One of the best ways to find potential value or breakouts for the upcoming fantasy football season is by examining backfields and their unaccounted or vacated carries. Going over all 32 NFL teams and seeing which running backs lost or gained touches begins to paint a clearer picture of which backfields to target and which to fade in upcoming drafts.
2021 Vacated Running Back Touches
Here are the vacated touches for every backfield entering the 2021 season.
Baltimore Ravens – 85 carries (15.3%) and 93 total touches (5.8 per/game)
Buffalo Bills – 16 carries (3.8%) and 20 total touches (1.2 per/game)
Cincinnati Bengals – 140 carries (34%) and 199 total touches (11.7 per/game)
Cleveland Browns – 9 carries (1.8%) and 10 total touches (0.6 per/game)
Denver Broncos – 127 carries (28.7%) and 141 total touches (8.3 per/game)
Houston Texans – 88 carries (25.8%) and 128 total touches (7.5 per/game)
Indianapolis Colts – 39 carries (8.4%) and 39 total touches (2.3 per/game)
Jacksonville Jaguars – 15 carries (4.4%) and 39 total touches (2.3 per/game)
Kansas City Chiefs – 70 carries (17.3%) and 90 total touches (5.3 per/game)
Las Vegas Raiders – 93 carries (20.3%) and 114 total touches (6.7 per/game)
Los Angeles Chargers – 109 carries (23.3%) and 146 total touches (8.6 per/game)
Miami Dolphins – 145 carries (33.8%) and 165 total touches (9.7 per/game)
New England Patriots – 73 carries (14.5%) and 106 total touches (6.2 per/game)
New York Jets – 216 carries (53.2%) and 248 total touches (14.6 per/game)
Pittsburgh Steelers – 169 carries (45.3%) and 212 total touches (12.5 per/game)
Tennessee Titans – 27 carries (5.1%) and 28 total touches (1.6 per/game)
Arizona Cardinals – 239 carries (49.8%) and 270 total touches (15.9 per/game)
Atlanta Falcons – 358 carries (87.7%) and 449 total touches (26.4 per/game)
Carolina Panthers – 213 carries (52.3%) and 292 total touches (17.2 per/game)
Chicago Bears – 99 carries (325.1%) and 101 total touches (5.9 per/game)
Dallas Cowboys – 29 carries (6.7%) and 29 total touches (1.7 per/game)
Detroit Lions – 243 carries (66.2%) and 291 total touches (17.1 per/game)
Green Bay Packers – 135 carries (30.5%) and 185 total touches (10.9 per/game)
Los Angeles Rams – 154 carries (32.5%) and 187 total touches (11.0 per/game)
Minnesota Vikings – 11 carries (2%) and 13 total touches (0.8 per/game)
New Orleans Saints – 21 carries (4.2%) and 25 total touches (1.5 per/game)
New York Giants – 294 carries (73.6%) and 365 total touches (21.5 per/game)
Philadelphia Eagles – 76 carries (18.8%) and 82 total touches (4.8 per/game)
San Francisco 49ers – 125 carries (28.6%) and 177 total touches (10.4 per/game)
Seattle Seahawks – 95 carries (23.1%) and 115 total touches (6.8 per/game)
Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 12 carries (3.2%) and 31 total touches (1.8 per/game)
Washington Football Team – No vacated carries or running back targets
Which running backs are in favorable situations heading into 2021?
Now that we have all of this data, who are some running backs that possibly gained touches along with fantasy value?
Mike Davis, Atlanta Falcons
While Davis was a surprise in 2020, that won’t be the case in 2021. With Christian McCaffrey missing all but three games last season, Davis became a massive value as he inherited the RB1 role in Carolina. As a first-time starter, he turned 165 carries into 642 yards and 6 touchdowns. Davis also showed value as a receiver, catching 59 of 70 targets for 373 yards and 2 more scores. In the 12 games Davis started, he averaged 15.18 points per game and ended the year as the RB12 in PPR.
Now with the Falcons, Davis has a massive opportunity in front of him. He steps into a backfield with 88% of its carries vacated along with 72.4% from inside the five-yard line (21). On what should be an offense that rushes more under head coach Arthur Smith, Davis should gain more touches than nearly any other running back in the NFL. He could end up being an incredible value on draft day (RB36 on Sleeper and RB29 on NFC).
Chase Edmonds, Arizona Cardinals
While the offseason hype surrounding Chase Edmonds following the departure of Kenyan Drake has died down a touch, there is reason to be optimistic. There are concerns that Edmonds could share a majority of his carries with James Conner, but that might not be the case. PFN’s NFL Insider Adam Beasley reported on July 7, “the Cardinals’ training camp battle at running back might be a battle in name only.”
Edmonds averaged 4.6 yards per carry and caught 53 passes in 2020, both first among Arizona running backs. He was by far more efficient on his touches, averaging 1.02 fantasy points per touch to Drake’s 0.73. There is also the concern of Conner from an injury aspect. The best way to keep him on the field might be to keep him off of it.
A critical component of this is that the Cardinals enter 2021 with 72.4% of the red-zone carries up for grabs. Although I do think Kyler Murray could snag a few, Edmonds could exceed expectations by gaining the majority of these touches.
Najee Harris, Pittsburgh Steelers
Let’s play a name game. You tell me to stop when I say the name of a running back who deserves an ample workload. Ready? Kalen Ballage, Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland Jr., and Jaylen Samuels. If you remained silent, you are correct and won yourself a rookie breakout candidate by the name of Najee Harris.
Okay, jokes aside, Harris has an incredible opportunity in 2021. Not only do the Steelers have 45.3% of their carries vacated, but there is a total lack of skill at the position that will push Harris for touches. No one should be surprised if he averages between 18 to 20 opportunities per game in 2021. I’d love to selfishly project him for 99% of the running back touches, but he isn’t Derrick Henry, so this will have to do.
A.J. Dillon, Green Bay Packers
The combination of Jamaal Williams and Tyler Ervin averaged 10.5 touches per game last season. It’s a reasonable assumption that A.J. Dillon sees nearly all of that workload in 2021. It’s still the Aaron Jones show, but so long as Aaron Rodgers returns, 9 to 10 touches on a high-powered Packers offense is a valuable commodity in fantasy.
Saquon Barkley, New York Giants and Christian McCaffrey, Carolina Panthers
I bring them up as an example that numbers need context behind them. While the Giants and Panthers have a metric ton of carries available (294 and 213), that is only because Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey missed the majority of 2021. You can ignore these teams as both RBs will resume their typical workhorse roles come Week 1.
Who are some running backs that might have lost carries heading into 2021?
Not all offseason moves end up being positive for a player’s workload. These running backs likely lost touches in 2021.
Melvin Gordon, Denver Broncos
With Phillip Lindsay leaving in free agency, Melvin Gordon was arguably my favorite value at the running back position. The Broncos signed running back Mike Boone, but Gordon appeared primed to receive 16 to 18 touches entering the new year. But then the NFL Draft hit, and the Broncos selected Javonte Williams.
Williams is a bruising running back out of UNC who will eventually take over the Broncos’ backfield probably sooner than we think. While Gordon might be worth a start early on, his touches and snap share will steadily decrease until he has lost most of his value as a fantasy running back.
David Johnson, Houston Texans
What if I told you that David Johnson was way better than you thought last season? He was the RB19 with a 13.6 ppg average. Furthermore, he was an RB2 or better in nine of 12 games. However, things quickly change in the NFL.
Most fantasy managers are already fading the Texans in general, given the uncertainty at quarterback. Still, the backfield is a mess. Not only did they sign Phillip Lindsay in the offseason, but they also brought in veteran Mark Ingram. It’s hard to imagine a path where Johnson will match his 16.1 opportunity average from the previous season. He has lost as much value as a running back through touches as he has due to the logo on his helmet.
Josh Jacobs, Las Vegas Raiders
Despite having the third-most carries (273) and the second-most touches inside the red zone (64), Josh Jacobs saw his value plummet after the Raiders signed Kenyan Drake. Even if you don’t believe Drake is anything more than a JAG or a backup, that doesn’t matter. The only thing that matters is what the Raiders think of him. Based on the two-year, $11 million contract, I’m going to say they like him quite a bit.
For fantasy, this stinks as Jacobs was one of the few players you knew would receive all the work they could ask for every game. Unfortunately, with the addition of Drake, Jacobs has lost a sizeable chunk of that volume and goes from being an RB1 to hovering around RB2/RB3 consideration.
Miles Sanders, Philadelphia Eagles
The Eagles have made it abundantly clear they will operate with a committee-style approach once again next season. It was always frustrating if you were invested in Miles Sanders. He has all the talent but averaged 16.3 opportunities through his career, with 115 of those coming in the receiving game. That is unlikely to improve in 2021 as they signed Kerryon Johnson in the offseason and drafted Kenneth Gainwell.
Another reason to add Sanders to the list of running backs who have lost opportunities in 2021 is Jalen Hurts. It’s bad enough when it is just RBs, but when you add a dynamic QB like Hurts into the mix, the likelihood of Sanders returning value diminishes even more. In his limited work over five games to close the season (three starts), Hurts rushed 51 times for 301 yards and 3 touchdowns. That yardage was the second-most among QBs during that stretch. Sanders now has to deal with that for an entire 18-Week season.
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Tommy Garrett is a writer for Pro Football Network covering the NFL and fantasy football and a member of the FSWA (Fantasy Sports Writers Association). You can read more of his work here and follow him at @TommygarrettPFN on Twitter.