2021 Fantasy Football Rookie RB Analysis

by Dennis Sosic
2021 Fantasy Football Rookie RB Analysis

Welcome Fantasy friends and foes to my breakdown of the new rookie running backs and their landing spots, in the 2021 Fantasy Football Rookie RB Analysis.

The 2021 NFL Draft lived up to all my expectations. I could not be more proud of the city of Cleveland. Cleveland put on a wonderful NFL spectacle where all fans and families could enjoy the NFL experience.

Speaking of great shows, if you want to hear great Fantasy and NFL live discussion during the NFL Draft, take a listen to the Fantasy Six Pack NFL Draft Special.

The special includes the Fantasy Six Pack team discussing all of the Day 1 selections. If you like what you heard there, take a moment to listen to their Day 2 Recap special.

Find out which rookie running backs Fantasy managers should be aware of as we start the draft prep for the 2021 season.

2021 Fantasy Football Rookie RB Analysis

Complete a free five-minute mock draft against industry experts and custom analysis for your team with the FantasyPros Draft Wizard.

Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers (Pick 24)

Every Fantasy manager knows that the Pittsburgh Steelers’ run game has been brutal. They finished last in rushing in 2020. The Steelers needed to upgrade their ground game. The question before the draft was would they start with a running back or start fixing their offensive line?

With the 24th selection of the 2021 NFL Draft, the Pittsburgh Steelers selected Alabama running back Najee Harris.

Harris was the consensus-best running back in the country and fulfilled a huge positional need for the Steelers. He can pound the ball between the tackles with his size (6-2, 229 lbs) and fits the Steelers scheme with good power and pass-catching ability out of the backfield.

Harris, who finished as Alabama's all-time rushing leader with 3,843 yards, is a massive upgrade from James Conner, who signed as a free agent with the Arizona Cardinals. The returning backs for Pittsburgh are the disappointing Benny Snell Jr. and Anthony McFarland Jr. Now you can see why the Steelers needed a significant overhaul in their running game.

Harris has all the physical tools to be a savior for the Steelers' run game. His playmaking ability should allow Harris to provide an elite three-down impact. He landed in a perfect landing spot from a Fantasy perspective. Harris should be drafted as one of the top selections in dynasty rookie drafts. Also, Harris will be drafted as a top-12 running back in redrafts with the volume and anticipated production.

Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars (Pick 25)

In one of the shocking moments of the 1st round of the NFL Draft, the Jacksonville Jaguars selected Clemson Tiger running back Travis Etienne. The shocker was not because of any question regarding the talent level of Etienne. It was a head-scratcher because James Robinson shined last season.

Robinson rushed for 1,070 yards and seven touchdowns and had 344 yards and three touchdowns receiving. In addition, the Jaguars also added veteran Carlos Hyde to their backfield. The Etienne selection seems like a luxury pick. The Jags probably could have gone in a different direction with this high draft capital selection.

Regardless of my draft philosophy, we will see Etienne as a dual-threat monster in the Jaguars backfield. Etienne is a speed demon and ran a 4.41 forty-yard dash at his Pro Day. He is the all-time ACC rushing yards leader and scored a combined 43 touchdowns in 2018 and 2019. He finished his collegiate career at Clemson with 4,925 rushing yards, 1,155 receiving yards, and 78 total touchdowns.

Etienne has big-play ability and will get plenty of looks in the passing game. Jaguars head coach Urban Meyer loves speed and designs offenses to spread the ball around and put the ball in instant impact playmakers' hands.

Jacksonville will have the one-two punch of Trevor Lawrence and Travis Etienne for the next decade. It will be thrilling to watch under Urban Meyer. I view Etienne starting the 2021 season as the third-down back for the Jaguars and making his way to be the lead back before the end of the season. Etienne will be a well-deserved hot commodity in your Fantasy drafts.

Javonte Williams, Denver Broncos (Pick 35)

On the draft’s second day, the Denver Broncos feared that the Miami Dolphins would select North Carolina's running back Javonte Williams with the 36th overall selection. Broncos general manager George Paton struck up a deal with the Atlanta Falcons to jump one spot over the Dolphins at the No. 35 spot. The Broncos selected Williams, a versatile running back that will better fit the Broncos offense after they moved on from Phillip Lindsay earlier this offseason.

At 5-foot-10 and 212 pounds, Williams has speed and short-area quickness and a powerful and aggressive downhill runner. He rushed for 1,140 yards and 19 touchdowns, ranked third in the FBS as a third-year junior at North Carolina. Williams had six 100-yard games and finished with an NCAA-best 75 avoided tackles last year.

Many draft experts believed that that Williams was the top running back in this draft class. NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein has compared Williams to Kareem Hunt, a third-round pick in the 2017 NFL draft out of Toledo. The Touchdown Wire’s Doug Farrar listed Williams as the No. 1 RB in his pre-draft rankings. Williams was the third back selected in the 2021 NFL Draft, but the PFF Big Board ranked Javonte as the best running back in this draft class.

Williams will make an immediate impact as a rookie. Melvin Gordon and Royce Freeman are both in the final year of their contracts. This bodes very well for Williams to be a longtime starter and dynasty darling in Denver and to be a Fantasy favorite option in the Broncos run game.

Trey Sermon, San Francisco 49ers (Pick 88)


Running back was not a striking need for the San Francisco 49ers; however, head coach Kyle Shanahan loves running backs. His zone running attack and commitment to the ground-and-pound play-calling produces 1,000-yard rushers annually. His running back by committee will drive Fantasy managers insane. The 49ers have had four different leading rushed over the last four seasons. So what did the Niners do? Add another running back to the backfield mix.

San Francisco traded two fourth-round picks to move up to No. 88 overall in the third round to select Ohio State Buckeyes running back Trey Sermon. Sermon is a one-cut powerful runner that fits perfectly in a zone-blocking scheme. He possesses a surprising burst and terrific contact balance who averaged 6.5 yards per carry and 10.1 yards per reception throughout his four-year college career. The first three seasons were spent at Oklahoma.

His health and consistency held Sermon back, but he could be a legitimate weapon in Shanahan's offense. However, he will compete for touches with Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson Jr., who have both missed time due to injuries. The Niners also signed 2020 New York Giants leading rusher Wayne Gallman and still roster second-year back JaMycal Hasty and fellow rookie Elijah Mitchell.

Sermon climbs the dynasty rankings based on the landing spot. Mostert and Wilson Jr. are both unsigned after the coming season. Sermon could be worked in this season in a depth role but could quickly become the lead back going to 2022 and propel the Niners backfield into an elite backfield foundation with first-round selection quarterback Trey Lance.

Michael Carter, New York Jets (Pick 107)

North Carolina running back Michael Carter was taken in the fourth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. He was the final offensive player taken by the New York Jets. The former Tar Heel will join a Jets backfield that includes 2020 fourth-rounder La'Michal Perine, free-agent signing Tevin Coleman, and the underwhelming duo of Ty Johnson and Josh Adams.

Jets' general manager Joe Douglas called Carter elusive, praising the back's "explosive playmaking ability." The numbers speak for themselves. Carter led the FBS with 7.98 yards per carry, and his 1,245 rushing yards on 156 carries were good enough for fourth in the nation. More impressively, Carter accomplished those heights while the Tar Heels used a running back by committee, and he was behind Denver Broncos draftee Javonte Williams.

The 5-foot-8 back is a multi-talented back who has excellent vision and is known for his explosiveness. The Jets received plenty of draft value in selecting Carter in the fourth. Many experts viewed Carter as a second-round talent.

Carter should be in the backfield rotation as a rookie and will be in a position to excel. He is a playmaker and will be a massive part of the great interjection of talent on Jets offense, including second overall pick BYU quarterback Zach Wilson and explosive wide receiver Elijah Moore.

A probable Week 1 starter, Carter will be a popular Fantasy sleeper in 2021. A look at the Jets' running back depth chart and their offensive line is difficult to impress. However, it's only May and a long way to Week 1. Plenty can happen, including the Jets adding more options in the backfield before September.

Kenneth Gainwell, Philadelphia Eagles (Pick 150)

As a Miles Sanders dynasty owner, I was not thrilled with the Philadelphia Eagles selecting Kenneth Gainwell in the fifth round of the 2021 NFL Draft. Gainwell had a massive 2019 season, rushing for 1.459 yards (6.3 YPC) and 13 touchdowns. He also added 51 receptions for 610 yards and three touchdowns. He was the only player in all of the FBS to gain at least 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving in 2019.

The 5-foot-8, 201 pounds running back opted out of the 2020 season after losing four family members to COVID. Gainwell provides running back/slot receiver versatility and compares favorably to two other former Memphis running backs Tony Pollard and Antonio Gibson.

Gainwell should step in as the number two option over Boston Scott behind Sanders in the Eagles backfield. He will be a great compliment and provide quarterback Jalen Hurts with another pass-catching option to Sanders. Additionally, new Eagles head coach Nick Sirianni loves utilizing pass-catching backs out of the backfield. Sirianni coached in Indianapolis, where he employed Nyheim Hines in 35.9 percent of snaps last season for the Colts. Look for Gainwell to be Hines in Nick Sirianni's offense in Philadelphia.

I project that Gainwell will make some Fantasy noise in this Eagles offense. Hines became a Fantasy darling with his volume in the passing game, and I foresee Gainwell being that productive dual-threat back and providing sneaky sleeper appeal for Fantasy owners.

Chuba Hubbard, Carolina Panthers (Pick 126)

With the No. 126 overall pick in the 2021 NFL draft,  the Carolina Panthers selected Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard. Hubbard is a rigid, bruising back who brings speed and ability as a receiver coming out of the backfield.

The Panthers needed a solid backup option to all-world Christian McCaffrey after Mike Davis left in free agency to the Atlanta Falcons. Hubbard will be a nice change of pace to McCaffrey and could even be a goal-line option for the Panthers.

Question marks surrounding Hubbard on the draft day regarding his ability to stay healthy and a steep decline in production last season. Hubbard ran 133 times for 625 yards and five touchdowns in seven games last season. His season was cut short by an ankle injury, and then he decided to opt out the rest of the season to prepare for the draft.

His stock was never higher after an outstanding 2019 season that saw Hubbard rush for 2,094 yards while averaging 6.4 yards per carry and 21 touchdowns for the Cowboys. If Hubbard decided to declare for last year's draft, he would have been drafted no later than in the second round. Maybe this was why the wife of Panthers head coach Matt Rhule texted him 10 minutes before the pick to advise, "please take Chuba Hubbard."

Hubbard has plenty of proof in Carolina, but the workload that McCaffrey endures, another potential injury, is not far-fetched. The potential exists for Hubbard to be a Fantasy contributor worthy of a late-round selection as a handcuff to McCaffrey.

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