2021 Rookie Fantasy Football Rankings - RB
FTN's Jeff Ratcliffe sorts out his dynasty ranks for this year's crop of rookie running backs.
Apr 08, 2021, 1:59 PM EDT
Our pre-NFL draft rookie fantasy football rankings continue today with a look at running back. This year’s class doesn’t have a standout at the top like we’ve seen with players like Saquon Barkley at the top, but the overall depth means a number of these players will be fantasy options at some point in their careers. The best part about running backs for fantasy purposes is that they have the best chance of making an immediate fantasy impact in Year 1.
Keep in mind this is only an initial list to get us set for the combine. Things will change over the next two months we learn more about these players, and then again after the 2021 NFL Draft. However, it’s important we have a baseline of how these players stack up against each other before the draft.
(See the QB dynasty rookie rankings.)
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1. Travis Etienne, Clemson
(Travis Etienne scouting report)
With a game tailor made for fantasy football, Etienne is a three-down back with home-run-hitting ability. In four years at Clemson, he found the end zone 78 times as a runner and receiver and averaged a hearty 7.2 yards per carry. Etienne especially made strides as a receiver in 2020, averaging 4.8 targets per game. That ranked eighth among running backs in NCAA last season. It’s that ability in the passing game that makes him such an interesting fantasy prospect. Coupled with his big-play upside, Etienne is on the fast track to immediate fantasy success.
Player comp: Jamaal Charles
2. Najee Harris, Alabama
(Najee Harris scouting report)
One of the highest-profile fantasy names in this year’s class, Harris is a true three-down back with impressive size. While he doesn’t possess game breaking speed like Etienne, Harris is a polished runner who leaves Alabama as the school’s all-time rushing leader. He’s also silky smooth as a receiver and can catch anything you throw at him. However, at 23 years old, his age is a knock for dynasty purposes. Keep his shorter shelf life in mind. That said, he will no doubt hit the ground running as an instant impact fantasy option.
Player comp: Le'Veon Bell
3. Javonte Williams, North Carolina
(Javonte Williams scouting report)
In a word, Williams’ 2020 season was special. He exploded onto the NFL radar with a massive 7.44 yards per carry, 22 combined scores and 76 forced missed tackles. Williams also flashed improved chops in the passing game. Williams doesn’t have game-breaking speed, but he’s physical and has a nose for the end zone. He scored a rushing touchdown on 12.1% of his attempts in 2020, which was the fourth-highest rate in the nation. With three-down ability and the physicality necessary to play on Sundays, Williams has the look of a future fantasy RB1.
Player comp: Aaron Jones
4. Trey Sermon, Ohio State
Though he’s a tier below the top three options in this year’s class, we shouldn’t sleep on Sermon. Caught up in depth chart logjams for much of his career, we finally saw what he was capable of as the bell cow down the stretch for Ohio State in 2020. Sermon won’t blow you away with speed, but he has plus vision and the ability to make defenders miss. He’s also better than his numbers suggest in the passing game. Sermon doesn’t necessarily have an elite fantasy ceiling, but he has the look of someone we’re going to be using as a starter on our rosters. He’s a future RB2-plus.
Player comp: Chris Carson
5. Michael Carter, North Carolina
(Michael Carter scouting report)
While his size might lead you to think that Carter is destined for change-of-pace work at the pro level, don’t take the cheese. Carter player bigger than his size at North Carolina, racking up 113.2 rushing yards per game and averaging the fourth-most yards per attempt (7.9) in the nation last season despite splitting work with Javonte Williams. Carter may not be a 200-plus carry type in the NFL, but he has the skill set to be a major contributor in the passing game with the ability to also give 150 carries in a season. He’s a good bet to emerge as a quality RB2 option.
Player comp: Austin Ekeler
6. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis
(Kenneth Gainwell scouting report)
Memphis has had a recent string of running backs in the NFL, and that continues with Gainwell. A high school quarterback who was recruited as a receiver, Gainwell offers a versatile skill set and is arguably the best pass catching back in this year’s class. He opted out of 2020, so we essentially only have one year of production from him in 2019. That said, Gainwell averaged 104.7 rushing yards per game and posted a healthy 610 receiving yards. Though he doesn’t have prototype NFL size, Gainwell’s plus ability as a receiver makes him a contender to be a future fantasy option with a PPR profile.
Player comp: Theo Riddick
7. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State
A 2,000-yard rusher in 2019, Hubbard elected to return to Oklahoma State in 2020 and likely hurt his draft prospects in the process. But the good thing for fantasy is that we don’t care what round a player is drafted in if he ends up producing. Hubbard certainly has the potential to do so given his major speed and ability to cut on a dime. There’s three-down potential with Hubbard, though he’s a bit lean to handle an NFL bell cow workload. Hubbard also had a fumbling issue over the last two years. Still, his world-class speed and decisive running make him one of the better fantasy prospects in this year’s class.
Player comp: Tevin Coleman
8. Jermar Jefferson, Oregon State
(Jermar Jefferson scouting report)
As consistent as they come in this year’s class, Jefferson exploded into his college career with over 1,500 scrimmage yards on 264 touches. He possesses NFL size for the position and showed impressive vision and change-of-direction skills at Oregon State. That said, Jefferson lacks elite speed and tested poorly at his pro day the explosion and agility drills. For dynasty purposes, he enters the league very young at just 21 years old, which is certainly a plus. Despite his middling athleticism, Jefferson is a good football player who can certainly surfaces as a fantasy option in the right system.
Player comp: Devontae Booker
9. Kylin Hill, Mississippi State
A downhill runner powerful runner, Hill saw his role dramatically change with Mike Leach taking over last season. In three games in 2020, Hill only carried the ball 15 times, but he flashed plus ability as a receiver with 23 catches. But given what we saw in 2019, Hill is a capable early-down runner who put up plus numbers in the explosion drills. However, he lacks a top gear and doesn’t have the best vision. Hill doesn’t profile as the sexiest fantasy option, but his solid chops as an inside runner and ability in the passing game give him some low upside appeal.
Player comp: Wayne Gallman
10. Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma
A throwback running back who is built like a tank, Stevenson made his way to Oklahoma via the JuCo level. He’s a one-cut back who has a sweet spin move. Stevenson also has the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield. He does have a tendency to bounce things outside and enters the NFL with a limited resume at the Division 1 level. However, Stevenson’s size will help him land a spot on a roster. He could end up having a Gus Edwards-like career arc, which gives him an outside shot at surfacing on the fantasy radar.
Player comp: Gus Edwards
11. Elijah Mitchell, Louisiana-Lafayette
(Elijah Mitchell scouting report)
With some of the best testing numbers in the class, Mitchell is a souped-up athlete with prototype NFL size and three years under his belt as one of the feature backs in Louisiana. In the process he showed impressive elusiveness and ability to contribute in the passing game. His numbers paint a very favorable picture, but we need to remember his lower level of competition. He also had the benefit of playing behind an excellent offensive line. That said, Mitchell’s intangibles make him one of the most interesting sleeper options in this year’s class.
Player comp: Zack Moss
12. Khalil Herbert, Virginia Tech
A graduate transfer from Kansas, Herbert broke out for Virginia Tech in 2020. Compactly built, Herbert has good speed and the ability to change direction quickly when on the move. He also showed a propensity for big plays last season. His ability in the passing game is a bit of a question mark, as he saw just 14 targets last season. Herbert also enters the NFL at tad on the old side at 23. He’s an interesting Day 3 prospect who figures to be more of a backup type, but like Mike Davis last season, could make a fantasy impact if given the opportunity.
Player comp: Mike Davis
13. Jaret Patterson, Buffalo
A prolific producer over the last three years at Buffalo, Patterson accomplished the Al Bundy-like feat of scoring eight touchdowns and rushing for 409 yards last season against Kent State. While he’s one of the shortest backs in this class, he’s a tank who has power and balance as a runner. He also offers plus ability as a receiver. Patterson doesn’t possess game-breaking speed, but he’s just a darn good football player. He’s the type of kid who can have success at the NFL level thanks to the chip he plays with on his shoulder. He one of the top fantasy dark horses in this year’s crop of rookie running backs.
Player comp: Devin Singletary
14. Javian Hawkins, Louisville
One of the most explosive athletes in this year’s running back class, Hawkins goes by the nickname “Playstation.” Watching him play, you can see exactly why. Hawkins is a big play waiting to happen. He has plus short area quickness and breakaway speed. He also showed impressive chops in the passing game. Of course, all of this good comes with a lack of NFL size. We have seen players like Nyheim Hines and Tarik Cohen have some success at the pro level with similar profiles, so there’s a very real chance Hawkins surfaces on the fantasy radar thanks to his high-end athleticism.
Player comp: Tarik Cohen
15. Pooka Williams Jr., Kansas
Williams is a scatback type with home-run ability. He put up big-time numbers in 2018 with 7.11 yards per carry and also impressed in the passing game with 32 catches on the year. Unfortunately, his efficiency has dipped since then with Williams barely cracking 4.0 yards per carry and catching just six balls in four games last season. While his speed is a plus, Williams is extremely light for an NFL running back and there’s a chance he ends up being cast as a special team return specialist at the next level.
Player comp: Donnel Pumphrey
16. Larry Rountree III, Missouri
Roundtree checks the box for NFL size, but his testing numbers leave something to be desired in terms of his speed and explosiveness. At Missouri he served as a workhorse, racking up 746 carries and 47 catches over the last four years. While he is a sudden runner, Roundtree only comes with one speed and doesn’t offer much after contact. However, his size and ability to operate between the tackles makes him a candidate to emerged as a committee piece in and NFL backfield. He’s worth monitoring.
Player comp: Jeffery Wilson
17. Rakeem Boyd, Arkansas
Boyd showed explosive ability in 2019, but then took a step back last season and didn’t even crack 4.0 yards per carry. He also went out and had some of the worst testing numbers from any of this year’s running back prospects in the pro day circuit. But to be fair, his 2019 season was impressive. He flashed homerun hitting ability and was as sure-handed as they come. He’ll likely get a crack at being on an NFL roster, but he doesn’t profile as a future fantasy option.
Player comp: Alexander Mattison
18. Jake Funk, Maryland
It feels like every year there’s a running back who emerges out of the woodwork in the pre-draft process thanks to monster testing numbers. This year, Funk is that player. The Maryland product tested out favorably in every event at his pro day with an especially impressive performance in the 3-cone. That athleticism will go a long way for Funk, who plays with a punishing style. He isn’t going to make you miss, but Funk won’t shy away from contact. Given his athletic traits, he has a lot in common with Mike Boone, so there’s an outside chance he surfaces on the fantasy radar.
Player comp: Mike Boone
19. Chris Evans, Michigan
Extremely athletic, Evans enters the draft with a recent resume that lacks substance after he was suspended for the entire 2019 season for academics. Despite that knock, Evans has an NFL build and the ability to play all three downs. He’s a deeper name to monitor.
20. Stevie Scott III, Indiana
Scott is a decisive downhill runner who comes with NFL size. He leaves a lot to be desired in terms of athleticism and elusiveness, but he’s a solid player who also has plus ability in the passing game. He’s a sneaky deep name to know.
21. Deon Jackson, Duke
Jackson is a bigger back with plus speed and explosion who fits in a zone scheme. Fumbles were an issue last season, and his work in the passing game fell off. But his 14.7 attempts per game in 2020 was the most by a Duke RB in the past four seasons.
22. Demetric Felton, UCLA
A hybrid offensive weapon, there’s a chance Felton is labeled a wide receiver at the NFL level. That might be better for his chances to make an impact, as his overall profile is similar to that of Ty Montgomery.
23. Trey Ragas, Louisiana-Lafayette
Big and physical, Ragas is a four-year player who put up consistent production for the Ragin Cajuns. He’s tough to bring down but has no wiggle and doesn’t get to top speed quickly. Ragas also won’t do much in the passing game.
24. Kene Nwangwu, Iowa State
Dripping with athleticism, Nwangwu put on a show at his pro day. He also has NFL size. Of course, Nwangwu was lightly used at Iowa State and may not end up being anything more than a special teamer. However, his athletic prowess puts him on the fantasy watch list.
25. Greg McCrae, UCF
Undersized, but explosive, McCrae has the ability to make big plays happen on the football field. While not used heavily in the passing game, he’s a capable receiver. Despite the positive traits, his size will likely hold him back at the pro level.
26. Josh Johnson, Louisiana-Monroe
Short and stout, Johnson has plenty of wiggle, which was on full display in 2019. However, his efficiency dropped off dramatically last season with just 3.6 yards per carry and 2.8 yards after contact per attempt.
27. CJ Marable, Coastal Carolina
A two-way back who is capable in the run game and as a receiver, Marable racked up 41 total touchdowns over the last three seasons. The production is encouraging, but Marable lacks NFL size and didn’t test particular well at his pro day.
28. Gary Brightwell, Arizona
Brightwell offers toughness and an NFL body. He was lightly used at Arizona, maxing out with 100 touches in 2020. He also comes with just one speed, and as his testing numbers show, that speed isn’t particularly fast.
29. Caleb Huntley, Ball State
Though he only played three games in 2020, Huntly averaged a massive 26.7 rushing attempts per game and 145.7 rushing yards per game. He can handle the volume but doesn’t have NFL speed and won’t offer much in the passing game.
Player comp: Benny Snell
30. Spencer Brown, UAB
Brown is a bigger back who knows how to use his size to break tackles. He finished his career as the all-time rushing yards leader at UAB. But he’s more of a throwback option who won’t give you much of anything in the passing game.
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