June 14, 2021

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2021 NFL Draft Running Back Rankings

by Zack Lambert (@bigbird8224)
January 21st, 2021

As you consume these rankings, please be aware that I’m not ranking the players based on the order I believe they’ll be taken, but instead my evaluation of their chances of success in the NFL. There are notable players that will be taken very high in the draft that I have ranked far below their respective draft order, though I will have those players much higher in my mocks.

Note: I somehow skipped over Rhamondre Stevenson out of Oklahoma when putting together this article. Stevenson slots in as the number six running back in my rankings and is a Day 2 value.

1) Najee Harris, Alabama; Ht: 6-2 Wt: 230

I initially had Harris going second behind Travis Etienne prior to the College Football Playoff, but after his showing in the championship rounds I couldn’t help but move him up to the top. He noted how difficult it was to run on Ohio State despite his making it look easy and I couldn’t help but wonder how many men on the planet you would want ahead of him in that position. After combing through the NFL running backs I came out to 13, and that may even be generous. Najee Harris is Derrick Henry 2.0 and will have no issue fitting into any power scheme in the pros. Speed, strength, intelligence, vision, power, balance, body control, acceleration, this dude has all of it. He ought to be a first round pick.

2) Travis Etienne, Clemson; Ht: 5-10 Wt: 210

As I just noted, Travis Etienne was initially my top back in the country until Najee Harris went supernova, but that doesn’t take away from the Clemson back at all. Etienne probably could have been the top back in last season’s class had he decided to come out, but he instead decided to come back to Clemson and break the ACC all-time rushing record. He’s a very cerebral runner and has the best body control in the class in my opinion. His acceleration is startling and he’s tough to tackle, but I do have some quips about his game. The first is that his pass protection isn’t great and won’t hold up in the NFL, so nailing that down will help him. The other issue is more self-preservation based. Travis runs very straight up and his go to move is a spin. If he’s not careful in the NFL that can get him obliterated by linebackers and safeties, so I might look into that were I in a position to draft him. Otherwise you can’t really argue with a P5 record-holder and a player as versed and talented as Etienne. If there is a second first round running back taken it should be Etienne.

3) Javonte Williams, UNC; Ht: 5-10 Wt: 220

North Carolina had a pair of running backs who were both worthy of ACC First Team honors were it not for Etienne and each other and Javonte Williams is one of those players. Williams was the bigger of the two backs and was occasionally used as a blocker in two back sets, a role in which he thrived. But of course his best came with the ball in his hands. I was surprised at his efficiency in getting through tight spots in the line and his ability to stay upright, sometimes having defenders literally bounce off him as he pranced into the endzone. He’s a fine pass catcher with adequate speed, acceleration, and quickness in all facets of the game. His 1,445 yards and 22 touchdowns from scrimmage in 11 games is outstanding production, especially considering he was sharing snaps with Michael Carter.

4) Michael Carter, UNC; Ht: 5-8 Wt: 199

Speak of the devil! No, I’m not overrating Carter because Williams is good, Carter is right up there with him. Carter is a bit smaller so he didn’t get the goalline carries that had Williams hit 19 rushing touchdowns, but his open-field play really separates himself from the pack. He posted over 1,500 hundred yards from scrimmage this season and a lot of that was his own doing. What I mean by that is that his shiftiness, his quickness, his ability to move laterally and make defenders miss, and his vision all make gaining yards easy for him. He’s so tough to bring down because his tangibles mix with his intangibles so well in a way that is close to impossible to tackle. He runs nice routes out of the backfield and has safe hands, plus he works hard in pass protection, though his size is slightly inhibiting. He processes the game as it comes to him and that’s an asset that will make him a valuable pick for a team who likes to play quickly.

5) Kylin Hill, Mississippi State; Ht: 5-11 Wt: 210

Kylin Hill opted out of the 2020 season after a few games because he wasn’t really being used as a running back in the Air Raid scheme and he felt as though his time would be better spent working on refining his skills for the pros. It was a good decision to me, especially after proving how good he could be in a receiving role. Hill is an extremely smart player with a very good inclination for pass protection. When in a receiving role he has good hands, bordering on great, and his ability to find space is one of the best in this draft. When he has the ball in his hands Hill is devastatingly hard to bring down, almost always making the first man miss, and employs an elusivity that makes just getting to him a task. He hits holes in the line hard and fast and if you’re trying to tackle him head on, he’s going to lower the boom on you.

6) Trey Sermon, Ohio State; Ht: 6-1 Wt: 215

Sermon is another play whose stock rose greatly after the College Football Playoff, seemingly having a down year before exploding late in the season for Ohio State. The Oklahoma transfer was used sparingly in the passing game all season and in the run game early on, but once he demonstrated his class against Michigan State, he became indomitable. Over the course of three games against State, Northwestern, and Clemson, Sermon rushed for 636 yards including 331 in the Big Ten Championship game. He has good speed and is quick through the hole and with his decision making, but that three game run shows us there’s more to come. There are some issues, getting blown up in pass protection, a lack of pass catching, and a lack of elusivity at times, but overall Sermon should be a good pickup for someone.

7) Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis; Ht: 5-11 Wt: 191

Gainwell took this season off to prepare for the draft instead of risking illness, a sensible decision, but we only have his 2019 film to go off of, any improvements being hidden until a pro day. Gainwell has a small frame but hits very hard, enjoying a heavy chip in pass protection before a release or just lowering the boom on an unsuspecting defender. What makes Gainwell such a tough player, though, is his ability to blend speed and agility with that power in a way that makes defenders look out of their depth. Against Penn State we saw Gainwell exhibit that shiftiness, making defenders miss with ease. The Memphis product is also a good blocker with nice hands in the catching department. I would like him to improve his skills as a release so that he’s finding more open space out of the backfield, but that’s something a good coach will fix quickly. 

8) Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State; Ht: 6-0 Wt: 208

If you’re in love with sprinters, Chuba Hubbard is the guy for you. He’s actually a sprinter, competing for Canada in International games as a youth, and that shows on the football field. Hubbard is very slippery as a runner because he’s always moving at such a good gait, something that helps him make it through holes in the line quicker than most of the names on this list. At the same time he’s a patient runner, waiting for holes to develop, bouncing and gliding around the backfield and defenders alike before shooting through the line of scrimmage to open field. The glaring issue with Hubbard is with his hands; he’s a serial fumbler. He loses the ball often and anyone hunting for turnovers can get them with the OSU product. That can derail a career quickly.

9) Demetric Felton, UCLA; Ht: 5-10 Wt: 200

The best running back out of Los Angeles this season is Demetric Felton, a versatile back who seems to always find a way to pick up yards. Felton isn’t a burner and needs to cut his losses at times, but he’s a strong player for the most part. He has a beautiful change of direction which pairs very handily with his vision. While defenders tend to bounce off of Javonte Williams, Felton bounces off of them, thanks in part to his constant body adjustments. Felton’s thoughtfulness as a runner is another big asset for the player, one that makes him dangerous in any situation and allows him to expand his game to the outside where he can be employed as a real route runner.

10) Larry Rountree III, Missouri; Ht: 5-10 Wt: 210

Rountree is a runner that I held an affinity for long before he entered the draft and his production this season just made me a bigger fan. In their game against Mississippi State the player was flipping around to break tackles in one of the best runs you’ll see all season. It just speaks to his elusivity. He’s so quick and crafty that it can catch you off guard when he puts his shoulder down to level you. He processes the game well enough to let plays develop before taking advantage of a hole, getting skinny and blasting through it. He’s a willing blocker in pass protection even though he isn’t great at it, often getting blown up by bigger players, but the rest of his game is good enough to ignore those issues.

11) CJ Verdell, Oregon; Ht: 5-10 Wt: 210

Verdell is a player that I wanted to be higher on the list, but the amount of talent at running back in this class makes it tough for me to put him higher than this. Without that insane 2019 offensive line in front of him Verdell saw a dropoff in his production, falling from 6.2 yards per carry in 2019 to 4.4 this season. I didn’t see much wrong with him at all, I just think the ceiling might be limited for the player. He’s another guy who can bounce off defenders and keeps his legs churning to get forward. He doesn’t need a whole lot of room to operate and has good speed and nice power, pairing them with a killer spin move. My only real concern is about his ability to improvise and gain yards when a play is blown up. Verdell is a very good player but without a big advantage along the line of scrimmage I have questions about his upside.

12) Rakeem Boyd, Arkansas; Ht: 6-0 Wt: 206

Rakeem Boyd is the next SEC running back in line and another one who took the season off to miss out on the Covid issues that plagued some programs. Do you know what I mean when I say a player isn’t elusive, but instead evasive? Boyd doesn’t let you think you have a chance of getting to him, he always takes the precaution of distancing himself from the defender so they can’t easily get to him. He’s a unique player, but he sticks firmly to the fundamentals. He churns his feet through contact, he’s excellent at setting the edge, His hesitation and dead leg moves are very nice and in the passing game he always prioritizes securing the ball and provides a great dump off option. He does whiff a bit in pass protection but for the most part he’s solid in that aspect as well.

13) Chris Evans, Michigan; Ht: 5-11 Wt: 216

Chris Evans could be a name that some forgot thanks to his long layoff, not playing meaningful minutes since 2018, but he should still be seen as a player who can make an impact in the run game. There’s some good acceleration to be had from the player to go with nice body control through the line. He can run real routes and showed off some good hands in the process. He’s a shifty player but will likely need some better moves to succeed in the pros. The fate of Evans in the draft will depend heavily on how he shows in his pro day. I suppose he’ll do well enough to be picked but I’m not sure how cautious teams will be around the player considering his lack of game time. It hasn’t been a factor in the past but when it comes to NFL front offices anything can happen.

14) Trey Ragas, Louisiana-Lafayette; Ht: 5-10 Wt: 230

I wouldn’t have expected Ragas to be the ULL player to come out on top in terms of draft potential but here he is. Elijah Mitchell isn’t far behind, but I see Ragas as the better value at this moment. He’s a smart back with a good running process that helps elevate some otherwise pedestrian attributes. His hands are nice and I like him in pass protection, though he could struggle against some of the better athletes in the NFL.  He’s strong enough to break limb tackles and keeps his feet moving through contact, and although his vision has potential, it’s very inconsistent right now. He’s not ready to be a starter right now but a bit of development or a split load with a veteran should do him good.

15) Jaret Patterson, Buffalo; Ht: 5-9 Wt: 195

Patterson put out one of the wildest seasons in college football rushing history, producing 1,072 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground in just six games. He didn’t catch a single pass this season but he really didn’t need to considering his ability to torch players in the run. Record-setting players aren’t always sure things and Patterson falls into that category, but he’s an undoubtedly good runner with great potential. He runs hard, blazing and bruising his way through the MAC, and his yards after contact are just unreal. I have doubts about his versatility and longevity thanks to his style of play, but he ought to fit in somewhere as a third down back or situational guy at the very least. You have to take a chance on a guy like this if the price is right.

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Mock Draft 3.1: All Defense
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