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2021 Fantasy Football: These RB sleepers have awakened — but can you trust them next season?

Liz Loza
·7-min read

Hitting on an under-the-radar player — before he becomes a waiver-wire darling — is one of the most thrilling experiences available to fantasy enthusiasts. The virtual game requires managers to sniff out these sleepers on a weekly basis. Most dart throws exist as band-aids, helping rosters hobble from one matchup to the next. Others, however, emerge as truly ascendent studs.

So which of 2020’s unexpected stars will continue to shine in the new year? Last week, I covered WRs. This go-around, RBs are under the microscope.

James Robinson, RB, Jacksonville Jaguars (RB7 in 2020)

The gifts of 2020 were few and far between, but none gave as consistently to fantasy managers as James Robinson. Undrafted out of Illinois State, the rookie RB showcased his under-the-radar athleticism (89th percentile SPARQ) over 14 contests, closing out the year as FF’s RB7 overall. Demonstrating incredible burst and surprising elusiveness, Robinson posted top-end numbers in juke rate (27.3%) and evaded tackles (5.6/gm). He also led all backs in opportunity share (85.2%), which makes his 2021 projection one of much debate.

Volume regression would seem reasonable, but it’s worth noting that the Jags were dead last in rushing attempts on the season. A 2-14 record speaks to why the team would need to lean on the pass rather than salt away any sort of lead(s) by running the ball. To that point, Robinson’s fantasy stock was buoyed by his involvement in the passing game. Averaging 3.5 catches per contest (RB9), the first-year player closed out the year with 344 receiving yards.

While the influence of Urban Meyer and Darrell Bevell has yet to be realized, it would seem likely that the addition of Trevor Lawrence (a mobile QB more willing to run than to check down in short-yardage situations) might depress Robinson’s overall reception total. Yet, with so many offensive holes to fill and coming off of a triumphant freshman effort, Robinson’s position atop the depth chart appears locked in. Whatever he loses in targets should be marginal in relation to a potential uptick in totes. The lack of a brand name will likely spook less adventurous fantasy managers, resulting in quality value for calculating diehards.

Jacksonville Jaguars running back James Robinson (30)
Undrafted James Robinson was extremely impressive in 2020, but can he repeat next season? (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

Antonio Gibson, RB, Washington Football Team

A member of my 2020 All-Breakouts Team, Gibson juked his way to a top-15 fantasy finish. The Football Team’s eventual lead rusher on early downs, Gibson managed 170 carries (12.1/gm) — eight of which were at the goal line (RB14) — over 14 games. Despite his collegiate experience as a receiver, the Memphis product deferred to J.D. McKissic on passing downs, but still recorded a healthy 2.6 catches per game (RB19). Displaying eye-popping speed — particularly given his size (6’0”, 228lbs) — the 22-year-old consistently ripped off runs over 15 yards and evaded tackles to create additional yardage.

With plans to “slim down” and improve his already impressive “explosiveness,” Gibson’s profile figures to grow in 2021. Assuming he’s improved as a pass protector and acknowledging the competing talent currently on the roster, it won’t be easy to take the budding star off the field. Part of an exciting and developing offensive nucleus in Washington, Gibson deserves top-15 consideration heading into his sophomore season. An upgrade at QB (maybe Matt Stafford?) could potentially vault him into top-10 territory.

Nyheim Hines, RB, Indianapolis Colts (RB20 in 2020)

Tall shouts to Scott Pianowski who was the loudest advocate for Hines’ sleeper status heading into last fall. A top-20 fantasy producer, the pass-catching specialist benefited greatly from Philip Rivers’ presence under center, catching 64 balls (RB3) for 482 receiving yards (RB3). Drawing a target share of 14.4 percent, Hines was second in team looks (77) to only T.Y. Hilton (93). He was also both trusted and effective in the red area of the field, garnering an average of at least 2 red zone opportunities per contest, which resulted in 7 total scores over 2020.

Even as Jonathan Taylor’s role grew down the stretch, Hines’ dominance in the passing game continued. From Weeks 11 through 17, the vet outpaced the rookie in catches, recording 31 grabs to Taylor’s 14. The question, of course, becomes whether or not Hines can maintain his current volume with further progression from Taylor ... and without Rivers checking down on the regular.

Entering the final year of his rookie deal, Hines’ versatility will certainly keep him in the backfield rotation. But it’s unlikely that the team’s starting QB will bring with him a history of targeting RBs at or above a rate of 25 percent. That means Hines’ volume won’t be enough to boost him inside of the top-40 at the position.

J.K. Dobbins, RB, Baltimore Ravens

Full disclosure: Dobbins was my No. 1 ranked rookie RB heading into last spring’s NFL draft. More disclosure: I thought the Ravens would give Mark Ingram one more year to shine before going into full youth mode.

Nailed the process. Muffed the result.

And I’m OK with that, because watching a player with Dobbins’ downhill determination, plus power, and straight-up ferocity develop ahead of schedule is just a gift that arrived early.

The rookie’s physicality and balance are both evident via his efficiency metrics, as he regularly posted production after the first evaded tackle (331 yards created, RB11) and averaged 5.4 true yards per carry (RB1). To put that in perspective, Dobbins recorded 134 carries on the season (8.9/gm, RB33) yet closed out the year top-16 in rushing yards (805). With Ingram officially off the roster and Gus Edwards a restricted free agent, Dobbins’ opportunity share (38.9%) figures to receive a significant boost.

A capable receiver out of the backfield, Dobbins’ lack of involvement in the passing game is concerning (24 targets, RB51). Growth in that area, however, is not out of the question (see Josh Jacobs). This iteration of the Ravens will never exist as a pass-first operation, but Dobbins’ emergence as an every-down player is highly probable. His increased usage in the red zone (26 RZ totes over the back half of the season versus just two RZ opportunities before Week 8) in tandem with his ability to convert at the goal line (88.9%) makes him a solid top-15 option in standard-scoring leagues. In PPR friendly formats he figures to land in the RB17-20 range.

Myles Gaskin, RB, Miami Dolphins

It’s possible Gaskin surprised the Phins as much as he did fantasy managers. Beginning the year behind Matt Breida and Jordan Howard, the second-year player worked his way up the depth chart, leading the backfield with 182 touches while also averaging top-12 numbers in fantasy points per game. An MCL sprain and a stint on the COVID-19 list cost Gaskins six games, but he was consistently used in an every-down capacity in the games for which he was active, receiving fewer than 13 opportunities just once (Week 17).

When Gaskin wasn’t available, his former college teammate Salvon Ahmed worked as the team’s RB1. Ahmed recorded double-digit carries in Gaskins’ stead for three games until a shoulder injury forced him to sit. This suggests that Miami is (or, at least, was, under Chan Gailey, who has since resigned) enthusiastic about leaning on a single RB backfield. It’s therefore likely that the team’s 2021 starter will have volume working in their favor. Unless, of course, the new (and yet-to-be-named) OC wants to shake things up and utilize an RBBC like the rest of the league.

Further muddying the situation is the Dolphins’ plethora of draft picks. With four picks in the top-50, it’s not just possible, but probable, that Miami selects its RB of the future (ex: Najee Harris at 18th overall). Ultimately, there are too many unknowns at the present to properly diagnose Gaskins’ fantasy future, but the chances of a repeat performance are as likely as Deshaun Watson relocating to South Beach.

(PS: It’s not gonna happen)

Which 2020 sleepers do you think have staying power? Engage with Liz on social @LizLoza_FF

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