NFL Draft

2021 NFL Draft Top 5 Running Backs

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The running back position isn’t the most notable in the 2021 NFL Draft class. It is full of depth, however, and has a variety of play styles that fit today’s game.

I wouldn’t take any of them on Thursday but we could see seven running backs fly off the board on day two. I can say with some confidence that all of my top five will be gone before the fourth-round begins on May 1st.

1. Travis Etienne, Clemson

Travis Etienne fits the mold of an every-down back at the NFL level. Measuring at 215-pounds at his Pro Day was a big win. He’s by no means the bowling ball type but that weight gives us confidence that he’ll be able to hold up against NFL contact.

The biggest concern with Etienne was his lack of production during the 2020 season. He seemed to disappear at times but there’s so much good tape to fall back on during the 2018 and 2019 seasons.

During his time in Clemson, Etienne was electric with the ball in his hands, both in space and between the tackles. He’ll be an every-down home run threat in the NFL and one of a handful of true number-one running backs.

2. Najee Harris, Alabama

Najee Harris is a bit of a physical marvel. There just aren’t many 6’ 2”, 230-pound people that can operate in a phone booth as he does. Harris has amazing feet and body control – those are his biggest assets.

He doesn’t always play up to his weight, though. Harris isn’t the type to create his own hole and doesn’t win consistently when he meets contact head-on. He also doesn’t have great long speed, though we’ll never have a number for him, as he chose not to run the forty-yard dash in either of Alabama’s Pro Days.

Still, Harris has found a way to use his frame and movement abilities to break tackles at an elite level. He can do it in space and in the hole. Harris is also one of the top receiving backs in this class. That’s a huge asset, given his size. Najee Harris is a rare breed.

3. Javonte Williams, North Carolina

Javonte Williams projects to a true workhorse role at the next level. He has the body type to absorb 15+ carries per game. The team that selects Williams would be wise to feed him that way, as he is the most talented ball-carrier in this draft class.

He doesn’t have much experience as a receiver, however. He did go over 200 receiving yards last year but unfortunately dropped three of his thirty targets. That won’t be his game at the next level.

Williams may have the best contact balance in the NFL, which will make him one of the top tackle breakers in the league. That was his calling card during a fantastic 2020 season that brought him out of obscurity. Williams’ 95.9 rushing grade from PFF was the best single-season performance that they’ve ever recorded by a running back at the college level.

4. Michael Carter Jr, North Carolina

Michael Carter Jr doesn’t have the size that you look for in an every-down running back, however, he projects to that role in the NFL. He has the feet and instincts that you need to operate any scheme at the running back position.

He adds value in the passing game as well, though there is room for him to expand on that part of his game with the right coaching. Carter doesn’t have the ceiling of the other backs in this draft class but I’m very confident in his ability to carve out a big role on day one.

5. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis

We only have one season of film on Gainwell – 2019. That was enough, though, to slot him in at #5 on my list of running backs. It would be a disservice, however, to call Gainwell a running back. He’s got serious receiving ability, and could even start at slot in a pinch.

Gainwell isn’t the prototypical running back but he still has plenty to offer at the position. He may be limited to a zone scheme but has talent that will translate to the NFL level. Just get the ball to Gainwell in space and let him do his thing.

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