Skip to main content

Packers' AJ Dillon, Ravens' J.K. Dobbins among running backs poised for Year 2 breakout in 2021

In this week-long series, NFL Network analysts examine the notable Year 2 players at different position groups who are poised for a breakout campaign in 2021. Today, Maurice Jones-Drew spotlights six running backs.

Football has a way of keeping you humble. Cam Akers learned that the hard way just a couple weeks ago.

The Los Angeles Rams running back tore his Achilles and will miss the entire 2021 season after establishing himself as the lead back in Sean McVay's offense last year. He averaged 92.1 rush yards and 113.1 scrimmage yards per game from Week 12 through the Divisional Round, setting himself up nicely for a big second season in 2021.

I had Akers selected as a prime candidate to break through in 2021, but we'll have to wait another year until he gets a chance to make that leap. In the meantime, here are six Year 2 running backs who are poised for a breakout season this fall.

A.J. Dillon
Green Bay Packers

Year 1: 11 games | 46 att | 242 rush yds | 5.3 ypc | 2 rush TDs | 2 rec | 21 rec yds | 0 rec TDs

With Jamaal Williams taking his talents to Detroit in the offseason, Dillon will receive a greater share of the workload in 2021. Behind starter Aaron Jones, Dillon should get a lot of opportunities in goal-line and short-yardage situations. We might have to wait a few months to see this breakout prediction come to fruition, but expect him to thrive late in the season, when he can really use those massive quads to run defenders over and help control the clock.

J.K. Dobbins
Baltimore Ravens

Year 1: 15 games | 134 att | 805 rush yds | 6.0 ypc | 9 rush TDs | 18 rec | 120 rec yds | 0 rec TDs

After learning the ropes from veteran Mark Ingram, Dobbins is ready to become Baltimore's clear-cut starter at the running back position. Of course, Lamar Jackson will get his touches -- as will Gus Edwards -- but the second-year back should be featured in an offense that's ranked first in rushing in each of the last two seasons. Dobbins showed a lot of promise in his rookie year, especially down the stretch, logging seven straight games with at least one rushing TD from Week 11 on. That's tied for the second-longest streak by a rookie since 1970 -- behind only yours truly, with eight back in 2006. Man, those were the days! With Baltimore retooling its offensive line and adding more weapons in the pass game to help stretch the field, I'm excited to see how Dobbins is utilized in Greg Roman's offense. He can run between the tackles, catch the ball out of the backfield and, as mentioned, has a knack for getting in the end zone. Get ready for a big season from the Ravens' RB1.

Clyde Edwards-Helaire
Kansas City Chiefs

Year 1: 13 games | 181 att | 803 rush yds | 4.4 ypc | 4 rush TDs | 36 rec | 297 rec yds | 1 rec TD

The final pick in Round 1 of the 2020 NFL Draft, CEH came out of the gate like a bat out of hell to start his rookie campaign. Damien Williams opted out of the 2020 season, which created more opportunities for CEH, who led the NFL in scrimmage yards through Week 6 (682). His workload decreased significantly with Le'Veon Bell's arrival in Week 7. He averaged 21.3 touches per game before Bell arrived and just 12.7 after he arrived. But with Bell now out of town and not looking back, CEH should be featured behind the Chiefs' overhauled offensive line, a unit that projects to be better in the run game than in pass pro. (Sorry, Patrick Mahomes.) But opportunity is the name of the game in Kansas City's loaded offense. Should CEH get a sizable number of touches, he'll no doubt break 1,000 yards rushing. But it all depends on the play calls. 

Antonio Gibson
Washington Football Team

Year 1: 14 games | 170 att | 795 rush yds | 4.7 ypc | 11 rush TDs | 36 rec | 247 rec yds | 0 rec TDs

After a promising rookie performance -- but one that was hindered by turf toe down the stretch -- Gibson has the goods to become one of the top running backs in the NFC. He has great speed, vision and there's a lot of Christian McCaffrey in him as a receiving threat. I expect Gibson, who played receiver in college, to take off in the passing game this season.

D'Andre Swift
Detroit Lions

Year 1: 13 games | 114 att | 521 rush yds | 4.6 ypc | 8 rush TDs | 46 rec | 357 rec yds | 2 rec TDs

Swift was the Lions' most efficient running back a year ago, averaging 4.6 yards per carry. He was outgained by Adrian Peterson (604 to 521), although the future Hall of Famer had just over 40 carries more than the rookie. Swift was able to show everyone why he was such a highly touted player coming out of college as a quick, do-it-all back. With the change in coaching staff and QB over the offseason, look for Dan Campbell's squad to run the ball plenty with Swift leading the way. He has the tools to double his 2020 production, but there are two potential roadblocks in front of him: free-agent signee Jamaal Williams and the fact that this rebuilding team (no disrespect) could often be playing from behind.

Jonathan Taylor
Indianapolis Colts

Year 1: 15 games | 232 att | 1,169 rush yds | 5.0 ypc | 11 rush TDs | 36 rec | 299 rec yds | 1 rec TD

Taylor had somewhat of a quiet start to his rookie season, averaging 12.6 carries and 47.6 rush yards per game in Weeks 1 through 10. Then he turned the dial up. Way up! In Weeks 11 through 17, Taylor toted the rock 19.8 times per game and averaged 123.5 rush yards, raising his yards-per-carry mark from 3.8 to a healthy 5.0 by season's end. Taylor has the luxury of running behind one of league's best O-lines, and the Colts might have to really ride the running back if Carson Wentz's recovery from foot surgery keeps him sidelined well into the season. I know Taylor finished third in the league in rushing yards last season, but I recently slotted him No. 11 in my rankings of all 32 RB1s heading into the season. A breakout campaign for Taylor after his impressive 2020 campaign would mean solidifying himself as a top-five running back. Trust me, he can do it.  

Follow Maurice Jones-Drew on Twitter.

Related Content