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Top Backup Running Backs To Pick in Drafts

One of the most crucial things a fantasy player can do is have the foresight to build a lineup that maximizes talent while also minimizing the risk of player injuries or holdouts. This process is even more important looking to a 2021 season that comes with COVID-19 still lingering and a fresh and longer 18-week schedule.

Aside from that, understanding the way coaches operate their backfields in today’s NFL is crucial to fantasy football success. The increasing level of talent at the running back position combined with teams' reluctance to pay NFL runners have made it extremely popular to employ split backfields and running back committees.

Knowing which teams utilize a bell-cow running back (a player who handles a majority of the work in the backfield as a rusher and receiver) versus a committee approach (multiple players with defined workloads and roles) can be a massive advantage during a fantasy draft. Below, you will find a few rushers that are worth drafting even if they'll start the season with an RB2-or-deeper role in their franchise's offense during the 2021 season.

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Kareem Hunt, Cleveland Browns

Hunt has played four years of NFL football, missing 13 games for different reasons throughout his career. Nick Chubb, his partner in Cleveland's backfield and no. 1 RB for the Browns, has missed just four games in his three years of play, all of them last season. Even then, Hunt is the no-brainer best RB2 in the league, and it's probably not even close.

Now, for the bad news: this is not what we'd call a backup RB in most fantasy leagues. You won't be able to draft Hunt in, say, the 12th round and stash him until Nick Chubb gets injured or anything like that. Hunt is a must-play guy at the position or the straight-best FLEX player out there. Full stop.

No RB2 deeper down the pecking order in the NFL (via PFF) projects to more PPR points in 2021. Hunt's mark is sitting at 172+ fantasy points, only 63 below his teammate Chubb, and that is assuming healthy seasons for both of them. The minute (if it happens) Chubb gets down, we could be looking at Cleveland's RB1 in Hunt. If there is a bang-for-the-buck player to spend a high pick on, that's Hunt (ADP of RB25 and 57th overall) as he is expected to be--at least--a low-end RB2 in fantasy leagues when all is said and done with upside for much more.

 

Kenyan Drake, Las Vegas Raiders

Las Vegas has a promising tailback in Josh Jacobs. In both his freshman and sophomore seasons, Jacobs was able to finish at least as the RB21 and that happened in his first year as a pro. Last time out, though, Jacobs excelled to greater levels and put on an RB8 year thanks to his 231.3 PPR points and 15.4 FPPG average through 15 games in 2020. That should have him playing the RB1 role for the third consecutive season, but the Raiders spent big bucks to bolster the backfield by handing Drake a two-year, $11-million deal.

As a sort of insurance callup if Jacobs were to suffer an injury, Drake is a great option for the Raiders. I would grade that free-agent signing as a dumbfounding one given the expected role and the price, but it's not that I'm paying for him, so alas. Drake had a rough start to his career but he's found himself in the past three seasons, ranking inside the top-17 RBs in all of them while playing for both the Dolphins and Cardinals.

Drake is a virtual lock to average 10+ FPPG if we look at his resume and factor his new role into the equation. The opportunities will be cut down from those he's gotten in his prior three seasons, obviously, but PFF is giving him a projection of 177 opportunities in 2021 that rank fourth among non-RB1 players. At his current 120 ADP (yes, available in the 10th round in most leagues), I don't think there are many backups as good as Drake for the upcoming season. Drake projects to finish as the RB29 while he's getting off draft boards as a super-low RB42. Must pounce on the Matrix glitch while it remains unfixed, folks.

 

James Conner, Arizona Cardinals

Speaking of Kenyan Drake (read above), here we have his replacement in Arizona. Conner leaves Pittsburgh after spending the past four seasons there and coming virtually out of nowhere to turn into a fantastic tailback for the Steelers in years past. While Conner has not been the healthiest of players out there (he's missed 14 games in his four-year career, almost a combined full season), and he will see a downtick in playing time now as the RB2 of the Cards and that should help his chances of staying healthy.

Chase Edmonds should be Arizona's no. 1 rusher. Edmonds has not missed that much time (only three games in three years) but he's never been the true no. 1 option for the Cardinals as he's played mostly second-fiddle to Kenyan Drake (2020) and David Johnson (2018 and 2019) in his three NFL seasons, never topping 150 touches. Do we assume his moment has finally arrived and are we sure that's the case? How long of a leash will Arizona give him knowing Conner is waiting in the wings? That's yet to be seen.

While it is true that Conner is not the ultimate pass-catching threat, PFF still projects him to a healthy 31 targets in 2021 to go with a much better-looking 132 carries for 563 yards and four scores. Only four other non-RB1 players project to more scores, and his projection of 0.80 FP/Opp is also ranked sixth in that cohort. Conner's ADP of RB37 is almost on par with his RB40 projection (130+ PPR points) and he could reach much higher positions if he ends up outproducing Edmonds throughout the season and snatching the RB1 role from him--something I am definitely not ruling out.

 

Michael Carter, New York Jets

Talk about competition, that of Jets' running back rookie Michael Carter and veteran Tevin Coleman! I'm writing this in front of PFF projections for the upcoming season, and the numbers can't get closer. Coleman projects to get the RB1 role and finish 2021 with 190 opportunities compared to Carter's 160. Edge Coleman, right? Well, looking at the bigger picture, it's Carter who would outproduce Coleman with an 0.86 FP/Opp mark compared to the veteran's 0.70 projection. Uh oh, things are getting hot.

Coleman missed half of the 2020 season, reason enough to have concerns about his long-term availability in an even longer year than the last one was, with an extra game added to the schedule. As things stand and PFF sees them, Coleman would lead the backfield in carries while Carter would be used on more pass-play snaps. We'll see.

Carter, a fourth-rounder out of North Carolina, was a beast playing college ball and excelling at everything from rushing to pass-catching. His prospect numbers are absolutely insane (breakout age in the 96th percentile, Combine metrics all at or above the 65th percentile including three top-84th percentile ones in running/agility drills) and PFF has him reaching 137+ FP even on that secondary role. Not the cheapest player with an ADP of 77th overall and RB30, but definitely a very intriguing mid-round pick to make with huge upside entering his first season as a pro.



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