2021 NFL Draft First Rounders: Running Backs

Our 2021 NFL Draft positional deep dives now bring us to a key piece of any successful offence – running backs. These are players with immense fantasy football potential. If you’re picking in a superflex set-up this summer, then expect Trevor Lawrence to go #1 overall. In a standard format, you will most likely see his teammate Travis Etienne and Alabama’s Najee Harris go first and second.

In the 2021 NFL Draft in April, we may see few (if any) taken on Day One. However, there is real value as we dive into the middle rounds. Which franchise will land on 2021’s Antonio Gibson, or James Robinson?

It’s time to take a deeper look at the top backs entering the NFL in 2021.

Travis Etienne, Clemson

Height: 5’ 10”
Weight: 210 lbs
Production: 758 yards (5.1 av), 12 TDs

We have to start with the all-time ACC rushing yards and touchdowns record holder, Travis Etienne. If you’re in a PPR league, then Etienne pips his rival Najee Harris to #1 overall player on your fantasy draft board. He has been utilised well in the passing game by Dabo Swinney, predominantly on swing, screen wheel and slant routes. He often lines up at the line of scrimmage alongside The Tigers’ wide receivers.

Etienne can comfortably find the edge with his patient running style. Don’t let that fool you – when he hits the gas, you know it. He will likely run a 4.35/4.40 at the Combine. With that speed, Etienne has the ability to take the ball to the house at any opportunity. He is equally happy heading for the tackler. This is a running back that can run around and through the tackler.

Put simply, he is an explosive runner that plays through the contact. His quarterback, Trevor Lawrence, compared him to Alvin Kamara. Head Coach Dabo Swinney preferred Waltor Peyton. High praise from two people that know him best.

At his size, don’t expect much in terms of pass protection. Then there’s the issues with fumbling. He has four fumbles in 2020, two of them lost to the opposition. Now, for someone who averages 18 touches a game, it doesn’t seem a significant issue.

Najee Harris, Alabama

Height: 6’ 2”
Weight: 230 lbs
Production: 1084 yards (5.9 av), 22 TDs

Najee Harris is a devastating athlete. Though he doesn’t have the slipperiness that leaner backs can boast, he does have the vision to exploit gaps in opposing defences. Once he hits top speed, he is like a freight train. The success of Crimson Tide alumnus Derrick Henry in the NFL will have a positive impact on Harris’ draft stock, too. Like Henry, he relishes contact and defenders seem to bounce right off him.

Harris doesn’t offer as much as his fellow class men in the passing game (he has just 27 receptions in 2020). As a power back, nobody does it better. In this year’s NFL Draft Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne can be considered RBs 1A and 1B. In the 2021 NFL Draft in April, the first running back taken off the board could come down to scheme fit and personal taste.

As you might expect, it takes slightly longer for Harris to hit top speed. Whereas his power is devastating, his speed is simply impressive. If he breaks through the line of defence, you can expect line-backers to recover the gap. Just don’t expect them to bring him down easily. It is a minor criticism of an athlete that appears destined to succeed in the NFL.

Javonte Williams, UNC

Height: 5’ 10”
Weight: 220 lbs
Production: 1140 yards (7.3 av), 19 TDs

Outside of the top two listed above, Williams is the “best of the rest”. This guy does not stop at the point of contact. His balance through the tackle is impressive, and he often churns out extra yards after the initial contact. He is often used in goal line sets both through the A/B gaps and on the outside.

Like Harris, he doesn’t have the slippery quality that leaner backs enjoy. At 220 lbs, he relies more on his power against the tackler over his ability to make his opponent miss. That aside, he has a variety of tools in his arsenal to beat defenders. In his incredible performance against Miami, he cut past the first man, floored the second with his shoulder charge, and spun past a third.

Williams isn’t adept and making space, but when he finds it, he exploits it. He is capable of those chunk plays that can take the pressure off a struggling passing game. He also offers support to his quarterback in pass protection.

Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis

Height: 5’ 11”
Weight: 191 lbs
Production (2019): 1459 yards (6.3 av), 13 TDs

Gainwell was a high school quarterback, but transitioned to running back at college level on account of his size. As you might expect for a smaller back, he is explosive and slippery. He can squirm between the tackles, and punishes defences that leave gaps. He has the ability to turn first down runs into huge gains – in 2019, he had 5 plays that went for 60 or more yards.

At Memphis, he was often utilised in the passing game. If you are drafting in a PPR league, that will add to Gainwell’s value. In 2019, he had 610 receiving yards (12.0 average) and 3 touchdowns. The Tigers’ trick plays often had him lined up as a wildcat. Experimental NFL offences may be tempted to do the same.

Naturally, he doesn’t offer much in terms of pass protection. By opting out of the 2020 season, he may see his draft stock diminish. His family lost 4 people to COVID-19, and few will blame Gainwell for putting family first. Hopefully, his 2019 tape will speak for itself. As a rookie, Kenneth Gainwell would provide an effective contrast to a bigger “power” back.

Rakeem Boyd, Arkansas

Height: 6’ 0”
Weight: 206 lbs
Production (2019): 1133 yards (6.2 av), 8 TDs

Many of you will recognise the name from Last Chance U. Boyd saw screen time in Season 3 during his time at Independence, Kansas. That was the result of academic problems he encountered whilst a freshman at Texas A&M.

He opted out from The Razorbacks program in December, cutting short his Senior year. As a result, it is helpful to focus more closely on Boyd’s 2019 stat line. Health issues and an early opt-out limited him to just 309 yards and 3 touchdowns in 2020.

Boyd is a determined runner that does not go down under contact easily. His natural strength and size translate well in pass blocking. It is an underrated element of a running back’s arsenal, and certainly unrewarded in fantasy football. However, NFL franchises will be taking note.

Don’t expect too much in the passing game (just 358 yards in 3 seasons). Boyd is most likely a Day Two back in the 2021 NFL Draft, but he has considerable upside at pro level.

Michael Carter, UNC

Height: 5’ 8”
Weight: 199 lbs
Production: 1245 (8.0 av), 9 TDs

Michael Carter has been the lesser appreciated of the two running backs at Chapel Hill. His teammate Javonte Williams has the prototypical size of an NFL running back. Carter’s smaller frame offers a different skillset, but question marks about his suitability at the next level.

Don’t let his size fool you. Carter is a powerful runner once he hits full speed. In one game against Miami this year, he had 308 yards and 2 scores on 24 carries. In that game alone, he showed a clean cut move and rapid change of direction. Between him and Williams, they set an NCAA record for rushing yards.

Other names to look out for:

Kylin Hill, Mississippi State
Jaret Patterson, Buffalo
Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State

The @5yardcollege team hopes to have more positional breakdowns with you in the coming days and weeks. By the time April comes around, you’ll have a clear idea of who you want your team to go out and get on Day One of the 2021 NFL Draft. As a fantasy team owner, your big board will be set for those rookie drafts as well.

Saturdays are for rushing, too!

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