Fantasy Football 2021: Predicting This Year's Biggest Breakout Running Backs

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistAugust 19, 2021

Fantasy Football 2021: Predicting This Year's Biggest Breakout Running Backs

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    Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

    Predicting breakout running backs can often be the difference between fantasy football glory and irrelevance.

    By far the most important position in all fantasy formats, running back continues to churn out big names who can carry teams to contention. Last year, Jonathan Taylor of the Indianapolis Colts and James Robinson of the Jacksonville Jaguars burst onto the scene, finishing in the top 10 at the position in points per game in both standard and points-per-reception (PPR) leagues.

    In 2021, the league's first 17-game campaign, players who make up some of this year's projected breakout class flashed last year, have improved circumstances surrounding them, are primed for bigger roles or are rookies.

    With an assist from Fantasy Football Calculator's average draft position (ADP) metrics, here's a look at breakout candidates fantasy managers will want to keep in mind during their drafts.

Antonio Gibson, Washington Football Team

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    There's arguably no bigger breakout candidate than Antonio Gibson—at any position.

    One might argue he broke out last year when he ran for 795 yards and 11 touchdowns, averaging 4.7 yards per carry, and caught 36 receptions for 247 yards. That was good enough to make him just one of 13 backs who recorded at least 200 points in PPR leagues, and this year fantasy managers are taking him early in the second round.

    But Gibson is a threat to lead all players at his position in 2021. Not only did he miss two games last season, but he also played just 37 percent of his team's offensive snaps as a rookie.

    According to JP Finlay of NBC Sports Washington, quarterback Kyle Allen said the Washington Football Team is looking for Gibson to take on a Christian McCaffrey type of role, which also points toward a major upswing.

    Prediction: 275 CAR, 1,200 yards, 10 TD

Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Kansas City Chiefs

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    File this one under the "obvious" column. The first running back selected in 2020 should only keep getting better for fantasy managers in 2021.

    Those who grabbed Clyde Edwards-Helaire after the Kansas City Chiefs took him at No. 32 overall only got 176 points from him (ranked 22nd at his position). He recorded 803 rushing yards on 181 carries with four touchdowns and 36 catches for 297 yards and another score.

    Like Gibson, Edwards-Helaire missed time (though two of those three absences were in Weeks 16 and 17). He only played 49 percent of the offensive snaps. But the Chiefs didn't bring in anyone to truly challenge his spot as their top running back, and their plan to make more plays in the short-to-intermediate passing game hints at an expanded role for Edwards-Helaire through the air.

    The 22-year-old has a 2.05 ADP as the 13th running back off the board in 12-team standard leagues, but he should outplay that positioning.

    Prediction: 215 CAR, 1,050 yards, 7 TD; 55 catches, 455 yards, 3 TD

Mike Davis, Atlanta Falcons

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    Brian Blanco/Associated Press

    A year ago in Carolina, Mike Davis recorded the 12th-most PPR fantasy points at his position over 15 games while mostly filling in for an injured Christian McCaffrey. He tallied 642 yards and six touchdowns on the ground along with 59 catches for 373 yards and two touchdowns through the air.

    Now he's the unchallenged starter in what could be a high-flying Atlanta Falcons attack.

    Fantasy managers don't seem to be overly enthused about the idea given Davis' 4.09 ADP as the 25th back off the board. But he's not going to lose many reps to Qadree Ollison and Cordarrelle Patterson. He's also on an offense that lost Julio Jones and targeted running backs 90 times last year.

    Davis, who broke a tackle once every 7.9 attempts in 2020 to lead the league in that category, isn't a household name. But the Falcons clearly added him because he fit their scheme, and managers should reap plenty of reward on a weekly basis.

    Prediction: 190 CAR, 760 yards, 6 TD; 75 catches, 473 yards, 5 TD

Darrell Henderson, Los Angeles Rams

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    As a backup last year, Darrell Henderson recorded 130.3 PPR fantasy points (36th at his position). He rushed for 624 yards and five touchdowns on 138 carries, averaging 4.5 yards per attempt, and added 159 yards and a score on 16 catches.

    With starter Cam Akers lost for the 2021 season with a torn Achilles, Henderson is about to erupt as he steps into the workhorse role.

    Henderson's fantasy draft slot will presumably continue to rise, as his 4.09 ADP as the 24th back off the board in 12-team PPR leagues isn't high enough. The Los Angeles Rams were in the top 10 in rushing attempts in two of the past three years, and the running game should still be a big part of the equation even with gunslinger Matthew Stafford now under center.

    Stafford also targeted backs 105 times last year in Detroit. With Akers out and Malcolm Brown gone, Henderson is the only back on the roster with 100-plus attempts last year. He's bound to benefit even if the Rams eventually bring in another veteran back.

    Prediction: 195 CAR, 877 yards, 7 TD; 45 catches, 410 yards, 3 TD

J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens

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    Gail Burton/Associated Press

    By most accounts, J.K. Dobbins would make breakout lists based on his rookie season with the Baltimore Ravens.

    He posted a solid 805 rushing yards and nine touchdowns and had a 6.0 yards-per-attempt average.

    But veteran Mark Ingram, who had 72 carries over 11 appearances (nine starts), won't be there to dilute the workload after leaving for the Houston Texans in free agency, and Baltimore's plan to get running backs more involved in the passing game is a big boon for Dobbins' upside.

    Ravens head coach John Harbaugh also noted Dobbins' improvement in this area, per Jeff Zrebiec of The Athletic.

    With an ADP of 2.12 as the 15th back drafted in PPR 12-team leagues, Dobbins should improve upon his 2020 numbers by quite a large margin.

    Prediction: 190 CAR, 1,045 yards, 8 TD; 45 catches, 300 yards, 3 TD