This article is coming out much later than I would have liked, but I got behind this year because we pulled an Escape from L.A. after the season ended in February. We moved to Denver for a change of pace, but our place is undergoing massive renovations — further delaying this project. Apparently the piping in our building is all messed up. The basement flooded the first week we moved in there, which was probably a bad sign from the start in hindsight.
While we wait for our apartment to get repaired for the next month or so, I drove 1,700 miles and eight states down to my old stomping grounds in Jacksonville Beach and am now finishing this piece up down at an old shop that I used to do a ton of writing at in college. The nostalgia and gale force winds from the ocean are fueling my energy today. Or maybe it’s the coffee.
So, even though this article is a few weeks late, I feel lucky because this is the most cut and dry rookie class I have ever studied in my six years of doing Yards Created. There is a clear top-3, an underwhelming middle tier, and then dust. There is no depth in this crop. Everyone knows where the upside is in this class, so I’m going to really dig into how these players fit with their new teams and their long-term outlook.
In case you missed it, we have the last six year’s worth of data — including the 2021 class — in this dashboard. Just how useful is Yards Created? Well, it has been more predictive of future fantasy points than every single production stat (like rushing yards per game) and every Combine metric (like the 40-yard dash). YC is far from the be all and end all, but it should provide plenty of context into how these backs win and how they fit on their new teams.
You will notice that the ranks in this article reflect what I have in our Staff Rookie Rankings.
All right. Let’s get into it.
Tier 1 — The Big 3
RB1: Najee Harris (Pit)
The Steelers clearly aren’t in the “RBs don’t matter” camp.
Even with an offensive line that has been in the bottom-8 of the NFL in most run blocking metrics for back-to-back years, they stuck with their plan and selected Najee Harris at 24 overall. Keep in mind, this was after five offensive linemen went off of the board and zero linemen were taken for the rest of the first round after the Vikings picked Christian Darrisaw at 23. At the very least, the Steelers had a grasp on what was a clear tier dropoff in offensive line talent when they were on the clock — there wasn’t another lineman picked until 37 overall when the Eagles took Landon Dickerson. Could the Steelers have traded back a bit, picked up some extra capital, and still gotten Harris? Possibly. But the point is that GM Kevin Colbert felt like the No. 1 RB on his board is more valuable than the sixth-best lineman available. And that matters.
In a rookie class that is completely lacking depth — receivers included — Harris to Pittsburgh is one of the lone slam-dunk landing spots. He checks a lot of the boxes that we look for in fantasy:
Great production in final two seasons
Early draft capital (first or second-round pick)
Extremely elusive runner
Solid YC figures
Zero competition on the depth chart
The one hold up is the Steelers’ lackluster line. Harris benefitted from an elite Alabama offensive line that opened up 1.80 Yards Blocked per carry, which is the eighth-best figure in my database over the last six years. The Steelers are clearly higher on growing their talent on their roster than everyone else is — and they added C Kendrick Green and T Dan Moore in Round 3-4 of the Draft — but no one should pretend that their line is going to turn back into the juggernaut they once were when Le’Veon Bell was in his prime.
Still, the relationship between the offensive line and the running back is a balancing act. It’s why a stat like yards before contact needs context. Sure, Harris’ line was top-notch — but he was also helping them out often with his excellent footwork, decision-making, and elusiveness. At 6’2”, 230 pounds, Harris displayed incredible ability to maneuver through traffic for a back of his size. In fact, Harris led this class in missed tackles forced on his carries in between the tackles, just ahead of Javonte Williams.
Regardless of whether or not the Steelers’ line even gets marginally better as a group, the sky's the limit here for our game.
With James Conner out in the desert now, Harris’ only real competition for early-down work is career 3.6 YPC JAG Benny Snell. And most importantly, Harris will be a checkdown binky for the aging Ben Roethlisberger. Targets are worth 2.7 times more PPR points than carries in PPR formats, so even if Harris’ efficiency is middling on the ground he can more than make up for it with passing down work. Harris is a smooth route runner and an absolute beast after the catch, as he recorded an unreal 0.583 missed tackles forced per reception in his final season. That is the best figure I’ve ever charted in my six years of doing Yards Created, besting Alvin Kamara (0.53) Christian McCaffrey (0.45) for the top spot.
For this year, we are all-in on Harris and installed him as the RB10 in our first run of projections. I’ve already done 10 best-ball drafts and am targeting him in early to mid-second round while that price lasts. There is a good chance we’re talking about Harris as a first round pick when drafts really start heating up in August.
In dynasty, it’s hard to find more than 6-7 running backs that are better long-term bets than Harris. Christian McCaffrey is still the gold standard, Dalvin Cook is just entering his prime, and Alvin Kamara is one of the most consistent RB1s in fantasy history. Then you have that tier of Saquon Barkley plus all of the backs from the 2020 class in some order. After that? There is a legitimate argument Harris is already a top-8 dynasty RB. Because elite backs are so scarce and have such a short shelf-life compared to receivers, you draft RBs early, sell them high, and then rinse and repeat. Harris is my 1.01 over Ja’Marr Chase in rookie drafts, especially considering you probably have no viable backs on your roster if your team was bad enough to earn the first pick.
(For more Yards Created on Harris, check out his in-depth profile here.)
RB2: Javonte Williams (Den)
After giving Melvin Gordon a two-year deal last offseason that was basically fully guaranteed and signing the underrated Mike Boone in free agency, it was certainly a surprise that the Broncos traded up for Williams in new GM George Paton’s first draft. Denver flipped Atlanta the 114th pick to slide up five spots to take Williams at 35 overall in a move to jump Miami at 36, who had their sights set on the UNC back at their pick.
Even in a bad rookie crop, Williams is one of my personal favorite prospects that I have charted for Yards Created. Among this class, Williams leads the group in…
Yards Created per attempt (over Trey Sermon)
Percentage of carries where he created 5+ yards (over Harris)
Missed tackles forced per attempt (by a mile)
Pass protection execution rate (over Sermon)
Williams’ Yards Created scores are among an elite bunch that have all gone on to have at least one RB1 (top-12) fantasy season. Over the last six years, just seven running backs have scored above the 75th percentile in both Yards Created per attempt and missed tackles forced/attempt: Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Joe Mixon, Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette… and now Williams.
I wrote way more about this here, but Williams’ limited passing down snaps revealed that he certainly has a three-down skillset. I’m in the camp that pass protection doesn’t matter all that much simply because it rarely happens in the NFL, but Williams was without a doubt one of the best pass blockers I’ve seen come out of the college ranks. His 92% pass protection execution was easily tops in this class and one of the six best figures in my database. Williams consistently showed not only the awareness to identify and react to oncoming blitzers, but he showed near perfect form — constantly keeping his hips and shoulders square when he met defenders. I’m sure the Broncos brass loved that part of Williams’ tape. At the very least, Williams’ pass blocking chops will earn him snaps early on.
Williams might be road-blocked by Melvin Gordon for now, but what are the odds that he just straight up beats out Gordon for the starting role by mid-season? Keep in mind, Gordon showed up to camp out of shape last year and then pleaded not guilty to a DUI charge in January (that was later dismissed). While Gordon may be on the outs with management, Denver is obviously enamored with Williams and probably wouldn’t hesitate at giving him the reins early if it’s clear he’s out-performing Gordon.
We’ve got Williams at RB26 in our early projections, one spot behind Travis Etienne and seven slots ahead of Gordon. It’s hard to be much more aggressive on Williams than that for now, but your approach to him in best-ball drafts is entirely dependent upon your team build. Did you draft a few backs early? Then you’re probably looking at WRs or one of the high-ceiling QBs in the sixth-round range that Williams is going off of the board. On the flip side, Williams is a phenomenal target on Zero RB or on team’s where you only take one back early. He might not be the starter in Week 1, but he’ll still have a sizable role early on to warrant taking him as a part of Zero RB group.
For dynasty, I’m probably on an island with Williams over Etienne as my RB2. I’m partially sticking with The Process here because Williams’ Yards Created figures were so fantastic, but it’s also a bet on his landing spot. I’m much higher than consensus on Williams’ long-term outlook in Denver. First and foremost, this backfield will be his in 2022. Melvin Gordon isn’t coming back after his two-year deal is up at the end of this season. Plus, the Broncos have an underrated offensive line coached by all-time great coach Mike Munchak. Last year, Garrett Bolles finally took a massive stepforward at left tackle and their interior is rock solid and young between Graham Glasgow, Lloyd Cushenberry, and Dalton Risner.
With a star-studded defense that is getting Von Miller back and added two shutdown corners in Kyle Fuller and Patrick Surtain, the Broncos should be in plenty of close games and that will allow them to run the ball as much as they want with Teddy Bridgewater/Drew Lock under center. The only thing that is missing is a long-term solution at QB. Still.
(For more Yards Created on Williams, check out his in-depth profile here.)
RB3: Travis Etienne (Jax)
After finding gold in James Robinson last year, the Jaguars new brass still thought they needed to make a big investment at running back in the first round with Etienne. The Trevor Lawrence connection is obvious, but from a team-building standpoint, I can’t wrap my head around the pick with so many other positions of need on a rebuilding roster. GM Trent Baalke and HC Urban Meyer were in no position to make a luxury pick at 25 overall, but here we are.
Further complicating the process of the Etienne pick is that Meyer desperately wanted Florida WR Kadarius Toney, but was sniped by the Giants. After the draft, Meyer mentioned that losing out on Toney “broke our heart” — which is simultaneously a shot against Laviska Shenault (who essentially fills the same role as Toney) and Robinson (who is coming off one of the best seasons ever as an undrafted free agent). I’m with Scott Barrett that the Etienne fit is bizarre at best.
Looking forward to Etienne’s usage this year and coming seasons, I’m not at all surprised that he landed on a team with an already-established back that is a strong inside runner. Per Sports Info Solutions, James Robinson averaged a strong 5.0 yards per carry (9th-best) and forced 0.11 missed tackles per carry (5th-best) among 36 qualified backs on his inside carries last year. Robinson is damn good and isn’t going to just fade away in this offense.
While Robinson is already a fantastic interior runner, Etienne definitely needs improvement. His 3.47 Yards Created per attempt on inside carries was second-worst in this class (ahead of only Chuba Hubbard) and he forced nearly 50% fewer missed tackles per carry than Harris and Williams on totes between the tackles. Etienne has game-breaking speed, but he’s best-suited running outside zone where he can utilize his burst and athleticism. He is not a back you’re going to slam in between the tackles 18-20 times per game.
I’m also not surprised that the Jags’ are working with Etienne on diversifying his route tree and trying him out at receiver in rookie camp. According to my charting, 74% of Etienne’s receptions came on just three routes: screens, flats, and check/releases. While it’s impressive and a testament to his big-play ability that Etienne was second in this class in yards per route run (2.4), let’s not pretend that he was running Alvin Kamara or Christian McCaffrey-type routes in college.
For this year and beyond, I believe Urban Meyer when he said that Robinson and Etienne complement each other well as part of a committee. The thing is, Etienne will unquestionably be more involved in passing situations, which obviously evaporates Robinson’s ceiling in fantasy. Robinson was the RB7 in fantasy points per game last season due in large part to his role in the Jags’ passing game as he averaged 4.3 targets per game. That was 13th-most among RBs.
Even though I’m lower on Etienne than consensus, he’s going to be a high-end RB3 at worst for 2021 and he still has an RB1 ceiling in his range of outcomes long-term especially if he really develops as a receiver. Sure, he didn’t run a diverse route tree in college, but that doesn’t mean he can’t. Etienne will likely always be a part of a committee for work on the ground, but the Jaguars immediately identifying that they should get him as involved as possible as a receiver is a positive.
Honestly, I have Harris a cut above these two but I can’t fault anyone for having Etienne ahead of Williams. The gap between RB2 and RB3 is very close.
For rookie drafts, I’d rank the top of the class as Harris > Ja’Marr Chase > Kyle Pitts, then a tier break, followed by Williams > Etienne > DeVonta Smith > Jaylen Waddle.
In SuperFlex rookie drafts, it’s Trevor Lawrence > Trey Lance > Justin Fields > Harris > Chase > Pitts, then a tier break, followed by Zach Wilson > Williams > Etienne > Smith > Waddle > Mac Jones.
(For more Yards Created on Etienne, check out his in-depth profile here.)
Tier 2 — Just Two Remain
RB4: Trey Sermon (SF)
At 5.45 Yards Created per attempt, Trey Sermon ranks second-best in this class behind Javonte Williams (5.61). For reference, Sermon’s YC/A was good enough to score in the 74th percentile over the last six years. Sermon also popped as the best interior runner in this class, earning 5.12 YC/A on his carries that went in between the tackles. Williams ranked second-best (4.31) while Harris was third-best (4.08).
Sermon rarely gets knocked off of his designed line and showed fantastic vision and footwork to sense cut-back lanes and then make a move at top speed to accelerate through the crease. Even though he was a transfer from Oklahoma and didn’t have much time at all to get acclimated in a COVID-shortened year, Sermon looked like he was in his third season in Ohio State’s scheme that is predicated on zone runs. His game against Northwestern in the Big Ten championship was the best (and most entertaining) performance I charted for Yards Created this year. If you want to see a clinic, that game is it. He didn’t leave a single yard on the field as he ripped Northwestern for 331 and two scores on 29 carries.
While Sermon isn’t necessarily a flashy make-you-miss runner, he has natural elusiveness and a one-cut running style that will suit him extremely well in San Francisco. Sermon showed the ability to make violent cuts at full speed and leave defenders in the dust, leading to a strong 0.35 missed tackles forced per carry. That is right in the same range as Etienne (0.36) and Harris (0.33).
His fit with the 49ers should be absolutely seamless. 75% of Sermon’s carries were either inside or outside zone runs — which is a significantly higher rate than the other top backs in this class. For comparison, just 40% of Harris’ carries were behind zone blocking followed by Etienne (51%) and Williams (53%). Ironically, after Sermon transferred from the Sooners to the Buckeyes, he studied Kyle Shanahan’s 49ers because there are so many parallels between the two systems.
Even though Sermon fared well in Yards Created and is a tremendous fit in Shanahan’s scheme, there are two major questions surrounding his fantasy outlook this year and beyond:
- Can he be a contributor in the passing game?
- Will the 49ers ever roll with one featured back?
With just 12 receptions in eight contests last year, there is no way to form a strong opinion of Sermon’s receiving chops. Sermon averaged just 6 passing down snaps per game, which is miles behind Harris and Etienne — both averaged over 20 routes run/game. Even if Sermon does develop as a receiver, he’s bound to share work with Raheem Mostert and Jeff Wilson at the very least. As a combined team, 49ers’ running backs scored the fourth-most fantasy points in 2019 and finished third in 2020. Despite the elite production as a unit, the top scorer in individual fantasy points per game on the 49ers two seasons ago was Raheem Mostert (RB32) while Jeff Wilson was RB25 last year.
I’m a huge fan of Sermon’s game, but the lack of a clear path to consistent touches should lead us to temper expectations. Instead, Rookie Fever has set in. Sermon is going off of the board at 74 overall (!!) in Underdog’s Best Ball Mania tournament. I’m fine with overpaying for Sermon in dynasty, but drafting him in the middle of the seventh round of seasonal leagues is a ceiling projection I’m not willing to make. We are much more conservative on Sermon and settled on him at RB45 in our initial ranks, just behind Mostert and Wilson.
RB5: Michael Carter (NYJ)
Need another idea of just how bad this class is? Look no further. A Day 3 running back is RB5 and is going in the early second-round of rookie drafts. If this were any of the last 5 draft classes, Michael Carter would settle in the RB8-12 range. But here we are.
Carter and Javonte Williams split carries (157 to 155, in favor of Williams) and targets (31 to 30, in favor of Williams) right down the middle as the Tar Heels duo shredded the ACC for a combined 2,385 yards, 7.6 YPC, and 28 TDs on the ground. However, Yards Created clearly favors Williams. On their carries, Williams bested Carter in Yards Created per attempt on carries both in between and off-tackle and was far better at making defenders miss and fighting through contact. In fact, while Williams posted the fifth-best figure in missed tackles forced per attempt I’ve ever charted (0.474), Carter is fifth-worst (0.224). That’s out of 65 RBs.
Carter has great short-area burst and runs with patience, but my charting revealed that he doesn’t have the natural power or elusiveness to consistently make defenders miss in the NFL. Can he be a workman-like back and get the yards that are blocked for him? Absolutely.
But at 5’7”, 201 pounds, Carter is undersized for NFL standards and is ideally the “1A” of a committee at best. He’ll unquestionably be a factor in the passing game — he showed natural route running skills was third-best in the class in yards per route run (2.1) — but I really question how many touches the Jets staff will feel comfortable giving him every week.
Overall, Carter is somewhere on the Chase Edmonds/Gio Bernard/James White spectrum of talent and projected usage, which certainly can be useful for fantasy. But early best-ball drafters that are taking him Round 7-8 are setting themselves up for disappointment. Ideally, Carter is a back you’re giving 8-10 change-of-pace carries per game. The Jets backfield still sets up as a messy timeshare on a below-average offense.
Tier 3 — Can Anybody Find Me Somebody to Love?
RB6: Kenny Gainwell (Phi)
Kenny Gainwell was a consensus top-5 back before the NFL Draft, but slipped all the way to the early fifth round as the ninth back off of the board. Yards Created revealed that Gainwell is an extremely poor runner, ranking in the lowly 7th percentile all-time in YC/A (4.06). Keep in mind, this was behind a rock solid Memphis offensive line that opened up 1.50 Yards Blocked per attempt (77th percentile).
Overall, Gainwell struggled to create on his own and lacked elusiveness and power — which is a problem for a back of his size (5’8”, 201 pounds). The majority of Gainwell’s missed tackles came from speed, where he’d run through a gaping hole and just run past a second-level defender. My sense is that Gainwell fell in the draft because he does not profile as a strong interior or outside runner at the NFL level and it’s less to do with the fact that he sat out of the 2020 season.
Where Gainwell wins is straight-forward, though. He is an excellent receiving back and was used in a variety of different ways in Memphis’ passing game. Gainwell either motioned or lined up as a wide receiver on 56% of his routes, which is the highest figure I have ever charted by a wide margin. In addition to running a full route tree out of the backfield, Gainwell was used on everything from combination routes as a slot receiver to deep comeback routes as the flanking receiver.
The Eagles new HC Nick Sirriani likely views Gainwell as his version of Nyheim Hines, which is valuable for their offense as a whole, but will undoubtedly be a thorn in the side of Miles Sanders for fantasy. Sanders struggled with drops and mental lapses last season and the team has spent this offseason adding more competition around him between Gainwell and free agents Kerryon Johnson and Jordan Howard.
A part of the reason why I liked Sanders so much last year was because he was slated to be the Eagles bell cow, and that turned out to be the case. The results just weren’t there, though. Only five running backs had a higher snap rate than Sanders last year — Christian McCaffrey, David Johnson, Ezekiel Elliott, Dalvin Cook, and David Montgomery. While Gainwell’s dynasty and re-draft value is limited, the bigger story is that his presence vaporizes Sanders’ every-down role.
RB7: Chuba Hubbard (Car)
After somewhat surprisingly returning to school after his monster redshirt sophomore campaign (2,292 scrimmage yards and 22 TDs), the 2020 season didn’t play out as nearly as well as Chuba Hubbard’s historic 2019 season. Hubbard struggled badly through an ankle injury and ended up opting out of Oklahoma State’s final few games. Hubbard’s 2020 efforts netted him just 3.95 Yards Created per attempt — which is the fourth-worst mark in my database. He also ranks second-worst in missed tackles forced per attempt (0.19) over the last six years.
Hubbard is a straight-line, track style runner with little wiggle or natural power to his game. I’m willing to give him some leeway for his poor 2020 season because ankle injuries are so detrimental for running backs, but he also fell to the late fourth round for a reason. Hubbard is on the taller side at 6’0”, but weighs just 208 pounds and didn’t do much as a receiver in 2019 or 2020 besides catch screen passes.
With Mike Davis gone, Hubbard will compete with Reggie Bonnafon and Trenton Cannon for the right to back up Christian McCaffrey. He’s nothing more than a RB6-7 stash in dynasty and a dart throw in best-ball. There is no guarantee he beats out Bonnafon in training camp for No. 2 RB duties.
RB8: Rhamondre Stevenson (NE)
As a no-nonsense, downhill banger, Rhamondre Stevenson fits perfectly as a changeup/red-zone piece in the Patriots running game. Stevenson finished in the middle of the pack of this class in both Yards Created and missed tackles forced per attempt. My sense is that Bill Belichick drafted Stevenson to potentially play in the “LeGarrette Blount role” and straight up replace Sony Michel as Damien Harris’ backup. According to ESPN’s Mike Reiss, Stevenson is a legitimate threat to Michel’s spot on the final 53-man roster because he can play special teams. Still, there is a long, boring pathway for Stevenson to become fantasy relevant. Harris deserves and will get the first crack at being the No. 1 early-down runner and James White is still around to play on passing downs.
Tier 4 — “Best” of the Rest
RB9: Elijah Mitchell (SF)
RB10: Kene Nwangwu (Min)
RB11: Javian Hawkins (Atl)
RB12: Larry Rountree III (LAC)
RB13: Chris Evans (Cin)
RB14: Caleb Huntley (Atl)
RB15: Khalil Herbert (Chi)
Elijah Mitchell and Kene Nwangwu have been forgotten about in this class, but both landed in ideal schemes for their skillsets. Mitchell will probably be buried unless the injury bug strikes again in San Francisco, but he tested out with 4.38 speed at 5’10”, 201 pounds… if those Pro Day numbers are to be believed. 49ers beat Matt Maiocco mentioned that Mitchell was working exclusively on passing-downs in rookie camp. Nwangwu blazed a 4.29 at 6’0”, 212 pounds and profiles as a kick/punt returner in his first season with the Vikings. I just finished up a five-round rookie draft and ended up nabbing Nwangwu on FAAB waivers afterwards, which is absolutely wild considering that he was the sixth running back off of the board in the Draft.
Two UDFAs crack the top-15 here, which is what happens when only four backs go off of the board on Day 1 and Day 2.
Javian Hawkins and Caleb Huntley are bumped up in my ranks because of their landing spot. It’s also just another indictment of this class. Atlanta somewhat surprisingly didn’t make a move to land one of the top backs and are instead content rolling into this season with Mike Davis as their unquestioned featured back. Hawkins is undersized (5’9”, 182 pounds) but is theoretically a good fit in Arthur Smith’s scheme considering that 125 of his 131 carries last season were zone (per SIS). Smith predominantly ran a zone-blocking scheme in Tennessee.
Meanwhile, Huntley is a big bruiser at 5’10”, 230 pounds. Huntley was a workhorse in his final two seasons at Ball State, tallying 328/1712/18 on the ground across his final 15 games of MACtion. The only problem is he is a zero in the passing game. These two are unquestionably going to be labeled as the “next James Robinson” by the Hot Take Artists on Twitter, but pay no attention to that. The only way Hawkins or Huntley become viable this season is if Davis gets injured. They’re both strictly Round 4 darts in rookie drafts and only draftable in super deep best-ball drafts like the NFFC’s 35-round draft championship.
Larry Rountree could wind up replacing Joshua Kelley as the Chargers early-down/changeup runner to mix in alongside Austin Ekeler. Kelley was one of the worst backs in the NFL in his rookie season and the staff that drafted him is gone.
The Bengals are going to have an open tryout for the right to backup Joe Mixon after they cut Gio Bernard before the Draft. Samaje Perine probably has the inside track on the job, but Chris Evans is a sneaky bet for the old Bernard role. Evans barely played in 2020 and sat out in 2019, but he was Michigan’s primary passing down back in 2018.