Fantasy Football Draft Strategy: Running Backs

George Seliga
Gruden discusses injuries
Dec 13, 2020; Paradise, Nevada, USA; Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs (28) against Indianapolis Colts linebacker Anthony Walker (45) at Allegiant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to winning and building a solid fantasy football draft strategy, who you take at running back is vital. Getting a top-tier running back can make or break your season and, as we saw last year with Christian McCaffrey and Saquan Barkley, one injury could kill your team’s chances of winning it all. I’ll go over my top 10 running backs for fantasy football this year based on your league being a PPR format so you can build the best fantasy football draft strategy possible.

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Fantasy football draft strategy primer

Remember, when you’re scouting and making your lists to build your fantasy football draft strategy, a key is understanding who is coming out of training camp healthy and in a good position to get you points. Not fantasy football draft strategy is complete without getting up-to-speed with news around the league. Make sure before you consider the players below, you read the latest on their condition and their current role with their team.

The best, and most important, aspect of your fantasy football draft strategy is information and access to news about your prospective roster. Many times, less experienced players will create a fantasy football draft strategy based on a player’s past – not their future prospects. Don’t fall into that trap. Make sure to read the rest of our position and fantasy football draft strategy pieces here on the site. On we go…

Christian McCaffrey – Carolina Panthers

fantasy football draft strategy
Carolina Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey (22) runs after the catch during the Carolina Panthers Training Camp at Wofford College in Spartanburg, S.C. Mandatory Credit: Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

“Run CMC” – as he’s loving called – is coming off of a disappointing 2020 season where the injury bug bit him early in the year and his fantasy football strategy buffs, and many owners were left scrambling as he missed most of the season from a high ankle sprain and a shoulder sprain. When healthy, McCaffrey is one of the elite fantasy options as he can do damage on the ground while also being an elite receiving option in the passing game. Between the 2018 and 2019 seasons, McCaffrey combined for over 3,400 rushing/ receiving yards and totaled 32 touchdowns so when healthy, he can certainly produce. Be warned: many a fantasy football draft strategy will be built with Run CMC at or near the top. He won’t come cheap nor will he last long.

Dalvin Cook – Minnesota Vikings

Fantasy Football strategy Dalvin Cook
Minnesota Vikings running back Dalvin Cook (33) participates in drills at training camp at TCO Performance Center. Mandatory Credit: Brad Rempel-USA TODAY Sports

Dalvin Cook has been the perfect example of the new-age running back over the last two seasons and is a top fantasy producer at the running back position. He’s the type of player who can make your fantasy football draft strategy look like you had help from an NFL executive. He is in a very run-focused offense as the Vikings ranked sixth in the league in 2020 with calling rushing plays over 45% of the time. Cook has combined for 2,600 rushing yards over the last two seasons while also finding the end zone 29 times as well so he has a knack for finding paydirt when his number is called. While he isn’t the PPR monster that McCaffrey is, he still contributes in the passing game as he has combined for over 800 yards and 97 receptions between 2019 and 2020.

Austin Ekeler – Los Angeles Chargers

fantasy football draft strategy RB austin ekeler
Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler (30) runs the ball against the Kansas City Chiefs during the first half at Arrowhead Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

Speaking of PPR monsters, Austin Ekeler looks poised to have a big-time year for the Los Angeles Chargers and he should be one to zero in on in your PPR leagues. Ekeler is coming off of an interesting season as he played in only 10 games due to injury but still managed to produce when he was in the lineup. He rushed for 530 yards and hauled in 54 catches for 403 receiving yards and should only benefit more as the Charger’s new Offensive Coordinator Joe Lombardi comes over from the Saints and they used their running backs heavily in their passing game.

Alvin Kamara – New Orleans Saints

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New Orleans Saints running back Alvin Kamara (41) runs against the Minnesota Vikings in the second quarter at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

Kamara is one running back that will either flourish or have a massive drop-off depending on who the starting QB is for the Saints. When Taysom Hill was under center for the Saints, Kamara saw fewer targets in the passing game and that is where Kamara truly shines. If Jameis is in as the starter, the offense has more of a traditional attack where Kamara is used as check-down options to move the chains. Kamara does bring a solid floor to your fantasy lineup as he has recorded at least 80 catches in every season of his career and is coming off of his best rushing season as he totaled 932 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns. It’s a tough one when mapping out your fantasy football draft strategy around running backs. Kamara could be a steal or a bust.

Derrick Henry – Tennesee Titans

One RB that could easily be slid up the rankings if you participate in non-PPR leagues is Derrick Henry. Henry has been one of the more dominant running backs in the league as he has totaled over 3,500 rushing yards over the last two seasons while combining for 33 rushing touchdowns over that same span. Henry doesn’t make as much noise in the passing game which is why he is a little lower in the rankings but with the addition of Julio Jones, Henry could see easier defensive fronts as opposing defenses will have to really respect and account for the receiving combo of A.J. Brown and Julio Jones. Consider these positives and negatives when considering Henry as part of your fantasy football draft strategy around RBs.

Nick Chubb – Cleveland Browns

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Cleveland Browns running back Nick Chubb (24) rushes for a first down during NFL football practice, Tuesday, Aug. 10, 2021, in Berea, Ohio. Browns 12

Chubb became a made man this off-season as the Browns locked him in with a three-year, $36.6 million extension with $20 million in guaranteed money. He has been a very reliable running back in his young career as he has rushed for 996+ rushing yards in all three years that he has been in the league and is coming off of a 12 touchdown season despite missing four games in 2020. Chubb is another back that doesn’t have the PPR upside that Ekeler or Kamara offers, but he does benefit from running behind one of the best offensive lines in the NFL. If you’re able to get Chubb later in the first or second round, he makes for a strong foundational piece for your fantasy football team.

Ezekiel Elliott – Dallas Cowboys

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Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott (4) and running back Ezekiel Elliott (21) during training camp at the Marriott Residence Inn. Mandatory Credit: Jason Parkhurst-USA TODAY Sports

Zeke is coming off of arguably his worst season as a professional but even in his “worst year” he still managed to produce 979 rushing yards and six rushing touchdowns. Last year, the Cowboys really had a rough season and things did not go their way as their offensive line did not hold up like it did in prior years and the injury to Dak really hindered the offense as a whole. This could play well into your fantasy football draft strategy. Zeke really has some upside this year and could finish as a top-five running back in the league should the offensive line stay intact and Dak plays a full season. Zeke has run for 1,300 yards in two of the last three seasons and he has seen over 70 targets in each of the last three seasons so if Zeke starts to fall a bit in your draft, he is another back that could be a steal for your fantasy team.

Saquon Barkley – New York Giants

Saquon Barkley fantasy football draft strategy
New York’s Saquon Barkley (26) is brought down by Philadelphia’s Nathan Gerry. Sports Eagles Giants

Barkley would normally be ranked higher on this list but his major injury during the 2020 season is the one thing holding him back. Barkley tore his ACL and sprained his MCL in the second week of the season against the Bears and had to miss the rest of the year. Barkley has all of the physical tools and traits to be a top back for your fantasy team and now with a plethora of receiving options that defenses have to focus on and worry about, the Giant’s ground game could flourish which would mean Barkley could have a big year. Barkley had a very strong start to his young career as he rushed for 1,000 in 2018 and 2019, and he could easily do that again as long as he has a clean bill of health.

Aaron Jones – Green Bay Packers

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Green Bay Packers head coach Matt LaFleur talks with running back Aaron Jones (33) participates in minicamp practice Wednesday, June 9, 2021, in Green Bay, Wis.

Aaron Jones has really emerged as a top-10 running back option over the past two seasons and with Jamaal Williams now out of rotation in Green Bay, Jones could be in for a larger workload for the 2021 season and someone to look out for in building your fantasy football draft strategy. Jones has seen over 200 rushing attempts in each of the last two seasons and has hit the 1,000-yard rushing mark over the same span as well. Jones is a do-it-all back for Green Bay as he has seen over 60 targets in each of the last two seasons and has had 25 rushing touchdowns and five receiving touchdowns over the same span. With Aaron Rodgers back for what could be his final season for the Packers, it could alleviate some pressure on the Packers run game which could only be beneficial for Jones in 2021.

Joe Mixon – Cincinnati Bengals

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Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon (28) catches a short pass during a training camp practice at the Paul Brown Stadium practice facility in downtown Cincinnati on Wednesday, Aug. 11, 2021. Cincinnati Bengals Training Camp

Again, with your fantasy football draft strategy for running backs, it’s good to look for a guy who may have had trouble last year due to injury. Joe Mixon had a letdown of a season last year as the injury bug got the best of him as he was only able to play in six games throughout the 2020 season. In those six games, Mixon totaled 428 rushing yards on 119 carries while also managing to haul in 21 receptions for 138 yards. When looking at a healthy Mixon in 2018 and 2019, he balled out as he ran for back-to-back 1,100 rushing yard seasons while combining for 13 rushing touchdowns and also averaging close to 300 receiving yards over that two-year span. If Mixon can remain healthy and the offensive line takes the next step as a unit, he could be a sneaky running back option that could really produce for you this year.