Forecasting Fantasy Ceilings for 2021-2022: Running Backs

by Tyler Strong · Fantasy Football

Many fantasy rankings use models to create a median projection for fantasy players. But what if we just went off the best case scenario when devising a set of rankings, which could be particularly useful in these best ball tournaments where the results don’t matter all that much unless you’re able to secure the overall top spot? Let’s use’s advanced stats, metrics, and analytics, and a little bit of forecasting, to see what ceiling cases we can consider for the upcoming season.

After starting with the quarterback position, this edition will focus on running backs, with other positions to come.

Christian McCaffrey

Akin to Patrick Mahomes in the QB edition of this piece, I see no reason to oust Christian McCaffrey from the top overall spot. His usage is truly unmatched and he’s going from one conservative QB in Teddy Bridgewater to another in Sam Darnold, who ranked toward the back of the league with 37 (No. 25 among qualified quarterbacks) Deep Ball Attempts, 6.1 (No. 33) Yards Per Attempt, and 7.2 (No. 27) Air Yards Per Attempt. Darnold hit Ty Johnson, Frank Gore, La’Mical Perine, and Josh Adams with 62 total targets in an awful Jets offense in 2020. Dumping the ball off to McCaffrey and letting the stud back boost his passing stat lines should be his modus operandi.

McCaffrey missed a ton of time in 2020, but his fantasy usage when on the field in terms of average Fantasy Points Per Game (30.0) was still three nearly five points higher than Alvin Kamara, whose 25.2 FFPG average led all qualified backs. He’s the 1.01 and he should be. Let’s move on.

Dalvin Cook

Dalvin Cook followed up on his 2019 RB3 overall campaign with the RB2 campaign in 2020, ranking No. 2 among qualified backs in Fantasy Points Per Game in both seasons. Once an “injury-prone” player, he’s started in all but one game in each of the past two seasons. While we can expect Cook to continue to thrive, there’s no way his usage can eclipse Christian McCaffrey’s, so the consensus 1.02 back is also where he should be, by my count. Justin Jefferson‘s rookie campaign helped propel the Vikings to an explosive 2020 through the air, and yet they still averaged 29.2 (No. 8) Team Run Plays Per Game. Alexander Mattison siphoned off 96 of the team’s 468 carries, but his role is actually a good thing to keep Cook fresh, especially after the latter dealt with lower body injuries earlier in his career.

Cook amassed the most red zone touches in the league last year, averaged 8.2 (No. 7) Yards Per Reception, and logged 106 (No . 2) Evaded Tackles. The Vikings still lack a third receiver of consequence and Adam Thielen is entering the typical twilight of a receiver’s career, so I expect Cook to be even more involved in the passing game this season and continue a great run of efficient play on a productive offense.

Ezekiel Elliott

This is where we start to veer off ADP, and I buy that this year’s Cowboys offense will be at least similar to the smash show we saw early in 2020. Through Dak Prescott‘s five healthy games, the offense averaged 32.6 points per game. After that magical run, the team averaged 21 PPG. Jarring. Likewise, Ezekiel Elliott was the RB3 through the first five weeks of the year and the RB25 from Weeks 6-16. Extremely jarring.

Extrapolating a small sample over a full season is almost always a confirmation bias-loving fool’s errand, but based on those numbers, Elliott would’ve finished as the RB3 had the Cowboys kept up that type of offensive pace throughout the 2020 season. But even still, with the Cowboys averageing 28.1 (No. 8) Team Run Plays Per Game in 2019, Zeke finished with 301 (No. 2) carries and 72 (No. 9) targets on the way to a 19.5 (No. 5) Fantasy Points Per Game average.

We’ve got no evidence that this team can’t get back to a similar level of offensive output this season with Dak Prescott, his wickedly talented trio of receivers, and Elliott all returning to beat up on a division that saw a 7-9 team make the playoffs last season. If Prescott is healthy, there’s an obvious ceiling case for Elliott, especially at the slight discount he can be had at in Underdog drafts right now, where he’s going between Saquon Barkley and Jonathan Taylor.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire

Let’s get nuts. First off, who is Clyde Edwards-Helaire? He’s the No. 1 backfield option with strong draft capital entering his sophomore season in the league’s most explosive offense with a bare cupboard of receiving talent outside of Tyreek Hill and Travis Kelce. He is a bit undersized for a bell-cow back, but his ceiling case shouldn’t be hard to envision.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire Advanced Stats & Metrics Profile

This will be an interesting season for the Chiefs. Never has this much pressure been on Hill and Kelce to carry the offense, and it is a big mystery if a tertiary receiver like Mecole Hardman, Demarcus Robinson, Byron Pringle, or even Cornell Powell can step up to that WR2 role. Enter CEH. Now a Baltimore Raven, Sammy Watkins vacates 55 targets in the offense. And in 2019, Damien Williams led the running backs with 41 targets. That’s a significant number of target real estate for a back that many tabbed as a better receiver than runner. The Chiefs averaged 40.8 (No. 7) Team Pass Plays Per Game last year, and Underworld Director of Analytics Josh Larky has CEH projected at 72.8 targets in 2021, well more than his 55 (No. 14) targets from last year, and Run The Sims indicates his ceiling should be incorporated into any Edwards-Helaire ranking or projection.

The case for 75 looks can be made pretty easily, and supplementing that with 14-16 carries a game (essentially what he already averaged last year as a no-offseason rookie) and the boom case starts to make a lot of sense.

Will Edwards-Helaire finish as a top five fantasy RB this year? No clue. Does it make sense given his pedigree and situation that he’s being drafted well behind the likes of Joe Mixon, Antonio Gibson, and Najee Harris based on Underdog ADP? No. If anything else, let this analysis be a wake-up call to continue mixing in CEH to your RB pool in the second-to-third round turn area throughout the summer. His ceiling case is much easier to envision than one where he falls outside the top 15 RBs this year.


Cam Akers

Sean McVay has traded in Jared Goff for Matthew Stafford. This will be the best-equipped McVay has ever been for an NFL season, and the receiving group is stocked and ready to go. Cam Akers appears fully primed to continue his success last season, ending with a run of starts that saw him turn in performances RB16, RB13, and RB10 from Weeks 12-14. Darrell Henderson is a backup in this league and ADP has certainly defined the backfield’s roles as such. Akers quickly proved his senior season of 231 carries for 1,144 yards, 30 catches (on 42 targets) for 225 yards and 18 scores was no fluke. He also turned in impressive seasons in the two years prior to that, and is simply built for bell-cow status in the NFL thanks to his above-average athleticism and 217-pound frame.

Akers did not see much passing game involvement last year, only accruing 14 (No. 77) targets. However, Henderson only saw 24 (No. 51) targets, whereas D’Andre Swift and Kerryon Johnson combined for 82 last year. The Rams averaged 29.6 (No. 7) Team Run Plays Per Game last year, which will likely decrease with the addition of a prolific passer like Stafford, but the offense as a whole will be much improved, resulting in more touches in money areas of the field for Akers.