As the latest part of my series highlighting the upcoming 2021 NFL Draft, I’ll be taking a closer, in-depth look at this year’s crop running backs. I will dig into each prospect’s strengths, weaknesses, and other points of intrigue I’ve come across during my own scouting. I will also cover which teams I believe offer the prospect the best fit, the range where they could be drafted and a matching pro comparison based on their individual talents and attributes.
RB Najee Harris, Alabama, Senior
In a closely contested battle, Harris edges out the competition for the top running back prospect based on the threat he poses not only on the ground, but through the air as well. Harris is a more than capable receiver with sure hands that his new QB can come to rely on. Along with his prowess as a receiver comes an imposing 6’2” 230 pound figure that is sure to give any would-be tackler nightmares before game day. One of the few knocks I have against Harris is that he lacks the top end burst that lets him run away in the open field. Overall, Harris is a bruising power-back with the necessary finesse to be a threat in the passing game.
Biggest Strength: Versatility in the receiving game
Biggest Weakness: Big play athleticism in the open field
Best Fit: Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals
Pro Comp: Steven Jackson (St. Louis Rams 2004-2012)
Draft Projection: Early-to-Mid 2nd round
RB Travis Etienne, Clemson, Senior
Following an underwhelming senior season at Clemson, Etienne slides a bit down my list, but make no mistake Etienne still possesses the traits to become an elite running back at the next level. Etienne has used his time at Clemson to morph himself into more of a threat in the passing game after previously being an afterthought. Another trait that should make teams salivate is his incredible ability to make people miss in the open field, while also being a constant threat to take it to the house on nearly any play. I do have my concerns about Etienne’s spotty vision in the backfield, as well as his tendency to hunt for the big plays instead of sometimes taking what’s in front of him.
Biggest Strength: Top-end acceleration and playmaking ability
Biggest Weakness: Too much time spent looking for the home run play
Best Fit: Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Green Bay Packers
Pro Comp: Discount Le’Veon Bell (Pittsburgh Steelers 2013-2018)
Draft Projection: Mid-to-Late 2nd round
RB Javonte Williams, North Carolina, Junior
Williams offers a unique blend of athleticism and short area burst that lends himself excellently to breaking initial tackles and creating something out of nothing. Williams had an astounding 76 broken tackles, which roughly equates to him breaking every other tackle he faced this past season. Beyond his ability to make a defender miss, there is not really a glaring hole in Williams’ game. Simply put, he is very good at many aspects of being a running back, however, he is more a jack-of-all trades, master of none type of back that should provide stability and dependability for whatever team decides to take him. However, he lacks the true wow factor that some other prospects possess.
Biggest Strength: Initial burst and acceleration in the open field
Biggest Weakness: Lacks top end traits
Best Fit: Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Atlanta Falcons
Pro Comp: Discount LeSean McCoy (PHI Eagles 2009-2014)
Draft Projection: Late 2nd-to-Early 3rd round
RB Michael Carter, North Carolina, Senior
While sharing the backfield with his fellow NFL prospect Javonte Williams, Carter sets himself apart with his versatility in the passing game and his absurd ability to extend plays through sheer force of will. After averaging a mind-blowing 7.9 yards per carry this past season in Chapel Hill, Carter has the ability to hurt defenses in a variety of different ways. While sometimes lost in the shuffle, Carter’s capability as a receiver should not be overlooked. With only 1 drop this past season Carter offers QBs a great fail safe when a play goes south as he is a definite mismatch against opposing linebackers. One of the drawbacks in Carter’s game is underwhelming athleticism for a running back. His lack of top-end speed and burst could hurt him when it comes to outpacing NFL caliber defenders.
Biggest Strength: Tough to bring down in the open field
Biggest Weakness: Middling athleticism
Best Fit: Pittsburgh Steelers, Green Bay Packers, Seattle Seahawks
Pro Comp: Clyde Edwards-Helaire (KC Chiefs 2020)
Draft Projection: 3rd round
RB Khalil Herbert, Virginia Tech, Senior
Herbert offers a tantalizing array of traits from his ability to shake off arm tackles, to a unique skill set that allows him to be plugged in virtually anywhere within the offense. After gaining more recognition following his transfer from Kansas following the 2019 season, Herbert was able to showcase himself on a much larger stage. One of Herbert’s unique abilities is his proficiency in pass protection, as he is a well above average blocker at the position, which could lend him to seeing the field more often than other backs. Drawbacks with Herbert’s skillset are that he is more limited in the open field and his size worries me if he is asked to run between the tackles.
Biggest Strength: Shrugging off tackles
Biggest Weakness: Limited open field capability
Best Fit: Washington Football Team, Philadelphia Eagles, New York Jets
Pro Comp: Kerryon Johnson (Detroit Lions 2018-)
Draft Projection: 3rd-to-4th round
Late Round Potential Hidden Gems
RB Jaret Patterson, Junior, Buffalo (6th-7th Round)
While not exactly a household name, Patterson could find himself a role in which he can excel if the right team picks him up. Flashing the dual threat potential as a shifty runner and capable receiver, Patterson will have to battle to find his sticking spot at the next level. However, if he gets his opportunity, watch out as you may often hear his name come Sunday.
RB Jermar Jefferson, Junior, Oregon State (6th-7th Round)
Underrated as an every down back, Jefferson was one of the main catalysts in propelling the Beavers to success last fall. With his excellent vision and balance, Jefferson could carve himself out a nice more increased role as he hones his skill set to mask some of his shortcomings in the open field and in pass protection. Similar to Patterson, if drafted into the right situation, Jefferson could be an excellent value pick.
RB Rhamondre Stevenson, Senior, Oklahoma (4th Round)
While Stevenson undoubtedly has an NFL body at 6’0” 247 lbs, he leaves a lot to be desired in areas that should play well into his skill set. A liability in pass protection, it may be tough for Stevenson to find the field anywhere outside of the red zone and 3rd and short.
While not offering a surefire Round 1 talent this year, this group of backs can offer some great value for teams looking to pick up a reliable target in the passing game or a downhill smashmouth runner on Days 2 and 3 of the Draft. Tune in to my next installment of The Assembly Line where I dissect this year’s juicy crop of Wide Receivers.