2021 NFL Draft: Running Back Preview
Joey Cartolano breaks down the running back position of the 2021 NFL Draft class for dynasty, keeper and re-draft fantasy football leagues!
Running backs are the most fickle assets in dynasty fantasy football. In the moment, during the season, they can seem like the most important part of your roster due to the scarcity of truly productive players at the position. This is especially true in the age of committee backfields we live in now. Bell cow running backs that average 20-25 touches per game are much harder to find than they were 10 or 15 years ago, while the wide receiver position is flush with talent and opportunity across the league. This dynamic does give the truly special backs a significant amount of value, but as mentioned in my wide receivers write up, it’s important to remember the shelf life of a running back is much shorter than that of other positions in the NFL.
Look no further than Todd Gurley , who went from top five dynasty asset to essentially worthless in a two-year span. If you are going to invest in the running back position in dynasty, be it via rookie draft capital or trade, you better make sure that you are ready to compete now. Building your dynasty roster with running backs as your first priority will ultimately be a losing strategy in the long term unless you are a high-volume trader and capitalizing on their inflated in-season value. You should be building the core of your roster around wide receivers that you know will produce for a longer period of time, then push the chips in for young running backs on their rookie deals when you are sure your team is a contender. Counting on any predictability for a running back beyond their rookie contract is a fool’s errand outside of elite prospects.
While there is some solid talent at the top, none of the backs in this class are what you would call a generational talent. Additionally, there really isn’t much depth beyond the second-tier guys, who themselves have question marks. There are certainly some sleepers, but no one that particularly excites me with high upside potential beyond the top players listed. If you need running back this year, plan on addressing it early, but be weary outside of Tier 1. In theory, the lack of depth at running back should result in a lot of 2nd round rookie reaches, making the secondary tiers of receivers great value plays in that range. The running back position is inherently more dependent on landing spot and opportunity than others due to the nature of the position, which usually makes these rankings much more fluid pre-draft vs. post than other positions. I don't really see that happening this year, however, as there is a clear talent gap between Tier 1 and Tier 2 no matter where these guys land.
1) Najee Harris, Alabama (6’2”, 230 lbs)
Anyone who has watched college football the last two years knows who Harris is. He surprised a lot of people (including myself) when he made the decision to return to Alabama for his senior year, but from a draft capital standpoint he probably helped himself. After sharing the backfield load with Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs his freshman and sophomore years, Harris broke out in his 2019 junior year with 209 carries for 1,224 yards (5.9 YPC) and 13 touchdowns to go with 27 grabs for an additional 304 yards and 7 touchdowns through the air. He furthered that production in 2020, racking up 1,466 yards and 26 touchdowns on 251 carries (5.8 YPC) along with 43 catches for 425 yards and 4 touchdowns in the receiving game. In addition to catching more balls and showing more fluidity running routes out of the backfield this past year, Harris also proved he was a plus in pass protection. Pass blocking is one of the most common flaws that keep young running backs off the field in the NFL, and that shouldn’t be a problem for Harris.
The primary concern with Harris is his age, as he already turned 23 in March. He also ran behind Alabama’s mauling offensive line for his entire collegiate career, which clouds our ability to evaluate him in a vacuum. Personally, Harris has shown enough of an ability to make defenders miss for me not to be worried about what line he ran behind in college. While we don’t have Pro Day athletic testing numbers as he elected not to participate, watching him routinely hurdle and run through/around defenders in the SEC the last two seasons leaves me no concern with his athleticism, especially for someone his size. He can run between the tackles, he can run off tackle to the outside, his one-cut style could fit in a zone scheme if asked, and we’ve already talked about his plus abilities in the passing game. His age is a legit long-term concern, but as mentioned in the introduction, if you’re taking a running back early in dynasty rookie drafts you should only be banking on their first contract anyway. I have no doubts about Harris living up to an early first round rookie selection over the next four to five years.
2) Travis Etienne, Clemson (5’10”, 215 lbs)
Similar to Harris, Etienne has been on avid dynasty player’s radars for years, and he also made the eyebrow raising decision to return for his senior year in 2020. Granted he was facing less competition in his backfield, but Etienne broke out a year before Harris in 2018 as a true sophomore with 204 carries for 1,658 yards (a ridiculous 8.1 YPC) and 24 touchdowns, adding 12 catches for 78 yards and two scores. He had nearly identical rushing numbers his junior year (207-1,614-19), but his receiving production took an immense step forward with 37 grabs for 432 yards and 4 touchdowns. Partly due to playing 3 less games and partly to defenses placing more of an emphasis on stopping him, Etienne took a step back with his rushing production this past year, putting up 914 yards and 14 touchdowns on 168 carries (5.4 YPC). His receiving work continued to progress into elite territory, however, as he caught 48 balls for 588 yards and 2 touchdowns. For his career, he averaged 11.4 yards per catch (an insane number for a running back), showing how dynamic he is with the ball in his hands.
Pretty much a full year younger than Harris, Etienne will be 22 for the entirety of his rookie campaign. His college production is unquestionable and he showed out at his Pro Day, clocking a 4.40 40-yard dash and 10’8” broad jump despite coming in heavier than expected (which is a good thing as he was only listed at 205 lbs by Clemson). He has tantalizing PPR potential as a three down back at the next level. Given his receiving skills, he should be able to thrive in any scheme, especially in today’s pass heavy NFL. His pass blocking is adequate but not exactly the strength it is for Harris, meaning he’ll need to improve in that area to have sustainable NFL success. That is something that can be fixed via coaching and effort, fortunately for him, and his receiving prowess may get him on the field on third downs regardless. I wouldn’t argue with someone who prefers him over Harris.
3) Javonte Williams, North Carolina (5’10”, 212 lbs)
While Etienne and Harris’ names have been on the forefront of dynasty owners’ brains for several years, Williams has inserted himself into the back end of this first tier through sheer force. A bruising back adept at breaking and evading tackles, Williams was first in the country in both total missed tackles forced and forced missed tackle rate per carry in 2020 per Pro Football Focus. He showed requisite NFL athleticism at North Carolina’s Pro Day, clocking a 4.55 40-yard dash, 6.97 3-cone, and a broad jump of 10’3”. In 2019 as a true sophomore, Williams gained 933 yards and 5 touchdowns on 166 carries (5.6 YPC), adding 17 grabs for 176 yards and a touchdown receiving. He turned a similar workload into even greater production in 2020, totaling 1,140 yards and 19 touchdowns on 157 carries (7.3 YPC) to go with 25 receptions for 305 yards and 3 touchdowns through the air.
That production in 2020 resulted in highlight reel plays that displayEd Williams’ physicality and elite tackle break ability, which should translate well to the next level. He saved his best for last in a trouncing of Miami during his final game, putting up 236 yards and 3 touchdowns on 23 carries (10.3 YPC), including a 65-yarder. The aspect of his profile that makes him especially appealing to dynasty players is that he turns 21 years old this week. He basically broke out as a 19-year-old, and was clearly on the level of Harris and Etienne (at least on the ground) as a 20-year-old. He’ll need some development in the receiving game to become a true three down back, but he has all the physical tools to do so with youth on his side. He should come in right away and garner 10-15 carries a game (including goal line duties) wherever he lands, with a lot of room to grow.
1) Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis (5’11”, 201 lbs)
Gainwell is more of a projection than some others on this list as he really only has one season of production to his name, and it was two years ago (he opted out of 2020) against a Memphis schedule that was softer than any of the other backs in the first two tiers have faced. Still, that one season was dynamic from both a production and highlight reel standpoint. As a 20-year-old true sophomore in 2019, Gainwell carried the Tigers’ offense with 1,459 yards and 13 touchdowns rushing on 231 carries (6.3 YPC), adding immense production in the receiving game with 51 receptions for 610 yards (12.0 YPR) and 3 touchdowns. A home run hitter despite being the focal point of the Memphis offense for opposing defenses, he accumulated four runs over 60 yards including two over 70. While he isn’t a traditional between the tackles runner in terms of size, he was still able to be effective in that area on high volume.
It was more than just the raw statistics that he produced in the passing game that was so impressive, it was the manner in which he gained them. Gainwell showed an ability to line up outside and make catches downfield, not just on screens. The ability for a running back to do this effectively is hugely valuable in today’s NFL. Gainwell is not quite built like him at 10-15 pounds lighter, but there is definitely some Alvin Kamara to his game. His 201 pound weigh in at his Pro Day is encouraging for a player who was considered undersized, and it didn’t affect his athleticism in the least as he clocked a 4.42 40-yard dash on the same day. He could end being one of the steals of this class if he finds himself in a situation where a coach maximizes his versatility the way Sean Payton has with Kamara. He should be available in the mid to late 2nd round of dynasty rookie drafts.
2) Trey Sermon, Ohio State (6’0”, 215 lbs)
Sermon seems to be gathering steam in the dynasty community as the clear choice beyond the big three running backs. Physically, he certainly appears to be built more like a starting NFL running back than Gainwell. While he never had a 1,000-yard season, he exceeded 700 yards three separate times in his four-year career, the first three of which came at Oklahoma. After a 2019 where he struggled to produce and missed the final five games due to injury, Sermon transferred to Ohio State for his senior year. In those 3 seasons outside of 2019, he averaged 134 carries for 854 yards (6.4 YPC) and just over 7 touchdowns, including his freshman and sophomore years when he was 19-20 years old. He had at least one 60-yard run in each of those three seasons, showing surprising home run ability for a back who only ran a 4.57 at his Pro Day. Part of his ability to do that is his strong lateral agility for a guy his size, as evidenced by his 6.83 3-cone time. His 10’5” broad jump was also a good number given his physique.
In the context of this class, I would describe Sermon as a poor man’s Javonte Williams. He is an extremely physical runner who can also make defenders miss in tight spaces. While his overall body of work is strong dating back to his freshman year at Oklahoma, it’s worth noting that he was never the top producing rusher on his team until his senior year. He also offers limited upside in the passing game, having caught more than 12 balls just once in his college career. I can see Sermon being a productive RB2 eventually in the fantasy, but that would probably be dependent on getting goal line work. His landing spot and draft capital will be important, and will heavily dictate where he goes in dynasty rookie drafts. Depending on where he goes, he’ll fall somewhere in the 2nd round of dynasty rookie drafts. Short of a prime landing spot, I would be wary of reaching for positional needs and taking him over some of the wide receivers in that range unless you are desperate for a running back.
3) Michael Carter, North Carolina (5’8”, 201 lbs)
Javonte Williams’ slightly smaller Tar Heel running mate, Carter actually outproducEd Williams in their 2019 junior year when he had 1,003 yards and 3 touchdowns on 177 carries (5.7 YPC) to go with 21 grabs for 154 yards and 2 receiving touchdowns. Carter was North Carolina’s receiving specialist out of the backfield, as he caught at least 20 balls in each of his sophomore seasons. In 2020 he also showed home run hitting ability as a change of pace to Williams out of the backfield, averaging 8.0 yards per carry on 156 totes, good for 1,245 yards and 9 touchdowns on top of his 25 receptions for another 267 yards and 2 touchdowns. Despite being classmates, he is a year older than Williams and turns 22 in May.
While he’s not quite on Gainwell’s level in terms of lining up out wide and running routes with more depth than just screens, he averaged an excellent 10.7 yards per catch in his senior year and had a memorable touchdown grab downfield on a wheel route against Wake Forest. He’s a quick twitch athlete in tight spaces, as evidenced by his strong 6.81 3-cone time at his Pro Day. I was hoping for better than his 4.50 in the 40-yard dash given his size, but it is by no means slow. He honestly reminds me of a slightly more explosive version of another former Tar Heel running back: Giovanni Bernard. Like the other backs in this tier, his landing spot will be key to his fantasy production. He should develop into a solid PPR asset with some upside for more in the right spot. Similar to the gap in talent between Tier 1 and Tier 2, there is a clear drop off after Carter, Sermon, and Gainwell as well.
1) Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State (6’0”, 210 lbs)
Hubbard had a historic breakout as a 20-year-old sophomore in 2019, gaining the 18th most rushing yards all time in a single college season (2,094) and 21 touchdowns on his 328 attempts, adding 198 yards on 23 receptions. He’s a strong downhill runner with finishing speed, as evidenced by his 4.48 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. In 2019 he showed an ability to be a home run hitter with runs of 92, 65, 84, 75, and 53 yards, which is what makes his long run of 32 yards in 2020 even more puzzling. His overall production dipped heavily without those long runs, as he gained 625 yards and 5 touchdowns on his 133 carries (4.7 YPC vs. 6.3 in 2019), catching just 8 balls for 52 yards in the shortened season. While I can see him having a productive season or two in the NFL, I think his lack of lateral agility will prevent him from ever being a regular NFL starter. He’s still worth a dart throw in the 3rd round of rookie drafts.
2) Jermar Jefferson, Oregon State (5’11”, 206 lbs)
Jefferson broke out as an 18-year-old true freshman in 2018, toting the rock 239 times for 1,380 yards (5.8 YPC) while adding 25 receptions 147 yards on the ground. He had a down sophomore year but made the most of his limited action as a junior in 2020, gaining 858 yards and 7 touchdowns on his 133 carries in just 6 games. That included a mammoth performance in an upset win over in-state rival Oregon where he had 29 carries for 226 yards and two scores. His production in the receiving game was limited the last two years after a solid freshman year in that area. His Pro Day numbers (4.55 40, 9’7” broad, 7.38 3-cone) leave some athleticism to be desired, and similar to Hubbard I think his physical upside is limited. His age-adjusted production vs. Power 5 competition does make him intriguing in the middle of the 3rd round in rookie drafts, though.
1) Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma (6’0”, 227 lbs)
It’s hard not to think of LeGarrette Blount when watching Stevenson run. He’s an absolute bowling ball of a man who punishes any defenders who try to get in his way. After spending his first two seasons at a California community college, Stevenson transferred to Oklahoma in 2019 and averaged 8.0 yards on his 64 carries, good for 515 yards and 6 rushing touchdowns while chipping in 10 receptions for 87 yards. This past year, he gained 665 yards and 7 touchdowns on 101 carries to go with 18 grabs for 211 yards. Stevenson was consistently listed at closer to 250 than 225 at Oklahoma, so his Pro Day weigh in of 227 pounds is interesting (he ran a solid 4.63 given his size, which may help explain why he lost weight). While he is surprisingly nimble in the passing game for a player of his build (averaged 10.6 yards per catch at OU), ultimately his upside is limited at the next level. I can see him having a Jordan Howard like career where he has some useful years, but it will be very landing spot dependent.
2) Kylin Hill, Mississppi State (5’10”, 214 lbs)
Hill was pretty much the Bulldog’s entire offense as a 21-year-old junior in 2019, turning 242 carries into 1,350 yards (5.6 YPC) and 10 touchdowns to go with 18 grabs for 180 yards. He opted out of the 2020 season after just three games and a one game suspension by coach Mike Leach for not “buying in,” which is obviously a red flag. He ran a 4.51 at his Pro Day, but there isn’t anything about his physical abilities that you would consider special when you watch him on tape. Still, in a class with a dearth of talent at the position, Hill at least offers some upside in the receiving game if you are scratching late 3rd round running back lottery tickets. He caught 67 balls for 631 yards in his college career with a strong 9.4 yards per reception average.
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