Flip That Pick – Volume 1 – 2021 Running Backs

by Sean Coffman · Trades Buy/Sell

The margins in fantasy football are thinner than they’ve ever been. Most people know they should avoid reaching for a quarterback early in drafts if you can only start one, “sleepers” are hyped up so much they get over-drafted, and everyone follows the same analysts on Twitter. But there are still a few areas where value can be exploited. And one of those areas involves players that boom at the beginning of the season.

It’s been psychologically proven that, even after the season is over, players with breakout games in Weeks 1-4 are viewed more favorably than those with breakout games in the mid-to-late season. At the beginning of the season, owners are looking for that shiny new toy that will lead them to the promised land of a fantasy championship. We all want to find this year’s James Robinson, Terry McLaurin, or George Kittle; the player most people have never heard of that breaks out and becomes a league winner. But not all that glitters is gold. A player’s performance early in the season can be an anomaly. The result of a good matchup, injury, or simply a series of fluky plays (E.g. See Sammy Watkins damn near every year), and that is where we have an opportunity to sell high and exploit a player’s value.       

PlayerProfiler’s advanced stats and metrics help us uncover a few mid-to-late round picks that can boom early, giving us an opportunity to flip them and upgrade our rosters. 

Travis Etienne (Underdog ADP: 54.4) (RB23)

Travis Etienne walks into a situation with a lot of unknowns. How will Jacksonville split the touches between him and James Robinson? How much will he be used at receiver? Will Urban Meyer’s on-field coaching decisions be as questionable as some of his early personnel decisions?

But there are plenty of knowns for Etienne, too. We know he has the ability to score any time he touches the ball. We know he’s an excellent receiver, both out of the backfield and lining up outside, which provides a high floor of touches. He has rapport with Trevor Lawrence, playing three years together at Clemson. He has first round draft capital invested in him. And he has a friendly schedule to start the year.

Key matchups: Week 1 at Houston, Week 3 vs Arizona, Week 4 at Cincinnati

No team gave up more fantasy points to running backs last year than the Texans. After losing J.J. Watt in the offseason, there’s no reason to believe things will improve. It’s an ideal Week 1 matchup for a rookie head coach and quarterback to get their feet wet, and the perfect opportunity to get touches for the versatile RB they invested a first round pick in. Don’t be surprised if he is hyped up as the top trade target after Week 1.

The games against Arizona and Cincinnati both have high shootout potential. If Jacksonville is competitive against two of the most talented offenses in the league, that means they’re scoring points, which is good for every player on offense. If the Jags are getting blown out in either of these games, that increases the chances of second-half garbage time dump offs to the RB. And guess who Jacksonville’s pass-catching RB is? 

If Etienne gets off to a hot start, holding him all season would be understandable. But the trade value will be there, and that’s a nice “problem” to have.        


James Conner (ADP: 104.8) (RB35)

Look, I get it if you have PTSD from a past James Conner experience. He’s been both a league-winner and first-round bust during his four years with Steelers. But he’s only 26, the Steelers offensive line was a turnstile last year, and Ben Roethlisberger looked completely washed. It’s hard to blame Conner for not producing in that situation when he was healthy. 

And that the big concern for Conner. Can he stay healthy? The short answer: probably not. Injury is an inherent part of the position. But we don’t need him to play all 17 games. We need him to put up stats early, so we can (hopefully) flip him before he gets injured. And for that, the recipe is there.

Key matchups: Week 1 at Tennessee, Week 2 vs Minnesota, Week 3 at Jacksonville

The Titans (No. 7), Vikings (No. 6), and Jaguars (No. 3) were all top 10 defenses in terms of giving up fantasy points to running backs last year, and Arizona plays all three to start the season. Chase Edmonds is a solid satellite back, but he’s not an every down workhorse. In 15 games last year, Kenyan Drake scored 10 (No. 10 among qualified running backs) total touchdowns and had 955 (No. 12) rushing yards. And the Cardinals brought Conner in to fill that role. He’s going to get touches and goal line carries. He can easily outpace Drake’s production in those first three games, but even if he simply replicates it and manages to stay healthy, his trade value will double from his current ADP.      

Trey Sermon (ADP: 70.9) (RB28)
Elijah Mitchell (ADP: 214.6) (RB70)

Raheem Mostert is the RB1 in San Francisco for now. But he’s on the last year of his deal, has trouble staying healthy, and Kyle Shanahan has a long history of turning unheralded running backs into fantasy gold. The 49ers spent two of their seven picks in this year’s draft on the running back position. With Jeff Wilson already injured, the path is illuminated for one of the rookies to get an opportunity right from the jump. And if they do, the schedule will be incredibly kind to them.

Key matchups: Week 1 at Detroit, Week 3 vs Green Bay, Week 4 vs Seattle

Detroit gave up the second-most points to the running back position last year, Green Bay the fifth-most.
Trey Sermon has more draft capital invested in him, but Elijah Mitchell has a higher College Dominator Rating, a better Burst Score, and a better Speed Score. Mitchell’s Best Comparable Player is Jerick McKinnon, who was electric in his one healthy season in Shanahan’s offense.
Sermon and Mitchell are lottery tickets with huge potential payouts.