We have already begun setting the table for the 2021 season. We jumped in early with seasonal rankings and player write-ups that will be updated throughout free agency and the NFL Draft. Building off those initial seasonal rankings, we are now laying the groundwork for dynasty formats.
Since I have already laid out initial thoughts and nuggets on players regarding their 2021 outlooks, I’m not going to double down completely on the same approach here. I encourage you to go check those out if you want to see my thoughts on a player heading into this upcoming season. Instead, we are going to lay out the positional tiers with a short synopsis of those tiers and then at the end of the week provide linear top-200 lists for 1QB and SuperFlex formats. At the end of the week, top-200 and top-300 rankings will come out for all formats as a cross-reference.
Some real quick methodology here. If you are new to how I do tiers, I make my dynasty tiers based on a blend of age, fantasy performance, career arc, team situation, and fantasy archetype. There is some overlap to actual player rankings, but these tiers do not specifically follow the rankings, rather those archetypes. There should be tier movement for some players here based on how free agency and the draft plays out, so check back in as news develops this offseason.
The purpose of tiers not being a carbon copy of player rankings is to spot a potential arbitrage situation and shop in different buckets based on how you are constructing your team in startups and looking for trade opportunities. A veteran starter that can accrue points immediately based on where a current roster is and other times chasing more youth and upside for the future.
On a linear list, someone such as Jonathan Taylor is going to be higher than Josh Jacobs, but they are not as drastically different of dynasty options at this current moment than a ranking number in front of their names may suggest in terms of age, career arc, contract situation and how both players accrue the points they put up.
As one more reminder, tiers do not equal rankings for players in different tiers, either. A player may rank a tier below a player that is younger and has more fantasy longevity in terms of fantasy value, but offer more immediate value for the upcoming season, which is of value for specific startup team builds and approaches.
*Player Age = Age on 9/1/2021
Christian McCaffrey (Age 25.2)
Saquon Barkley (24.6)
Alvin Kamara (26.1)
Dalvin Cook (26.1)
Ezekiel Elliott (26.1)
The opening tier of running backs are the top bell-cow backs in the age apex at the position. These workhorses are contributing to all phases of scoring (rushing, receiving, and touchdown equity). The pending downside here is that nearly this entire tier of alpha backs for fantasy are approaching that gray area of age apex at the position where we start to see leaks in the foundation. While all of these are assets that will play a critical role in winning titles for 2021, their startup costs make an aggressive approach into putting the pedal to the floor for the rest of your initial team build.
Christian McCaffrey only appeared in three games in 2020, but scored 28.4, 24.8, and 37.1 PPR points in those games. He is still the closest thing we have seen to Marshall Faulk for fantasy…
Saquon Barkley suffered an ACL injury in Week 2. Still only 24-years-old with 2,028 and 1,441 yard seasons on his resume in each of his full two seasons, we have yet to see the apex Barkley is capable of if everything comes together…
Dalvin Cook has yet to play a full season through four years, but has been the RB2 and RB3 in points per game the past two seasons with 1,654 yards and 13 touchdowns and 1,918 yards and 17 scores…
Alvin Kamara was last season’s RB1 and now has four straight seasons as a top-eight scoring back on a per-game basis. What Drew Brees decides to do this offseason has a trickle down to Kamara. In eight career games without Brees under center, Kamara averaged 5.5 targets and 16.9 PPR points per game (a mark that would have still been good for RB10 in 2020) as opposed to 7.0 targets and 22.4 points per game with Brees at the helm…
Ezekiel Elliott averaged a career-low 4.4 yards per touch, but was still a workhorse, averaging 19.7 touches per game. Elliott had 22.3 PPR points per game in the five games with Dak Prescott active compared to just two touchdowns and 11.2 points per game after Prescott was lost for the season. Elliott is one of just three backs (Kamara and Austin Ekeler) with at least 50 receptions the past two seasons.
Jonathan Taylor (22.6)
Cam Akers (22.6)
J.K. Dobbins (22.7)
Nick Chubb (25.7)
Josh Jacobs (23.6)
Derrick Henry (27.7)
Antonio Gibson (23.2)
Joe Mixon (25.1)
Our second tier of backs are lead backs capable of RB1 scoring weeks and seasons, but are more “running centric” in accruing their fantasy points while having yet to produce at levels in the passing game that compares to the backs in the tier above them. Two things are at play here in that regard, however.
First, I use the word “yet” because the true baseline of receiving prowess required for running back receptions is a low bar to hit. As we saw from Leonard Fournette in 2019 and Mike Davis a year ago, there is a difference from being a back that truly adds something to the offense in the receiving department and one that just operates as a functional pass catcher given opportunities. If any back here would fall into that opportunity via offensive climate (whether depth chart or system induced) they can produce as Tier One backs.
Second, receiving production for running backs has been on the decline. Eventually that drop off will level off and inevitably rebound, but with production shifting to more wide receivers, that recent decline has opened the door for some of these top “running” backs to be more viable with the dual-asset backs in shorter supply.
After a slow start to the season, Jonathan Taylor gave us a glimpse of the explosive player he was in college, reeling off six straight RB1 scoring weeks to close the season with 133 touches for 837 yards and eight touchdowns over that span. 36 receptions as a rookie did not make Taylor a zero is the passing game, though 72.4% of his points were still via rushing while Nyheim Hines remains in place to cap Taylor’s receiving upside…
Derrick Henry is a unicorn, but he is also one of the top backs approaching the back end of the age apex at the position. Henry has not caught more than 19 passes in a season, which forces him to be the outlier he is on the ground. Even with 2,141 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2020 without missing a game, Henry was still the RB5 on a per game basis in both standard and PPR formats…
Cam Akers amassed 143 touches for 708 yards and three scores over the final six games of the season. If I had to bet on a back busting out as a three-down asset and jumping into Tier One for 2021, Akers would be my bet from this tier…
Nick Chubb has averaged 5.4, 5.3, and 5.9 yards per touch over his first three seasons in the league, but over 75% of his points scored in all three seasons has come via rushing…
J.K. Dobbins showed plenty of electricity with 6.0 yards per carry and 6.1 yards per touch as a rookie, but he had just three games with more than two receptions…
Josh Jacobs has turned in 1,316 and 1,303 yards over his first two NFL seasons with seven and 12 touchdowns. Jacobs improved on his receiving game usage (33-238) but was still largely a one-note producer with 77.2% of his fantasy points stemming solely from rushing…
After just 33 total carries at Memphis, Antonio Gibson handled 170 carries in 14 games for 4.7 yards per carry and 11 rushing touchdowns as a rookie. Gibson was not used as a pass protector or in passing situations (he had 11 third down touches all season), but we know he has receiving pedigree from college to make the jump should his role be expanded in year two…
We have been waiting for that expansion in the passing game to happen for Joe Mixon each year of his career. Prior to injury last season, Mixon was the RB11 in points per game (16.6) and 11th in yards from scrimmage per game (94.3). He averaged a career-high 6.8 receiving points per game, which was 13th at the position, so we are finally making progress.
Najee Harris (23.5)
Javonte Williams (21.4)
I have a mini-tier here with both upcoming rookies in Harris and Williams. The difference between Harris and Williams compared to Travis Etienne is both of these players completely check all the boxes of size and pass catching acumen to have workhorse, three-down potential immediately out of the packaging while Etienne still may have some hurdles to clear in being a high-touch guy at the next level and a grinder (which is more than fine). Without destinations in place, it is hard to elevate these backs into Tier One, but it is more than in their range of outcomes early in their careers if given a tarmac of opportunity.
Harris is not just a 230-pound power back coming off 1,528- and 1,891-yard seasons at Alabama with 50 total touchdowns the past two seasons. He also offers legitimate receiving chops for his frame, catching 43 passes (9.9 Y/R) in his final season, a mark bested by only Saquon Barkley and Steven Jackson for backs over 225 pounds in their final college season since 2000. Harris immediately lands in a three-down role in Pittsburgh.
Javonte Williams is not as hulking, but he also is two full years younger than Harris, to give him extra runway. After 1,391 yards and 11 touchdowns over his first two seasons at North Carolina, Williams exploded for 1,445 yards and 22 scores last year while he caught 25 passes for 305 yards and three scores as part of the product. The main knock on Williams is that he has never been a workhorse, with 183 and 182 touches over those past two seasons. Williams will begin his career in another potential timeshare alongside Melvin Gordon, but Gordon is an unrestricted free agent after 2021.
D’Andre Swift (22.6)
Aaron Jones (26.7)
Clyde Edwards-Helaire (22.4)
Miles Sanders (24.3)
Austin Ekeler (26.3)
Travis Etienne (22.6)
Kareem Hunt (26.1)
Tier Three are the backs also contributing to all components of their offense, but doing so on fewer overall touches and volume than those Tier One alpha backs. A lot of the backs here are hyper-efficient and share some component of their backfield (whether goal line carries, hurry-up offensive situations, third downs) which has some volatility, but also are capable of being top fantasy producers when everything comes together. They are just tweeners in terms of overall size and in systems that have shown reluctancy in pushing these players past the 300-touch mark.
Aaron Jones is the poster boy for that type of usage. Jones has been 10th and fifth in yards from scrimmage per game among backs the past two seasons despite being 14th and 12th in touches per game. Hitting free agency, Jones could land in a spot that pays him to warrant more work in 2021…
Austin Ekeler averaged a career-high 17.0 touches per game for 93.3 yards per game in 2020. The only bugaboo for Ekeler joining the top of the dual-usage backs is that he still only had two total carries inside of the 5-yard line, giving away those carries to the likes of Kalen Ballage and Joshua Kelley…
D’Andre Swift only had six games during his rookie in which he played at least 50% of the snaps, with all coming Week 8 or later. In those games, however, Swift averaged 15.6 points per game. Swift led all rookie backs in receptions per game (3.53)…
Initially placing Travis Etienne here out of the box. Etienne is exiting Clemson with three 1,500-yard-plus seasons while scoring 13 or more touchdowns all four seasons. Etienne does not have the size of a prototypical feature NFL back that many NFL staffs lean into as workhorses and was kept at 244 touches or fewer in every season, but offers dual-usage ability (102 catches at college) to have RB1 upside…
Kareem Hunt closed last season as the RB10 in overall scoring, but was the RB22 in points per game (13.7). Once Nick Chubb returned in Week 10, Hunt was the RB29 or lower in five of those eight weeks and was out-touched by Chubb 146-103 over that span.
David Montgomery (24.2)
Myles Gaskin (24.5)
Chris Carson (27.0)
Melvin Gordon (28.4)
Mike Davis (28.5)
Our tentative workhorse backs. This tier of backs have shown they are capable of being used as three-down backs during their careers, but also have been propped up by that usage over efficiency and production per touch while coming with some vulnerability in that touch department moving forward.
After one RB1 scoring week and two touchdowns through nine games, David Montgomery closed the season with six straight RB1 weeks and eight touchdowns with over 100 yards in each of those games. Montgomery averaged 20.1 touches per game (seventh) and handled a league-high 89.1% of the Chicago backfield touches. After Tarik Cohen was injured, Montgomery went from running a pass route on 37.8% of the team drop backs up to 69.0%…
In 10 games played, Myles Gaskin turned 183 touches into 972 yards and five scores. His 18.3 touches per game were ninth at the position while his 97.2 yards per game were 10th. He was fifth at the position with 4.1 receptions per game. Like James Robinson, there is fragility to Gaskin’s commitment from the organization…
Melvin Gordon turned 247 touches into 1,144 yards and 10 touchdowns in his first season with the Broncos, but in seven games where Phillip Lindsay missed or exited early, Gordon averaged 20.1 touches and 15.2 PPR points per game as opposed to 13.3 touches and 11.5 points per game sharing the backfield. With the trade up for Javonte Williams, Gordon is an immediate timeshare again in the final year of his contract.
Chris Carson is coming off averaging a career-high 5.4 yards per touch and 3.1 receptions per game. He has scored at least nine touchdowns in each of the past three seasons and has been the RB16, RB13, and RB14 in points per game the past three seasons.
Ronald Jones (24.1)
James Robinson (23.1)
Damien Harris (24.6)
Zack Moss (23.7)
Our fifth tier of backs are intriguing backs that have a wide range of outcomes. They all have the size we look for to be lead backs in their offenses and at worst comparable to Tier Two options at their ceilings, but also can be in potential timeshares.
Ronald Jones has improved every year in the NFL, increasing his touches, yards per touch, and touchdowns scored from the year prior. Despite hitting 1,000 yards in each of the past two seasons, the Buccaneers are once again a committee backfield with Jones in a contract year…
After just four touches as a rookie in 2019, Damien Harris accrued 142 touches for 743 yards in his second season. Playing the “Sony Michel” role, Harris had just five receptions among those touches. Harris did not even have a single touch on third down all season…
Zack Moss played 13 games as a rookie, turning 126 touches into 576 yards and five touchdowns. Moss was out-touched by Devin Singletary 142-126 in their games played together, but Moss had more scoring opportunities inside of the 5-yard line (8-3 in those games played).
James Robinson racked up 1,414 yards from scrimmage on 289 touches with 10 touchdowns in 14 games played. Those yards produced were the third-most in NFL history for an undrafted rookie and the most since 1962. As we have lived recently with Phillip Lindsay and Thomas Rawls is that these situations can be fragile for backs with low leverage in terms of draft capital. Regardless of if the Jaguars lean on Robinson as their lead back or not entering 2021, Robinson will be hard pressed to sustain his rate of 84.8% of the Jacksonville backfield carries and 85.8% of their backfield touches next season. With the selection of Travis Etienne, Robinson is severely damaged. Just 32.5% of Robinson’s carries went for five or more yards (36th out of 50 qualifiers) while he averaged 7.0 yards per reception, 31st among all backs that had 20 or more receptions. Outside of the massive draft capital investment discrepancy between the two, Etienne is an immediate threat to take over the bulk of touches. Where Robinson can hope to hang onto significant role is near the goal line.
Michael Carter (22.3)
Kenneth Gainwell (22.5)
Trey Sermon (22.6)
Demetric Felton (23.1)
Chuba Hubbard (22.1)
Rhamondre Stevenson (23.5)
Kylin Hill (23.0)
Jermar Jefferson (21.4)
After Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, and Javonte Williams, the secondary group of running backs in this draft class have varying degrees of anticipated draft capital. We could see any of these plays go as early as the second or third round, or in the fifth round or later. We broke down this group in rookie rankings that you can find in the rankings hub.
Tony Pollard (24.3)
Alexander Mattison (23.2)
Devin Singletary (24.0)
Chase Edmonds (25.4)
Darrell Henderson (24.0)
A.J. Dillon (23.3)
Jamaal Williams (26.4)
Justin Jackson (26.4)
Rashaad Penny (25.6)
The handcuff tier. These backs have all shown they are capable of being productive fantasy backs when given the proper opportunity, but all have been roadblocked behind other backs and only have been given those opportunities to be lead backs out of necessity via injuries.
David Johnson (29.7)
Leonard Fournette (26.6)
Kenyan Drake (27.6)
Raheem Mostert (29.4)
Tevin Coleman (28.4)
James Conner (26.3)
Jeffery Wilson (25.8)
Phillip Lindsay (27.1)
Gus Edwards (26.4)
Latavius Murray (31.6)
The veteran back tier. All of these backs are past their first contracts in the NFL. Not only do the backs here lack contractual longevity, but all are also on that cusp of hitting the age apex at the position. That does not mean these backs here cannot find a path to fantasy relevancy in spurts, however.
Kenyan Drake set career-highs a year ago with 955 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns, but his 4.1 yards per touch were a career-low while his receiving role evaporated down to 1.7 receptions per game…
Leonard Fournette scored seven touchdowns over the final seven games for the Buccaneers, including all four postseason games (where he also added 448 yards in four games) which helped his cause for a new contract with Tampa Bay. His prospect background and ceiling moments make him the most intriguing back in this tier…
Raheem Mostert missed eight games outright in 2020 and was forced from two others on fewer than 30% of the snaps. Despite that, Mostert was still RB28 in points per game (12.5) …
Directly impacted by Mostert, Jeff Wilson has only played 50% of the team snaps in six career games, but in those games he has averaged 20.8 touches for 113.3 yards in those games with six touchdowns…
James Conner has posted 1,651 yards and 13 touchdowns combined over the past two seasons. After averaging 4.2 receptions per game in 2018, Conner has seen his receptions per game dip to 3.4 and 2.7 per game the past two seasons.
Nyheim Hines (24.8)
Tarik Cohen (26.0)
J.D. McKissic (28.0)
James White (29.6)
Duke Johnson (27.9)
Boston Scott (26.3)
This tier is the inverse of the Tier Two backs, relying on pass catching and situational roles to give them fantasy floors in reception-based formats, but are not feature backs in terms of being used heavily in the run game or near the goal line. This tier typically produces better year-end totals than offering weekly viability on their own due to their lack of touchdown-producing acumen, but are strong FLEX plays and floor-based options on a weekly level.
Nyheim Hines has increased his yards per touch and yards per reception in each of his three NFL seasons. That receiving role is still his path to fantasy floor output as 69.6% of his career fantasy output has come via receiving work…
Tarik Cohen was lost for the season in Week 3 a year ago, but through three full seasons when healthy, Cohen’s 2017 and 2019 rate stats look extremely similar sandwiching his breakout in 2018. 2019 saw Cohen catch a career-high 79 passes, but his 5.8 yards per grab and reduction in rushing opportunity and effectiveness have him stuck as a receiving-based floor option…
Entering the 2021 season at 29-years-old, James White is coming off a season with just 84 touches for 496 yards and three touchdowns, his lowest totals for usage in a season since 2015. A quarterback change in New England can still give life to his role.
Darrynton Evans (23.1)
Joshua Kelley (23.8)
LaMical Perine (23.6)
Salvon Ahmed (22.7)
Benny Snell (23.5)
Anthony McFarland (23.5)
Ke’Shawn Vaughn (24.3)
Our rookie contract backs that still have draft investment and some intrigue on their side, but have yet to prove production or have been buried on depth charts in year one or two. The lone exception to the latter is Benny Snell. Snell increased his touches from 111 as a rookie to 121 in year two, but with 4.0 and 3.5 yards per touch to go along with just 13 receptions…
Joshua Kelley is the lone 2020 rookie back that had a legit opportunity, receiving 134 touches, but turned them into just 3.7 yards per touch and then lost work to close the season to backs such as Troymaine Pope and Kalen Ballage.
Stevie Scott (21.3)
Khalil Herbert (23.4)
Larry Rountree (23.6)
Javian Hawkins (21.8)
Jaret Patterson (21.7)
Elijah Mitchell (23.3)
Pooka Williams (22.2)
Spencer Brown (22.8)
Chris Evans (23.9)
Rakeem Boyd (23.5)
Deon Jackson (22.5)
The third tier of rookie backs, some here can make a jump and receive more draft capital than anticipated and find a role on a roster. We broke down these deeper play individual backs here.
Sony Michel (26.5)
Kerryon Johnson (24.2)
Marlon Mack (25.5)
Todd Gurley (27.1)
Le’Veon Bell (29.5)
Brand name recognition, but complete no-man’s land territory if we will ever see tangible fantasy production from these backs again. Every back here has some red on their ledger in the injury department, while Mack, Gurley, and Bell are hitting free agency. Sony Michel and Kerryon Johnson remain on their rookie deals, giving them a pulse on the age spectrum.