Rookie running backs are always the shiny new toy of fantasy football. The unknown is risky, but the potential upside often outweighs the risk for fantasy owners and the first-year players sometimes get overdrafted.
Odds are there will be rookie running backs who produce -- you just have to find the right ones. Last season, it wasn’t picking Clyde Edwards-Helaire in the first round that won leagues. Instead, it was plucking Jonathan Taylor a few rounds later or Antonio Gibson even later.
Each of the last six drafts dating back to 2015 (Todd Gurley, David Johnson, Melvin Gordon) have produced multiple fantasy-relevant rookie running backs. While the 2021 running back class appears weak on paper, the odds are some will hit and win fantasy titles this season.
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Here’s a look at the top 10 rookie running backs for fantasy football in 2021:
1. Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers
The first running back drafted often doesn’t end up having the best career in his class. Dating back to 2012, the first running back has only produced the most career rushing yards (as of 2020) in his class three times (Todd Gurley, 2015; Ezekiel Elliott, 2016; Josh Jacobs, 2019).
Harris still tops the list of 2021 rookie backs for a few reasons. First, he’s going to be fed early and often in the Steelers’ offense. James Connor signed with the Arizona Cardinals and the other running backs on Pittsburgh’s roster are Benny Snell, Jaylen Samuels, Kalen Ballage and Antony McFarland Jr. In other words, Harris is being handed the keys. The Steelers’ offensive line isn’t what it once was, but it’s still hard to see a rookie running back outproducing Harris.
2. Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos
Williams dropped to the second round, but he fell into a great situation. The Denver Broncos let Phillip Lindsey walk in free agency, leaving Melvin Gordon as the only back on the roster who had more than 35 carries last season.
The North Carolina product was a dual-threat throughout his three seasons in Chapel Hill. In 34 career games, Williams had 2,297 rushing yards at 6.3 yards per carry, 29 rushing touchdowns and 50 receptions (25 in 2020). Whether it’s Drew Lock or Teddy Bridgewater under center, Williams should be a huge part of the Broncos’ offense.
3. Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars
Etienne is joining his college quarterback Trevor Lawrence in Jacksonville, which sounds like an ideal fit until you consider the circumstances. Last season, the Jacksonville Jaguars undrafted rookie James Robinson rushed for 1,070 yards. The Jags then signed veteran Carlos Hyde in free agency.
Urban Meyer’s backfield is crowded, and it’ll be tough for Etienne to see a significant number of carries. Perhaps even more interesting was how Meyer views the former Clemson standout.
“I see Carlos and James the 1-2, downhill, powerful running backs,” Meyer said. “And I see Travis -- there's times where we could be in two-backs and Travis is a guy that goes out. Or we're still playing with it, but he's certainly a third-down back and he's a guy that's a matchup issue for the defense.”
4. Michael Carter, New York Jets
Drafted at No. 107 overall, Carter is facing little competition in the New York Jets’ backfield. La’Mical Perine couldn’t supplant Frank Gore as the Jets’ RB1 in 2020. Tevin Coleman came over from the 49ers after an injury-riddled season. Carter probably had tougher competition for carries at North Carolina, as the aforementioned Javonte Williams was ahead of him on the depth chart.
In 44 career games over four seasons for the Tar Heels, Carter totaled 3,404 rushing yards, 22 rushing touchdowns, 84 receptions and 656 receiving yards. He’s capable and should thrive in Mike LaFleur’s offensive system which derives from San Francisco 49ers head coach Kyle Shanahan
5. Trey Sermon, San Francisco 49ers
Speaking of Shanahan, his third-round pick joins an ideal situation. The backfield may be a bit crowded with Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr., but Shanahan’s system allows multiple running backs to thrive. At least two running backs have gotten 100 or more carries in each of Shanahan’s four seasons with the 49ers. In 2019, three running backs topped 120 carries.
Sermon played three college seasons at Oklahoma before transferring to Ohio State in 2020. Sermon totaled 112, 331 and 193 rushing yards, respectively, in his final three full games of the season before getting injured in the College Football Playoff National Championship against Alabama. If you’re patient with him early on, he could deliver big results later in the season.
6. Chuba Hubbard, Carolina Panthers
If Hubbard had been able to leave school after his record-setting sophomore season, perhaps he might’ve gone higher than No. 126 overall. In 2019, he rushed for 2,094 yards and 23 touchdowns to lead Oklahoma State. He only played seven games as a junior in 2020, totaling 625 yards.
Now, Hubbard heads to Carolina to back up Christian McCaffrey. Mike Davis had a great run last season for the Panthers when McCaffrey got hurt, and he parlayed that into a free-agent deal with the Atlanta Falcons. Hubbard should be McCaffrey’s primary backup. If you select McCaffrey early in your draft, it might be a good idea to scoop up Hubbard in the later rounds.
7. Kenneth Gainwell, Philadelphia Eagles
Gainwell only started for one season at Memphis, but he really made the most of it. In 2019, Gainwell played 14 games and totaled 1,459 rushing yards, 13 rushing touchdowns and 51 receptions. He displayed the skills of a modern dual-threat running back. Gainwell opted out of the 2020 season due to the pandemic, so he ought to be fresh for his rookie year.
In Philadelphia, Gainwell is at a disadvantage. Miles Sanders is the clear-cut RB1, and the team just signed Kerryon Johnson. Jordan Howard and Boston Scott are also on the roster, so it’ll be tough for the 150th overall pick to crack the rotation. Unlike last year’s rookies, he does have the advantage of a full offseason and preseason. Gainwell will have to separate himself in camp to prove he deserves carries in a crowded backfield.
8. Jermar Jefferson, Detroit Lions
At 5-foot-10 and 206 pounds, Jefferson has the body to earn himself some carries in Detroit. The two players expected to be ahead of him on the depth chart -- D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams -- have both proven to be good dual-threat backs. Receiving wasn’t Jefferson’s forte at Oregon State (only nine catches in 2019 and 2020), so perhaps he’ll have a role near the goal line.
It’s a long shot to expect a seventh-round pick to contribute in fantasy football as a rookie. At this spot, it’s really going to come down to how he looks in camp and preseason games. Detroit has a solid offensive line, so Jefferson has a shot to produce if he can get on the field.
9. Rhamondre Stevenson, New England Patriots
The New England Patriots have a backfield that seems crowded on paper. With Damien Harris, Sony Michel and James White on the roster, there aren’t many snaps up for grabs. The good news for Stevenson is that Bill Belichick likes his running backs and he doesn’t generally have a workhorse. New England has had three running backs with at least 55 carries in a season every year since 2017. Harris and Michel have been injury-prone in their early careers, so there could be an opportunity.
The absolute best-case scenario for Stevenson is a role like LeGarrette Blount had with the Patriots. Stevenson (6-foot, 231 pounds) and Blount (6-foot, 247 pounds) are comparable in size. Blount had way more carries than Stevenson will as a rookie, but could he be used as a goal line power back? That might just be what Belichick envisioned when he selected the Oklahoma product in the fourth round.
10. Khalil Herbert, Chicago Bears
In his one season with Virginia Tech after transferring from Kansas, Herbert proved he belonged in the ACC. He rushed for 1,183 yards at 7.6 yards per carry and eight touchdowns for the Hokies before the Chicago Bears grabbed him in the sixth round.
The Bears’ backfield has been scarce at times in the past few years. That shouldn’t be the case in 2021. Now, they have the incumbent starter David Montgomery, Tarik Cohen returning from injury and former Chief Damien Williams. Herbert might struggle to see the field, though he is someone to keep an eye on this preseason.
Logan Reardon contributed to this story.