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One of the most exploitable inefficiencies in dynasty fantasy football is the difference between where players are selected in startup drafts and their 2021 projection. High-priced players are more long-term bets, so their 2021 projection is less significant than lower-priced players with much lower long-term hit rates. For the later picks, in particular, players projected to outscore their draft position should be targeted. Below are running backs who see a difference in their real draft position and 2021 Footballguys consensus projection.
David Johnson’s dynasty price is depressed for valid reasons. Houston offense without Deshaun Watson could lack upside while Johnson is on the wrong side of 27 with a history of injuries. That said, he is a good bet for RB3 production in 2021 at RB4/5 type prices. If you can select a running back near RB50 in super-flex startup drafts who posts a single top-36 seasonal finish, you have outproduced his expectation. With rushing and receiving ability, Johnson could be a top-three passing game option in the Houston passing game in 2021.
Austin Ekeler’s cost, RB17 in startup drafts in May, falls far behind his top-eight projection. Ekeler is coming off an injury and situated behind running backs like Antonio Gibson, JK Dobbins, and Joe Mixon in dynasty startup drafts. Ekeler is unlikely to rise significantly in price based on his size and age, but he is an ideal discount running back in a two-year window. Ekeler is a prime pivot play off the likes of Gibson, Dobbins, Mixon, and at a more significant price, Cam Akers.
Chris Carson signed a two-year contract in the offseason to remain with Seattle. At RB23 in May, he is the last of the running backs at the position locked into a presumptive two-year starting window. At high-end RB2 projection preseason, Carson is an Ekeler-lite profile. He is a deeper discount pivot play or a steppingstone from a lower range of the position to more security and 2021 upside.
Ezekiel Elliott has done nothing but produce top-12 seasonal finishes in the first five years of his career. However, the 2020 season saw a drop in efficiency and his situation, leading to a significant drop to RB13 in startup drafts. At a top-eight projection for 2021 locked into a multiple-year contract, Elliott is the type of profile who can significantly outproduce his startup draft cost over the next two to three years.
Aaron Jones signed a four-year contract this offseason, which in practical terms is a two-year deal with two team options thereafter. Jones is in a bit of a holding pattern with Aaron Rodgers status unclear, but projects as a top 8 finisher in 2021. The upside Jones presents at his current cost, RB14, makes him an attractive trade target if the Rodgers situation spooks his dynasty GM in your league.
Mike Davis finished as RB12 in 2020 in relief of the injured Christian McCaffrey in Carolina. Davis was able to convert that performance into a multi-year deal with Atlanta. Davis is a running back who could see preseason competition in the form of a free agent or a running back cut by another team in August, so some caution is warranted in his profile. If Davis survives the offseason, he projects as a lead back in 2021 with receiving upside in a passing game that will be reshaped after Julio Jones’s trade.
Baltimore signed Gus Edwards to an extension and drafted Rashod Batemen to reshape the passing game. J.K. Dobbins sits as the starter in the Baltimore backfield, which should provide rushing opportunity in a run-first approach, but 40 receptions seem like a stretch given Baltimore running backs saw the second-fewest targets in 2021. Dobbins is a prime pivot player to use as a move-up or move-down trade piece given his projection of RB20 significantly lags his RB1/2 cost.
Nick Chubb has a similar profile at a higher cost than Dobbins: primary running back in a run-first offense without a big receiving workload. Chubb will be 26 in December while he is entering the final year of his rookie deal. Chubb is on contract extension watch before the season, but his top 8 real draft position in dynasty drafts is dangerous in a one-year window where he is projected for RB10-12 type production.
Jonathan Taylor entered the NFL with high promise and performed well upon earning the lead role in the Indianapolis backfield. This has vaulted him into the Top 4 running backs in May dynasty drafts, but our projections project him as RB10. This is a concern, particularly with his consensus projection of 39.8 receptions, the second-fewest amongst the top 10 running backs behind only Nick Chubb. Additionally, with the transition from Phillip Rivers, who routinely boosted running back receiving production, to Carson Wentz, who has struggled to elevate running backs, Taylor’s receiving floor could be unsteady.