Top-10 worst running back depth charts: Teams that need serious help in the 2021 NFL draft

Matt Harmon
·8-min read

Last week I looked at the top-10 worst wide receiver depth charts in the NFL. When you apply the same exercise at the running back position, it’s clear there are far fewer teams desperate for help.

That’s not surprising, considering the discrepancy in value/replaceability between those two positions and, straight-up, the sheer number of players on the field on any given play. You need to get to almost No. 5 of this running-back list before I think the teams in question should be doing some serious hand-wringing about their backfield.

Nonetheless, the need for running back help remains, and fantasy managers are always on the lookout for that next producer. Here, I’ll look at the top 10 teams in the worst shape at RB and will need to add a few players in the 2021 NFL Draft. We’re going in order from least-to-most needy this time.

No. 10 - Cincinnati Bengals

Joe Mixon is coming off an injury-ruined 2020 but is still an above-average-to-good starter at running back. No one is advocating he be replaced. In fact, you could argue that Mixon is about to enjoy a career year with Gio Bernard’s departure opening up some receiving work and the offense looking ready to take off if Joe Burrow is healthy.

The stars have just never really aligned for Mixon to have that monster year in fantasy but don’t rule it out in 2021.

The Bengals position on this list is more about the need for a quality change of pace and contingency plan behind Mixon. Samaje Perine and Trayveon Williams are end-of-the-roster types.

No. 9 - Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles are much like the Bengals in that they aren’t desperate to find a new starting running back. Few NFL teams are in that spot on paper.

Some more options on the depth chart wouldn’t hurt, however. Miles Sanders hasn’t been the picture of reliability through two NFL seasons. In addition to four fumbles in 12 games last year, he also had huge drop problems. His playing time was cut back at different points in 2020.

All that said, I’m not giving up on Sanders completely just yet. He’s flashed big-play ability and when he’s running hot, he can gash even a strong run defense. Pairing him with the mobile Jalen Hurts could create some backfield fireworks. It just makes a bit of sense to upgrade the alternatives around him.

No. 8 - San Francisco 49ers

The Shanahan offense just pumps out productive running backs no matter who is actually atop the depth chart. So I’m not expecting a major addition here.

With that said, another body isn’t the worst idea. Raheem Mostert has functioned as a plus starter for the 49ers when he’s gotten the opportunity. He’s just struggled with injuries and has a questionable pass-catching profile. Jeff Wilson shined with his chances last year but Shanahan and company probably wouldn’t mind some competition at RB2.

The 49ers are already set to field, by far, the most talented skill-position crew of the Shanahan era, and are about to get a boost at quarterback. Using a Day 3 pick on a running back, especially one with some receiving chops, to add competition in the backfield is just another strong step forward.

No. 7 - Miami Dolphins

Whether it was Myles Gaskin or Salvon Ahmed, the Dolphins got steady production from most of their unheralded backs in 2020. They could be tempted to get by on that cheap route again, or they could look at this as proof they built a great rushing ecosystem that a superior talent could maximize.

The Dolphins were reportedly interested in Aaron Jones before he re-signed with the Packers. So don’t be surprised if they use a Day 2 draft pick on a running back. They don’t have a ton of glaring roster holes but I would still be mildly surprised if they went with a luxury pick running back in Round 1.

No. 6 - New England Patriots

Damien Harris is fine as the team’s primary two-down runner and of course James White is back after flirting with the Bucs to handle receiving duties. Sony Michel is still around but we know he is far from a reliable presence.

From left, New England Patriots running backs Sony Michel, James White, Damien Harris, Brandon Bolden and Rex Burkhead
The Patriots will probably be looking to upgrade their running-back depth chart. (Photo by Jim Davis/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

The Patriots have telegraphed that they want to be a rugged, throwback, run-first team. They’re zigging while the rest of the league zags. The idea of being that kind of team would present much more sizzle if they had a juiced-up rookie running back in the fold. As it stands right now, the Patriots' backfield is passable but lacks explosive potential.

No. 5 - Buffalo Bills

The Bills represent an inflection point in this list where you can start to make real arguments that the teams to follow are truly weak at the position.

Many will assert the Bills should be dinged even further than fifth-worst here. However, unlike the teams to follow, you can at least hold out some hope that one of their former Day 2 picks at the position figure it out. Neither Devin Singletary nor Zack Moss has strung together a consistent resume of strong NFL play but it’s far too early to write in pen that one of them can’t be at least replacement-level starters.

With that sliver of optimism, I’d advise the Bills to not go all-out in their efforts to add talent to the running back room. Another Day 2 pick or even an early Day 3 guy would add enough competition.

No. 4 - Arizona Cardinals

Adding James Conner to the mix is not enough. Chase Edmonds profiles as more of a passing-down specialist who can be more than passable on early downs but only for a stretch. Think of the old Dion Lewis days as an example of this archetype.

The Cardinals should be a pass-first team but let’s not forget, they’ve been a much more successful rushing offense through Kliff Kingsbury’s first two seasons. If they do change course to become an aerial attack they could probably get by with Conner and Edmonds.

We should aspire to aim higher than just getting by, but, with a lack of premium draft choices, they might be stuck doing just that, even if they add a rookie at some point.

No. 3 - Atlanta Falcons

Anyone who picked up Mike Davis on the waiver-wire last year knows he was low-key awesome. You still shouldn’t be counting on him to be your unquestioned starter. He’s currently atop the Falcons depth chart after signing there as a free agent.

The Falcons boast so many quality skill-position options and just hired Arthur Smith — the man who orchestrated one of the NFL’s most efficient offenses — as their head coach. This is absolutely the best landing spot for any rookie running back. If you’re in love with a promising prospect, you should be crossing your fingers he lands in Atlanta.

No. 2 - New York Jets

You can flip the Jets and Steelers here if it makes you feel better. I don’t care. Neither team employs an even acceptable starting option.

Despite the presence of a handful of bigger-name options, New York went with a “knows-the-system” guy on the free-agent market in Tevin Coleman.

It’s nothing more than a signal they’re looking for their next RB1 in the NFL Draft.

The Jets have done a good job building a solid set of starters at wide receiver, even if they do lack a true alpha, and will be drafting a franchise quarterback at No. 2 overall. The build is on in New York. They don’t need to go crazy in chasing a starting running back but I’d be stunned if there isn’t a rookie in the mix come May. How excited we are about him in fantasy football remains to be seen. The offense they’re set to run has a proven track record of rushing production but how quickly their rookie passer can start elevating the unit will be the bigger question.

No. 1 - Pittsburgh Steelers

The Steelers let James Conner walk after a rocky season in 2020. This was one of the stone-worst rushing teams last year and with a depth chart composed of Anthony McFarland and Benny Snell, there isn’t much hope of that changing.

No matter what the team says, they’re likely to remain a pass-heavy team in 2021. The strength of the offense is clearly in the wide receiver room and this offensive line has significant question marks. Still, Pittsburgh has to field a better rushing attack for the moment when Ben Roethlisberger starts showing cracks in his play. They were woefully unprepared for that inevitable reality when it happened last year.

The offensive system needed overhauling but Step 2 is boosting the talent in the backfield.

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