NFL Draft

Top 10 running backs in the 2021 NFL Draft:

We have finally reached the point, where I’m ready to put out my final positional rankings and break down the top ten (plus) prospects at each spot. For all these analyses, I purely evaluated what I saw on tape, in terms of requirements for the position, how their skill-set will translate to the next level and then explain what kind of scheme they would fit best, as well as how diverse they are.

We’ll start with the running backs today and then talk about linebackers later on in the week. And that’s how we’ll kind of go position by position, switching between offense and their defensive counterparts (so offensive tackles and edge rushers one week, then wide receivers and cornerbacks, etc.). I studied between 20 and 30 players of every group, depending on deep that class was and if you want to hear my thoughts on any of the players not mentioned, just comment down below or contact me on my social media outlets (links up in the top bar) and I will share my notes with you.

I will also have at least one video per week coming out, where I talk about one of these position groups and will likely do either side of the ball on an alternate basis, like I did last year. So make sure to subscribe to my Youtube channel!

 

Now let’s get into our first list:

 

 

1. Najee Harris, Alabama

6’2”, 230 pounds; SR

We’re all familiar with the running backs the Alabama program has pumped out over the last decade. Harris came to Tuscaloosa as a consensus top three overall recruit, but had to wait his turn behind the duo of Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs. Through his first two years with the Crimson Tide, Harris to me seemed like a very talented kid, who didn’t have workhorse characteristics, but in year three he started running much harder and much more violent. Coming into 2019, Harris had put up 1200 scrimmage yards and seven combined touchdowns, but as a junior alone, he easily topped those marks with over 1500 scrimmage yards and 20 touchdowns on just 236 touches. Yet, he surprisingly decided to come back for his senior year and was even better, with 1891 scrimmage yards and a ridiculous 30 trips to the end-zone, on a little under 300 touches, winning another national title and receiving the Doak Walker award for the best RB in the country.

To stay with the theme of Alabama running backs – when you look at Najee’s skill-set, he might be a tick below Derrick Henry in top-end speed and power, but he is very similar in both those categories and beats him in other ones. In terms of his running style, he has much better start-stop ability and for somebody who is usually classified as a power runner. Harris has a lot of shiftiness and patience to his game, where you see him pretty much come to a dead-stop in the backfield at times. However, he also does a great job of pressing the front-side and then cutting upfield, once the linebackers overcommit. There’s not a lot of 230-pound backs, who you see hit a dead-leg move, as they stress the edge and cut underneath a defender. Throughout his time in Tuscaloosa, Harris improved his vision, he clearly put in work in the weight room and became a more complete back, most importantly having that different attitude with the ball in his hands, where he just started running through people and throwing them off himself to go with keeping defenders off his legs with those 33 ½-inch arms. That culminated in 69 missed tackles forced and almost 1000 yards after contact last year. He has several highlight-reel plays to showcase – One of the most punishing runs of the 2019 season, when he just shoved off a tackler at the sideline and then hurdled another one in the South Carolina game or the hurdle against Notre Dame that went viral last season. With that being, what he does on an every-down basis and as a “game-closer” is even more impressive to me. In the 2020 Citrus Bowl for example, he literally carried Michigan defenders, to grind away the clock and finished the game-clinching drive with another score.

As a receiver, Harris is so much more than just a screen and check-down option. He has had plenty of really good plays in the screen game, where he has great feel for how to set up blocks in space and manipulate back-seven defenders, but he has experience motioning in and out of the backfield to a heavy degree (especially in 2020), he has run routes split out wide and with the amount of five-out patterns they ran under Steve Sarkisian, he has the necessary reps. Najee ran a ton of wheel routes as part of Bama’s mesh concepts, where he did mostly end up clearing space underneath for the crossing receivers, but was also targeted quite a bit and showed tremendous adjustments to the ball. He had only drop on 53 targets and he might actually be tougher to bring down after the catch, where he broke 22 tackles on 43 grabs. I think the part of Najee’s game that gets lost a lot of times is his work in pass-protection, where he does a great job of IDing pressure by keeping his head on a swivel and then is patient with his footwork, while having the bulk to anchor against charging linebackers or push edge blitzers past the quarterback, if they come in too hot.

Really the only major negative about Harris is that he doesn’t have elite long-speed. You see him pull away from defenders on several occasions, but he mostly has to push them off first or slip through a diving tackle attempt at the end, rather than just beating them in a foot-race, with only 25 carries of 20+ yards despite the heavy work-load. You can also argue that his at times methodical running style won’t be quite as effective in the pros, where those lanes can close a lot quicker, and he did have the Joe Moore award-winning, best offensive line in the country in front of him, that over the last two years has likely produced two first-round tackles and two more second-day picks on the interior. As a pass-protector, he can get too aggressive with stepping up at times and well-schooled NFL linebackers may take advantage of that with a quick swim move.

To me this Harris is pretty clearly the most complete back, with the experience from under center, pistol and shotgun, while running almost a perfect 50-50 split between gap and zone schemes last season. The guy behind him catches the eye more with a dynamic running style, but this has been the top RB in all of college football these last two years. He has pretty sweet feet for more of a power back and he had just one lost fumble over 651 touches these last three years. I think he can really fit in any system and excel, even though I would prefer more of a gap-scheme offense for him.

 

 

2. Travis Etienne, Clemson

5’10”, 205 pounds; SR

The ACC has produced plenty of top running backs, but Etienne has blown everybody out of the water in terms of the record books. He leaves Clemson atop the conference in career rushing yards (4952), scrimmage yards (6107), total touchdowns (78) and rushing average among players with at least 300 attempts (7.2 YPC). And while his total production and averages went down in a shortened 2020 season – which he did not have to come back for in any way – he arguably had the greatest two-year stretches of any back in NCAA history, with almost 3800 scrimmage yards and 49 touchdowns, averaging 8.2 yards per touch. Not only was he running away with all kinds of records, but also from defenders trying to catch him.

Etienne comes from a sprinter background, which you obviously can see in his long speed, how quickly he gears up and the tremendous power he has in his lower body. He has that sudden ability to cut and accelerate, often times when he is fully running East-West on outside zone plays and you see him put that foot in the ground for a 90-degree cut, where he looks like he is shot out of a cannon. The term “instant acceleration” comes to mind for me. However, when there’s not a lot of space, he can also slip through tight creases and not really have to stop his feet for it. Etienne has more than adequate burst to threaten the edge of a defense and punish loaded the box, when they aren’t very disciplined with contain responsibilities. And once he clears the first wave of defenders, you really have to watch out, because we have seen him run away from the pursuit and finish big runs in the opposing end-zone time and time again. However, when he does face contact, he keeps those legs churning constantly and is just tough to slow down, because he has excellent contact balance, which leads to a multitude of defenders slipping off him. Even when he has to pull those legs out of the grasp of a tackling attempt, he quickly regains his footing.

You can argue that this former Clemson star is the most dangerous player in this whole draft once he enters the second level. If there is an open hole, he will explode through it and there is a good chance nobody gets a clear shot at him, because he hits it at full speed and arm tackles won’t slow him down a whole lot either. Etienne’s yards after contact and broken tackle numbers – just like his “normal” stats – are just absurd. In 2019, he forced 91 missed tackles and 5.7 yards AFTER contact, to go along with a broken tackle per attempt rate of 0.44 – the best mark by any player since 2014, according to PFF. When Etienne catches a little check-down over the middle against zone coverage, those defenders coming up, end up seeing the back of his jersey on many occasions, because he bursts through that crease between them. That’s very much the same on screen passes, where having to engage with blockers can already be a death sentence for the defense. After only catching 17 combined passes his first two years for the Tigers, Etienne’s receiving production saw a huge rise these last two years, with 85 combined catches for 1020 yards.

However, the majority of that came on screens and dump-offs and while Etienne has improved in that area, he still has somewhat inconsistent hands. In pass-pro, his eyes tend to go down when initiating contact and he doesn’t consistently land those hands inside the chest of the defender. His speed was the biggest difference in getting away from defenders in college and he will carry that to the next level, but he isn’t necessarily a very creative open-field runner, who actually makes defenders miss, I thought the Notre Dame game last year really showcased Etienne’s weaknesses, as the Fighting Irish held him to 28 yards on 18 carries (plus some work in the check-down game). He could not create a lot individually and was asked to change directions in tight quarters, as the Irish tried to take him away primarily. Often he is too eager in his approach of the line of scrimmage or to bounce outside and I don’t see top-tier translation of information from head to feet. He also has eight career fumbles, which really became a problem his senior year, when half of those occurred, as he rocks that ball a lot.

Don’t get me wrong – Etienne is a special talent and if used accordingly, he can be a lethal weapon in the pros. He is a really good pure inside/outside zone and power runner, where he is a home-run threat if you give him an open lane. With that being said, I just don’t think he quite has the individual ability of some other guys we have seen at the top of the board in recent years. Don’t take that 4.4 flat he just ran at his pro day too serious, because he played at a good five pounds lighter and will be among the fastest guys in the whole league from day on. Yet, he won’t be able to take advantage of that area of his game, if he doesn’t continue to work on his ability to process information in harmony with his lower body.

 

 

3. Javonte Williams, North Carolina

5’10”, 220 pounds; JR

Once only a three-star recruit, Williams has increased his production every year and had one of the most fun 2020 seasons of any college back. After some limited time as a freshman, Williams went for just over 1100 scrimmage yards and 16 TDs on 183 touches in 2019. And that went to for 1445 yards on 7.9 yards per touch, to go with a ridiculous 22 touchdowns last year. Even more impressive is that he put up those numbers despite being part of a true one-two punch with teammate Michael Carter Jr., whose name will come up momentarily.

First of all, Williams presents a really solid build and is arguable the most physical players in this entire draft. He runs with low pads and high knees, really pulling those legs through contact, where thanks to his strong lower body, he has guys slip off him routinely, plus he will re-gain his balance after stumbles on plenty of occasions. He will make his presence felt by dropping the shoulder on an awaiting defender and if guys try half-hearted wraps, that results in yards after contact. Plus then he has one of the best dead-legs in the country to change things up. Williams uses that off-arm well to pull through and stiff-arm defenders. He will slip through some small openings and come out of a pile without anybody seeing him on the broadcast. That makes him a specialist for short-yardage situations on third and fourth down, while also clearly having a nose for the end-zone. Williams does a good job of peaking one way behind a block and then bending it the other way, once he gets the defender to commit. He has superb vision and ability to force second-level defenders to leverage themselves too much. Yet, when he darts upfield and has to work through contact, he becomes a bowling ball. The way he literally tanks through defenders is just absurd. Like at times having three defenders in his way for a first down or touchdown, that have Williams perfectly leveraged, and that guy just goes through them – and his teammates, if necessary.

It might be that number 25, but Williams reminds me a little bit of Clyde Edwards-Helaire, thanks to the violence and overall style he runs with, averaging a stupid 4.6 yards after contact and forcing an FBS-best 75 missed tackles. And he was second among draft-eligible backs with 27 carries of 15+ yards. He had an absolutely ridiculous run against Miami in 2020 – on a day where he and his running mate Michael Carter Jr. racked up about 550 yards rushing combined – where he seemingly broke tackles from every single defender on the field. What really stands out is the way he can string moves together and integrate different aspects as a ball-carrier. In the pass game, he was targeted quite a bit on swing routes and he is a tough tackle out in the flats, for cheap yardage. If he was on any other offense, that didn’t have arguable the top receiving back in the class in Michael Carter Jr., he would have probably caught 40-50 passes. And as a protector, he has that sturdy base to swallow charging blitzers and plenty good footwork to stay in front of them, as they try to side-step him.

With that being said, Williams lacks that true breakaway speed and doesn’t necessarily explode through the hole, like some other guys can. He certainly benefited from being in a spread-oriented Tar Heel offense, with a lot of playmakers around him, which presented him with light boxes and made his punishing running style even more deadly. His skill-set does project well to the next level, but he really only run inside and outside zone from shotgun alignment, to go with some sweep-like plays. So he will have to learn how to use pulling linemen and his pace to make more gap-oriented schemes work. And I already made the ACC argument, while Williams had by far his worst game last season against the one good defense in Notre Dame – 11 carries for 28 yards.

I think everybody out there has Najee Harris and Travis Etienne numbers one and two in either order. I feel equally as strong about who the next name up is. There is really not much to find on tape that discourages me about Williams. He is not a true burner, but most of my question marks are about what he wasn’t asked to do and how much he benefited from being in that UNC offense. I think Williams could fit in any system, but would be best-suited for a zone-run based offense, where he can build up momentum, make that one cut and bring the thunder.

 

 

4. Michael Carter Jr., North Carolina

5’8”, 200 pounds; SR

Only a three-star recruit despite being named Florida’s Offensive Player of the Year, Carter increased his production every single year with the Tar Heels. In 2019, he just cracked 1000 rushing yards on 177 carries and scored five TDs. As a senior, he put up over 1500 scrimmage yards and 11 touchdowns in just 11 games, averaging a stupid eight yards per carry. All despite splitting touches pretty much even with teammate Javonte Williams, who I just stated, to me inarguably is a top three back in this class.

Before anything else, this guy is so tough to find behind that big O-line. Carter is very patient with setting up his blockers, kind of hopping in the backfield and then sneaking through gaps once something opens up. In the open field, he is very shifty and wins a ton of one-on-one tackling situations. He is so tough to really square up, because of the body-language, where he may dip or jab one way but then run the other, the head-fakes he uses and how he changes up gears. Carter’s start-stop quickness is as good as it gets among this group of backs, which helps him manipulate the back-seven and then make them be wrong with the side they are shaded towards as they engage with blockers. He can plant off either leg, to kind of bend around backfield penetration. And while he may not be as big or powerful as his running mate in the backfield, for his stature, he breaks way more tackles than you’d expect, whether it’s being able to kind of duck underneath tacklers or spinning off contact for a few extra yards, to an average of 4.5 yards in 2020. Last year, the consistency was there, with only two games of under 80 scrimmage yards (and none under 60), and he also had those monster games, like rushing for over 300 yards on 24 carries against Miami, in his final collegiate performance. That included 29 runs of 15+ yards on the season.

Carter was also a huge factor in North Carolina’s passing game, where he caught 25 of 30 targets last year and only had one drop, to go with eight missed tackles forced after the catch. He ran a ton of outside zone fakes leading directly into flat routes, where he became the outlet receiver, but then beat the defense on angle routes to counter off that and we have seen him get involved downfield on wheel routes, especially when they get him matched up against a linebacker. When he is asked to stay in protection, he shows great urgency and quickness to put his body in position to pick up blitzers, who he approaches with low hands and tries to lift up, to slow down their momentum or guide them past the quarterback, if they attack too aggressively upfield. Williams looked so spry throughout Senior Bowl week, where defenders just tap the ball-carrier usually, but that first guy still mostly didn’t even touch him. You saw the natural ability as a receiver on multiple occasions and he didn’t get run over in pass-pro drills. If there was full contact, I think Carter would have ripped off at least two or three 20+ yard runs each day and you saw him hit that extra gear several times, while driving the pile about five yards into the end-zone for a big touchdown in the actual game.

It is tough to project a guy, who on good days probably only comes in at 200 pounds, gain as much yardage after contract going up against pros, as he just did last season. None of the ACC defenses – maybe outside of Notre Dame, who isn’t a usual member of the conference – presented a big challenge in 2020 and those UNC backs took advantage of that in a major way. While this isn’t really a concept the NFL still follows, I don’t see Carter as a lead-back for a run-heavy offense. I also think he could be a little more aggressive with cuts to the backside (on zone run plays). While he technically does a good job as a pass-protector, the lack of mass will make things more difficult at the next level.

While there is some separation after the top three among this group in my opinion, Carter could be a major value pick in the middle of day two. He has the vision and skill-set to run inside and out and to me, he is top receiving back in the draft. He would be best served to once again be paired up with more of a power back and have his skill-set maximized, by utilizing him as a space-player, even though he won’t shy away from banging into bodies at the line.

 

 

5. Trey Sermon, Ohio State

6’0”, 215 pounds; SR

Sermon started his career at Oklahoma and immediately became an impact performer for the Sooners. His first two years in Norman, he racked up just over 2000 yards and 20 touchdowns on 316 touches. As a junior he barely touched the ball, due to Kennedy Brooks getting the majority of the work and him being banged up, before transferring to Ohio State for his final year of eligibility. I actually wasn’t really impressed by anything I saw from Sermon in his one short Big Ten regular season, but then he just went off in the conference championship game, on a day where Justin Fields could not really get anything going through the air, setting a school and Big Ten title game record with 331 rushing record with two TDs versus Northwestern, with almost 200 of those yards coming after contact. And then totaled 254 scrimmage yards against Clemson in the CFP semifinal, to send them to the Natty, where he unfortunately got hurt on the first series already.

Sermon offers an excellent combination of light feet and power. He is slicing-type of runner, whose legs never stop moving and he understands how to initiate contact. When he can build up momentum, he can run away or through defenders. You see him bounce or spin off several hits and at times even slip through contact, when getting hit from both hides. Sermon doesn’t make a lot of dramatic moves, outside of a few jump-cuts to get out wide or that little one-two step to get defenders to hesitate and beat them around the edge, but rather he uses subtle shifts to his running path, to limit the area defenders can attack, without really losing any speed. What makes him so unique is the mobility in his hips, as you see his legs swing really far outside his frame in any direction, yet he still keeps his balance. He is shifty enough to make people miss in the open field, but also runs with enough explosion behind his pads to go through a defender on his way, because when he lowers the shoulder on you, you feel it. What I really appreciate about Sermon’s game is that he plays fast through his cuts and doesn’t lose a lot of time working around defenders thanks to very efficient footwork. And he has a very inept feel for kicking his feet up when people try to attack them and using that off-arm very well, to kind of chop down the arms of tacklers trying to dive at him.

This former Sooner and Buckeye loves the outside zone game and split zone in particular, which was like 90 percent of what the Buckeyes ran during that three-game “playoff” stretch, until he got hurt very early in the National Championship game. Sermon forced 56 missed tackles on just 164 carries in 2018 and then forced missed tackle rate of 0.33 per rush attempt in 2019 was right in line with Chiefs first-round pick Clyde Edwards-Helaire. The total numbers weren’t quite there because of the shortened Big Ten season last year, but he broke an incredible 24 tackles on 60 attempts between the conference title and CFP semifinal game. Sermon wasn’t used a whole lot in the pass game, but looks like a natural catcher when he has gotten the chances, whether it’s dealing with different ball-placement on swing routes or working down the sideline. His physicality is also apparent when protecting the quarterback, bringing a ton of thump when picking up charging linebackers and stopping them dead to rights at times. He is most effective in that area using cut-blocks, where he actually sends rushers flying.

Bringing those guys with an upright running style is always a little concerning and I don’t think this guy has top-tier speed. Sermon is a little too much locked in on going downhill in spots, where the defense is caved in and there’s an opportunity to bounce out wide. While he does break a lot of tackles, when he is in full-steam ahead mode, when a defender gets a clean shot at him in the hole, he doesn’t get out of it a whole lot. In pass-pro, his arms aren’t always ready to shoot, having them too low and wide, which exposes his chest and leads to him being knocked backwards, into the quarterback’s lap, at times. And as hot as Sermon was to end his college career, there was about a year-and-a-half period where he very quiet, due to multiple factors, and when did have success, it was running behind two offensive lines, that were loaded with NFL talent.

With that being said, I still believe Sermon is one of the more complete backs in this class and just a very natural runner. He best fits a zone-heavy offense, that offers him those cutback opportunities with sift blocks, and features him in run-after-catch situation, where he can keep moving. Despite being a four-year contributor in college, Sermon doesn’t have a ton of track on his tires, only logging 455 career carries and he hasn’t fumbled the ball since October of 2018. From five to eight you can argue a lot of different ways, but I think this young man is the most pro-ready, even though teams will want to make themselves very familiar with his medical history.

 

 

6. Kylin Hill, Mississippi State

5’10”, 215 pounds; SR

Once a four-star recruit, Hill basically doubled his rushing yards from years one to three, until he opted out three games into the COVID-affected 2020 season (leaving the field after just one carry in that third one). Hill won the starting job from Aeris Williams in 2018 (who was coming off a 1250-yard season), because of how much more of a dynamic ball-carrier he was. As a sophomore starter, he averaged 6.3 yards per carry and reached the end-zone eight times, before he put up career-highs in 2019, with 1530 total yards and 11 touchdowns, still averaging 5.6 yards per rush in the SEC, making second-team all-conference.

This guy has a nice bounce to his step, as he reads and sets up his blockers, utilizing hop steps and sudden bursts, while being able to slither through tight creases. I love how he reduces his shoulders and dips away from defenders, combined with the superb hip mobility that allows him to make those hard cuts and also pivot off the inside foot. Hill has good burst to get through the second level untouched or turn the corner consistently. That was utilized at Mississippi State, by using him as the outside element on invert veer plays. Once he gets into open space, he can really freeze defenders with the way he stops his feet and then re-accelerates. Often times you will see him get defenders to open their hips towards the sideline and then use a little side-jump to get underneath and back upfield. Those hesitation moves make him a very unique ball-carrier, which includes something you could call the ”lazy leg”, where it looks like he just kind of left that foot behind. And he can utilize spins and jukes to get out of the grasp of potential tacklers. With that being said, Hill is far from being a finesse player. He has excellent contact balance and keeps himself alive through big hits routinely. When he has to take a tackler head-on, you see him pull his pads through contact and kind of shrug off defenders that way. And he uses that off-arm with great timing and placement, to kind of push himself off defenders and seemingly gain speed. He dropped the shoulder on a Kentucky defender at the sideline last year and that guy went straight to his back.

Hill only carried the ball 15 times last year, but caught 23 passes for 237 yards in those two games he actually contributed in, as part of Mike Leach’s Air-Raid offense, which would have probably turned him into even more of a star. That included an 80-yard touchdown in the season-opener versus LSU, where the defense lost him on a wheel route thanks to a coverage bust, as nobody trailed him on a motion and then he forced a missed tackle by the free safety at the sideline, to cash it in. Hill was very advanced with his route-running at MSU, actually working downfield as a primary on wheels and even deep corner routes. He is absolutely filthy on angle routes, with a dynamic cut back underneath the defender and that also allows him create nice separation on option patterns. However, I also absolutely love the work he puts in as a pass-protector for what really is a smaller back. He is so patient at sitting down in his stance and initiating contact with approaching blitzers with good flexion in his knees and timing. Yet, not only does he have the lateral movement to slide in front of defenders, but also the quickness to work across the formation to pick them up. He also dished out a few monster blocks when leading the way for his quarterback. And he received a lot of delayed touches on shovel screens and draws.

The thing that jumps out right away about Hill physically is that he has a very thin torso, even though he shows good muscle in lower body. As much as I like his game, I don’t envision him carrying the ball 20+ times a game at the pro level more than every once in a while. And while he does get around plenty of defenders, he gives up a lot of ground when doing so and actually loses quite a bit of space in the process, which will result in more negative plays against NFL speed. You can argue that he is kind of a one-speed runner. The receiving production is there and there’s certainly stuff that very intrigues me with his as a route-runner, but he surprisingly really struggled catching the ball on swing routes, when it wasn’t put right on him and his approach of trying to cradle the ball seemed very odd to me.

While Hill is certainly on the slim slide in terms from his hips up, he has a dense lower body, which enables him to churn out yards through contact. When I went back to watch the type and really analyzed him individually on every play, I came away much more impressed than I thought I would be initially. I don’t envision him being a true feature back, but he could be a very productive player as part of a one-two punch, where he could be an above-average option on third downs as soon as he steps on the field – which is very rare for a rookie. Hill also didn’t fumble in three years as a starter and last put the ball on the ground mid-way through his freshman year – that’s 468 touches since then.

 

 

7. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis

5’11”, 190 pounds; RS SO

After barely seeing the field his true freshman season and qualifying for a redshirt, Gainwell (former three-star recruit) had a huge second season, with 2069 scrimmage yards and 16 touchdowns on 282 touches, despite Antonio Gibson getting some work from the backfield and Patrick Taylor being part of the mix, when he was healthy. Memphis’ number one guy opted out of the 2020 season and now enters the draft with only one season of production, but a lot of things that intrigue scouts on his tape.

While Gainwell appears small when you first look at him, he has thick and powerful thighs. He can translate speed vertically super-well on those one-cut schemes and displays great explosion through the hole. The former Tiger also pivots off that inside foot a lot to set up cuts, rather than actually having to throttle down and lose time. He does a good job of setting up lead-blockers, by utilizing reduced footwork and nodding that direction, to open up a lane underneath, while using that second arm to feel and sort of guide his teammate a little bit. When one of his blockers is tightly engaged at the line, he has a violent jump-cut to get around the action, but can also side-step past it. And you see him utilize the spin move to get away from trouble on several occasions. For a sub-200 pound back, Gainwell survives a lot of hits thanks to the power in his quads and the contact balance, plus he keeps those legs driving through collisions and routinely pulls them out of the grasp of defenders. And on stiff-arms, he attacks the shoulder-pads of approaching defenders, to keep them away from his legs. When he does get tripped up, he consistently falls and squirms forward for extra yardage.

What makes Gainwell a special prospect are his abilities as a space player, consistently showing a plan and effectively working around defenders with dynamic cuts, where he uses that off-arm to swing through for extra momentum and balance himself. His creativity is what put a lot defenders on their heels. Gainwell has experience moving out wide and actually running go routes, plus a few hitches, and he really could play slot receiver full time, where he is used on a lot of out routes and bubbles, but also run inside fades and even corner routes at times. And when the ball is in his hands, he knows what to do with and doesn’t waste any time trying to scan the field. Gainwell took a lot of delayed handoffs and burned linebackers dropping out, by just knifing through the middle. And on top of it, he was part of a lot of split-back sets in 2019 with Antonio Gibson and Patrick Taylor, where he did a good job of pinning defenders inside of putting hands on people in space, when leading the way as a blocker. He absolutely destroyed Tulane, with just 300 scrimmage yards and three touchdowns, including an incredible back-shoulder catch on a go ball from the outside.

With that being said, Gainwell will not offer a whole lot as a pass-protector, where he takes his eyes down as he engages contact and simply doesn’t have the ability to anchor down versus charging blitzers. Those size concerns limit the amount of touches he can probably handle at the next level overall, being looked at as more of a change-of-pace option for some teams potentially. And as much experience as he has as a receiver, his catching technique can be a little inconsistent and he shows some lacking concentration on downfield routes at times. While his creativity as a space-player makes him very intriguing, he gets a little too fancy at times with his moves and is too focused on hitting the home-run at times. Plus, of course you always have to take the success running backs have had in that Memphis offense with a grain of salt, because of how much space they give those guys to work with. Gainwell also put the ball on the ground three times in 2019.

There’s some analysts out there, who have Kenny Gainwell as the next guy up after that top three. That seems a little rich to me, because I question how cleanly his style of running will translate to the next level. Still, with how dynamic he is in space and the versatility he could present for a team, I think he is well worth of a third-round pick. You have to consider that he’s really only had one season, where he got to touch the ball regularly at the collegiate level, and while he might not be able to add a ton to his frame, his young body will benefit from entering an NFL training program.

 

 

8. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State

6’0”, 210 pounds; RS JR

This kid came to Stillwater as a three-star recruit, weighing in at just 190 pounds. Hubbard has since put a ton of work in at the weight room and became one of the more solidly built backs in the country, who really put it on the field in 2019. As only a redshirt sophomore, he led the nation with 2094 rushing yards and scored 21 touchdowns, on 6.4 yards per carry, earning First-Team All-American honors. He decided to return to school for his junior year, which really damaged his draft stock, as his rushing average dropped to 4.7 yards and he put up less than 700 scrimmage yards and six touchdowns in seven games. However, he was fighting through a banged up ankle and still has plenty of talent to offer.

Hubbard shows excellent vision and burst through the hole. He has that ability to stay patient, does a nice job of spotting and avoiding penetration in the backfield with his short-area quickness, heavily utilizing jump-stops, without too much wasted movement or time to allow pursuit defenders to take him down from behind. I also like how he really attacks the edge of defenders on more outside-oriented runs, whether it’s setting his teammates up with easy blocks, or going underneath the them with a side-step. What makes Hubbard very intriguing as a one-cut zone-type runner is not just the burst to get around the edge, but more importantly the momentum he can build up, as he continues to work front-side, and even if defenders work over the top of blocks, to get a hand on the running back, he can run through those arm-tackles like it’s a turnstile. At the same time, he consistently punishes poor backside discipline and linebackers that overrun their fits. And then what made him a home-run threat at the collegiate level was that explosiveness and the track speed he presents, more than capable of ripping off 70-yard touchdowns consistently. As a sophomore in particular, you saw him erase angles towards the sideline and gain ground on some of the fastest athletes in the Big XII time and time again.

While Hubbard was more of a change-of-pace guy his freshman year, he has been a workhorse for Oklahoma State, carrying the ball 19+ times in all but one game in ’19 and all but the final two games last season, when he was really only out there trying to tough it out at times. The two games that really stood out to me for Hubbard in his breakout sophomore campaign were against TCU, when he averaged over 11 yards on 20 carries, while they only attempted 15 passes as a team, and then against a ranked Kansas State team, on a day where the Cowboys’ quarterback struggled a bit, while Hubbard got several chunk plays to put the game away and amassed almost 300 yards on the ground. This guy can also create big plays when you throw him the ball underneath, especially on flat routes. Hubbard can deal with different ball-placement and is quick to turn upfield, as well as diagnose defenders in his way. And he is sneaky with the way he slips out on screen passes and then is very dangerous with a convoy out in front

Unfortunately, Hubbard did not nearly look as explosive in 2020. Because of his lack of success, you saw him be too eager and run himself into some trouble, while his teammate L.D. Brown looked like the more dynamic option out of the backfield at times, plus they had another back go for over 500 scrimmage yards. Add to that, Hubbard really only ran zone, draws and screens, to go along with a few power plays in 2020 and as far as his work in the receiving game goes, other than running guys off for his teammates on wheel routes, there was nothing happening downfield or any option routes over the middle, with only eight catches last season. In protection, he kind of coasts around and often wasn’t even asked to pick anybody up on those half-hearted run fakes OSU used, but when he did have to, he didn’t really engage with those rushers either. Something that I don’t like about Hubbard working through contact, is that he doesn’t really pull those knees up and when he breaks tackles, it’s more about defenders bouncing off his thick thighs, while you also see him get tripped up quite a bit, because he doesn’t get those feet out of the trash. Maybe most important, he doesn’t always protect the ball well enough when he makes his cuts, as he uses that carrying arm to swing through, which resulted in 11 career fumbles in 33 games and 585 carries.

I’m very much on the side of believing the 2020 version Hubbard was limited with that ankle injury and that explosiveness doesn’t simply disappear. I like the way he can operate through traffic and if he is utilized in a Kyle Shanahan-type offense, he has the potential to become a superstar. However, the lack of value on third downs, ability to break through open space as regularly at the next level and the ball-security give me pause here. So I think in the right system, he can be very effective, but he needs to take better care of the rock and be paired with more of a passing-down back.

 

 

9. Jermar Jefferson, Oregon State

5’10”, 215 pounds; JR

After coming onto the scene with a bang, racking up over 1500 yards and 12 TDs from scrimmage as a freshman, this former three-star recruit was banged up for large stretches of his second year, but still went for 770 scrimmage yards and ten touchdowns. Jefferson’s best per-game numbers however actually came last year, when he went for 925 total yards and seven scores on just 142 touches, playing in six of the Beavers’ seven games, including the key role in an upset win over in-state rivals Oregon, who were ranked in the top ten at that point.

Jefferson is one of the most natural runners in this draft class. When you break his tape down frame-by-frame, there’s a lot of integrated elements to his game. He does such a good job of veering around defenders and reducing the surface area to hit with side-steps and pulling away his shoulders. He presses the hole with great conviction and then gets on the other side of the block with well-coordinated jump-cuts, plus when the defense is pinned inside, he has enough burst to get to the edge. Jefferson really excels at setting up defenders and making those subtle shifts on the move, to make them miss. Something you see him do all the time is have his whole body pointed one way and then transition upfield in one step, while leaning away from would-be tacklers. What enables him to do that is his body control and the way he uses that off-arm to correct himself and keep balance. However, when he does drop that shoulder on an awaiting defender, he brings the thunder and drives forward, plus he pulls through nicely when guys try to arm-tackle him from the side. When the former Beaver finds himself in traffic, he often times keeps himself alive by kicking those legs up or bouncing off contact, to go with lateral steps, to find daylight. And when he is actually going to the ground, he often times surges forward by trying to push off the ground.

Overall, I just thought Jefferson looked like a more dynamic ball-carrier in 2020, after I saw him as more of a power back coming into the year, which was illustrated by touchdown runs of 75+ yards in consecutive weeks, including an 82-yard on the very first offensive snap of the Oregon game, in which he was the biggest reason the Beavers were able to pull off the upset. The Stanford game was the only one, where he actually didn’t crack the 100-yard mark. This past season, he was also used more to bind defenders on bubble and swing screen fakes. While OSU didn’t throw the ball a whole lot of to their backs, you saw at times what Jefferson can do with momentum built up, burning quite a few angles as he got into open space. In an increased role as a check-down role, he could a very productive player. Jefferson was also pretty effectively in chip-and-release duties, where could become a problem to pick up late for linebackers.

With that being said, Jefferson only had nine catches in each of the last two years (15 games overall). He doesn’t seem to be the most natural pass-catcher and takes his eyes off the ball too quickly, resulting in a few drops. That’s why you saw him get taken off the field for the majority of third downs these last two years. He is also a little too loose with the ball, when it is in hands. He pushes that elbow forward too much when entering traffic and needs to do a better job of shielding the ball from punching arms, which resulted in three fumbles in 2020 (even though he did touch the ball 142 times over a relatively short stretch). And as a pass-protector, his positioning and engagement is actually pretty solid, but he needs to roll those hips through contact and actually stun blitzers, rather than just bump them as they approach.

I don’t love doing player comps and I don’t want to say their game is totally alike, but Jefferson to me is kind of the Zack Moss of this draft. I say that in terms of how natural a runner he is, setting up blockers and operating through traffic without a lot of wasted movement. I don’t think he is quite as good as Moss was coming out of Utah a year, but Jefferson has much less injury of an history. I think he pretty scheme-diverse, but doesn’t have the ceiling to be a superstar necessarily and I would need to a personal workout to evaluate how much of a factor he can be in the receiving game.

 

 

10. Khalil Herbert, Virginia Tech

5’9”, 205 pounds; RS SR

A former three-star recruit, Herbert’s only Power Five offer came from Kansas. After four years with the Jayhawks, where he was never the workhorse, because he had Pooka Williams in front of him on the depth chart, and going down with injury after four games as a senior, Herbert decided to add on another year as a graduate transfer. Throughout his time at KU, he totaled 1853 scrimmage yards and 14 touchdowns in 35 career games. However, when he came to the Hokies, he took his game to a completely new level, recording 1362 scrimmage and nine TDs on 7.6 yards per carry and slightly more than that per reception.

Herbert is a very elusive big-play back and one of the very few who seems to have equal energy and speed 40+ yards downfield. He can make those 90-degree cuts upfield in the wide zone game in one fluid motion and turn on the burners as he gets downhill. However, you also see him put different footwork together on the fly. Herbert has superb ankle flexibility to open up, curve and cut off either foot and be very creative with his sequence of steps. He shows urgency in his approach to the line of scrimmage on downhill runs, but on more lateral concepts, he can also be very patient with letting blocks develop and then hitting downfield when defenders are shaded to one side. And often times he dictates where the defender will go, by nodding to the inside and getting the defender pinned on that side of a block, while he works towards the sideline or setting them up by attacking the outside edge and then sliding underneath. If he sees the play-side linebacker leveraged too far inside or the edge defender peaking that way on zone runs. Herbert will bounce out wide and beat them around the corner. And once he gets to daylight, he has the pure speed to defeat angles, can kind of swerve through defenders with those subtle shifts his running path or make them stop their feet with stutter steps.

I really like how consistent Herbert is with keeping that ball high and tight, which resulted in only one career fumble on 509 total touches. During Senior Bowl week, he not only showed that he can get skinny through the hole and then shoot out of it, but among others, he put Ohio State linebacker Turf Borland on his back in pass-pro, despite giving up almost 40 pounds on him. He is far from perfect in that regard, but shows the willingness to surrender his body to stop blitzers from getting to the quarterback, and while the production in the pass game is rather underwhelming, there are no glaring issues with his ability to catch the ball, while being a dangerous threat on screen passes, with a convoy in front of him. So I think he will only grow in that area, as he enters the pros.

On the flipside, a power element is certainly lacking from Herbert’s game. When he has built up momentum, he can pull that shoulder through and defeat arm-tackles, but he won’t get away from any head-on collisions or drive for additional yardage through contact consistently. And he doesn’t quite have that instant acceleration to get himself into open space if a lane doesn’t open up wide enough. Considering that he will be looked at as more of a space-player by most NFL teams, it’s kind of worrying he only caught 34 passes in his entire collegiate career, with ten last year being the most of any season. And while he does show a willingness to stand in there in pass-protection, he doesn’t do so with great success, mostly being limited to initial contact, before rushers can shrug him off.

There’s a lot to like about what we saw from Herbert last season. With 782 yards after contact and 19 carries of 15+ yards, he was the second-most productive back coming out of the ACC behind only Travis Etienne – and there wasn’t much of a gap. I believe he would be best served as part of a one-two punch for an offense that features a lot of wide zone. His amount of touches at the next level will highly depend on how much he can develop as a pass-catcher and contribute in that area, but I like his skill-set to translate much more cleanly than the guy who took the majority of touches at Kansas in Pooka Williams, whose vision and ability to set up blocks isn’t nearly at the same level.

 


 

Just missed the cut:

 

Javian Hawkins, Louisville

5’9”, 195 pounds; RS SO

And speaking of productive ACC backs – after only logging three touches as a freshman, Hawkins exploded for 1525 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in year two and went for almost another 1000 and eight scores last season as a redshirt sophomore.

He is certainly a little undersized, but has a low center of gravity, is very shifty laterally and finds way through small opening. Hawkins has the burst to get the edge routinely, to go with the long speed to finish runs in the end-zone. You see that explosion, where for most guys the would get taken down from the side, but he rips off a chunk play, Hawkins excels in the outside zone run game and keeps vision all the way to the backside, where he does an excellent job of pointing the toe to make that one hard cut upfield. The start-stop quickness is pretty absurd and with his rapid footwork, it is often times tough for defenders to read what he is doing. However, I appreciate how there is no dancing in the backfield and how willing he is to run in-between the tackles. When he gets to the second, he brings a ton of juice and can make those hard cuts across the grain, plus he loves the spin move in one-on-one situations, but he also sort of bends and pivots off either foot very well, which he combines with dipping the shoulder away from defenders. Hawkins breaks a lot more tackles than you’d expect for a guy his size, as he pulls his knees up high and keeps his pads over them. And you see him kick those legs up high, to avoid being tripped up by diving tackling attempts, I love the way Hawkins throws his body around in protection, where he doesn’t shy away from putting hands on defensive tackles even. Plus he uses good technique on cut-blocks, where he works across the legs of charging blitzers,

Hawkins had a 75-yard house call against Pitt in 2020, but was bottled up the rest of the day, finishing with 79 yards on the ground and a fumble. And while he only fumbled once during his 2019 season, in the other nine career games and 152 touches, he put the ball on the ground four more times. That’s in large part because it swings too far away from his body. More importantly, despite his size indicating he’s a scat-back, Hawkins has only caught 20 passes over these last two years. That doesn’t mean he can’t do it and I didn’t necessarily see anything alarming in that regard, but it makes you question why a coaching staff wouldn’t put the ball in the hands of such a dynamic player in space and get him more involved in the screen game. And even though he definitely runs hard, you see Hawkins just go straight to the ground, when he gets smacked from the side.

So I think Hawkins will be a high quality addition to a backfield, who offers a change of pace for the defense and can be a true home-run hitter. He was one of my favorites to watch and will be one of my favorites to follow for whoever grabs him on day three most likely.

 

Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma

5’11” ½, 230 pounds; SR

Despite being the RB3 behind Kennedy Brooks & Trey Sermon (who was lost for the rest of the season from November on), Stevenson went for over 500 yards and 6 TDs on 64 carries in 2019, averaging 8 yards a pop. With Brooks opting out last year, he took on lead-back duties and averaged 146 scrimmage yards, while reaching the end-zone seven times in the six games he played.

Stevenson is a wrecking ball when gets going downhill. He is quick to ID defenders flashing through a gap and adjusting his running lane, as he seems to be very comfortable operating in tight spaces and working around defenders. Often times you will see him spin off contact and give a nice burst, but he can also plant and bounce wide very well for such a big back. Stevenson understands how to hesitate just a little bit, to get a defender to one side of a block and open up a lane for himself the other way, and when he gets in the open field, he can really bring the thunder as defenders try to catch-tackle him. With the way opponents slip off him, you feel like somebody put grease all over him at times, plus he can also be deceptively shifty, in terms of side-stepping tacklers. While the total number isn’t overly impressive, catching 18 passes in just six games last year isn’t bad. Stevenson doesn’t let the pass come into his body and once he secures the catch, he has a good awareness for defenders around. As a pass-protector, he doesn’t shy away from engaging with big defensive linemen and then he has good take-on technique, paired with anchor strength, to pick up blitzers. He really stood in pass-pro drills against the linebackers during Senior Bowl week, where he squared those guys up, delivered a strong punch and shoveled his feet to stay in front. His running style definitely has a cumulative effect on the opponent and defenders at some point just don’t want to tackle this guy.

While Stevenson does bounce off a lot of hits, he needs to do a better job of getting his feet off the ground to get the, out of the trash. You see him get chopped down low on quite a few occasions. In terms of reading the blocking scheme, he is a little too eager to get going with a puller out in front and he has a tendency to bounce out wide when he sees one of his linemen being driven backwards, which doesn’t pair well with his limited burst, as he will be run down by too many scraping linebackers or D-linemen working around their blocks. And that also translates to his missing pull-away speed, as you see him get caught from behind by slow safeties and even linebackers routinely, as only 2.4 percent of his career carries at Oklahoma went for 30+ yards.

This is big boy with some juice. Stevenson is fun to watch in that Eddie Lacy-mold of player. However, we rarely see those guys have sustained success at the next level.  He doesn’t have great burst or long speed, but he does read defenses pretty well and has this quality of getting away from tacklers. If you already have a more dynamic option in the backfield and you’re looking for a short-yardage and power back as a complement, this is an intriguing name.

 

Demetric Felton, UCLA

5’8”, 200 pounds; JR

And finally, Felton redshirted his first year with the Bruins and then only touched the ball 37 times over the next two years as a wide receiver on the roster officially. In 2019, he caught 55(!) passes for 594 yards, to go with another 331 on the ground, with a combined five TDs, and last season he transitioned to more of a full-time RB role, when he reached the end-zone eight times in half as many games (six), but about 100 scrimmage yards less, with a 132-to-22 split between carries and receptions.

Felton became a stronger runner as a senior I felt like, breaking tackles and churning out yards after contact. He utilizes the spin move incredibly effective well to get away from defenders in the backfield and he can really take advantage of limited space, like shifting sideways right behind his blocker to slip through between him and a pursuit defender, plus he has to use his off-arm to keep distance to tacklers. Felton is very shifty when he gets to the open field and is kind of a unique mover, side-stepping or jumping-cutting around defenders, hesitating and beating defenders with sudden bursts. And he excels at stringing all those maneuvers together, while rarely allowing defenders to get a clear shot at him. When he can’t get out of it anymore, he has gotten much better at working those feet through wraps and extending himself forward. Felton caught a ton of angle and option routes, to go with clearing space with swings and wheels. The Bruins split him out wide and put him in the slot quite a bit. However, what has me this high on him is what I saw during Senior Bowl week, when he basically played receiver exclusively. He naturally got in and out of his breaks with great quicks to go along with effective head-fakes. Felton is kind of doing the invert Antonio Gibson transition and he could be a nightmare to cover, if you attack certain matchups with him.

However, Felton only carried the ball 234 times in his career and he is quicker than fast, illustrated by just eight carries of 18+ yards last season. He doesn’t really have the size or game to be an in-between the tackles lead-back, so his best position in the pros will probably be slot receiver and change-of-pace back. I don’t really trust Felton in short yardage situation, where he tries to make people miss when there’s penetration, rather than just taking his head down and trying to get past the marker. And there’s definitely a lot of sauce to his routes, to the point where it will be hard to sustain that in a timing-based passing attack.

This really comes down to the tweener or versatile weapon discussion. I don’t think Felton deserves to quite be in the top ten at running back or receiver, but I personally like the skill-set he presents a lot and he also returned some kicks for the Bruins, including a touchdown in 2019. I could see him being used more split out as a receiver early on and then move into the backfield more for passing downs, as he develops as a pass-protector.

 


 

The next names up:

Rakeem Boyd (Arkansas), Trey Ragas & Elijah Mitchell (Louisiana), Pooka Williams (Kansas), Chris Evans (Michigan), Jaret Patterson (Buffalo), Larry Rountree (Missouri) & C.J. Marable (Coastal Carolina)

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2 thoughts on “Top 10 running backs in the 2021 NFL Draft:

  1. Pingback: Top 10 linebackers in the 2021 NFL Draft: | Defy Life

  2. Pingback: Top 10 linebackers in the 2021 NFL Draft: | Halil's Real Footballtalk

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