I always enjoy writing bold predictions articles because it gives you the chance to take your general feelings about a player, turn them up to 11, and then look really smart when they come true. And if they don’t come true, well they were just bold predictions and bold predictions are meant to be bold. It’s really a win-win.
It’s RB Week here at NerdBall, so I’ve got four bold running back predictions for 2021 fantasy football, all which I could realistically see happening if a few breaks go their way.
Derrick Henry Falls Outside the Top 5
You have to go back to 2018 to find the last time Derrick Henry finished outside the top-5 running backs in .5PPR fantasy. That year Henry carried the ball 215 times for 1,059 yards and 12 touchdowns. Not a bad stat line by any means, but certainly not the same level as the 300+ carries, 1,500+ yards, and 16+ touchdowns he’s been posting over the last two years.
There are two main reasons behind this prediction. First, Arthur Smith, the previous offensive coordinator and mastermind of the Tennessee Titans dominate rushing game, has up and left for Atlanta. Head coach Mike Vrabel did hire from within the Titans’ organization, picking tight ends coach Todd Downing to assume OC duties. It’s a fair bet to think the offense won’t look too different in 2021. However, the last time Downing was an OC (for the Oakland Raiders back in 2017) the running game saw a step back in production, dropping from 6th to 25th under his leadership.
My main reason for Henry regression is the Titans going out and getting Julio Jones this offseason. I don’t think Tennessee is going to suddenly change their entire identity and become a pass-first offense with Julio and A.J. Brown. I do think they will pass more, which means fewer carries for Henry. And Henry offers little to nothing in the passing game so if the Titans do ramp up their passing attack, Henry doubly won’t benefit.
Henry’s touchdown numbers are also at risk. Last year the Titans had one of the lowest red zone pass% in the NFL, meaning when they got inside the 20, they handed the ball off to Henry (hence the 17 touchdowns). With a red zone threat like Julio now on the roster, I have to think the pass attempts inside the 20 will rise.
Just food for thought when you’re contemplating taking Henry with the 1.02 pick.
Austin Ekeler Leads Running Backs in Targets and Receptions
I’m not even sure this is bold enough to be considered a bold prediction. Last year Alvin Kamara led running backs in receptions with 83 and J.D. McKissic led in targets with 110. Ekeler was on pace last year to finish with 104 targets and 86 catches had he played all 16 games. There’s not much more he needs to do to make this prediction come true.
Ekeler’s proficiency in the passing game is well documented. He had multiple double-digit reception games last year and in 2019 he tallied 993 yards and 8 touchdowns through the air. Justin Herbert clearly had a knack for targeting Ekeler his rookie year and I fully expect that to continue into his sophomore year.
Related: AFC West Deep-Dive: Best Picks, Sleepers, Draft Advice for 2021
There’s plenty of excitement for this Los Angeles Chargers offense in year two of Herbert and rightfully so. With a full, normal offseason, I expect Herbert and this passing attack—a passing attack with 93 free targets after Hunter Henry left in free agency—to look even more potent in 2021.
Miles Sanders Finishes a Fringe RB1
This was my bold prediction on this week’s NerdBall Show and by golly I’m sticking with it. Sanders has sort of become a forgotten back in fantasy for 2021 after a disappointing sophomore season in which he finished the RB23 in .5PPR. So where’s my confidence coming from?
only 2 running backs had at least 150 atts & 50 tgts in each of last 3 years:
6 backs did it twice:
saquon barkley (2018,19)
dalvin cook (19,20)
christian mccaffrey (18,19)
aaron jones (19,20)
miles sanders (19,20) 👀
melvin gordon (18,19)
— pete a sex appeal celtics fan rogers (@petemrogers) July 19, 2021
That’s a pretty impressive list of running backs for Sanders to show up on. He’s quietly been involved in both the Philadelphia Eagles’ rushing and passing game at an elite level. While Sanders hasn’t been the most efficient with those touches to this point, there’s reason for optimism heading into this year.
It’s a small sample size, but with Jalen Hurts under center, Sanders put forward three of his best games both rushing and receiving the ball last year. Sanders played Week 14 through 16 with Hurts at quarterback and during that time he was the RB6 in .5PPR. During those games, he set a pace for a 245-1,259-16 season with an added 395 yards receiving. Again, small sample size, but if you’re confidently drafting Hurts to be your QB1 after just four games, I don’t think it’s wild to similarly draft Sanders based on those four games.
Giovani Bernard Finishes a Top 30 Fantasy Back
Bernard is currently being drafted as the RB56 in the 12th round in .5PPR which in my personal opinion is absolute thievery. I’d comfortably draft Bernard in the eighth round with backs like Kenyan Drake and Devin Singletary.
The name of the game for Bernard is pass catching. He’s made a career of it in Cincinnati, averaging almost 60 targets and 40 catches per season throughout his 8 years there. Now he joins Tom Brady in Tampa Bay, the KING of targeting running backs.
Last year, Brady had to make do with what he had, forcing Leonard Fournette to be his primary pass catcher. Brady targeted Fournette 47 times during the regular season, of which Fournette caught only 36 for 233 yards (6.5 yard per reception). Meanwhile, Bernard averaged 7.6 yards per reception on his 47 catches last year and added 3 receiving touchdowns to the mix.
Bernard has a chance to be Brady’s Tampa James White and that is a very valuable fantasy role, especially in PPR leagues. White finished the RB18 in PPR in 2019 and the RB7 in 2018. I’m betting on the chemistry developing throughout the summer and for it to shine when they take the field in 2021.
Which bold prediction do you think has the best chance of coming true? Let me know in the comments!