NFL Draft

2021 NFL Draft: ACC Running Backs

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Plenty of unknown for the Green Bay Packers’ 2021 season, and beyond. Cuts will be made and players will be added. The Packers will be active in the 2021 NFL Draft.

The Green Bay Packers’ future at the running back position is up in the air. The contracts of Aaron Jones, Jamaal Williams, Dexter Williams, and Tyler Ervin all expire after this season, and up to this point, we’ve seen no indication that any of them will be re-signed.

It’s hard to envision the Packers letting all four of them walk but it’s almost a guarantee that either Jamaal or Jones will be gone – the Packers can’t afford to pay two Pro-Bowl caliber running backs. Ervin has proven that he can be more than just a gadget player, but Dexter Williams hasn’t taken advantage of his opportunities. He seems destined for the practice squad.

The only running back we ‘know’ will be playing for the Green Bay Packers in 2021, is AJ Dillon. The Packers brought Dillon into the fold via the 2020 NFL Draft but he was drafted to lead the backfield in 2021, and beyond. His low usage this year shouldn’t surprise anybody.

Dillon won’t be able to handle 30+ carries a game, like he did for Boston College, so he’ll need help. The Packers have two choices – re-sign their current talent, or invest in the 2021 NFL Draft. Gun to my head – the Packers let at least two of them walk and scoop up a talented running back on day-three of the 2021 NFL Draft.

There are three running backs out of the ACC that have proven themselves worthy of playing for the Green Bay Packers on Sundays. While we’re all familiar with the perfectly silky blend of rush ability, receiving ability, and pass blocking ability that is Travis Ettiene, he is not the only running back in the ACC

Javien Hawkins, Michael Carter, and Khalil Herbert are all more than capable of producing at the NFL level. All three of these players should expect to hear their names called on day-three of the 2021 NFL Draft.

 

Javien Hawkins – Louisville, Sophomore(redshirt)

We all know Tutu Atwell. He’s an offensive weapon and one of the best athletes in the 2020 draft class. Whether he’s returning kicks, catching passes, or taking end-arounds, Atwell is electric with the ball in his hands. His lesser-known teammate, Javien Hawkins is similarly impactful.

While Hawkins may be the beneficiary of some stellar blocking in the run game – seriously watch the ‘all 22’ –  that doesn’t take away from what he brings to the table in the open field. While it’s rare to see Hawkins create his own space, it is impressive what he’s able to do with it.

Hawkins steals yards in the open field. At 5’ 9”, 196-pounds, you won’t see Hawkins run through defenders but he has an affinity for running around them and he always take on ‘half a man’. Hawkins sees the entire field and has great stop and start ability. Arguably his most impressive trait is his speed.

You will not see any reps where Hawkins is caught from behind but you’ll see plenty where Hawkins beats angles of speedy defensive backs. I expect him to run a sub-4.4 40 yard dash, come April. His combination of speed and shiftiness should remind Packer fans of Tyler Ervin.

That and size are about all the two have in common, as Ervin is known as much for his contributions in the passing game as in the run-game. Hawkins has not yet proven himself to be much of a threat as a receiver. He hasn’t yet figured out how to overcome his small stature and as a pass-blocker.

However, Hawkins is still young. He’s just a redshirt sophomore in his second season as a starter so there’s reason to believe that he can improve in those areas. Some may believe that Hawkins would benefit from staying in Louisville but as a running back, you have to get that money while you can. We all know about the lack of longevity at the position and I think Hawkins has already shown enough on film to be a guaranteed draft pick.

 

Michael Carter – North Carolina, Senior

Quarterback Sam Howell has received plenty of praise for the recent success of the UNC offense but it’s the pair of running backs that is really making this unit tick. Michael Carter and Javonte Williams form a dangerous two-headed monster for UNC, one that has amassed 2,150 yards from scrimmage and 24 touchdowns over the first eight games of the 2020 season.

Michael Carter is the lightning to Javonte Williams’ thunder. At 5’ 8”, 199-pounds, Carter hasn’t been tasked with goal-line carries – those belong to Williams – but Carter is averaging 7.0 yards per carry on the season, fourth-most in the conference.

With plenty of kick-return experience, Carter is adept at reading the entire field but he doesn’t miss what’s in front of him. There are plenty of plays where Carter looks like a victim of a TFL but he turns it into a positive play. He’s explosive enough to suddenly avoid contact at the NFL level. That brings me to Carter’s most dominant trait – explosion.

Come Combine season, I expect Carter to be near the top of the charts in the broad and vertical jump. That explosion helps Carter reach top-speed as quickly as anybody. His ability to stop and start on a dime is impressive. He partners that natural gift with an ability to manipulate potential tacklers with false steps. Carter can create an open field and take advantage of it.

The open field is where Carter does his best work. His forced missed-tackle rate is fourth among qualifying ACC running backs this year, via PFF, and those missed tackles often lead to big plays. Of Carter’s 116 carries this year, 19 of them have gone for 15+ yards, which is second in the conference to his teammate Williams.

Carter has enough long-speed to ‘house-it’ on any play but not the kind of speed that defeats angles on the perimeter. That’s one of two traits that are just average for Carter – the other is his pass-protection, though he’s improved that significantly from last year. He’s also improved quite a bit as a pass-catcher but I still wouldn’t call it a positive for Carter. He needs to cut back on the drops.

Carter has quite a bit in common with Javien Hawkins. The two are not only similar in size and play-style, but they also share similar pieces of criticism. Both players are small and lack receiving production – that will hurt them in the long run.

 

Khalil Herbert – Virginia Tech, Senior(redshirt)

Khalil Herbert is your traditional one-cut, downhill runner. At 5’ 9”, 212-pounds, Herbert is much bigger than Hawkins and Carter. He’s got an NFL frame and is well known for playing behind his pads. While Carter and Hawkins run around you, Herbert will run straight through you.

Herbert doesn’t seek out contact, however, he seeks out yards. His 8.2 yards per carry is second in the NCAA among qualifying running backs. Herbert may not be the kind of running back to consistently switch the field but he has a keen eye for what’s in front of him.

All Herbert needs is a small gap to turn it up upfield. When he sees it he shows a surprising combination of burst through the hole and ‘shake’ from inside of it. Herbert doesn’t have the same game-breaking speed of the other two in this article but he reaches full-speed in a hurry. This makes him one of the most dangerous runners between the tackles.

He’s less of a weapon in the passing game. Like Carter and Hawkins, Herbert hasn’t proven himself to be a reliable receiving threat. He does have a leg-up on the other two as a pass-blocker. While there is room for improvement, we don’t see Herbert having huge whiffs or altogether lacking interest.

Herbert does a great job of getting between his quarterback and the pass-rusher. He cut-blocks into the thigh board pretty well and always makes contact. He needs to do a better job using his hands instead of his pads. I wouldn’t trust Herbert right now to take beat an NFL pass-rusher one-on-one.

This is Herbert’s first year with the Hokies’ football program. He spent his first four years buried in the depth chart at Kansas before transferring to Virginia Tech as a grad student. In his short time there, he’s already set PRs in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns in a season. He was an after-thought in the scouting community prior to this season but is now very much on the radar. He made a wise choice in transferring to Virginia Tech.

 

All three of these ACC running backs have had success on the ground but none have made their mark as a receiver – they’ve combined for just 43 receptions on the season for 477 yards and 4 touchdowns. Carter and Hawkins are both under 200-pounds so there are serious concerns about what their impact might actually be at the next level.

Short story short… we need to see more in the passing game from all three of these young men before we’re ready to talk about day-two value. Still, they’re carving out a path for ACC running backs.

Five of the top-ten individual rushing yardage totals in the NCAA belong to ACC running backs and none of those players are named Travis Ettiene. We’ve seen limited play from quite a few teams this year, but that stat is impressive, nonetheless.

These ACC running backs of the 2021 NFL Draft class have started a legacy that should be carried on for a while. Javonte Williams and Kyren Williams of Notre Dame look more than capable of carrying the torch. They’ll have to thank Hawkins, Carter, and Herbert for leading the way. Look for those three to make some noise as we inch closer to the 2021 NFL Draft.

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