2021 NFL Rushing Yards Leader Odds, Picks & Longshot Bets: The Door Is Open For Gus Edwards
Timothy T Ludwig/Getty Images. Pictured: Ravens RB Gus Edwards
Will anyone other than Derrick Henry win the rushing title in 2021?
That’s the question bettors must answer, as Henry looks like an absolute machine. He’s led the NFL in carries, rushing yards, and rushing touchdowns — all three rushing categories — in both of the last two seasons. Henry rushed 378 times for 2027 yards and 17 TDs for the Titans in 2020.
So will Henry do it again? We’ll get to that in a second.
First, it’s important to get a sense of how many yards our rushing leader will likely need. Of the last 30 season rushing leaders, 26 ran for at least 1,500 yards, with two others missing by under 20.
However, three of those four unders have come in the last six years as the run game continues to be de-emphasized. Before Henry’s monster year, the previous five rushing leaders averaged 1,483 yards. Factor in the extra game, and we’re probably going to need someone with a path to 1,500 yards.
Let’s run through the NFL and look for value on this season leader prop. First, we need to make a decision on the favorites. Then let’s rule out some obvious contenders, check in on some long shots, and settle on some best bets.
Be sure to check out the other season leader bets if you haven’t already:
Sizing Up the Favorites
Derrick Henry (+400 at FanDuel)
Henry is the first runner since LaDainian Tomlinson to lead the league in rushing in consecutive seasons. If he does it again, he’ll be the first since Emmitt Smith to do it three times in a row. The last one before Smith was Jim Brown. Henry is facing historic odds against repeating a third time.
Everything we know about wear and tear and RB usage tells us that Henry’s massive workload could spell big trouble ahead. My colleague Raheem Palmer wrote about the Curse of 370, and Henry is 27 years old with a metric ton of mileage after back-to-back 300-carry seasons plus postseasons. And these are not exactly easy runs. Henry is a physical runner, running through and over opponents, not around them. Every one of those 378 carries last season carried a punishment.
If Henry is Henry again, you should stop reading now, cash in your +400 ticket, and thank the books for their egregious oversight. There’s no one like him right now, not with his style of play, his angry running, his workload or his upside. But everything in history screams FADE with Henry. He can’t keep doing this forever, and there’s no middle ground. You’re either in or you’re out, and history says to bet against this continuing further.
Verdict: History says run and hide. If you do play Henry, stop reading now. You can’t add anything else to your position, but make sure to be him for rushing TDs too. You’re either all-in or all-out. No half measures.
Guys Who Probably Can’t Win
Antonio Gibson (+1800 at DraftKings)
Gibson is a wild story. He had never even played running back before last season but acquitted himself nicely with a couple hundred-yard games and a surprising 11 rushing TDs. Gibson is the guy in this offense and should get some help from an improved passing game. Still, he finished at 795 rushing yards, which means we’d need a guy who’s played one year at his position to basically double his production overnight. It’s just too much to ask until we actually see the production.
Aaron Jones (+2200 at DraftKings)
Jones is a great runner, but there’s another Aaron who is a bit more important in Green Bay, and that prevents Jones from putting up a big line. So does the egalitarian Packers backfield. Jones had only 201 carries last year, while Jamaal Williams had 119 and A.J. Dillon 46. Williams is gone now, but Dillon should start to soak up more carries. That helps keep Jones fresher, and it helps him keep a sparkling YPC consistently around 5.5, but 200 carries just isn’t anywhere near enough to contend for this crown.
Najee Harris (+2800 at FanDuel)
The Steelers may have drafted Harris to save the run game, but one running back alone doesn’t do the trick. Pittsburgh has one of the worst offensive lines in the league and is especially bad at run blocking. They know it too, which is why the Steelers led the league in passing attempts last year while James Conner and Benny Snell combined for only 280 carries. Harris is unlikely to have the volume he needs, especially as a rookie, and he should struggle to find room to run behind this terrible line.
They Could Win, But the Odds Are Not in Our Favor
Dalvin Cook (+600 at FanDuel)
Cook feels a lot like Derrick Henry. If you’re out on Henry but believe Cook will stay healthy and play all year, your work here is probably done. A healthy season from Cook could see him easily get to 370 carries of his own, and he probably approaches 1,700 yards, 20 scores, and an easy win here in that scenario.
The problem is “a healthy season from Cook” is fantasy land. Cook has missed two, two, five, and 10 games his four years as a pro, and he had injury issues in college too. He’s an outstanding runner but can’t stay healthy, and that makes him too risky to bet on at +600. Minnesota still hasn’t figured its line out, with rookie LT Christian Darrisaw yet to play a snap due to injury, so Cook is fighting an uphill battle for yards too. He can certainly win but that doesn’t mean you should bet on it.
Jonathan Taylor (+1100 at FanDuel)
Taylor finished his rookie season with a pretty impressive line: 232 carries for 1,169 yards and 11 rushing TDs. But it’s a good thing he got that Week 17 game against the 1-14 Jaguars. Take that one away and 916 yards is far less impressive. Taylor was mostly a swing and a miss though November, with just 518 yards and 4 TDs plus an ugly 3.8 YPC.
Then the calendar turned to December and Taylor exploded. Over the final five games, Taylor averaged 6.7 YPC and sprinted to 651 yards and 7 TDs. That will lead many to tab him for a huge breakout season. Be careful, though. That final five games came against the Texans (twice), Jaguars, Raiders, and Steelers. That’s four terrible defenses.
The bigger problem is Taylor’s situation. In some alternate timeline, Taylor is an awesome looking pick. A healthy Carson Wentz has revived the Colts-, who boast the league’s finest line with Eric Fisher and Quenton Nelson locking up the left side of the line next to Ryan Kelly. In this timeline, Fisher and Nelson are out indefinitely, and Wentz and Kelly are stuck in COVID protocol. Life gets a lot harder for a RB when the blocking and QB play go south. Taylor is a speedy runner who could break out but the situation is not in his favor.
Saquon Barkley (+1600 at FanDuel)
Barkley had a massive rookie season in 2018. He had over 2000 combined yards and racked up 91 receptions somehow, finding the end zone 15 times. Injuries hampered his sophomore season though, limiting him to barely 1,000 rushing yards, and he had only 34 yards on 19 carries last season before missing almost the entire year.
Barkley is a dynamic runner, but he is Red Flag City, population one. The Giants have the single worst offensive line in the league. Barkley still hasn’t been cleared with a full bill of health entering the new season. And even when he does play, his style is a risky one to bet one, since he tends to get stuffed frequently on runs, relying on long plays to find his yardage. That could be trouble with a horrible line and bad play calling from Jason Garrett.
You might find the talent too hard to pass on at this number, but there are just too many things that can go wrong here.
Longshots Worth a Sprinkle
Chris Carson (+3100 at FanDuel)
Carson could be an interesting long shot if things bounce right. He never really got it going last season, fighting through some injuries, but Carson rushed for at least 1150 yards in each of the two seasons prior. New Seahawks OC Shane Waldron comes from the Rams coaching tree under Sean McVay, and while everyone focuses on the passing game, those Rams teams have been incredibly efficient running teams. Seattle’s line is not as bad as it once was, and Carson averaged 18.1 carries a game the two years before last. There’s a world where he stays healthy and surprisingly fights his way into this race.
Josh Jacobs (+3500 at BetMGM)
The best part about Jacobs is that you know he’s going to get plenty of touches. The Raiders invested a first rounder in Jacobs and continue to give him big volume. He had 273 carries last season, racking up 12 touchdowns, but a poor 3.9 YPC left him barely clearing a thousand yards at 1,065.
Jacobs was at 4.8 YPC as a rookie, but the Vegas offensive line has gotten progressively worse since and took a significant step down this offseason. The Raiders also brought in Kenyan Drake, so he could steal some looks. Still, Jacobs is young and healthy and should get big volume. He could play all 17 games and push 320 carries, and anyone with that volume is worth a look.
Playable If You Believe
Nick Chubb (+700 at BetMGM)
All things being equal, Chubb might be the most likely rushing champion. If you’re betting against Henry and Cook being healthy, Chubb makes the most sense. He might be the best pure runner in the NFL right now and has an impressive career 5.6 YPC, and he’s running behind the best line in the NFL on a run-first offense.
Chubb had only 1,067 yards last year, but he did that in 12 games. If he kept that pace over 17 games, he crosses that magical 1,500-yard barrier. The only thing holding Chubb back is Kareem Hunt. This is RBBC many games, with Chubb averaging around 18 carries per game and Hunt eating into his opportunities at around 10 per game. There’s a scenario where Hunt is minimized and Chubb has a Henry type season, but there’s also a world where the two eat into each other’s value and the passing game is elevated under Baker Mayfield, leaving everyone a bit short.
Chubb’s odds have dropped from +900 to +800 to +700. There’s not much value left now, even if he’s most likely. With RBs so volatile, it might be better to get multiple bites at the apple.
Christian McCaffrey (+1000 at DraftKings)
McCaffrey only played in three games of a lost 2020 season, but he was huge in his previous season. He had a 1,000-1,000 season, going over a thousand rushing and receiving yards, and piled up 19 TDs. There’s little wonder why he’s the consensus No. 1 pick in every fantasy draft this weekend even after a lost season.
The problem is that McCaffrey’s value is predicated on his all-around game, not his specific rushing yards value. Even in that huge season, McCaffrey finished at 1,387 yards on the ground. Nothing to sneeze at, but CMC is so involved in the passing game that he doesn’t get quite as many touches on the ground — why would he when his touches are even more valuable by air?
We don’t totally know what McCaffrey will look like under Matt Rhule and Joe Brady, though he did have 23, 18, and 18 carries in those three games last year. There’s clear potential here, but McCaffrey just isn’t the profile of a guy who leads the league in rushing yards. He might have a monster season, but this isn’t necessarily the best angle to play with CMC.
Joe Mixon (+2200 at DraftKings)
When healthy, Mixon is a huge volume guy. He consistently gets around 20 to 22 carries a game, which could mean more than 350 carries over a full healthy season. The problem is that there’s not a ton to love outside of the presumed volume. Mixon has never been a particularly efficient runner at just 4.1 YPC, and he hasn’t exactly been a beacon of health. Joe Burrow also led the league in passing attempts while healthy last year, so that could limit Mixon attempts, and a subpar line could limit extra yards. The volume puts Mixon in play if he stays healthy all year, but he needs a lot to go right.
Ezekiel Elliott (+2100 at FanDuel)
Zeke led the league in rushing in both 2016 and 2018, but he might be the “after” photo of the Derrick Henry “before” right now. Elliott has amassed a ton of carries. He’s only 26, but he’s already racked up 1,413 carries in just five seasons, consistently getting around 20 carries a game, year after year.
Last year saw a huge drop in production for Zeke, and historically, most backs don’t ever really bounce back once that first drop hits. It’s extremely rare for a runner to win the rushing title, fall off in a big way, and bounce back later. Adrian Peterson is one of the only guys to pull it off, and he’s an all-time great.
Elliott finished under 1,000 yards last season despite playing all but one game, and his YPC finished at a pedestrian 4.0 YPC after 4.6 the rest of his career. The question is how much of his bland production was a product of everything else going sideways for the Cowboys with Dak Prescott out and the offensive line in shambles.
Dallas plays at the league’s fastest pace, and the defense is bad, so it’s in the Cowboys best interest to give Elliott the ball a lot again. It looks like the line is much healthier, and Dallas loves to feed Zeke, so he could have opportunity for a bounce back year. At +2100, it feels like the number is long enough to give him a shot.
Gus Edwards (+5000 at BetMGM)
The best bet on the board might have been J.K. Dobbins before his torn ACL. But in sports, injury means opportunity, and Gus Edwards is next in line. The Ravens remain one of the league’s fiercest and run-heaviest rushing attacks. Lamar Jackson had 159 carries for 1,005 yards last season, but the running back triumvirate of Edwards, Dobbins, and Mark Ingram was huge too.
That trio combined for 350 carries and 1,822 yards, nearly equaling Henry’s production between the three of them. Now Ingram is in Houston and Dobbins is sidelined, so there could be huge volume upside if Baltimore doesn’t bring in another veteran. If Williams mostly absorbs those Dobbins carries, he could be a candidate for 1,500 yards. Williams is not quite as dynamic a runner but averaged 5.0 YPC himself last year, and it’s insane value to get this number for the lead back on one of the league’s best rushing attacks.
James Robinson (+6600 at BetMGM)
Robinson was one of the league’s big surprises last year. He had 240 carries for 1,070 yards, the second highest ever for an undrafted rookie. And now that first-round pick Travis Etienne is out for the season, it could be the J-Rob show again by default. Carlos Hyde is washed, and there’s no one else around to soak up carries.
Robinson actually had those totals in just 14 games, and Jacksonville had the fewest rushes of any team last season, the sort of thing that happens when you go 1-15. That leaves a ton of latent upside and opportunity in an open backfield. He has a shot at 300 carries and ran for an impressive 4.5 YPC last year behind an improving line. Robinson has a wide range of outcomes, but the high-end versions could be really good.
Javonte Williams (+6600 at BetMGM)
Our final pick is a rookie, which seems crazy, but Ezekiel Elliott led the league in rushing yards as a rook just five years ago. It looks like Denver is all in on Javonte Williams. They basically shut him down for the final couple preseason games, electing to save him for the season and indicating they may be ready to feature him quickly over Melvin Gordon.
With Teddy Bridgewater at QB and an elite defense, it makes a ton of sense for Denver to run the ball early and often, especially if Williams is good. Last year, Gordon and Philip Lindsay combined for 333 carries, 1,488 yards, and 10 TDs. That’s 4.5 YPC, with each back over 4.3. The previous year, Lindsay and Royce Freeman combined for 1,507 yards on 356 carries for 10 scores themselves.
Maybe Vic Fangio just prefers two backs and will split carries between Gordon and his rookie like he’s done the last couple years, but if Javonte Williams impresses and gets the lion’s share of the work, he could get a huge piece of that yardage pie.
Rushing Yards Verdict
At the end of the day, this season leader prop looks wide open, with three of the top four and four of the top six picks looking like poor values.
Rather than locking in on one favorite, let’s get a few bites at the apple with a handful of longshots: Ezekiel Elliott +2100, Gus Edwards +5000, James Robinson +6600, and Javonte Williams +6600.