2021 Fantasy Football Running Back Busts: Beware of the Red Flags

by Michael Tomlin
2022 Fantasy Football Week 1 Trends and Storylines

When finding 2021 Fantasy Football Running Back Busts, you must realize that these six guys are not guaranteed to be terrible. In fact, I bet a couple of them exceed expectations.

I am trying to find the guys that have the most red flags and are most likely to be busts. I also want running backs that are being drafted at their ceiling of production. If the best you can get out of a pick is a guy that performs up to that level of draft capital, then we have a likely bust.

So here are my 2021 Fantasy Football Running Back Busts. Some of them will not be popular as the player (Taylor) is universally renowned and picked as a breakout. That (groupthink) is another big red flag to me.

All of the information for the 2021 Fantasy Football Running Back Busts is up to date as of June 30th and the Average Draft Position (ADP) data is per Fantasy Pros.

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2021 Fantasy Football Running Back Busts

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Saquon Barkley, New York Giants

Of all the 2021 Fantasy Football Running Back Busts listed, this one scares me the most. That fear comes both from drafting him as well as fading him.

We all just gloss over torn ACL’s nowadays. Adrian Peterson broke our minds when he returned just nine months later and rushed for 2,097 yards. However, that was a decade ago now. Since then, there really have not been many notable running backs to suffer in the injury.

Honestly, the only notable Fantasy Football running back since then to suffer a torn ACL since Peterson was Jamaal Charles in 2015. That injury effectively ended his career, at least as a Fantasy Football asset. Charles rushed for just 707 yards over the last four years of his career after the injury.

I hear the arguments about how the recovery process has progressed significantly. In my mind, I just think we are overly optimistic that Barkley will jump right back in at 100%.

I mean he must be 100% of what he was pre-injury to even reach his lofty draft status. In 2019, Barkley finished as RB10. I know, he missed a few games. But are you going to project a guy coming off such a massive injury to play every week?

I just am not sold on it. Using the fifth overall pick in the draft on such a high risk is not how I want to start my Fantasy Football team.

Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts

Similarly, to my Barkley pick, of all of the 2021 Fantasy Football Running Back Busts I can guarantee this one will bring the most backlash in the Fantasy Football community. Taylor is a popular pick to really break out and possibly be the overall RB1.

I am not buying it though. I think Taylor brought some fool’s gold last season. The reason that his year looks great, and he finished as RB6 was that he came on strong at the end of the year.

However, as people have pointed out with David Montgomery all offseason, the schedule could not have been easier. In five of Taylor’s final six games the Colts faced Green Bay, Houston, Las Vegas, Houston again, and Jacksonville. Those defenses finished fifth, second, fourth, second, and third respectively in most Fantasy Points allowed to running backs.

If you add in the Minnesota game earlier in the year (sixth-most Fantasy Points allowed to running backs), then it amounts to 768 rushing yards, 16 catches, 105 receiving yards, and seven total touchdowns. That is 137.3 of his 234.8 total Fantasy Points. That is 59% of his production in 33% of his games.

So, Taylor scored 10.83 Fantasy Points against non-bottom six defenses. That average slots around RB30 in Fantasy Points per game.

Yes, he will have some games against terrible defenses again. But this is where we must factor in Marlon Mack coming back into the fold.

Mack has been the forgotten man even though he rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2019. In 2018 and 2019, Mack actually averaged 77 rushing yards per game. Taylor’s average for 2020: 77.9 yards per game.

With lesser backs than Mack last season (Jordan Wilkins and Nyheim Hines) the Colts gave 177 carries to backs not named Jonathan Taylor. I would bet that number is at least the same with Mack in for the whole season, capping Taylor’s rushing potential. With Hines proving as an elite receiving back last season, Taylor’s receiving capabilities are capped as well.

The long and the short of it is I think the absolute ceiling for Taylor is the RB6 finish of last season. You know, where you have to draft him. I would bet he is closer to a mid-RB2 by the end of the year.

Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys

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When I first ran through my 2021 Fantasy Football Running Back Busts, Zeke was not on it. I mean it is tough to say that 25% of the RB1’s and RB2’s end up busting. However, by my Zero-RB Strategy research, I know that 24% of backs drafted as RB1’s bust.

Zeke fits many of the red flags that you look for with running back busts. He is past his age-25 season. He has had an extremely high workload for five straight seasons. The trend of his production is definitely down.

The first couple of things go together. Elliott has played five seasons in the league amassing 1,413 carries and 241 receptions. That is over 330 touches per season. He will be 26 when they get to training camp, which is past the prime age for running backs.

As far as production goes, Zeke has had fewer rushing yards/attempts, receptions, receiving yards, and a lower yards per carry in each of the last three seasons. His rushing yards per game has gone down every season of his career.

I understand that last year was not a great situation. The Cowboys were down nearly their entire offensive line (as well as a couple of backups) and their starting quarterback.

Still, the bust probability with running backs goes up with age and tread on the tires. So even if last year was an anomaly, it was a wasted year of time and a wasted 300 touches on Zeke’s wheels.

The sad part is the Cowboys cannot move on from him until 2023. To cut him after this season would still be a $23.2 million dead cap hit. So, they might want to pull back on his workload to keep him available for 2022. That could be mean even more Tony Pollard than last year.

To recap: we have a past-his-RB-prime running back with a decreasing level of production who has built his value based on an insane level of volume but will not have it eaten into by a younger guy. Yeah, I would be worried about Zeke this year.

Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams

If you have read my 2021 Los Angeles Rams Fantasy Football Preview or the 2021 Fantasy Football Running Back Sleepers post then you already know where I stand on the Rams’ backfield. I think this is firmly a 50/50 timeshare, with a max of 60% towards Akers.

Will that still be worth starting in Fantasy Football? Of course! The offense will be explosive with Matthew Stafford behind center especially with all of the running back targets that come with him.

Will Akers be able to return on an RB1 draft value? I just do not see it. As I have repeatedly stated, no back has ever had so much hype off of a 625-yard season.

Something I have yet to really highlight: the misconception of Akers “taking over” in the playoffs. Yeah, Akers had two great games with 221 yards rushing, 51 yards receiving, and a couple of touchdowns. That is phenomenal production.

What does not get brought up enough is the quarterback play in those two games. Goff was already playing terribly then he was hurt in the first game. He tried to play through the pain in the second game, but the offense was clearly affected by it, leading to more rushing.

I doubt this will be the case with Matthew Stafford behind center. Combine that with the fact that 27.5% of Akers’ entire rushing total came in one 24-3 blowout, and I do not even think Akers’ ceiling can reach his current draft positioning.

D’Andre Swift, Detroit Lions

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Speaking of over-hyped second-year running backs with a low 2020 rushing total, Swift is definitely on my list of 2021 running back busts.

The prevalent thought with Swift is that “someone” has to get the touches. With zero prominent wide receivers, inconsistent Jared Goff behind center, and new head coach Dan Campbell coming in, the thought is they will be a run-first, run-more-later type of team.

I do not doubt that. I also acknowledge that 208 carries left town with Adrian Peterson and Kerryon Johnson.

However, I also recognize that the Lions signed Jamaal Williams in free agency. Williams has steadily had over 700 total yards and 4-5 touchdowns each year. The reports out of Detroit are that this will be a timeshare.

The Lions also drafted Jermar Jefferson who could see some work. I think that Anthony Lynn will spread the ball around the backfield.

At this point, ESPN is projecting just 188 carries for Swift. Only two of the top fifteen running backs last season had that few of carries and both of them had double-digit touchdowns.

So, for Swift to come anywhere near his draft value in production he will need to either get a ton of touchdowns or catch a bunch of passes. As I have already pointed out, Jared Goff just does not throw the ball to his running backs at a high rate.

In the end, you have a back in a timeshare, on a bad offense/team, with a quarterback that does not throw to his backs much. And you must draft him at his probably ceiling of production.

Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos

Quick questions for thought purposes: how many 1,000-yard seasons do you think Melvin Gordon has had in his career? The answer my friends is one. Just once has Gordon crossed a seemingly attainable goal.

That was also the only time he has played in all sixteen games. While Gordon missed just one complete game last season, there were several other games that he either left early or was just not used due to nagging injuries.

This led to some serious inconsistency from Gordon for Fantasy Football purposes. He failed to reach 47 yards rushing in 33% of his games in 2020. He could not score 8.5 PPR Fantasy Points 40% of his games. Those are not exactly high bars.

What is even more disturbing is his lack of use in the passing game. Gordon has had fewer targets and catches in each of the last four seasons straight, and fewer yards in each of the last three seasons.

In four of his last eight games in 2020, Gordon failed to record a reception. He never had more than 23 yards receiving in an outing last season.

So, you have a declining, 28-year-old, past his prime running back that cannot stay fully healthy, is being used less and less in the passing game, and has failed to reach 4.0 yards per carry in four of his six seasons. To top it all off, the Broncos drafted Javonte Williams with the 35th overall pick this year. I would bet a lot of money that he blows past the 118 carries that left town with Phillip Lindsay.

(And for those of you with the “Well Aaron Rodgers might be his QB1!” just stop. With the receiving talent in Denver, Rodgers will be throwing even more than he did last season.)

With all that said, I am not risking a Round Five pick on Gordon. I would much rather have Myles Gaskin who has zero competition for carries or one of the receivers around his ADP (D.J. Moore, Cooper Kupp, or Diontae Johnson).

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