There are countless ways used to estimate how a running back will fare in an upcoming season. Everything from age to draft capital to salary to schedule to film watching to coordinator changes matters. But in reality, the easiest way to buy into someone -- or lean away from someone -- is by understanding stats that may offer a peek into the future.
For the better part of the last six months, I've been dissecting players across the league to come up with an agnostic view of who is in a position to be great -- and who is in a position to disappoint. Some of my long-time favorites like Chris Carson and Melvin Gordon don't look as good as they once did, while other backs I was initially opposed to, like Najee Harris and David Montgomery, found a way to move up my rankings.
There's a lot to go through here, so please read carefully. You've got time.
These are the stats that helped shape my strongest opinions on some running backs heading into 2021 draft season.
Jonesin' for Henry
Percentage of snaps Julio Jones lined up against seven or fewer defenders in the box
- 2020: 83% (374 snaps)
- 2019: 80% (611 snaps)
- 2018: 81% (636 snaps)
Percentage of snaps Derrick Henry lined up against seven or fewer defenders in the box
- 2020: 51% (345 snaps)
- 2019: 46% (264 snaps)
The Titans probably shouldn't bank on a frequency of 80% against light run defenses, but they should expect Henry to carry the ball against it a little more often. When defenses didn't put more than seven defenders in the box against Henry in 2020, he averaged 6.0 yards per carry. The bulldozer is in line to see his rushing average burst and, perhaps, rack up a few more long-distance touchdowns.
Rankings change: Henry moved to No. 2 overall in non-PPR and No. 4 overall in PPR.
Cool with Kamara?
Alvin Kamara career receiving totals on passes from NOT Drew Brees
- 54 targets
- 42 receptions (77.8% catch rate)
- 338 yards (8.0 yards per catch)
- one touchdown
Saints pass-run ratios
- Four 2020 games started by Taysom Hill: 48-52
- Three 2020 games started by Hill (eliminating the weird game at Denver): 54-46
- 12 2020 games started by Drew Brees: 54-46
- 2019: 57-43
- 2018: 51-49
- 2017: 54-46
Since Kamara joined the Saints, their offense hasn't fundamentally changed in terms of rushing more or throwing less. That includes the "normal" starts Hill made in 2020. We don't know who the Saints' main quarterback will be in 2021, but their pass-run track record, Kamara's history with other quarterbacks and his obvious skill-set suggest any receiving downturn for Kamara won't be devastating.
Rankings change: Kamara steady as a top-3 running back in PPR, top-5 in non-PPR.
Jonathan Taylor's final six games including the playoffs
- 119 carries, 741 yards, seven TDs; 14 receptions, 96 yards, one TD
Taylor's 17-game pace based on those numbers
- 317 carries, 1,976 yards, 19 TDs; 37 receptions, 256 yards, three TD
Overall, Taylor had 1,468 total yards on 268 touches in 15 games. Keep in mind, he ran tentatively during the first half of the season. Those days are over. His offensive line is still a big plus, his schedule is sweet, and the concerns about playing time aren't close to what they were a year ago. He stands tall as one of the few running backs in Fantasy who can notch 2,000 total yards.
Rankings change: Top-4 RB in non-PPR, top-5 RB in PPR.
Go easy on Ekeler?
Austin Ekeler's per game averages
- 2020: 5.4 receptions, 93.3 total yards, 3.14 yards after contact
- 2019: 5.8 receptions, 96.9 total yards, 3.23 yards after contact
- 2018: 2.8 receptions, 68.4 total yards, 3.63 yards after contact
Ekeler's games with 15-plus touches
- 2020: 6-of-10
- 2019: 7-of-16
- 2018: 4-of-14
Ekeler's carries inside the 5-yard line
- 2020: two carries, no TD
- 2019: seven carries, two TD
- 2018: four carries, two TD
No one's sweating Ekeler's role in the passing game -- more than a third of his PPR Fantasy points came from receptions in 2020. But unless this new coaching staff thinks differently than the previous one, Ekeler will continue to be a liability in terms of short-yardage scores and overall volume. Those are two critical areas most first-round running backs have locked up. It's enough to make me a little jittery about Ekeler in non- and half-PPR leagues.
Rankings change: 12th-ranked RB in non-PPR, ninth-ranked RB in PPR.
- Six or fewer defenders in the box (10.3% of attempts): 8.7 yards per carry
- Seven defenders in the box (33.1% of attempts): 4.2 yards per carry
- Eight or more defenders in the box (56.6% of attempts): 3.6 yards per carry
Akers' efficiency metrics were pretty bad last year, but it makes sense given how defenses lined up against the Rams. L.A. is hoping that changes in 2021 with Matthew Stafford under center. Sean McVay has had commitment issues with his running backs when he hasn't had a legit three-down stud, but he's talking like Akers will have a chance to handle as much work as he can handle.
Rankings change: top-10 RB in non-PPR; top-12 RB in PPR
Not fading Najee
Steelers running backs over Mike Tomlin's 14 years as head coach
- 15-plus carries per game in 11 seasons
- 18-plus carries per game in eight seasons
- a top-22 Fantasy RB in 10 seasons
- a top-12 Fantasy RB in six seasons
Face it: Tomlin loves having an every-down running back he can count on. The Steelers are desperate for one after an abysmal 2020. The offensive line is a big problem -- it might be the worst in the NFL -- but at the very least, rookie Najee Harris should handle a majority of touches as evidenced by Tomlin's track record. He's entering the NFL with one of the best prospect pedigrees around, so if any young runner can make it work behind a suspect O-line, it's Harris.
Rankings change: top-12 RB regardless of format
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Can Clyde glide?
- Before Le'Veon Bell: 15.1 PPR points per game, 11.7 non-PPR points per game; at least 60% of snaps each game
- After Le'Veon Bell: 10.6 PPR points per game, 8.4 non-PPR points per game; under 60% of snaps in six games and under 51% in four games
Short yardage situations
- 1-for-6 in goal-to-go carries from three yards or closer
- Patrick Mahomes: 10 total touchdowns (two rushing) from three yards or closer
Is it safe to assume that Edwards-Helaire will get the lion's share of work in Kansas City ahead of Darrel Williams and Jerick McKinnon? Perhaps so, which means the PPR averages from when he was playing a lot are back in play. It's the short-yardage work that is much murkier and could cap CEH's upside. An improved offensive line is a big deal, but why would the Chiefs be willing to consistently take the ball out of Mahomes' hands when he's been money in short-yardage for years?
Rankings change: No. 16 among running backs in both formats.
Which Montgomery will we get?
David Montgomery 2020 stats
- First nine games: 11.3 PPR points per game, 14.6 carries per game, 4.5 targets per game, five games with 66-plus percent of the snaps.
- Last six games: 24.8 PPR points per game, 19.3 carries per game, 4.5 targets per game, six games with 66-plus percent of the snaps.
Montgomery's late-2020 run was boosted by favorable matchups and no competition for touches. Chicago will get back Tarik Cohen and added Damien Williams this offseason, affording it the chance to take some work off of Montgomery's plate. A tougher projected schedule also won't help. However, there's no way the Bears coaching staff can ignore what Montgomery did in 2020. He should at least begin the season as a heavy-usage running back (those targets seem stable). Keeping that role is what Fantasy managers are concerned about.
Rankings change: No. 18 among running backs in both formats.
- 2020: 14.8 PPR/11.8 non-PPR points per game, 11.8 carries and 3.1 receptions per game, seven with 15-plus touches
- 2019: 14.7 PPR/12.3 non-PPR points per game, 18.5 carries and 2.5 receptions per game, 13 with 15-plus touches
While Carson's workload lightened considerably last year, his Fantasy production stayed on par thanks to an improvement in the passing game. Will it stick? On one hand, Seattle did nothing to improve its run game this offseason. On the other, the offense figures to attack defenses faster with quick downfield throws. The fear is Carson won't ever regain his heavy workload and may become more touchdown-dependent.
Rankings change: Still a No. 2 Fantasy rusher, but more like a top-20 RB and a Round 4 pick than before.
Josh Jacobs on downs of three yards or closer
- Overall: 50.8% conversion rate
- Goal-to-go: 31.2% (5-of-16)
Kenyan Drake on downs of three yards or closer
- Overall: 57.4% conversion rate
- Goal-to-go: 42.1% (8-of-19)
While I can't quantify how sketchy Jacobs' O-line looks, nor can I guarantee how bad the Raiders' schedule is for their run game, I can point to Jacobs' inferior short-yardage numbers and wonder if Drake is coming to take some of that work. Drake is also a more accomplished pass-catcher, further limiting whatever upside Jacobs might have had as a receiver. Jacobs is one of my favorite players to fade on Draft Day.
Rankings change: Low-end No. 2 Fantasy RB regardless of format, worth taking no earlier than Round 5.
Falcon Crest or Falcon Crash?
Mike Davis 2020 stats
- First three games replacing Christian McCaffrey: 24.0 PPR points per game, 4.9 yards per carry, 15 carries per game, 8.3 targets per game.
- Final 10 games replacing McCaffrey: 10.9 PPR points per game, 3.5 yards per carry, 11.9 carries per game, 3.7 targets per game.
He's on a different team with different coaches, but there's still trepidation in trusting Davis. He's coming off a career year, he's 28 years old and he's on a team with a so-so O-line and a worse-than-so-so defense. How much stock should Fantasy managers put into a running back who has never been a stud workhorse for a long period of time? By simply asking that question should disqualify Davis as anything more than a low-end No. 2 Fantasy rusher.
Rankings change: Low-end No. 2 Fantasy RB regardless of format, worth taking no earlier than Round 5 (I like Jacobs better).
Cardinals RB rush stats
- 2020: 21.1 carries per game (14th fewest), 5.0 receptions per game (tied for 15th most)
- 2019: 17.5 carries per game (fewest in NFL, 4.8 receptions per game (tied for 13th fewest)
Chase Edmonds 2020 stats
- averaged 6.1 carries, 4.2 targets and 3.3 receptions per game
- collected 53.1 total yards per game
- played 48.5% of the snaps
If Edmonds squeezed out 850 total yards, five scores and 53 receptions playing less than half of the Cardinals' snaps in 2020, then it stands to reason he could be nominally better in 2021. But the reality isn't just that he will share with James Conner -- he's also on a team that simply doesn't utilize its running backs to the max.
Rankings change: Edmonds is a No. 3 running back worth drafting around 90th overall in non-PPR, 80th overall in PPR. Conner is a safer pick ahead of Edmonds in non-PPR, but not PPR.
Hope for Javonte?
Melvin Gordon's 2020 stats
- 12.5 PPR points per game, 15-plus PPR points in 6-of-15 games
- carried at least 15 times in 8-of-15 games
- caught at least three passes in 6-of-15 games
- played at least 60% snaps in 9-of-15 games
The 28-year-old saw his workload dip in a season where he was sharing with guys like Philip Lindsay and Royce Freeman. Since then, Javonte Williams was drafted and Mike Boone was signed. It'll be hard for Gordon to even match his paltry 2020 stats given the improved competition for playing time.
Rankings change: I wouldn't draft Gordon unless it was at a really good value. That's past Round 7 in any format.
The history of Kyle Shanahan
49ers rushing leaders under Shanahan
- 2020: Jeff Wilson 600 yards, 7 TD
- 2019: Raheem Mostert 772 yards, 8 TD
- 2018: Matt Breida 814 yards, 3 TD
- 2017: Carlos Hyde 240 carries, 938 yards, 8 TD
49ers RBs under Shanahan
- 2018: Three RBs under 200 touches
- 2019: Three RBs under 160 touches
- 2020: Three RBs under 150 touches
Rookie RBs under Shanahan
- 2014: Terrance West 171-673-4, 13/11-64-1 (CLE leading rusher)
- 2014: Isaiah Crowell 148-607-8, 14/9-87-0 (CLE 2nd leading rusher)
- 2015: Tevin Coleman 87-392-1, 11/2-14-0 (backup to Devonta Freeman)
- 2017: Matt Breida 105-465-2, 36/21-180-1 (second guy up behind Hyde)
- 2018: Jeff Wilson 66-266-0, 15/12-98-0 (third guy up behind Breida, Morris)
- 2020: JaMycal Hasty 39-148-1, 8/7-33-0 (pressed into action)
A lot to take in, but here are the keys: Shanahan hasn't had a 1,000-yard rusher yet with the 49ers (he's only had one back get more than 200 carries), nor does any one of his running backs pick up a lot of touches, and his rookies have consistently been limited. These are the uphill battles Raheem Mostert and especially Trey Sermon must face in order for one of them to become a quality Fantasy starter.
Rankings change: No 49ers rusher should be confidently drafted until Round 7 at the earliest.
So which sleepers, breakouts and busts should you target and fade? And which QB shocks the NFL with a top-five performance? Visit SportsLine now to get Fantasy cheat sheets for every single position, all from the model that called Josh Allen's huge season, and find out.