May 13, 2021


Hub Arkush’s 2021 NFL draft positional preview: Running back

Over the past five seasons only five of the 16 backs to finish in the top five in the league in total yards from scrimmage in a given season are Todd Gurley, Saquon Barkley, Christian McCaffrey, Ezekiel Elliott, and Leonard Fournette, and many will argue Gurley and Fournette have been disappointments over the full course of their careers.

That’s just one of the reasons running backs have become so devalued – not in the NFL draft, but in the first round or two.

This year will be no exception as most of the big names wait until Day 2 or even Day 3.

DAY 1 PROSPECTS

1. Travis Etienne, Clemson (5-10, 215, Senior)

Etienne has been remarkably productive from the moment he landed on campus at Clemson, finishing his four-year career with an ACC record 4,952 yards rushing, a 7.2 average, and became an impact receiver as a junior with 37 receptions for 11.7 yards per catch and added 48-12.3 last season. He also has some kickoff and punt return experience. Only concern may be the wear on his tires after 55 games in college, 686 carries and a lot of very tough yards earned.

2. Najee Harris, Alabama (6-1, 232, Senior)

Harris is a big back that had to wait his turn at Alabama but took ownership of the position the last two seasons to become a well-rounded Day 1 prospect. He runs with power, has some wiggle when he needs it, has become a quality receiver and is much more solid in pass pro than most coming out of college. Only downside is he isn’t slow, but will probably never be a home-run hitter either.

DAY 2 PROSPECTS

3. Javonte Williams, North Carolina (5-10, 212, Junior)

We’ve actually had two scouts we really respect tell us they have Williams as the top back in this draft. As much as I hate to do this to the kid, watching him on tape stylistically he reminds me a little of Walter Payton. Sharing the backfield with Michael Carter has left a lot of tread on his tires, but his violent running style will concern some GMs. He can catch but still needs work as a receiver out of the backfield.

4. Michael Carter, North Carolina (5-8, 201, Senior)

Carter is short but not small, a solid technician and has just average speed, but as he proved with Williams at Chapel Hill, he can be a perfect complimentary back in a tandem backfield. Carter is surprisingly stout for his size in pass protection, has nice soft hands as a pass catcher and can be really tough for tacklers to find in a crowd. Stereotype of No. 2 back may leave him on board until Day 3, but he’ll play on Sundays.

5. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis (5-8, 201, Redshirt Sophomore)

Identical in size to Carter you’d expect speed to be their greatest asset, but like Carter, Gainwell’s is average. After opting out last year he has just one full season of tape from Memphis but it was a huge year – 1,459 yards on the ground and 51 catches with16 total TDs – and surprisingly a lot of it was piled up by seeking contact. Minimally he has great value as a third-down back. With more reps we may find he has even more than that to offer.

6. Trey Sermon, Ohio St. (6-0, 215 Senior)

After two big seasons at Oklahoma injuries handicapped his junior year and he transferred to Ohio St. for a very nice but not special 2020 until he exploded in the Big Ten title game and national semifinal. Whether that was enough to get him off the board by the end of day Day 2 remains to be seen as he absolutely looks the part but hasn’t always produced up to it.

7. Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma (6-0, 231 Senior)

After going the junior college route, Oklahoma brought him along slowly in 2019. He was highly productive until a failed drug test cost him the national semifinal playoff game against LSU and the first five games in 2020. He’d much rather run over you than around you and will struggle if you get him going east and west, but he’s a mauler between the tackles and could have a Marshawn Lynch-type career if he keeps his head on straight.

DAY 3 PROSPECTS

8. Jermar Jefferson, Oregon St. (5-10, 206, Junior)

As more teams go the outside zone read route with their run games, Jefferson’s stock goes up. He is more physical than elusive and doesn’t have great acceleration but try stopping him on first contact. One concern is he may not be a natural receiver.

9. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma St. (6-0, 210, Redshirt Junior)

Hubbard is another of the growing group of Canadians making their way to big-time college programs and showing they belong. He is used to being a feature back with 27 touches a game in 2019 and 20 last season and averaging 5.9 yards a carry and 9.0 per reception. He won’t find a lot on his own but will always take what’s there.

10. Khalil Herbert, Virginia Tech (5-9, 210, Redshirt Senior)

Spent his first three seasons at Kansas but struggled in 2019 and transferred to Virginia Tech last season and became a star – 7.7 yards per carry and 162.8 all purpose yards per game, including quality work returning kickoffs. May not start at the next level but could add value.

11. Chris Evans, Michigan (5-11, 211, Senior)

Evans has an NFL body and traits, but his stay in Ann Arbor was often a slog through the swamp with academic issues costing him the 2019 season and he never really claimed the running back position. He’ll get a look based on his freshman production and some exciting traits, but he’s a project.

12. Kylin Hill, Mississippi St. (5-10 ½, 214, Senior)

Will find a home in the NFL because of his determination, power and desire. This kid appears to really love the game, but there’s no single special trait that allows you to project him as a future starter.

13. Javian Hawkins, Louisville (5-8, 183, Redshirt Sophomore)

Think Tarik Cohen without the return game. Hawkins can be a home-run hitter if you get him in space, but will have to land with the right team willing to create a special role for him.

14. Gerrid Doaks, Cincinnati (5-11, 228, Redshirt Senior)

No special traits but excellent lower-body thickness could allow him to make a living on short yardage situations pounding between the tackles.

Hub Arkush

Hub Arkush is a Bears/NFL Insider for Shaw Media