The RB position in the NFL Draft has always been a hot topic of conversation within the community. The question “should you take a Running Back in the first round?” has been beaten into the ground and answered a million times. I guess my answer would be, maybe? It really is a question that requires a lot of context. Saquon? Absolutely. Rashaad Penny? No. Should Nick Chubb have gone in the first round? Most definitely. So it’s always depending on who the prospect is. All this to set up my very hot take regarding this year’s class, there is not a single RB this year worth taking in the first round. Let me explain.
#5. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis
Probably the most fun watch of the whole scouting process for RB’s Kenneth Gainwell is a swiss army knife. He has the ability to play in the slot and in the back field both pretty effectively. His running ability overall isn’t out of this world. He has good vision in the open field that helps him make up for his slight lack of speed. He can make a move on a dime to make his opponent miss that makes for some great long runs on film. He doesn’t have great size but he actually runs very physically for a guy his size. He shows the ability to over power the defense consistently. I would attribute a lot of that to his very compact build. He has a similar body to a guy like Tony Pollard who funny enough is Memphis alumni. He’s shorter than Pollard but their games are very similar. Gainwell’s receiving ability is where I think his game really stands out. He is an above average route runner at the RB position which makes for some great mismatches. His size is an issue for me, he could stand to add another 10-15 pounds or he will get thrown around at the next level. The other big one is his lack of production in previous years. He is sort of a one year wonder which leaves a lot of weight behind the question of if he will be able to produce in the NFL.
#4. Michael Carter, North Carolina
1 of 2 North Carolina RB’s on this list Michael Carter is a smaller built RB with a lot of flexibility at the position. He is serviceable both running and catching the ball out of the backfield and his agility/twitch makes for some big break out runs on film. He can make defenders miss with ease in the open field and has a nice burst of speed to create separation afterwards. He moves similar to a guy like Darren Sproles in that he doesn’t seek contact he would rather get around it and use his speed to attack the defense. He shows great ability to keep plays going whether its keeping his feet churning or finding a way to stay in bounds for those few extra yards its clear that he plays 100% on every down. He lacks great size at only 5’7″ 202 pounds some extra weight could make his game more than just the speedy juke you out kind of guy. He projects to the next level as a good rotational guy that could break off the occasional big reception for TD or can jump over some defenders at the goal line if you need him to.
#3. Javonte Williams, North Carolina
The 2nd of the North Carolina RB’s on this list, I like Javonte’s game much more than Carter’s. He is another hybrid type guy who can both catch and run. His technique in both parts of his game is very polished and well put together. He reminds me a lot of Jordan Howard in his build and ability to run north and south very effectively. He isn’t afraid of contact and has the strength to muscle his way through goal line situations if you need him to. He has break away speed with great instincts that he used to consistently tear up defenses all season. The Miami game was his real showing out he ripped that defense to shreds. He has great patience at the line of scrimmage which combined with is quick acceleration makes it extremely hard for defenders to make a play on him. His few weaknesses are his lack of lateral speed when trying to around defenders. There were a few times on film you can see him get stuffed behind the line because of this. And the other is just his blocking. He missed a bunch this past season some that led to sacks or interceptions. If a team like the Steelers can get this kid I think he can really excel at the next level.
#2. Najee Harris, Alabama
Najee Harris is the biggest name in this class for most people and I can understand why. He has a the unique ability to over power nearly every defender that comes his way whether its with strength or some moves he can make it happen. He’s a sure fire 3 down back at the next level and he runs with great determination and grit. His balance is legitimately similar to Alvin Kamara he can absorb hit after hit and continue to run which helps the fact that he has pretty lack luster speed. He has improved in the passing game and has made himself a viable Receiver. His route tree outside of wheel routes and check angle routes is basically non existent so he could be predictable at the next level depending on how he continues to develop as a receiving back. He doesn’t possess a great move set either and as stated before lacks great speed so I have questions about how effective he’s really going to be at the next level. I like his grit and power back style but with the way the NFL is headed that style of RB is easier and easier to handle.
#1. Travis Etienne, Clemson
Travis Etienne is the only RB in this draft class I would be somewhat comfortable with taking in the first round. His game out of all of these backs is the most polished and NFL ready. He’s got great speed and agility that allows him to make defenders miss every chance he gets. He doesn’t have the same physicality as Najee but he runs with great physicality for a guy his size. His feet are very quick which makes it difficult to stop him at the line of scrimmage. His patience at the line isn’t out of this world but it slowly improved as this past season went on. He is an outstanding receiver out of the back field. He improved drastically from 2019 to 2020 catching the ball with his hands and looking up field to make a play. He has a diverse route tree out of the back field and great focus in the passing game. He has a fumbling issue that hasn’t gotten much better over the past 2 years so that definitely needs to be cleaned up before even starting a game next season. His frame isn’t out of this world, for a guy his height he could use some extra weight. This would help him improve as a blocker as well. His game is easily the most diverse and easily has the most potential out of anyone in this class.
This year’s RB class has some solid choices but these guys at the top, they aren’t a first round pick better than the other three. Some good coaching and development can turn Kenneth Gainwell, Michael Carter, & Javonte Williams into a top RB in the league. So there they are! My 2021 NFL Draft RB Rankings, feel free to comment your thoughts and opinions and follow @MGAFootball on IG for NFL News and other content!