(image courtesy: Dale Zanine - USA Today Sports)
Written by: Joseph Yun
The draft process is in the final stretch run as we edge closer and closer to the month of April. Welcome to the annual series of positional big boards
The 2021 running back class is yet another strong one in a recent trend of talent laden classes. Where will each star back end up going?
If you missed the first article in the series, it can be found in the link below:
Note: All statistics were courtesy of profootballreference.com
1. Najee Harris Alabama
- The latest prospect in the long assembly line at Tuscaloosa is ready for his pro debut. He had an outstanding senior campaign. The Doak Walker winner came on really strong during his last two years in college, becoming the bell cow back after waiting his turn. He’s the top rusher in this year’s class but it’s very close to the number two man. A physical runner who relishes contact and shows excellent PPR ability out of the backfield as well. He makes the defenders tasked with stopping him make business decisions just like a former Heisman winner turned NFL stud Derrick Henry. There’s some comparisons to Henry but that isn’t a true apples to apples comp. I see him as a quicker and more athletic Larry Johnson (the former Penn State and Chiefs back who had a brief but brilliant pro career). Harris showed love for his teammates by driving to the Alabama Pro Day from Texas even though he wasn’t participating. That shows character.
2020 Statistics: 251 attempts for 1,466 yards, 26 touchdowns; 43 receptions for 425 yards, four touchdowns
Draft Projection: First Round
Pro Comparison: Larry Johnson
2. Travis Etienne Clemson
- Etienne was or is the top back in the class before he surprisingly opted to return for a senior year full of the unknown due to the pandemic. He’s a dynamic weapon across all aspects of the game. Regardless of the situation, he produced an excellent season for the perennial playoff contenders. I believe he could’ve cracked the 1,100 yard barrier if a last minute cancellation (literally hours before kickoff) against FSU didn’t occur. He’s a bonafide RB1 who compares physically to former Panthers and Steelers great DeAngelo Williams. There’s not much he can’t do.
2020 Statistics: 168 attempts for 914 yards 14 touchdowns, 48 receptions for 588 yards two touchdowns
Draft Projection: Late First to Middle Second Round
Pro Comparison: DeAngelo Williams
3. Michael Carter UNC
- Carter exploded onto the scene for a newly high powered offensive juggernaut Tar Heels. He did enough to earn the right to be RB3 in the class such as it were. His production over the final two seasons was immense. He was the more productive of the UNC RB duo that lit up the scoreboard and stat sheet so Carter gets the nod. Stylistically and size wise, he compares favorably to FSU legend Devonta Freeman.
2020 Statistics: 156 attempts for 1,245 yards, nine touchdowns; 25 receptions for 267 yards two touchdowns
Draft Projection: Second to Third Round
Pro Comparison: Devonta Freeman / D’Andre Swift
4. Jermar Jefferson Oregon State
- Is Jefferson this year’s version of Brandon Aiyuk in that one monster game against Oregon gets him drafted higher than his projection? He was a steady force for the “resurgent” Beavers program that competed in the Pac-12 after many years of irrelevance and struggles. Jefferson doesn’t have that home run gear but is a guy who gains steam throughout the game. Great after the catch as well. Dynamism isn’t a part of his game but a steady force like a former Auburn back like CAP. He really came on during 2020 and his work through his career should sneak him into the Day 2 range.
2020 Statistics: 133 attempts for 858 yards, seven touchdowns
Draft Projection: Third Round
Pro Comparison: Cameron Artis-Payne
5. Kenneth Gainwell Memphis
- Gainwell opted out of the 2020 season but showed enough on film in 2019 to merit a selection in the top five running back room. He is the latest in a relatively great RB prospect tree that former Memphis head coach Mike Norvell produced before going to Florida State. While he probably won’t be an RB1 dude right off the bat, he can develop into one. The question is, is he a byproduct of Norvell’s system or a talent unto himself? He profiles physically and stylistically as JK Dobbins.
2019 Statistics: 231 attempts for 1,459 yards, 13 touchdowns; 51 receptions for 610 yards three touchdowns
Draft Projection: Fourth Round to Fifth Round
Pro Comparison: JK Dobbins
6. Javonte Williams UNC
- The “other” half of the prodigiously talented and productive North Carolina duet is a talent himself. He really broke out in 2020 after biding his time before that. The bigger of the two so he’s fit to carry the load as the main workhorse. Some have Williams higher than Carter but the lack of production prior to 2020 knocks him down a little but the tires should be fresh. While he isn’t a true home run hitter, he has shown the burst to do so. Williams profiles similarly to another less heralded but equally talented Chris Carson of Seattle fame.
2020 Statistics: 157 attempts for 1,140 yards, 19 touchdowns; 25 receptions for 305 yards three touchdowns
Draft Projection: Third Round
Pro Comparison: Chris Carson
7. Kylin Hill Mississippi State
- Hill curiously opted to return for a senior season to play for a coach who doesn’t exactly produce running backs. He then opted out after a couple of games after the Bulldogs season started to lean sideways. The one part he was “lacking” in his game was the ability to catch out of the backfield entering 2020 but he showed enough during his brief stint that he improved by leaps and bounds. Had he entered the 2020 draft like many expected, he would have been a top five running back so a slight downgrade here due to the talent above him. I see a ton of Notre Dame’s Dexter Williams in his profile.
2019-20 Statistics: 257 attempts for 1,408 yards, 10 touchdowns; 41 receptions for 417 yards two touchdowns
Draft Projection: Third Round
Pro Comparison: Dexter Williams
8. Chuba Hubbard Oklahoma State
- Speaking of curious decisions to return to school, Hubbard was one. After a monster junior season, he opted to return not knowing that the pandemic would alter life as we know it. Thus the “modest” production in 2020. The Canadian is bigger than some backs at a listed 6 foot 207 but he has plenty of athleticism to make a difference. He’s not a threat in the passing game so the low grade on the board here. When I see Hubbard, there’s a lot of Melvin Gordon in terms of style, physicality, and production. The latest in a line of successful backs to come out of Stillwater.
2020 Statistics: 133 attempts for 625 yards, five touchdowns
Draft Projection: Third to Fourth Round
Pro Comparison: Melvin Gordon
9. Khalil Herbert Virginia Tech
- Herbert burst onto the scene in 2020 for the Hokies after graduate transferring in from Kansas (which ultimately led to the rise of another highly rated back, Pooka Williams). He had a great season even if VT didn’t live up to expectations. He profiles similarly to former Georgia back and first round selection Sony Michel in terms of style and athleticism. Herbert earned an invitation to the Senior Bowl with his play.
2020 Statistics: 155 attempts for 1,183 yards, eight touchdowns
Draft Projection: Fourth Round
Pro Comparison: Sony Michel
10. Trey Sermon Ohio State
- Sermon transferred to Ohio State during the summer of 2020 from Oklahoma, which was a wise decision. He isn’t the most athletically gifted backs out there but is reliant on the power like a Zack Moss. The former Buckeyes rusher had a monster finish to the season with 331 yards against Northwestern and 193 yards against Clemson before being shut down by Alabama. He’s among the bigger backs in the class at 6’1 225 so the physical wear and tear won’t be as much. While he most likely won’t be a lead guy, he can be a good RB2 if used right.
2020 Statistics: 116 attempts for 870 yards, four touchdowns
Draft Projection: Fifth Round
Pro Comparison: Zack Moss
11. Javian Hawkins Louisville
- Hawkins is an electric playmaker on the perimeter and inside the box. He’s flashy and has speed for days. Although the reception totals don’t show it, he is a solid threat to take it to the house on every catch. Absolutely blew up in 2020 with a middling at best QB and a great receiver duo to take the heat off him. He was the east coast version of Demetric Felton. Stylistically and physically, he compares to college legends Steve Slaton and LaMichael James. However, statistically, he’s not in the same galaxy. The talent is intriguing enough to merit at least a Day 3 selection if not higher. He’ll fit in as a slot receiver / utility back RB2 type in the NFL due to size and speed.
2020 Statistics: 133 attempts for 822 yards, seven touchdowns; 16 receptions for 127 yards and one touchdown
Draft Projection: Fifth to Sixth Round
Pro Comparison: Steve Slaton / LaMichael James
12. Gerrid Doaks Cincinnati
- Doaks broke out in 2020 after flashes of something greater in 2019 behind the former Bearcat Michael Warren. He’s a big back at a listed 6’1 225 with some ability to make guys miss on the perimeter. The medical issues that caused him to miss a ton of time in 2017 and 2018 will knock him down some boards. On the bright side of that coin, he should be relatively fresh with more tread left. He runs big and physical to a fellow Midwest product in Mikel LeShoure.
2020 Statistics: 144 attempts for 673 yards, seven touchdowns; 14 receptions for 202 yards and two touchdowns
Draft Projection: Fifth Round
Pro Comparison: Mikel LeShoure
13. Rhamondre Stevenson Oklahoma
- Stevenson did just enough in 2020 to garner a Senior Bowl invite. He’s one of the biggest backs in the class, eliciting some talk about a hybrid fullback (those exist, right?) and halfback role at the next level. When I see the tape, I foresee a career similar to another big guy like CJ Anderson. He gets dinged some for the off field issues that netted him a multiple game suspension during 2019/2020. Stevenson put up a respectable line all things considered in a high powered Sooners offense that saw QB Spencer Rattler take his lumps. He’s a Day 2 talent with Day 3 off field concerns he needs to explain.
2020 Statistics: 101 attempts for 665 yards 7 touchdowns; 18 receptions for 211 yards.
Draft Projection: Sixth Round
Pro Comparison: C.J. Anderson
14. Jaret Patterson Buffalo
- Patterson is the rising star in the class as the former Buffalo Bull put up a great 2020, admittedly against inferior competition. Nonetheless, he’s a good back. Size wise, he isn't the biggest guy out there. He won’t be RB1 for anyone for now but can thrive in a RBBC type of role kinda like what the Packers saw in AJ Dillon (different body types but stylistically similar). He absolutely lit up every team on his schedule.
2020 Statistics: 141 attempts for 1,072 yards, 19 touchdowns
Draft Projection: Sixth Round
Pro Comparison: Duke Johnson
15. Rakeem Boyd Arkansas
- Not quite the second coming of the legendary McFadden / Jones duo in Fayetteville but he really blossomed in 2020 under new OC Kendal Briles. Boyd played well enough to merit a Senior Bowl invite so there’s that. He compares physically and stylistically to former five-star recruit Isaiah Crowell but with fewer off field issues. The former junior college dude made good during his time at Arkansas. He’s not overly fast nor instinctive so he’ll have to make do on special teams and compete for depth carries.
2020 Statistics: 82 attempts for 309 yards, three touchdowns
Draft Projection: Sixth to Seventh Round
Pro Comparison: Isaiah Crowell
16. CJ Marable Coastal Carolina
- The rushing leader for everyone’s favorite team, Marable is a back that projects as a jack of all trades, master of none type. He accelerates very quickly but can be caught from behind. Great at catching out of the backfield when he’s called upon. One of the more underrated backs in the class. Someone is going to get a steal if he lasts until Day 3. He profiles similarly to former five star recruit Malcolm Brown who earned a lot of hype but didn’t really do much to match it in college and got drafted late to carve out a decent career as the second banana. Marable can do the same thing if things go right.
2020 Statistics: 169 attempts for 887 yards 12 touchdowns; 31 receptions for 228 yards and seven touchdowns
Draft Projection: Seventh Round to Priority UDFA
Pro Comparison: Malcolm Brown