2021 NFL Draft Running Back Rankings: Daubert’s List
After running through the quarterback rankings, it’s time to go over the tail backs. On the surface, it feels like a bit of a down class overall. There isn’t a player I’d take in the first round. In fact, there’s really not a ton of sleepers I love either. Nevertheless, let’s run through the top ten running backs in the 2021 NFL Draft!
1: Najee Harris (Alabama)
Najee Harris has been the number one running back on my list for the 2021 NFL Draft for three years in a row. Harris from his true freshman days at Alabama, you knew he was special. Sure, there have been some Alabama running backs in the past that have flopped, but Harris has always felt different. You know, the way that Derrick Henry was too big and fast to fail?
Harris checks in at 6-foot-2, 230, and just comes with that rare package. The Bama back is a powerful runner but uniquely has explosion in the lower half. Harris on more than one occasion has hurdled defenders. Not to mention it looks so EASY. I just love the way that Harris makes people miss. He has great cuts and will come hammering with the powerful stiff arm.
In 2020, Harris averaged 6.1 yards per carry for 1,387 yards with 24 touchdowns. Better yet, he can catch the ball a little bit too. 36 catches for 346 yards and three touchdowns is a MAJOR plus for a big back his size. Harris has no issues pass protecting either. You will feel really good about making Harris a three down back if the team that drafts him chooses to do so.
I don’t feel that Harris is special enough to go in the first round, but there’s no question he should be the first back off the board.
High End: Derrick Henry with better receiving ability.
Low End: Taller Mark Ingram.
2: Javonte Williams (North Carolina)
The broken tackle god checks in at number two on the list. Williams broke .48 tackles per carry and led the nation with 75 total. Williams is a tough downhill runner that delivers punishment. Williams was part of a committee with Michael Carter who is pretty damn good in his own right. Both of them went straight nuclear against Miami at the end of the year. It’s not like that’s a bad thing either. Hey, save those carries for the NFL!
Given Williams’ ability to shed tackles in the SEC at 5-foot-10, 220, you would have to assume that will translate to the next level. Carter might have been the more lethal option in the passing game, but Williams can more than hold his own in this area too. He has soft hands and can make plays in that area.
In 157 attempts, Williams rushed for 1,140 yards (7.3 per carry) and 19 touchdowns. There isn’t a ton else to say here. Williams has proven he’s the other complete back in a running back class that doesn’t appear to feature many. His ability to break tackles and get to the second level of the defense picking up yardage on his own makes him more valuable than the rest.
High End: Slightly rich man Michael Turner
Low End: Bad version of David Montgomery
3: Kenneth Gainwell (Memphis)
I was hoping to see more of Kenneth Gainwell but unfortunately, he opted out of the 2020 college football season. It’s sad because we don’t have a ton of tape to go on. The Memphis product played in a limited number of games as a freshman. However, that 2019 season was filled with a lot of special.
Gainwell averaged 6.3 yards per carry on the year for 1,459 yards with 13 touchdowns. Better yet, he’s a more than proven pass catcher. 51 receptions for 610 yards and three touchdowns sounds pretty good to me. Gainwell has the speed and feels like the home run is coming.
The other positive here is that Memphis has sent has sent a lot of backs to the league recently. Tony Pollard, Darrell Henderson, and Antonio Gibson have all worked to some degree. DeAngelo Williams was a first round pick many years ago.
Gainwell could use to get a bit stronger. The 191 pound frame at 5-foot-11 isn’t ideal. It’s not hard to notice either. Overall, he’s still one of the better backs in the class. Gainwell could be the best Memphis back yet.
High End: Better Ronald Jones if he fills out
Low End: Tony Pollard
4: Michael Carter (North Carolina)
Every fiber in my body wants to put Michael Carter ahead of Kenneth Gainwell, but I’ll keep it this way for now. Is the back up running back at North Carolina really the third best back in the class? He sure as hell could be.
Carter has serious quickness. His cuts and agility is borderline elite. Williams might be the broken tackle god but Carter can shake and bake you all day. His size is also deceiving. Carter checks in just shy of 200 but he’s also 5-foot-8. His frame is more than fine.
The pure speed maybe isn’t deathly but this dude is so elusive. He can make you miss in a phone booth. You don’t accident your way into a 8 yard per carry average in 156 attempts. Carter is also great in the passing game. Count me very much in.
High End: Better Gio Bernard
Low End: Bad Gio Bernard (I don’t care if you don’t like the comp. That’s exactly what he looks like.)
5: Trey Sermon (Ohio State)
You want to talk about showing up to the party late? Trey Sermon transferred to Ohio State, decided he wanted to suck while sitting behind Master Teague (who actually stinks), and then explodes in the final few games in the season. Sermon is all over the map, but I believe the late season performance is real.
Sermon was a player I actually liked at Oklahoma. Kennady Brooks stole the job and gave Sermon a chance to replace JK Dobbins with the Buckeyes. That didn’t happen, but god did he explode at the end. A 331 yard rushing performance against a tough, well coached Northwestern team is no joke. A 193 yard day against Clemson was icing on the cake.
Sermon feels like the poor man Najee Harris of the draft. If the Harris price range becomes out of control, settle on Sermon much later for a significantly less acquisition cost. There’s no reason Sermon can’t be 80% of Harris. Sermon checks in at 6-foot, 221, and has some of those Harris hurdles in his arsenal.
High End: DeMarco Murray
Low End: Bad Kerryon Johnson
6: Travis Etienne (Clemson)
I’ll be the first to admit, I think Travis Etienne is a flop. I think you all have been sold a lemon and don’t realize it yet. I know Etienne is fast. I know he can catch. The problem is I just think he sort of sucks at everything else. That’s good enough to dominate in the ACC. Not the NFL.
I see a lot of ball security issues, a small frame, and someone that often leaves yardage on the table. Etienne finds a way to go backward far too often who’s sole job is to fall forward. He also can’t block for shit either. He’s also gotten worse as the years have gone along. Averaging just 5.4 yards per carry as a senior falls a lot on his own shoulders.
I’m not saying Etienne can’t play. He has ability. The speed is there and has allowed him to hit the home run on more than one occasion. What I don’t like is that often times his pure vision in the holes makes me question if he needs Lasik surgery. Would I take Etienne in the 4th-5th round as a complimentary back? Yes. Top two round back? Hard pass.
High End: Small, less efficient Saquon Barkley
Low End: CJ Spiller
7: Jaret Patterson (Buffalo)
Count me in on the Jaret Patterson train. To be honest; you can’t find this guy anywhere on running back rankings. I have a hard time understanding why. I never try to scout pure results, but his production is hard to ignore. At 5-foot-9, 195, Patterson is a true workhorse or at least was in college. He’s rushed for over 1,000 yards in each of his three years at Buffalo including a 1,799 yard campaign in 2019.
Patterson just looks like one of those bowling balls coming out of the backfield. The Buffalo product has great balance and power. The low center of gravity sure as hell helps. Patterson might not have crazy speed but he’s not putting that football on the ground and is so dependable. Patterson is probably my favorite diamond in the rough back in the class. The best player in the MAC for three straight years needs to be talked about…
High End: Good Mike Davis
Low End Jacquizz Rodgers
8: Kylin Hill (Mississippi State)
Kylin Hill has character issues which will drop his stock. Being suspended and then leaving campus isn’t a great sign. If you set that aside, Hill has the talent to make it in the league.
In 2019, Hill rushed for 1,350 yards and 10 touchdowns on 242 attempts. He’s a very good natural runner and can be plugged right into the mix. Hill has no issues blocking or catching the ball either. The size and frame check the boxes too. Hill can be described as just an all around solid back. The talent is there. Character concerns? We’ll see.
High End: Derrius Guice if he wasn’t an idiot
Low End: Stevan Ridley
9: Rhamondre Stevenson (Oklahoma)
Rhamondre Stevenson is a weird one. I considered him a fullback forever. Then out of nowhere he just stole the running back job and was pretty damn good at it. Stevenson is enormous at 6-foot, 232. Maybe we shouldn’t have been surprised because in limited carries, Stevenson always produced.
Stevenson is big and powerful. That’s obvious. He’s even a little nimble and able to catch. However, it’s hard to find a lot of special. Those high twitch movement skills that blow you away really don’t exist. There’s a role for Stevenson but it’s hard to plug him in and say here the job is yours.
High End: Le’Ron McClain
Low End: Jaylen Samuels
10: Demetric Felton (UCLA)
Demetric Felton can catch. I know this much. For whatever reason, nobody wants to make this man a running back. I don’t get it. Please send help. Felton has ability, it’s just hard to know what he is. Does Felton belong on the running back rankings or wide receiver rankings? Do NFL teams even know?
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