With the draft in the rear-view and the season creeping up on us fast, it is time to break down the 2021 rookie class from a fantasy perspective. This fantasy rookie Running Back ranking is based upon the dynasty league format and remains relatively the same when it comes to re-draft leagues. Typically rookie Running Backs do not perform well in year one, but this season there is at least one positioned to produce at a high-level week one.
1.) Najee Harris – Pittsburgh Steelers
Najee Harris landed in an ideal spot for fantasy owners and is my top rookie pick in non-Superflex leagues. In Pittsburgh, Harris will be the lead back on day one, barring any injuries. The second he was drafted he was vaulted to the top of their depth chart, in a run-heavy offense.
Najee had his way with college defenders last season to the tune of 1,466 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns (his second straight season of at least 1,500 yards and 20 TDs). He is a complete back with the perfect combination of power and speed. Best of all, he has sure hands, making him a threat out of the backfield. It is safe to draft Harris with confidence in both re-draft and dynasty leagues.
2) Javonte Williams – Denver Broncos
Yes, I know Melvin Gordon is there (for now, more on this shortly). Yes, I know some like Travis Etienne here on their fantasy rookie Running Back lists. But give me Javonte Williams as the RB2 for rookies all day, every day.
Gordon is on the last year of his contract in Denver, and if you read the tea leaves, there is a lot of talk that he may end up being a camp causality. Combine that with the fact that Denver traded up for Williams, makes for a great spot.
He totaled 1,445 yards with 22 TDs at UNC and his game translates well to the NFL. Williams is a classic power-back who feeds off of his physicality. He is agile in the open field and runs a crisp route out of the backfield. Lastly, he is a solid blocker, which goes a long way in keeping him on the field for every down.
3) Travis Etienne – Jacksonville Jaguars
There is a lot of things to like about the Jaguars drafting Travis Etienne. He is reunited with his college quarterback in Trevor Larence and he should already be familiar with the offense. Urban Myer runs a type of spread scheme offense that is very similar to the one that was run at Clemson.
Etienne had a very productive collegiate career. He averaged over 100 total yards and a touchdown per game over his four-year career at Clemson. He also is currently the all-time leading rusher in the ACC.
Not the biggest back, Etienne relies on his speed and vision to make plays. He should be highly productive in the passing game, lining up all over the field for the Jags. I worry that James Robinson will handle the short-yardage and the goal-line work, but I would still be ok with drafting Etienne as a fantasy RB strictly based on his upside.
4) Trey Sermon – San Francisco 49ers
The 49ers backfield is crowded right now. However, I really believe that, between now and the start of the season, it will thin out with Trey Sermon sitting on top. Kyle Shanahan traded up in the third round to get Sermon, so that has to speak for something.
Sermon bounced around the college landscape a bit, not really fitting in at Oklahoma, he transferred to Ohio State where he found his footing. He relies on a jump move to make defenders miss and he does not shy away from contact.
Sermon may be more of a dynasty stash with the crowded backfield he finds himself in. But in re-draft leagues, draft him late because this rookie Running Back has the makings of a late-season bloomer that can help you win your league.
5) Michael Carter – New York Jets
Similar to Harris, Michael Carter lands in a backfield that is baron. As long as Carter does not completely collapse during the pre-season, he should be the Jets’ day one back.
Now, a day one back in an offense with a rookie QB (Zach Wilson) and a whole new scheme may spell disaster, so temper your expectations here a bit. Carter does bring some exciting skills to the table that has the attention of fantasy players.
He is a bit in the mold of Etienne; he is an explosive back who loves the cut-back move and runs exceptional routes. But, also like Etienne, he is not the best blocker. Carter will be involved in the passing game right away and could become a security blanket for Wilson.