As the college football season is wrapping up, and we quickly approach bowl season, the Draft season is just around the corner. Many players have declared for the draft and have stepped away from their programs to prepare for the draft. Some of the biggest names and fan-favorite prospects are often Running Backs. There are many reasons for this, whether it’s the countless highlight plays many of these players make, taking the NFL by storm in their rookie season as is the case many times now, or the impact these players may have on our very own fantasy teams. And I don’t blame them, Running Back is a very exciting position to watch and play, and most importantly are crucial to our fantasy teams. But one has to remember, beyond all of this the NFL is still a business, and it’s often in teams’ best interests not to invest too much into the Running Back position. However, we have seen a slight shift in that narrative with players like Alvin Kamara, Dalvin Cook, and Derrick Henry getting rewarded with well-deserved big contracts, playing extremely well, and proving to be worth those contracts they received. With that being said, many teams have the personnel in their own Running Back rooms now where they don’t need to be drafting them highly, and this being a good upcoming Free Agency Running Back class, we may ultimately see fewer Running Backs drafted this year than normal.
There is some great depth in this 2021 Running Back Class. There might not be a true Superstar back, nor too many Running Backs that will hear their names called with many things going against Running Backs in this upcoming Draft, but there are still some very talented backs in this class, and should be a class that we look back and think about how good some of these picks were value-wise, or how these players got drafted (or didn’t) so late.
I’ll be addressing my Top 10 Running Backs in the 2021 NFL Draft at the moment, and some sleepers who can be a late-round or undrafted pickup who may perform nothing like it. These will almost certainly not be my final rankings with months left in the draft season, and many players still haven’t opted in or out of the draft. I still have film to watch on some players I’ll talk about, and players I won’t be talking about, and also many draft events yet to happen, such as the Combine, Senior Bowl, Pro Days, and draft related news such as injuries and character concerns.
- Najee Harris, Alabama
At first glance, one may think of Derrick Henry as a good comparison for Najee Harris, given the size and athleticism, along with both being Alabama alums. However, their play style is much different. Harris is a big bodied back at 6’1” 230, who really impresses athletically for someone of that size. He is light on his feet and does not lose a step in his explosiveness like many do at that size, instead he incorporates it into a huge part of his game. He isn’t just a threat North and South, he will use his elusiveness to make defenders miss, he jukes, spins and hurdles defenders with ease, and has a great jump cut that he likes to use. Overall, Harris is a really smart back, always seems to find a hole, and knows when and when not to use a move to make a player miss. He has a very high success rate at attempting to make players miss, has outstanding balance, and breaks a lot of tackles. I’ve praised Harris’ ability so much already, and I have yet to speak on his power and receiving ability, which makes him such a complete Running Back. At his size you’d think he’s a great power runner, and that’s right, his stiff arm is NASTY, and he will run through defenders with ease, I feel bad for anyone who has experienced it. Finally, I’ll speak about Harris’ impact in the receiving game. He might not be the best separator, he will not be a CMC or James White or anything like that, but he should be a reliable check down target who will impress with his ability after the catch; he also won’t shy away from “mossing” players, he makes some incredible catches for a Running Back. Harris doesn’t really have any true cons, just that he’s not necessarily a “great” athlete, and his receiving ability may not translate to the NFL since players will be closer to his size.
To me, Harris is the clear cut #1 Running Back in this class, and the only player I can comfortably say will be an immediate starter in the NFL. His combination of size, athleticism, and smarts is a near unstoppable combo. He has the potential to be a Josh Jacobs type player, a great, smart runner with an impressive ability to use elusiveness and power to make players miss, and be a solid impact in the receiving game. I can really see Harris fitting in any running scheme; has the size and power to be an impact on power runs, the vision and patience to be a good inside zone runner, and the impressive combination of size and long speed, along with the vision to succeed on outside zones. I value Harris as an early 2nd round pick, but I could get around him being a late 1st round pick if a team really needs a cheap RB.
- Travis Etienne, Clemson
Etienne was many people’s #1 Running Back heading into the College Football season before the emergence of Najee Harris on the national stage. I’m likely lower on Etienne than most, but he is still my #2 back. He has elite athleticism at 5’10” 210, along with the impressive emergence of a receiving ability, which gives him the potential to be a dominant playmaker in the NFL. As a true runner, he doesn’t impress too much, he’s not as elusive as you’d like him to be, his vision is just ok and he doesn’t have the balance he has shown in the past. But being the outstanding athlete he is, he should make an immediate impact as a gimmicky player while he develops the rest of his game. I’d love to see him go to a great offensive mind, in preferably an outside zone scheme. So I’m thinking teams like the 49ers, Packers, Cardinals or potentially Falcons depending on the new coaching staff. I can see Etienne growing into an Austin Ekeler type player, tough player and impressive athlete who does a lot of damage in the receiving game, and definitely not a pushover runner. The cons I see in Etienne are lack of true vision, Clemson’s offense is gimmicky, and didn’t ask Etienne to play as an NFL style Running Back too often. He also doesn’t show much in the power game, but that’s expected with his playstyle and size; however, he’s not afraid to lower his shoulder.
Etienne may not be a back who will emerge as some special talent in his rookie year, wouldn’t even shock me if he’s lightly used as a rookie; however, I believe in his potential and work ethic to growing into a very talented NFL back, and surely has 3 down potential if he improves as a traditional runner.
- Kylin Hill, Mississippi State
This may be a surprise to a few, but Kylin Hill really impresses in the traits I value most in a Running Back. He has ideal athleticism, his long speed is just fine, but his explosiveness and quickness are impressive. At his size, 5’10” 215, he’s more of a tweener back and can rush with power, even if he is more of an elusive runner. Where he impresses most is his incredible balance, it seems like he breaks the first tackle every time, and is very hard to bring down. He really popped off in his 2019 tape, I only have seen one game of his in 2020, played in an unfavorable scheme for a Running Back, especially of his playstyle. The air raid he played in didn’t allow him to use his good vision, and traditional inside zone running ability that he thrived in as a Junior. However, it allowed him to show off a bit of a receiving ability that he showed to be a big weakness in his game as a Junior. Reminds me a bit of David Montgomery won’t really be an impact outside of running ability, but he is damn good at it. Both have an outstanding balance and the ability to make defenders miss. He may not have the potential of some other backs in the class, but in my eyes, his floor is a good 2 down runner. Not a player you want to be the sole back on a team will probably go to a team that already has a solid Running Back on the roster to pair with Hill.
He’s best suited for an inside zone scheme that preferably has a good offensive line to help him show off that ability to make players miss. Teams like the Panthers, Buccaneers, Texans, Dolphins, Football Team, Jets, Steelers all come to mind as potentially good fits for Hill.
- Trey Sermon, Ohio State
Sermon is an intriguing player. A player who balled out during his time in Oklahoma, however, struggled to stay on the field because of injuries. Has a slim build, but carries a healthy amount of weight. His physique reminds me of Joe Mixon’s, at 6’0” 216. He’s not someone to impress much athletically, but he’s capable of being an explosive runner if the type of run warrants it. Where he impresses me the most is his vision, he has near-elite vision, always seems to find a hole in the defense, and get nice yardage out of plays. While he showed more of an ability to break tackles and be elusive at Oklahoma, he still showed that he is still capable of that in his time at Ohio St, especially in the B1G Championship game where he played outstanding vs. Northwestern. Doesn’t really have many cons of note, the biggest hole in his game I’d say is his receiving ability, which shows to be more of a check-down guy rather than a guy to create plays in the receiving game. I definitely view him as a Starting caliber Running Back in the NFL, not sure if the NFL will view him the same, but I love his balanced running game, combined with his near-elite vision, I believe it offers him a high floor as a runner. His previous inabilities to stay healthy may hinder his draft stock, or maybe the problems come back in his NFL career, but with how talented he is I’d be willing to take a shot on him later in Day 2.
I view him as best in an inside zone scheme with his vision, but I wouldn’t mind him in an outside zone scheme even if it’s not ideal. Some team fits that come to mind are Steelers, Buccaneers, Jets, Dolphins, Texans, Giants, or Falcons (depending on scheme).
- Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State
Hubbard is another player I believed I was initially lower on, however, after a disappointing season, the 6’0” 207 Running Back appears to have dropped in draft boards, and I may even be a little higher on him now, at least in terms of ranked number on a running back list. The drop off in production for Chuba Hubbard after passing up on a chance to go to the NFL last season is definitely a bit concerning, however when you turn on the tape you can see he is still the same player that he was last year, at least in flashes. His consistency isn’t the same, especially in his vision, he is missing some holes that he previously hasn’t. But his great long speed and ability outside of the tackles is still there, and that’s the biggest reason I’m not too scared of his “regression”. With outside zone schemes taking over the NFL, there are a lot of great scheme fits for Hubbard that will ultimately help him produce with his traits. He’s not really going to make too many defenders miss, but put him on an outside zone team with good blockers ahead and he’ll do just fine. His biggest concerns are his ball security, and his size/durability. He’s rather slim at just 207 and doesn’t really have the quickness or elusiveness to make up for it. He also has a bit of a fumbling issue, but with proper coaching that should be fixed.
He reminds me a lot of Raheem Mostert with his size, athleticism, and the way he beats defenders, by using his vision and outrunning them rather than using ball carrier moves. I see him going to an outside zone scheme, and he might be a player who doesn’t make too much of an impact right away, but surely has the potential down the line to make an impact. Teams I see him potentially fitting on are the 49ers, Packers, Falcons (depending on scheme), Rams, or Titans.
- Jaret Patterson, Buffalo
Patterson is coming off of an incredible season at Buffalo, a 300-yard game, a 400 yard game, and over 1000 yards on the season, all in just 6 games. Looking solely at the production, one may expect him to be higher on the list. He is a bit undersized, not necessarily because of height, but he is light and thicker build (5’9” 196), so might not be much healthy weight to add on. Also, with his size, you’d hope he would be a burner; however, his speed is rather average. He is, however, quite explosive and fairly quick, combined with good elusiveness. He does an outstanding job at finding holes, using his vision to find open space and break plays away on the outside. Patterson has little to no power in his game, as expected at his size, but he still runs hard and can break tackles. He has plenty of big-play potential, especially on outside runs. The only other con I have yet to mention is his little effectiveness in the receiving game. Hands aren’t good and didn’t even get used much on check-downs either. Not going to be a 3 down back in the league, but his effectiveness as an outside zone runner should allow him to make an impact in the NFL. Reminds me a lot of Devin Singletary with his size, balance, and elusiveness.
Teams that run an outside zone scheme definitely will find Patterson’s ability as a runner intriguing. However, his limitations as a balanced runner and receiver lower his potential to be a full-time starter. Potential team fits for Patterson are the Packers, Rams, Titans, Dolphins, and Falcons.
- Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis
Gainwell is another very intriguing and very talented player. He possesses near-elite athleticism and elusiveness that makes him a threat on any play. While he isn’t much of a true runner in an NFL offense, and undersized at 5’11” 191, he’s an incredible receiver for a running back. He runs real routes, whether it’s in the slot, out wide, or out of the backfield, and can make some receiver-like catches. I see him projecting as more of a strict Receiving back and gimmick player to begin his career, but he could very easily develop more as an outside-zone running back with his elite athleticism and elusiveness. A creative mind will have a blast using Gainwell. He showed his ability to be a slotback, flexed out wide, screens, outside zones, wildcat quarterback, essentially in any way you would imagine a running back being used. The best thing, or worst, depending on how you view it, is that Gainwell only played one full season of college football, has very little wear and tear in his legs, along with being used a lot as a receiver, he is set up to have a lengthy NFL career, and hopefully very little injuries. Given Gainwell’s potential and athleticism alone, I’d say he’s worth a Day 2-3 pick, but when you add his floor as a receiver he becomes an even more intriguing prospect. He has his fair share of cons, mainly coming as a runner, vision nothing great, hard to say balance will translate with size, not much power, however, a good offensive coordinator should be able to use Gainwell in a way to limit these potential issues.
Any team looking for a receiving back and gadget player should look at Gainwell in the draft, but if they want to get the most out of him as a runner, he’d likely be the best fit to play in an outside zone scheme. Some team fits that come to mind are Chiefs, Raiders, Cardinals, Dolphins, 49ers, Rams, Titans, and Falcons.
- Javonte Williams, UNC
Williams is one player in this draft I came into the season high on, and as one of my favorite players, but as the season went on, he rose up draft boards and I am possibly now lower on him. I had a bit of a hot take on him, saying he was the superior running back in that elite UNC running back room going into the season, and while that is far from the definite case now, it seems to be more of a split opinion on who’s better. I am fascinated by his power and contact; he seems to almost never go down on the first contact. He’s not an impressive athlete, not very quick, rather slower on his feet, but he is pretty explosive and his long speed is solid. He has great size at 5’10” 215, he’s thick where he can thrive as a power back, and show off a bit of an elusive game too. He’s a balanced runner, has the balance, power, and elusiveness to be a good back; however, you’d like to see him develop in one or both aspects to take the next step as a running back. Also has some question marks with his ball security, given his physical style of running that can be a concern. He’ll be a great compliment to a more elusive back to bring that element of power in the running game.
He’s best fit in a power run game, but he showed off the ability to find open holes, and explode through them this season, so I can see him playing well in an inside zone scheme as well. The potential team fits for Williams are the Steelers, Eagles, Giants, Football Team, Jets, Saints, Dolphins, Ravens, Broncos, Bengals, Panthers, Jaguars, Falcons, or Texans. I mentioned a lot of teams, but I really view him as someone who can contribute right away in many schemes, and alongside some other talented players.
- Zamir White, Georgia
White is not really a player to stand out in any single aspect. Does a great job at breaking and running through tackles, but outside of that nothing is particularly impressive. Has a good mix of elusiveness and power as a runner, and being an overall solid athlete. A bit of a tweener in terms of size. Stands at 6’0” and 215 pounds. A little taller than most running backs, and fairly light for said height, so ideally could fill out a bit more. His game really gets hurt by his lack of receiving ability and inconsistent vision, but other than that he has great potential and assets to work within his game. Most running backs don’t have the combination of balance, elusiveness, power, and athleticism that he has. He’s a young player with not much experience and wear and tear, so that should intrigue teams with his potential as a player. He may not be a back that’ll make an immediate impact, but he surely has the potential to develop into a great runner in the league. However, he may never be a 3 down back because of his lack of receiving ability.
I view White as an early Day 3 pick to go to a team that may need a good run down the line, but may not expect him to contribute right away. So teams like the Steelers, Cowboys, Seahawks, Eagles, Patriots, Buccaneers, Saints, Giants, Football Team, Broncos, Chargers, Panthers, Jaguars, and Texans.
- Elijah Mitchell, Louisiana
Mitchell is another one of those backs that won’t really impress in any single aspect. He’s another solid, balanced athlete, who’s more of a one-trick pony runner, in Mitchell’s case he’s more elusive than powerful. Has a good size at 5’11” 217, pretty thickly built despite being an elusive runner. Offers him the potential to grow more as a power guy. His best trait is his vision, and with his balanced athleticism and size, I believe he fits perfectly in an inside zone running scheme. My biggest question marks for him are a lack of an ability to be an effective receiver out of the backfield and his long speed. He’s explosive and fast enough to be an effective runner overall, but when he gets to open space and has to show off the breakaway speed he has, that’s where you see that concern in his long speed. However, I don’t think that should be much of a worry in his game.
Like I said earlier, I view him as an inside zone back, and more of the running counter piece in a committee. Teams I view him fitting on are basically the same as I see for Zamir White, so the Steelers, Cowboys, Seahawks, Eagles, Patriots, Buccaneers, Saints, Giants, Football Team, Broncos, Chargers, Panthers, Jaguars, and Texans.
That wraps up my Top 10 running backs in this class, so far. While I’m not exactly high on the top of the class, as I only view 1 player as a set and stone 3 down starting running back (Najee Harris), I still think there are some great depth and value in this class. With that being said, I’ll list out 5 more running backs that I view as making a potential impact in the NFL.
These 3 players I believe will have an immediate role in the NFL in some shape or form, whether it’s as a committee back, a backup, or a receiving back. Next to them, I’ll mention the scheme I believe they’d be the best fit in. They just missed out on my Top 10, but wouldn’t surprise me if they work their way into it.
- Pooka Williams, Kansas. Outside Zone and/or Receiving Back.
- Michael Carter, UNC. Inside or Outside Zone.
- Javian Hawkins, Louisville. Outside Zone.
These are my “James Robinson Breakout Candidates”, potential late-round of PFAs who may break out in the NFL early in their careers.
James Robinson Breakout Candidates:
- Jah-Maine Martin, NC A&T. Inside Zone.
- Dedrick Mills, Nebraska. Power.