Now that the first wave of free agency has passed and the NFL Draft has officially been put in the books, we have a near full layout of what NFL rosters are going to look like for the upcoming season. With that, we have a host of rookie content and freshly updated ranks for season-long and dynasty formats already up in our 2021 content hub.
During the draft, a number of veteran players had their 2021 fantasy dynamics impacted for better or worse. Throughout the week, we are going to highlight some of the biggest winners and losers from the draft from each position.
Yesterday, we touched on eight quarterbacks who came out ahead during the draft. Today, we are looking at some running backs. This draft class just did not have the requisite amount of talent to cover all the holes that teams had at the position and some players made it through unscathed or received offensive line upgrades.
Myles Gaskin, Miami Dolphins
The Dolphins were rumored to have Javonte Williams as the RB1 on their draft board and could have been set up to select the UNC rookie at No. 36 overall, but Denver traded up ahead of them to secure his services.
With Williams as the last of the top backs, Miami decided to forego the position until the seventh round in selecting Gerrid Doaks at pick No. 244.
Gaskin was a surprise hit for Miami in 2020. Despite signing Jordan Howard in free agency and then trading for Matt Breida during the NFL Draft last offseason, it was Gaskin who led the Miami backfield. In 10 games played, 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. Effective in the passing game, Gaskin was fifth at the position with 4.1 receptions per game while his 9.5 yards per reception were second among all running backs with 20 or catches on the year.
An excellent pass catcher in 2020, the only question surrounding Gaskin is that he is a smaller-framed back at 200-pounds back, who converted just 3-of-9 carries inside of the 5-yard line. That role still could go to a bigger body in 2021. The team added Doaks (228 pounds) late and veteran Malcom Brown has converted 8-of-15 carries inside of the 5-yard line for touchdowns. But even if Gaskin concedes short scores, he came out ahead post-draft and could be a fantasy draft arbitrage on someone like Austin Ekeler, pending where his ADP settles in at.
Mike Davis, Atlanta Falcons
The Falcons were 27th in the NFL last season in expected points added via rushing and purged nearly the entirety of that backfield. The only backs on the roster to touch the football last season for Atlanta entering the draft were Qadree Ollison (one touch), Tony Brooks-James (three), and fullback Keith Smith (15 touches).
Atlanta entered the draft with nine draft picks and free agent signings Mike Davis and Cordarrelle Patterson at the top of their backfield depth chart. They chose not to select a running back with any of those picks, opting to add Javian Hawkins as an undrafted signing afterward.
Davis accrued 1,015 yards and eight touchdowns last season in relief of Christian McCaffrey in 2020. Only three backs caught more passes than the 59 receptions he had. Davis showed he was capable of being a back that can accumulate production if fed touches despite not turning in high efficiency on the opportunities.
Davis managed three straight top-10 scoring PPR weeks over his first three games post-McCaffrey injury on 21, 21, and 25 touches. Turning in 91, 111, and 149 total yards in those games. Then Davis quickly faded to a volume-based FLEX play. Over his next nine games with McCaffrey inactive, Davis had five weeks as an RB3 or lower with two RB1 scoring weeks, reaching 80 yards from scrimmage in just one of those games. Despite racking up 224 touches in total, Davis managed just 3.9 yards per carry and just 6.3 yards per reception on those touches.
That said, if a volume-based FLEX play is a floor outcome for Davis, then that is still an increase for his stock and plenty viable, while those who had already drafted in Best Ball formats prior to the draft bought in on a cheap dual usage option.
Chase Edmonds and James Conner, Arizona Cardinals
Arizona backs handled 26.1 touches (16th) for 122.6 yards per game (20th) in 2020, coming in 22nd in the league in yards per touch (4.7 yards) as a collective group. The team let 264 of those touches leave via free agency this offseason in Kenyan Drake while tacking on a short-term addition in James Conner as a partial replacement for those touches to go along with a potential workload increase for Chase Edmonds.
With both Conner and Edmonds currently only signed for 2021, Arizona still could have opted to use one of their eight draft picks on a back of either archetype to be competition or contractual depth. Instead, the team bypassed all runners during the draft and the undrafted pool of prospects at the position.
Edmonds has averaged 5.7 yards per touch in each of the past two seasons. In line for a spike in touches this season, Edmonds has still been fueled by receptions throughout his career as he ranked seventh among all backs last season in targets (67) and receptions (53) in 2020, but has averaged just 3.8, 4.6, and 6.1 rushing attempts per game over his first three years in the league. He has gotten three opportunities to be a feature back in three seasons, with games of 31, nine, and 28 touches in those games for 150, 13, and 88 yards. Expecting his rushing opportunities to rise again in 2021, Edmonds also could run into more feature weeks as James Conner has yet to play a full NFL season four years into his career.
As much as people do not want to hear it since Edmonds has been so popular this offseason, this is still a win for Conner, too. Every time the Cardinals turned to Edmonds as a workhorse came out of full necessity while he has almost immediately been banged up afterwards. By signing Conner, this allows Edmonds to remain in a similar (albeit increased) role he was already effective in while also being able to pinch-hit as a feature back if Conner continues to struggle with staying on the field.
Edmonds also has just ONE career rushing attempt inside of the 5-yard line through three NFL seasons. His seven career rushing touchdowns have come from six, eight, 20, 20, 22, 29, and 37 yards out.
Under the same coaching staff, Drake had 27 of those carries for the Cardinals over his 23 games played in Arizona and was tied for the league lead in rushing scores (nine) on those carries in 2020. Conner himself has 29 such carries since entering the league in 2017 and has converted 16 of them for scores. That 55.2% conversion rate is above the base rate of the league average (46.1%) since he entered the league. Not only will Edmonds have Conner to deal with near the end zone, but quarterback Kyler Murray also had seven rushing attempts from inside of the 5-yard line and 12 from inside of the 10-yard line.
Although Conner has declined in each of the past two seasons since his 2018 breakout, he still averaged 4.6 yards per touch last season while all other Steeler backs were at 3.7 yards per touch.
Edmonds sustains his RB2/RB3 territory with Conner as an RB3/FLEX, Zero-RB, and touchdown vulture target.
Joe Mixon, Cincinnati Bengals
Fantasy gamers (this is me looking into the mirror and having a conversation with myself) have long chased the potential of what Mixon could be if used as a three-down back. This offseason, the Bengals have already let Giovani Bernard go from the roster while they only added Chris Evans (pick No. 202) and Pooka Williams as an undrafted free agent over the weekend. This leaves the depth chart as Samaje Perine, Trayveon Williams, and Jacques Patrick to go with those two longer-play rookie adds behind Mixon.
That lack of tangible depth played a role in offensive coordinator Brian Callahan stating that he does not want Mixon to leave the field over the weekend. While that gives some “we are going to give C.J. Spiller the ball until he pukes” flashbacks, Mixon was already trending in this direction last year.
Mixon missed the final 10 games of the season with a foot injury, but prior to injury Mixon had the most touches in the NFL (140) and was second in touches per game (23.2) behind Derrick Henry (26.2). At that time, Mixon was the RB11 in PPR points per game (16.6) and 11th in yards from scrimmage per game (94.3). In the passing game, Mixon was running a career-high 21.3 pass routes per game and averaging a career-high 6.8 receiving points per game. While fantasy players have been let down by Mixon in the past, he still is a scarce commodity as a three-down running back.
D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions
Swift came out of the weekend on the positive end of things as the Lions only added Jermar Jefferson (at pick No. 257) to the backfield while they used the No. 7 pick overall on the top offensive lineman selected in Penei Sewell.
The Lions may have a ton of holes in their rebuild, but this is a solid offensive front in the run game. Detroit closed 2020 ranking 14th in ESPN’s Run Block Win Rate (70%) metrics and were 13th in run blocking grade per Pro Football Focus as a unit before adding Sewell. This offensive line now features three first round picks in Taylor Decker, Frank Ragnow, and Sewell.
Swift only had six games during his rookie year 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. The concern with Swift is the state of the Lions as a whole, capping his upside and just how long they can run the ball in games to max out arguably their lone offensive strength, but Swift has dual-usage appeal at a position with limited all-purpose options. He led all rookie backs in receptions per game (3.53).
The team did add Jamaal Williams as insurance and a complement this offseason, who is a proven back that can play an ancillary role, contribute to the passing game, and handle opportunities when needed in relief, should Swift miss any time. Williams has caught at least 25 passes in every season of his career. That said, Swift is one of the few reliable playmakers in this offense and set up to play more snaps and trump his 160 rookie-season touches.
Austin Ekeler, Los Angeles Chargers
For similar reasons as above, Ekeler also gets a bump in offensive play while still having questionable depth behind him in the offense. As mentioned with Justin Herbert yesterday, the Chargers ended 2020 dead last in ESPN’s Run Block Win Rate (67%) metrics and also 32nd in run blocking grade per Pro Football Focus. Adding Rashawn Slater at No. 13 overall to go with the additions of Corey Linsey and Matt Feiler via free agency revamps this offensive line. Per Sports Info Solutions, Slater had a blown block percentage of just 0.2% and 1.2% in the run game over his two seasons at Northwestern.
After signing Austin Ekeler to an offseason contract extension through 2023 last year, Ekeler missed six games due to a hamstring injury, but when on the field he averaged a career-high 17.0 touches per game for 93.3 yards per game.
Fourth-round rookie Joshua Kelley handled 134 touches in his first season, but averaged just 3.7 yards per touch and lost time as the season wore on to Kalen Ballage, playing 19 snaps or fewer in his final six games active on the season.
Ekeler does have the one common thing going for a number of the backs we have covered here. That is that it still remains to be seen if this new Los Angeles coaching regime will afford him the opportunity to cash in some short-yardage scoring chances. Through four NFL seasons, Ekeler (who is 200 pounds) has 14 carries inside of the 5-yard line and has converted just four of them (28.6%) for touchdowns. In 2020, the Chargers gave him just two carries from that area of the field and neither were touchdowns.
Adding Larry Rountree (211 pounds) at pick No. 198 is not a significant threat for Ekeler’s touches overall as he is Kelley’s, but gives the Chargers another bigger body to compete for those short-yardage opportunities should the new staff continue to use Ekeler as he has to start his career.