2 and he scored 13.3 points. We tend to discount rookies for their inexperience in their respective new offenses, but the data clearly points to their value when given the lion’s share of the backfield volume.
We’ve established that touches matter, but what you do with those touches matters just as much. As evidenced by Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffery, two of the most efficient backs in my data sample, who averaged 1.56 and 1.16 fantasy points per touch respectively. 81 of Kamara’s 201 and 80 of McCaffery’s 197 touches were catches, which are rookie fantasy gold in PPR leagues. For perspective, Jonathan Taylor out-touched Kamara by 134 touches as a rookie but was outscored by 62 fantasy points.
Not all touches are created equally. For every Alvin Kamara, there’s a Melvin Gordon, who averaged one whole point per touch less than Kamara as a rookie. Talk about the long haul, it would take Gordon three times the touches to score the same amount of points Kamara. Gordon’s was the only 1st round pick in my model who had over 200 touches and scored less than 110 fantasy points.
Target PPR Backs
There was no surprise that some of the most successful rookies were threats on the ground, as well as through the air. Running backs who catch passes are valuable and rookie running backs who do it are even more valuable when compared to their fellow rookies. 5 out of the top 10 (50%) pass-catching backs in my sample averaged over 1.1 fantasy points per touch. Only Leonard Fournette scored under 0.8 points per touch, which was the mean for the data sample.
The added value gained from being featured in your offenses’ passing game results in greater efficiency and more points per touch. This is particularly useful when you are comparing backs and projecting their ceilings in their new offenses. Pass catching backs like Travis Etienne, Kenny Gainwell, and Elijah Mitchell all carry increased value given their potential to be utilized as legitimate receiving options out of the backfield.
Draft Capital Matters
Top 20 Rookie Performances 2015-2020
- 1st Round Picks – 7 out 20 (35%)
- 2nd Round Picks – 5 out of 20 (25%)
- 3rd Round Picks – 5 out of 20 (25%)
- 4th – Undrafted – 3 out of 20 (15%)
55% of the top-scoring rookie running backs were 1st and 2nd round picks. A whopping 85% of the top 20 scoring backs were drafted in the top three rounds of their respective NFL drafts. This means that most of the top rookie production is going to come from the backs you most expect it from. Which shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone.
One outlier, James Robinson, was a true unicorn last year who stepped into the perfect situation for immediate fantasy success. JJ Zachariason nailed this last season when he tweeted about the immense opportunity the Jacksonville backfield presented at the start of last season.
One place Leonard Fournette could go to and see immediate volume is Jacksonville.
— JJ Zachariason (@LateRoundQB) August 31, 2020
Round 1 Data
Teams that invest their 1st round draft capital in a running back normally expect an immediate return on their investment. 90% of backs drafted in round one touched the ball at least 197 times from 2015-2020. Saquon Barkley and Ezekiel Elliot had over 350 touches in their rookie campaigns, which led to well over 300 fantasy points for both. 50% of the players scored 200 fantasy points or more, with 70% scoring at least 175 points. Only Melvin Gordon (2015), Rashaad Penny (2018), and Sony Michel (2018) failed to average over 13 fantasy points per game.
N. Harris (RB) – Pittsburgh Steelers – Pick 24
The Pittsburgh Steelers released James Conner in the off-season which immediately fueled speculation that they would be using their 1st round pick on a ball carrier. Insert 2020 Doak Walker Award winner Najee Harris out of the University of Alabama. He fits the Steelers mold as a three-down back who will be utilized in the passing game and should see the goal line carries.
Harris ticks our three criteria needed for rookie breakout success, and it’s no surprise he’s the consensus number one rookie for the majority of fantasy experts. Currently, my projections for Harris were calculated with an average fantasy points per touch of 0.83, which is slightly higher than the mean of 0.8 for all rookies in the sample. If Harris touches the ball close to 300 times this season, his floor is around 210 points with his ceiling being upwards of 270 points. I think Harris ends the season closer to 240 points, which is a back-end RB1.
T. Etienne (RB) – Jacksonville Jaguars – Pick 25
Drafted the very next pick after Harris, Travis Etienne finds himself in the polar opposite backfield situation in Jacksonville, who just had rookie running back James Robinson finish the 2020 NFL campaign as the RB7, scoring 250 points as an undrafted rookie.
Urban Meyer’s arrival as the Jaguar’s new coach brings uncertainty to a backfield that was 91% Robinson last season. Reports are that Meyer really wanted Kadarius Toney and pivoted to Etienne after the Giants drafted him five picks earlier. Speaking of Etienne, Meyers said, “He’s a slash- We did not recruit him just because he’s a running back.” Etienne spent time running routes from the wide receiver position during rookie minicamps in May, and all indications are that Robinson, Etienne, and veteran plodder, Carlos Hyde will also see action in a committee rotation.
— #ClemsonNFL (@ClemsonPros) April 10, 2021
The deck may seem stacked against his rookie breakout, but Etienne is a dynamic pass-catching back whose closest Player Profiler comp is Detroit Lions second-year back D’Andre Swift, who ranked 4th out 60 rookie backs in the data sample with 1.19 points per touch. Etienne’s potential lies in the passing game this season. I expect him to see close to 85 targets, haul in between 60-65 receptions, and rush for close to 600 yards, which lands him firmly in the RB2-3 range for fantasy.
Only Saquon Barkley (121), Christian McCaffery (113), and Alvin Kamara (100) have had over 65 targets as rookie backs since 2015, but given Etienne’s skillset and Meyer’s vision for him in this offense, 85 might be more of a floor projection than a ceiling. I’m comfortable heading into the season with Etienne as my RB3. According to 4for4, Etienne is currently being selected as the RB22 and has a reasonable ADP of just 5.02 in 12 team PPR leagues.
Round 2 Data
Over the last 6 seasons, running backs drafted in round two average roughly 25% fewer fantasy points per season than backs drafted in round one, 153.5 to 206.4. They were also out-touched on average by 60 touches. This doesn’t mean that backs drafted in round 2 will not break out, it just means that their path to breaking out isn’t always as immediate.
Take Jonathan Taylor for example. Through the first 10 weeks of the 2021 season, he was averaging 12.6 rushing attempts per week and was only scoring 11.9 points per game for fantasy managers. Weeks 11-17, Taylor’s role in the Colts’ offense increased and he averaged 19.8 rushing attempts per game and scored 24.28 points per game. Cam Akers sat around on the shelf, nursing injuries and getting acclimated to Sean McVay’s offense until he finally broke out in week 12, scoring 14.4 points, which was good enough for RB16, firmly in the mid RB2 range for the week.
J. Williams (RB) – Denver Broncos – Pick 35
The Denver Broncos selected Javonte Williams with the 35th overall pick. It seems clear they intend to replace aging veteran Melvin Gordon at the end of the 2021 season. Currently, Williams is being drafted as the RB28 with an ADP of 7.03 according to 4for4 mock draft data. The incumbent, Gordon, is being drafted as the next running back off the board as RB29 and the question it leaves us all begging is, “When will Williams takeover as the RB1 in the Bronco’s backfield?”
Williams is a dynamic back who brings power and versatility to a Broncos’ offense that only ranked 28th in points scored in 2020. Look for the Broncos to start Williams off with between 10-12 touches per game. This is typical for rookie backs who are joining a committee with an established veteran as a running mate. Gordon’s contract is up at the end of 20212, so expect the Broncos to increase Williams’s role in the offense as the season progresses. Williams might start the season on your bench, much like Cam Akers and J.K. Dobbins, only to elevate him to RB2 during the back half of the NFL season. He’s definitely worth targeting in the 7-8th round of redrafts leagues in 2021.
Rounds 3-4 Rookie Running Backs
The mid-round running backs in the sample can basically be classified into “Boom” or “Bust” categories led by studs like Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt juxtaposed with complete duds like Benny Snell and Samaje Perine. Once again the key to success is all about volume and PPR targets and draft capital. The top 5 scoring backs in this sample all were drafted in round 3. There’s a steep drop-off of talent and opportunity once the 4th round rolls around. Not one running back drafted in the round 4 has broken out (scored double
T. Sermon (RB) – San Francisco 49ers – Pick 88
Raheem Mostert’s plea for a long-term deal fell on John Lynch’s deaf ears. The San Francisco 49ers drafted two running backs in the 2021 NFL Draft. Trey Sermon with pick 88 and Elijah Mitchell with pick 194. Additionally, Jeff Wilson’s torn meniscus will sideline him through the start of the 2021 NFL season.
#49ers RB Jeff Wilson recently underwent surgery to repair a torn meniscus, sources say. Wilson is expected to miss four to six months, which means he’ll be sidelined through the start of the regular season.
— Mike Garafolo (@MikeGarafolo) May 25, 2021
Look for Trey Sermon to capitalize on Wilson’s absence and secure the RB2 role in the 49er’s offense to start the season. Given Sermon’s size, strength, and agility, he has the opportunity to start the season as the 49er’s short-yardage and goal-line back, and his role has the potential to expand from there. Time will tell if Sermon will be able to take over as the 49er’s RB1. That time might be coming sooner than later given the injury to Wilson. We’ve seen in the past that Kyle Shanahan is willing to give the rock to just about any running back on his roster. So long as they fit into his scheme.
Sermon is currently being drafted as the RB33 at the 8.08 spot in 12 team leagues. I’m comfortable drafting him as my RB3/4 and using him in my FLEX spot initially. His ceiling is currently as an RB2. Before you scoff, last year the 49ers running backs collectively scored 466.5 total fantasy points. This averages out to 29.2 fantasy points per game. Last season J.D. McKissic finished the season as RB17, averaging only 12 points per game. If Sermon sees over 200 touches this is well within his range of outcomes.
M. Carter (RB) – New York Jets – Pick 107
New York might not seem like the best landing spot for Michael Carter give that the Jet’s offensive line was so woeful in 2020, ranking 29th in the NFL according to PFF.com. The Jets front office acknowledged the need to improve their offensive line though when they drafted guard Alijah Vera-Tucker out of USC to play alongside 2020 rookie tackle Mekhi Becton.
It reportedly "won't be long before" fourth-round pick Michael Carter is the Jets' lead back. 👀
— NBC Sports EDGE (@NBCSportsEdge) June 2, 2021
What is intriguing about Carter is his one-cut and sprint style. He is a perfect fit for the outside zone scheme that Robert Saleh brings with him from his time working with Kyle Shanahan. Carter’s being drafted as the RB32 at the 8.07 spot in 12 team leagues. It seems like his absolute floor right now given his potential for 200 plus touches. So, I’m more than comfortable starting the season with Carter as my RB3.
K. Nwangwu (RB) – Minnesota Vikings – Pick 119
Kene Nwangwu’s only path to fantasy relevance would be through injuries to both Cook and backup running back Alexander Mattison. If Cook were to be shelved due to injury, Nwangwu might be worth a wavier wire flyer in deeper leagues.
R. Stevenson (RB) – New England Patriots – Pick 120
I’m not expecting much from Rhamndre Stevenson at the beginning of 2021. Especially given the emergence of Damien Harris last season and the continued veteran presence of first-round pick Sony Michel. The Patriots did not pick up Michel’s fifth-year option this offseason. This means that Stevenson could get more looks towards the end of the season. He’s a waiver wire guy to read the Belichick proverbial tea leaves with and monitor his usage as the season progresses. But what does Bill Belichick care about what I think?
C. Hubbard (RB) – Carolina Panthers – Pick 126
CMC or bust in 2021!! And if he does bust, Chuba Hubbard could find himself in a similar situation to Mike Davis. Davis finished 2020 as the RB12 with over 200 fantasy points after CMC’s injury. If CMC remains healthy, he is an afterthought. I’m not big on wasting a bench spot on handcuffs, but if your league rosters 18, he is worth a stash if you invested your 1.01 in Christian McCaffery.
— Cody Nagel (@CodyNagel247) May 26, 2021
Rounds 5 and Beyond Breakout Rookie Running Backs
K. Gainwell (RB) – Philadelphia Eagles – Pick 150
There are already hints that Kenneth Gainwell is going to see significant playing time. Gainwell projects as a strong complement to Miles Sanders. Eric Moody from 4for4.com is reporting that Eagle’s new head coach Nick Sirianni plans to feature Gainwell in the Nyheim Hines roll in the offense. He saw 76 targets and converted that to 63 receptions for 482 yards and two touchdowns, which helped him finish the 2020 season as RB15 in PPR leagues.
Gainwell’s ceiling in 2021 is closer to RB32 than anything else. That would be good for about 9 points a game and he is currently going undrafted at RB72. Boston Scott scored 95 points last season on 105 touches. There will be points scored in this offense and if Miles Sanders were to go down, Gainwell becomes an RB2/3. He’s worth a late-round flyer in 12 team leagues.
E. Mitchell (RB) – San Francisco 49ers – Pick 194
Elijah Mitchell is fast. 4.40 fast to be exact. His closest NFL comp is, get this, Jerick McKinnon. Yes, the one and the same Jerrick McKinnon who ended the 2020 season with these very same 49ers as the RB39, good for 126.1 fantasy points. Mitchell isn’t going to be a weekly starter, but there is a passing-down role for him. In an offense that targeted the running back position 137 times in 2020, he is a value. Mitchell will most likely be rostered by Week 6 so watch the waiver wire early.
— John Chapman (@JL_Chapman) May 27, 2021
C. Evans (RB) – Cincinnati Bengals – Pick 202
I’ll spare you the “Captain America” jokes and cut to the chase. Chris Evans has the potential to be a sneaky value this year. Joe Mixon has only played in 50 games the last four seasons. So there will be plenty of running back touches given the fast pace of play that Zac Taylor plans on pushing in 2021. Evans will go undrafted and you will be able to grab off the waiver wire the first few weeks of the season. Evans will be rostered in your league by the end of the season. I wouldn’t recommend handcuffing Mixon with Evans. However, be ready to add him to your squad if anything happens to Mixon.
D. Felton (RB) – Cleveland Browns – Pick 211
What makes running back Demetric Felton so interesting is his potential to operate in a Percy Harvin/Curtis Samuel role for the Browns. He could be lining up in the backfield and as a wide receiver, and possibly even returning kicks. I don’t think that he finds fantasy relevance unless there is an injury to Kareem Hunt or Nick Chubb. However, if you plan on drafting either back, Felton should be on your fantasy radar.
Demetric Felton: What the scouting reports said about the new Browns RB pre-drafthttps://t.co/utuzwelVvM
— The Browns Wire (@TheBrownsWire) June 3, 2021