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4 running backs to fade in 2021 fantasy football

Not all running backs will perform as expected in fantasy football, and several present enough risk at their respective average draft position to justify avoiding.

NFL: AFC Wild Card Round-Baltimore Ravens at Tennessee Titans Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Just as identifying which players will over-perform expectation can determine the outcome of a fantasy league, figuring out which ones will not provide adequate return on investment can tilt how one’s team performs. Some players, whether due to health, opportunity, or other circumstance, simply won’t give fantasy managers what they anticipated at their respective draft slot.

The running-back position is no exception, and several carry some major red flags from a fantasy perspective.

Derrick Henry, Tennessee Titans

Depending on your league’s scoring format, Derrick Henry finished 2020 as somewhere between the third highest-scoring running back to the No. 1 player at the position. The first-team All-Pro selection racked up 27 touchdowns and over 2,000 rushing yards, easily the strongest season of his five-year career. The Tennessee Titans remain committed to focusing their offensive game plan around Henry, suggesting even more success in the future.

However, Henry enters 2021 with some red flags that undercut his fantasy value. Between the regular season and playoffs, Henry touched the ball 418 times in 2020, a frighteningly high figure. Consider also that running backs have regressed harshly in the season following a 2,000-yard campaign, with all losing a yard per attempt (and usually much more) that subsequent year. Henry’s current ADP (third and fifth among backs in standard and PPR scoring, respectively) doesn’t accurately account for the probability of him slowing down due to wear and/or injury. Add in the Titans’ change at offensive coordinator and the extended season and Henry’s risk becomes hard to ignore. He might still have a good season, but his fantasy cost seems too high.

Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders

After nearing winning Offensive Rookie of the Year honors in 2019, Josh Jacobs established himself as a running back on the rise. The then-Oakland Raiders made Jacobs a key piece of their offense by selecting him in the first round and used him even more during his second year in the league.

Unfortunately for Jacobs’ fantasy stock, the Raiders also invested $11 million into Kenyan Drake this offseason. That decision, along with Jacobs’ decline in efficiency, pours some cold water on the third-year running back’s outlook. Jacobs no longer has a firmly established floor as a fantasy player, but his upside now appears more limited. He might live up to his current ADP (19th in PPR). Still, his chances of disappointing seem high enough to warrant concern.

Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos

Melvin Gordon didn’t have the highest fantasy upside at the outset of the 2021 offseason given the Denver Broncos’ offensive issues. Several months later, most of those concerns remain in place. The quarterback battle between Drew Lock and Teddy Bridgewater leaves a lot to be desired and the offensive line still has some questions to answer despite some additions.

Even so, Gordon’s biggest concern from a fantasy perspective lies in his position group. The Broncos selected North Carolina’s Javonte Williams in the second round of the 2021 NFL Draft, an addition which could and probably will materially affect Gordon’s workload. Williams offers good size and impressive athleticism that fits Denver’s offensive philosophy. Though Gordon still comes out ahead of Williams in terms of ADP (26th to 34th at the position in PPR formats, respectively), the latter could take over the lead role as early as this season.

James Robinson, Jacksonville Jaguars

James Robinson surprised many NFL scouts by delivering 1,414 yards from scrimmage and 10 touchdowns as an undrafted rookie in 2020. The powerhouse back proved to be one of the rare bright spots of an otherwise uncompetitive season that resulted in the Jacksonville Jaguars receiving the No. 1 overall pick.

Robinson remains a part of the Jaguars offense, but he no longer has unquestioned control of the lead-back role. The team spent the second of its two first-rounders on Clemson’s electric tailback Travis Etienne. Despite this, Robinson remains priced at a low-end RB2 (22nd in ADP at the position in PPR). Perhaps Jacksonville’s new coaching staff will find good roles for both, but head coach Urban Meyer has historically leaned mostly on one running back in his offenses. Given the investment in Etienne, Robinson could see his workload decline significantly.