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2021 NFL Draft Rankings – Running Backs

The casual observer will talk about Travis Etienne and Najee Harris only when the running back position comes up. The draftniks know there is true value and the best running back is often not always the first drafted at his position (see last season when I said during the whole process that Cam Akers was the best of the bunch and he went in the second round).

The running backs seem more rounded and complete than in years past and I am glad to see it is not all about speed. There are a number of terrific receiving backs or players who could fill specialist roles at the next level and provide an immediate return on being drafted.

There are a few small schoolers to look out for this year. If you remember last season, I had called James Robinson one of the best small schoolers in the class and we all saw his impact and play for the lowly Jaguars. There are always gems to be found in the later rounds or even as undrafted free agents.

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2021 NFL Draft Rankings – Running Backs

1. Travis Etienne - Clemson (5-10, 205)
2. Najee Harris - Alabama (6-1, 230)
3. Javonte Williams - North Carolina (5-10, 220)
4. Kenneth Gainwell - Memphis (5-11, 195)
5. Chuba Hubbard - Oklahoma State (6-0, 205)
6. Jaret Patterson - Buffalo (5-8, 190)
7. Trey Sermon - Ohio State (6-0, 220)
8. Michael Carter - North Carolina (5-7, 200)
9. Kylin Hill - Mississippi State (5-11, 215)
10. Larry Rountree III - Missouri (5-10, 215)
11. Stevie Scott III - Indiana (6-1, 230)
12. Rakeem Boyd - Arkansas (6-0, 205)
13. Jermar Jefferson - Oregon State (5-9, 215)
14. Javian Hawkins - Louisville (5-9, 195)
15. Demetric Felton - UCLA (5-8, 190)
16. Brenden Knox - Marshall (5-11, 220)
17. Spencer Brown - UAB (5-11, 215)
18. Gary Brightwell - Arizona (5-11, 215)
19. Caleb Huntley - Ball State (5-10, 225)
20. Pooka Williams - Kansas (5-10, 170)
21. Elijah Mitchell - Louisiana (5-11, 220)
22. JaQuan Hardy - Tiffin (5-8, 210)
23. Rhamondre Stevenson - Oklahoma (5-11, 230)
24. Khalil Herbert - Virginia Tech (5-11, 205)
25. CJ Marable - Coastal Carolina (5-7, 195)

 

The Top-10 Running Backs

Let's take a look at a few of the top-10 running backs:

Travis Etienne is currently neck and neck with Alabama runner Najee Harris when it comes to being the top running back in this draft class. Etienne looked to be a sure second-rounder had he declared last season and after coming back for his senior season, his stock has risen slightly. Etienne should be taken in the middle to the back half of the first round as he and Harris are the only projected first-rounders.

The characteristic that jumps out at me most when watching Etienne is both good and bad. Etienne has a knack for making the right decision and finding the running lanes. He assesses where the defense is positioned and where the soft spots in the defense are. When you have a stud quarterback like Trevor Lawrence and a super offensive line, it makes life easier, but you still need to anticipate the correct openings and running lanes. This is also a detriment to his game as he has shown a lack of patience at times. Knowing where the lane will appear, Etienne can sometimes rush the play and try his lane before it has developed. Etienne is a fantastic receiver but will need to work on his blitz pickup if he wants to be a true three-down back at the NFL level.

Another aspect that I feel gets overlooked with Etienne is he is a physical runner. At 5-10 and just a shade over 200 pounds, he doesn't have an imposing frame but he shows the silliness to run inside, put his head down, and get the extra yardage. Etienne has the ability to take the ball to the house at any moment but shows good judgment in taking the yards he can get and not trying to constantly go for the home run.

Kylin Hill is a name you should make yourself familiar with. Hill figures to be an early Day 3 prospect who could sneak into the late stages of the third round on Day 2. Why is Hill valued so much?

It's easy, Hill is the best pass-catcher at the running back position in this draft class, hands down.

Hill doesn't possess the top-end speed that many teams look for with an elite back. Hill had thrown his name into the hat last year and decided to come back to school after not posting comfortable 40-yard dash times. Hill has worked on this aspect of his game and should be clocking in the low to mid 4.5 range. While not elite speed, this will not deter many teams, especially since receiving will be hyped as his strong suit.

Hill changes directions quickly and shows fluidity in his route running. He can comfortably be spread out as a receiver and it will make him valuable at the next level. Top-end speed and inconsistency in short-yardage situations are the biggest weakness of his game right now.

 

The Rest of the Running Backs

A couple of running backs I have outside the top-10 that should make a mark in the right situation:

There seems to be a growing contingent of Jermar Jefferson supporters these days. Jefferson ran for 858 yards as a junior in 2020. It wasn't long ago when Jefferson ripped off 1,380 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman at Oregon State. Jefferson hasn't been able to duplicate those numbers as a sophomore or a junior but that has more to do with the talent around him and a few nagging injuries versus the quality of his play.

Jefferson shows the ability to block well in the passing game or throw a chip block and get into the open field as a receiver. What I like most about Jefferson is his footwork as there is very little wasted motion or unnecessary dancing when hitting the hole. Top-end speed may not be there as Jefferson does not have the explosive acceleration off the snap or the quick first step. He shows great awareness for protecting the football like switching hands when defenders close or to his outside arm when along the sideline.

Pooka Williams might be the most underrated back in the bottom half of the list. Williams is no stranger to playing in big games as he played well in the Big 12. However, playing at Kansas meant Williams spent a lot of time playing from behind or in garbage time situations. Williams does not have elite speed but he is very shifty and can juke a defender as well as any of the top names in this running back class.

Williams does not always take the best angles in the open field but shows the ability to hit another gear when getting through the line. He is a better runner sweeping to the outside versus pounding the ball in the interior. Williams could benefit from adding a little muscle to his upper body as he is a bit undersized. Williams is a better than average receiver and disguises late-developing patterns like wheel routes well. He broke off some longer runs at the NCAA level that he will not be able to duplicate in the NFL and will need to be more disciplined when his team has the ball deep in their own territory. He looks to be a perfect change of pace back at the NFL level.



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