Ranking the Top 7 Running Backs in the 2021 NFL Draftby Alex Barbour March 5, 2021 0 comments
The 2021 NFL Draft features a variety of running backs that fit every scheme. This list features the top 7 running backs for this class. From power runners to pure zone rushers, this group can fit any need on any team with great value. There is no Saquon Barkley of the group, but there is some amazing talent for the draft value. Let’s dive in.
1) Travis Etienne, Clemson
Etienne deserves his comparison to Alvin Kamara. He is elusive, sneaky, bursty, and he always is a home run threat. Etienne’s catching ability will be a major boost that will surely put him in contention for this number 1 spot on this list. Although he had a major slip up against Notre Dame in their first meeting this year (2.1 yards/ carry) and another versus Ohio State in the championship (3.2 yards/ carry), Etienne has shown on numerous occasions that he can handle a backfield well. In a running back by committee) role, he will surely be one of the most lethal and most valuable weapons that this class has to offer.
2) Javonte Williams, UNC
This will be a shocker to everyone. In the modern NFL, this notion of the running back committees has become extremely popular. Production-wise, Williams outperformed everyone on this list. He is an absolute animal with the ball in his hands not to mention that he is near impossible to bring down on first contact. Williams’s balance, burst, power, and vision combine with his comfortability in the committee role with Michael Carter in order to make him arguably the best prospect in the NFL. One more note: Williams has a lot of tread left on his tires: a lot more than the number 1 or 3 seed.
3) Najee Harris, Alabama
Harris may be the best day 1 back out of all running backs in this class. He has proven that he can be a 3 down back that can receive the ball very well as well. Harris’s talent is undeniable. This said, he has taken a lot of reps and a lot of hits. Harris may be able to take it better than anyone else, but it is something to keep in consideration. Another major issue with Harris (maybe not an issue but a potential issue) is the fact that he has never had to be the sole focus of a defense. Playing with the likes of Jaylen Waddle, DeVonta Smith, Jerry Jeudy, and others definitely can take the heat off of him. All of that included with the fact that he has had arguably the best offensive line in the country. This does not mean Harris is not good, but it does bring into question whether he really has played like he would in the NFL.
4) Michael Carter, UNC
After the top 3 drama, number 4 is easy. Carter is an absolute stud. He has great vision, amazing balance, and undeniable speed. Being Williams’s committee back, he too has been in a rotation system like the NFL’s. Carter’s main problem is that he is exclusively an outside zone runner. There are luckily many teams that cater to that approach. Carter will be a sneaky day 1 starter for many teams that utilize his correct scheme.
5) Kenneth Gainwell Memphis
Gainwell was ranked among the best running backs in the country when he played his redshirt freshman year. Being a COVID opt-out, the draft community never got to see the consistency from him year-to-year (to be completely correct he did play 29 snaps his true freshman year, earning an 84.2 PFF grade). Gainwell has shown great balance in being talented in both the run and pass game. Although he appeared to be outshined by star Antonio Gibson, there is a large amount of hype as to the projection for this young star.
6) Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State
Hubbard should have never opted to return to school. He was in the late first or early second-round conversations. Posting a 2000 yard season like it is nothing, people began to realize the potential of Hubbard in a scheme suited to his strengths. This year put the nail in his coffin. Hubbard played far worse this year which raised eyebrows (his PFF rating dropped 16.2 points), given the talent he demonstrated in the years prior. Hubbard may be able to turn it back around in the NFL. Only time will tell.
7) Javian Hawkins, Louisville
Under the condition that Demetric Felton is a wide receiver, Hawkins makes this list (to be fair, Felton would be placed at number 5 above Gainwell). His extreme speed and burst always keep a defense on its toes. With athleticism like he has, Hawkins will certainly garner attention from teams from around the league. No defensive coordinator wants to deal with Hawkins in any capacity any week. Watch out for a team to take him late day 2 in search for lightning to add to their thunder in the backfield.
Overall, this running back class has a load of great value. Whether it is Williams in the early second or Hawkins in the early fourth, any of the running backs described will provide a high upside option for a team in need. Even players like Jaret Patterson and Trey Sermon who did not make the list can certainly provide a solid rotational asset to any team. With running back in high demand (especially given their cheap contract), this year seems to be another that may sprout some high-level talent for years to come. In short, the talent in this running back class exponentially outweighs the 2020 class.