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Rookie Running Backs Destined for Committees

We all want to draft the rookie running back that comes out in Year 1 and produces at a top-24 pace. Sadly, that’s just not how things go. It’s rare that you have a season like 2020 where five first-year running backs turn in RB2 or better seasons. In fact, going back to 2012, there were zero draft classes that had five or more running backs finish in the top-24 in PPR at the position. The 2013 class came the closest with four in the top-24 and the fifth coming in at 26. Why do rookies tend to land without immediately vaulting into productivity? For one, they’re adjusting to a lot of changes from their college scheme, but more often than not, they land into a situation where they’re splitting touches with a veteran who’s already been established as the lead back.

In the 2021 draft, it was not the most star-studded class that we’ve had in recent memory. The group was headlined with a consensus top three of Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, and Javonte Williams. There were other names in the class, but for the majority of draft analysts, those were your top three in some combination or another. While Harris appears to have possibly emerged unscathed based on early reports, the same cannot be said for the majority of the backs in this draft class.

With a somewhat lackluster draft class coming in following a free agency period that saw the majority of teams avoid making a splash for available players along with a strong draft class last year, this year’s crop of rookies isn’t exactly set up for success. Some of them will be able to break free and separate themselves from the rest of their team’s RB room, but with the guys that we’re looking at today, they’re pretty much guaranteed to be locked into a committee role for the 2021-22 season.

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Trey Sermon, San Francisco 49ers

Sermon is just one of four running backs to receive a Day 1 or Day 2 draft, and he’s almost guaranteed to be playing in a committee this season. For one, the team already has starter Raheem Mostert, who when healthy, has been one of the most effective running backs in the NFL over the last three seasons since joining the 49ers. Along with Mostert, the team added Wayne Gallman in free agency this offseason and Elijah Mitchell in the sixth round of the draft after taking Sermon. Between those four, along with Jeff Wilson Jr. (meniscus) and undrafted free agent JaMychal Hasty from last year, there are just too many mouths to feed.

Over the last three seasons, Mostert has played in 14 games where he saw at least 10 carries. In those games, he’s averaging over 15 PPR points per game while averaging just under 5.4 yards per carry in those games. Last season, in the games where he was healthy and active, he was receiving the bulk of the carries while the rest were split between Wilson and Tevin Coleman. Mostert’s fit in the 49ers’ scheme is a seamless one with his ability to hit the hole and immediately cut upfield and go to full speed. 

There is a role for Sermon in this offense especially in 2022 and beyond, but it doesn’t appear as if that will be the case in 2021. The team has had a different leading rusher in each of the last three seasons because their system allows for players to play effectively no matter who’s lining up in the backfield. Additionally, Sermon hasn’t pass-blocked at the pro level, and this is a skill that rookies tend to take a fair bit of time to get fully up to speed with. If you’re looking for early rookie production, Sermon is not your best bet.


Travis Etienne, Jacksonville Jaguars 

There were two running backs taken in the first round of the draft, and while Najee Harris is likely getting the lion’s share of the touches with the Pittsburgh Steelers, the same cannot be said for Etienne with the Jacksonville Jaguars. For one, the team still features James Robinson, who went undrafted last year but still turned in 1,070 yards and seven touchdowns in 14 games, which includes four games where he had 13 or fewer carries. He also caught 49 of his 60 targets for 344 yards and three touchdowns.

Running back was viewed as a possible need for the Jaguars due to the difference in scheme compared to how Robinson won last year and what Urban Meyer was planning to implement as the new head coach, but with the success he had last year, it was somewhat surprising that Robinson didn’t get at least one season of work to see if he could or couldn’t fill the role effectively. 

In addition to Robinson, the team also signed Carlos Hyde, former Ohio State Buckeye under Meyer, this offseason to further bolster their running back room. They’ll likely carry those three running backs and one other, probably Dare Ogunbowale, this season which limits the number of touches that are going to be available for the rookie Etienne. Is it possible that Hyde is nothing more than a veteran insurance policy, similar to the role he played with the Seattle Seahawks in 2020? Yes. Is it also much more likely that he’s going to see between 5-10 touches every week? Yes. 

Hyde has fewer than 100 touches in a season just twice in his career, and both of those seasons saw him play fewer than 16 games. Etienne is coming out of college with 788 touches under his belt after four years of play at Clemson. Another thing working against Etienne is he hasn’t been the only running back to get serious snaps throughout the early stages of camp. Etienne was working almost as a gadget player, lining up at wide receiver while Robinson and Hyde were operating out of the backfield. Etienne had 102 receptions in college with 85 of them coming in the last two seasons. If these early reports are any indication of what to expect out of Etienne this year, he’s not going to be the workhorse that people are hoping he’s going to be. 


Rhamondre Stevenson, New England Patriots

Midway through the summer, there has been some buzz in New England as well as fantasy circles about Rhamondre Stevenson out of Oklahoma. Unfortunately for Stevenson truthers, there are a few other names in New England that are going to command work before he will. The top two of which are Damien Harris and Sony Michel from a pure running standpoint with veteran James White commanding the work in the passing game. 

Michel went down with an injury in the middle of a huge performance against the Las Vegas Raiders in 2020, which opened the door for Harris a few weeks later. As the lead back in 2020, Harris more than demonstrated his capability for handling the lead running back duties. 137 of his 141 career carries came last season as he averaged 5.0 yards per tote despite a dearth of a passing attack along with multiple missing pieces on the offensive line. In the games where he saw at least 15 carries, which was just four of the 10 he played in, he was averaging 12.2 PPR points per game which was a five-point bump over his other six games.

Stevenson will have more than a few factors working against him this season as he tries to work himself into the starting role. For one, he’s a rookie with fourth-round draft capital. Michel is a former first-round pick, who when healthy, has shown some ability to be a lead back. Meanwhile, Harris showed last year he is just as capable. Despite Rex Burkhead heading to Houston this offseason, there still aren’t many available touches. You also have to factor in White, who has caught 40 or more passes in each of the past six seasons.

The receiving work is not available for Stevenson, and the running work is held down by two other guys on a team that is notorious for having a committee of backs rather than relying on one true bell-cow. That means expectations should be low in the near future for this fourth-rounder.

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