Top 5 Biggest RB Surprises in 2021 – Can They Repeat?

by Jason Allwine · NFL

The draft is this week, so now is the perfect time to take a look back on the 2021 season. The 2021 season brought with it many surprises. Justin Tucker broke the record for the longest field goal, Antonio Brown had a meltdown, and some players outperformed their ADP. Drafting studs in the later round is the cheapest way to find fantasy football success, but it isn’t always easy. Let’s take a look at some running backs who surprised us all by outperforming their ADP, and speculate on if they can repeat the same level of success next year.

No. 5) Jonathan Taylor

ADP: 10.4

2021 Season Rank (PPR): RB1

2022 Dynasty Ranking: RB1

Because of the way fantasy football drafts work, an ADP of 10.4 for the RB1 is fairly low considering that 8-9 RBs were taken before him on average. Those who drafted Jonathan Taylor at the end of R1/beginning of R2 likely had a great fantasy season. Taylor only had two games under 95 all-purpose yards, and only five games where he didn’t score a TD. He also led all RBs in evaded tackles (165) and breakaway runs (23), highlighting his explosiveness. His league-high 332 carries also led him to league-highs in rushing yards (1,811), TDs, and of course Fantasy Points Per Game (21.7).

Can He Do It Again?

Unless the Colts decide to make Nyheim Hines the starter next year, I don’t see why Jonathan Taylor wouldn’t repeat as RB1. Matt Ryan averages 571.6 pass attempts over his career, 55 more than Carson Wentz had last year, but that’s only three more passes per game. That kind of volume decrease, if it happens at all, won’t hurt a stud player like Taylor. He is also one of the youngest RBs in the league, despite already having two seasons under his belt. There’s a reason his Lifetime Value in PlayerProfiler’s dynasty rankings is nearly 100 points higher than D’Andre Swift who is RB2.

No. 4) Leonard Fournette

ADP: 86.4

2021 Season Rank (PPR): RB6

2022 Dynasty Ranking: RB20

Even though Leonard Fournette impressed in the 2020 Playoffs with 448 yards and four TDs in four games, his ADP was low. In fact, his ADP was only 0.8 lower than Trey Sermon, who had an ADP of 87.2. Talk about two wildly different seasons. Those who made the right choice in Fournette were pleasantly surprised by his 18.3 (No. 3) Fantasy Points Per Game in 2021. He finished the year with the 84 (No. 3) targets, 69 (No. 3) receptions, and 54 (No. 3) red zone touches. All this while also missing three games.

Can He Do It Again?

Yes he can. Not only does he have Tom Brady‘s trust, but Ronald Jones is gone too. Not that that really mattered in the first place. Had Leonard Fournette played all 17 games and scored his average PPG in the three games he missed, he would’ve finished the season as RB3 with 310.5 points in PPR. Assuming he stays healthy, he should definitely repeat 2021’s performance. His dynasty value is low because Brady is probably only playing one more year. And who knows what that offense will look like when he’s gone.

No. 3) Elijah Mitchell

ADP: 219

2021 Season Rank (PPR): RB26

2022 Dynasty Ranking: RB21

Following the trend of small-school RBs with good profiles that were undervalued in their draft, Elijah Mitchell joins the ranks of Austin Ekeler and James Robinson. While Mitchell was drafted unlike the other two, it took until pick 194 to get the 2020 First-Team All-Sun Belt RB. This was three rounds after the 49ers had already taken an RB in Trey Sermon. Athleticism won out as Mitchell finished the year with five times as many carries as Sermon (207 to 41). In the 11 games Mitchell played, he put 963 (No. 8) rushing yards, 137 (No. 57) receiving yards, and six (No. 27) Total TDs, averaging 15.0 (No. 14) Fantasy Points Per Game. Those who took a flier on him were stoked with his performance, even if he didn’t stay healthy.

Can He Do It Again?

Probably, but there is a muddied history of 49ers RBs since Kyle Shanahan took over. There has been a different leading rusher every single year Shanahan has been head coach. Carlos Hyde (2017), Matt Breida (2018), Tevin Coleman (2019), Raheem Mostert (2020), and now Elijah Mitchell. Even more concerning, only one of those RBs (Hyde) played the entire season. However, Mitchell had the highest amount of yards out of any of those guys in just 11 games. Shanahan has to believe in the young RB. Trey Sermon still hasn’t proven himself, and Mostert joined the Dolphins. If the 49ers don’t bring in another RB, and Mitchell stays healthy, he should have a pretty impressive 2022 season.

No. 2) James Conner

ADP: 100.8

2021 Season Rank (PPR): RB5

2022 Dynasty Ranking: RB36

Drafted on average 38 spots later than teammate Chase Edmonds (ADP: 62), James Conner exploded in 2021 with 18 total TDs. There were only four games in 2021 where he didn’t score a touchdown. He had six multiple TD performances. Conner averaged 17.2 (No. 7) Fantasy Points Per Game and finished the year as RB5. This despite missing two games and sharing the backfield along the way. In the five games with Edmonds, Conner averaged a whopping 25.84 FPPG. It was a great season on a new team for the former Steelers RB, and it led to him signing a three-year deal with the Cardinals.

Can He Do It Again?

As efficient as he was last season, and as impressive as he was without Chase Edmonds, it’s hard to imagine James Conner repeating this level of success. His 18 TDs last season are not sustainable. They amounted for 108 out of his 257 points. That’s 41.9-percent of his points coming from touchdowns. In fact, eight of his TDs came on the one-yard line, according to Pro Football Network.

Conner has also never played an entire season in his NFL career, getting injured at some point every single year. He should still be productive, but a top 5 finish is not to be expected in 2022. It never hurts to have the rushing option of a high powered offense like the Arizona Cardinals.

No. 1) Cordarrelle Patterson

ADP: 248.3

2021 Season Rank (PPR): RB9, WR19

2022 Dynasty Ranking: RB59

Former first round pick and kick return specialist Cordarrelle Patterson finally found a team to utilize him properly. Having never had a season averaging even 10.0 Fantasy Points Per Game and being the backup RB on a new team at 30 years old, Patterson had the lowest ADP out of any RB or WR in this series. Falcons presumed “starting” RB Mike Davis had an ADP of 56.8. Nearly 200 spots higher than Patterson.

Patterson was perhaps the biggest surprise in the entire fantasy football season. And one of the most useful players due to his dual eligibility in some leagues. Even if you had him as a WR, you were still happy with his finish as WR19. He averaged 14.7 (No. 16) FPPG in PPR. He also had the second-most receiving yards (548) among RBs, despite having the sixth-most receptions (52). Not only that, Patterson amounted for 22.5-percent of the Falcons total yards despite only having a 48.1-percent (No. 34) Snap Share. That’s production.

Can He Do It Again?

If he stays healthy, he will definitely produce. The problem is that he is 31 years old and has quite an extensive injury history in his nine- year NFL career.

The Falcons understand that Patterson is older and has injury concerns. That’s probably why he had such a low Snap Share. Again, despite that, he put up over 1,000 yards and 11 TDs. He and Kyle Pitts are the entire Falcons offense at this point in time. Even with Matt Ryan gone, Patterson can still be utilized the same way with Marcus Mariota. The Snap Share should go up, so hopefully he can stay healthy and produce the same way. The Falcons expect him to as they signed him to a two-year contract, with half of it guaranteed.