2021 Fantasy Football Draft Kit

2021 Fantasy Football Three Down Running Backs

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Every year in the NFL, running backs burst onto the scene, change teams, and some fade away. Some stay with us a while and we become familiar with them and who they are. But with all of the switching around and newcomers, it can get confusing knowing exactly who the 2021 Fantasy Football Three Down Running Backs are in the NFL and who has that potential. I’m here to shed some light on that.

2021 Fantasy Football Three Down Running Backs

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Finding the Three Down Backs

Before I could start writing about three-down backs, I had to come up with criteria for what a three-down back is or will be this upcoming season.  I needed them to have the majority of the running back work or a good chance to get it.  In addition, I needed to know that they will be out on passing downs with regularity, even if they have a pass-catching specialist on the team (like the WFT with Gibson and McKissic, which we will get to).

I identified several 3rd down backs to find their 2020 per-game target totals (3rd down running backs are the pass-catching specialists of the team, three-down running backs are the ones who can do it all).  Then I looked at the targets per game of 2020 three-down backs. What I found is that in 2020, 3rd down backs had an average of 4.5 targets a game, while the three down backs had an average of 4.7 targets a game, with a minimum of about 3.8 targets/game.  Going into 2021 those running backs need to maintain that sort of usage. Or, in the case of newer players or rookies, have a path to that kind of workload.

Keep in mind, this is not a “rankings” article, at least in the traditional sense. I would much rather have Aaron Jones over Chris Carson, for example.  But as Caron is more likely to get the majority of his team’s workload Jones is “ranked” lower.

Locked in Three Down Running Backs

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Here’s a list of backs I think are locked into their offense: Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliot, Joe Mixon, Najee Harris, Chris Carson, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and Mike Davis. These guys either have a history of getting most/all of the work in their respective offense or are about to get the work (like Najee Harris), do not hesitate to draft these players.

Two names that may have surprised you are CEH and Mike Davis. CEH had a down year in terms of expectations but was actually very solid in normal running back terms. Mahomes and CEH spoke over the offseason about passing the ball to the running backs more (of course the main beneficiary would be Clyde).  He already had a good target share last year, and he’ll improve after a traditional offseason going into year two of his career.

Mike Davis is up here for one simple reason: who else do the Falcons have? He did well filling in for CMC with the Panthers last year. There’s no notable competition to his workload, so he’s locked in on volume alone.

Likely Three Down Running Backs

D’Andre Swift, Austin Ekeler, Aaron Jones, and now James Robinson all are here for varying degrees of concern over volume. All are still likely to lead their team running back room, however.

D’Andre Swift

Swift is talented and likely the lead back of the Detroit Lions, but the Lions added Jamaal Williams to the roster, who often took work from another back in this category: Aaron Jones. Swift should get the majority of the work over Williams, who was likely added to give Swift some rest more than anything else.

Austin Ekeler

In Los Angeles, the Chargers RB Austin Ekeler is also likely to get a good go at being a three-down back. He hasn’t shouldered a huge workload in the past, with other backs spelling him on some run plays. But unless the other backs show something special in training camp, Ekeler is a safe pick.

Aaron Jones

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AJ Dillion will command some work in Green Bay as the big bruising back, causing a little bit of uncertainty in Aaron Jones’ rushing volume. However, Jones is too good not to get work, and Dillon doesn’t threaten his passing volume.


James Robinson

Update on 8-29-2021. With the unfortunate news of Travis Etienne’s season-ending injury, I have removed him from this list and replaced him with his teammate: James Robinson. Robinson performed well beyond any expectations last year as a rookie. Averaging 4.5 ypc, Robinson managed 1070 yards on 240 carries. In the passing attack, he added on 49 catches for 344 receiving yards, scoring a total of 10 rushing/receiving touchdowns. While Robinson won’t be the only show in town like he was last year, he’s still the back-to-own and likely workhorse back in Jacksonville.

Possible Three Down Running Backs

Getting into the more cloudy situations, here’s my belief at what will happen this season with several teams running back rooms with plenty of potential.

Miles Sanders

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Miles Sanders is a tricky one.  While he seems so far to be a three-down back, the Eagles drafting Kenneth Gainwell and their other offseason moves says otherwise.  Gainwell was a pass-catching specialist at Memphis and a teammate of Antonio Gibson, whom you may have heard of.

Eli Grabanski of FantasyPros found Sanders dropped 13.5% of the passes thrown his way last year.  It would not surprise me if he was limited to 2 down work in favor of giving other backs on the roster (notably Gainwell) receiving work.

Chase Edmonds

Chase Edmonds is one of my favorite 2021 sleepers. If you read my 2021 NFL prop bets article, you know I like Edmonds’ chances to take the lead back duties in Arizona. A post on PFF says he may be the lead back already, which is backed up in an article by Arizona Sports 98.7FM. Edmonds was already a pass catcher and a skilled runner. If he’s able to keep the starting job over James Conner, and if he maintains his explosiveness and elusiveness after bulking up this offseason, I see no reason why Edmonds won’t be a three-down running back.

Antonio Gibson

John Keim of ESPN reported the WFT wants Antonio Gibson involved more in the passing game this year. That is everything we needed to hear. He was already their primary rushing back, and he averaged 3.5 targets a game before his toe injury against Pittsburgh. J.D. McKissic had most of the third-down work last year. If Gibson wrestles some passing downs from McKissic, watch out Fantasy players.

Javonte Williams

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Now turn your attention to UNC college teammates Javonte Williams and Michael Carter. Williams averaged an insane 7.3 YPCand 22 TD’s his senior year at UNC. The Broncos wanted him enough to trade up and get him. Frank Ammirante of 4for4 notes a Broncos beat writer believes Williams “is slated to be the Broncos starting running back as soon as Week 1…”. If true, Williams has huge value, and with his receiving skills, I could see him overtaking Melvin Gordon on the Denver depth chart and becoming their three-down back.

Myles Gaskin

Updated 8-29-2021. Down in Miami, I think Myles Gaskin is still the back-to-own. However, things got muddy during preseason and training camp. You had Malcolm Brown starting in the first game. Then Brian Flores says he wants a three-man committee. In addition to Brown, Salvon Ahmed will steal some work from Gaskin. However, Brown has been basically unused in the passing game to this point, and Ahmed was out-touched by Gaskin in the two preseason games the potential starters played. Marek Brave of The Phinsider is still taking Gaskin as Miami’s lead back, and so am I. However, it’s much closer than before.

Michael Carter

Williams teammate, Michael Carter, was drafted by the New York Jets in the 4th round of this year’s NFL draft. Carter one-upped Williams in 2020 averaging an incredible 8.0 YPC and scored 11 TD’s. Reports out of training camp say Carter is working with the first team and a favorite to be the lead back. But 4th round running backs have a bad history in their rookie year for fantasy, so temper expectations. In addition, he’s been working behind Tevin Coleman and Ty Johnson so far.

Those That Didn’t Make the Cut

The Browns, Texans, Titans, Raiders, Bills, Colts, Patriots, Ravens, Rams, and 49ers are all in either: heavy committees, have backs with very defined roles, or don’t use their running backs often enough in passing situations.  A lot of these teams have extremely valuable players, don’t hear what I am not saying. They just didn’t have the kind of workload potential to make the cut unless through injury.



Bringing It All Together

2021 Fantasy Football Three Down Running Backs are extremely important in fantasy football. Finding the three-down back sleepers who don’t cost much draft capital can give you crucial depth at the position unlike other teams in your league. It’s also in the murky backfield situations where league winners can be found. Some backfields will stay murky during the preseason, but the regular season will shed a lot of light on them. Take your shot on the running back you believe in. That’s the fun with fantasy football.

If you enjoyed this 2021 Fantasy Football Three Down Running Backs article, check out more 2021 Fantasy Football content and more from our great team of writers!

About Garrett Ball

Love me some fantasy football! After having played fantasy football for a few years, I decided to write about my hobby to help others in the fantasy community! The only things I love more than winning fantasy championships are God and my wife and two daughters. But fishing comes close too.

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