This week is one of my favorite weeks on the football calendar. Over the next few days, NFL front offices and scouting departments will be on the ground in Mobile, Alabama, evaluating some of the nation’s best senior prospects. The Senior Bowl provides NFL evaluators an opportunity to get a first-hand look at prospects and a chance to see them compete against their peers. The Senior Bowl is a great opportunity for small-school players to prove their abilities on the big stage as they played weaker competition compared to their big-school counterparts.
This season the Senior Bowl will be even more important for the evaluation process since the NFL had to cancel the scouting combine due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This week in Mobile could be one of the few chances that NFL personnel can meet, evaluate, and get to know prospects in person before the 2021 NFL Draft in April.
Now that Senior Bowl week is upon us, it is finally time to turn our focus to the NFL draft. I have spent a lot of time watching tape this fall, listening to my colleagues at The Draft Network, and talking to friends in the league, and it's safe to say that this year’s draft class is a very talented group. Every year it seems that a class is deeper or weaker at certain position groups, and this year is no different.
Positions like wide receiver, offensive tackle, and edge rusher have very good talent at the top and have strong depth throughout. Positions such as defensive tackle, linebacker, and safety are a bit lacking. A position I spent time watching over the weekend was running back, and this is another very strong position for this class. This year’s upcoming running back class is a very talented group. There are not only studs at the top of the draft, but there is very strong depth throughout the whole class. As NFL evaluators begin to stack their board and sort these players accordingly, I expect a healthy debate and variance between how they rank the top five running backs. The question is, who is RB1?
If this question was posed heading into the 2020 college football season the answer would have been Clemson’s Travis Etienne. Etienne bypassed the NFL draft last season, a move that surprised many, and returned as the clear-cut favorite to be RB1 in the 2021 draft. As a junior, Etienne rushed for 1,614 yards and 19 touchdowns with an absurd 7.8 yards-per-carry average. Etienne was the leading rusher for one of the best offenses in college football and had been a difference-maker from the minute he stepped foot on the field of Death Valley. Etienne would have likely been drafted early last year, but with talented runners like Jonathan Taylor, J.K. Dobbins, D’Andre Swift, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire in last year’s class he opted to return and try his shot at being the first back off the board in 2021. Did he make the right choice?
Statistically speaking, Etienne definitely did not make the right decision. In his senior year, he rushed for just 914 yards and 14 touchdowns; these marks were much lower compared to his sophomore and junior seasons. But, as most good evaluators know, stats don’t always tell the full story. Etienne’s drop in production is much less about him as a player and more about his surroundings at Clemson. With four new inexperienced starters up front, it was a lot tougher to gain yards compared to years past. Etienne’s play in 2020 didn’t hurt his stock, and the reason why he isn’t considered a lock to be RB1 now is because of the performance of other runners in this class.
Starting with Alabama’s Najee Harris, who you will see as RB1 more times than not in mock drafts and similar rankings. Harris, like Etienne, also turned down a chance at the NFL last season and decided to return for one last year at Alabama. Unlike Etienne, Harris wasn’t considered to be a top-two round back and was more likely to hear his name called somewhere in Rounds 3 or 4. Harris wanted to improve his draft stock as a senior— and he did. Harris rushed for 1,466 yards and 26 touchdowns and also caught 43 passes for 425 yards and four scores. He finished fifth in voting for the Heisman trophy and proved that he is a top-tier back. Harris’ play this season has vaulted him up the boards, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him be the first back drafted in April.
Two other backs who are also in the top tier of runners actually come from the same school, and that's North Carolina’s Michael Carter and Javonte Williams. The Tarheel duo was the most dynamic pair of rushers at the college level in quite some time and figure to be great players at the next level. Williams, a 5-foot-10, 220-pound junior, rushed for 1,140 yards and 19 touchdowns proving to be one of the more physical runners in the entire country. Carter, meanwhile, is listed at only 5-foot-8 and 199 pounds but ran for 1,245 yards and nine touchdowns. The two players are really polar opposites in terms of physical attributes and play styles, but both are excellent prospects. While Williams is the player who received much of the hype and attention this fall, Carter’s tape was better overall. All four of these backs are extremely talented and will contribute as rookies on whichever team they get drafted by. But, the question remains: Who is RB1?
If you had asked me this question immediately after the College Football Playoff National Championship, I would have answered Harris. I came away really impressed by the way Harris played this season and how strong he finished the year, especially in the biggest games. However, after doing more tape work over the last week or so, I came to the conclusion that Etienne is still RB1. Depending on what traits you value in running backs your answer might be different, but with what I look for in a runner I have to go with Etienne.
Etienne has good, not great size for the position—listed at 5-foot-10 and 205 pounds—but he runs extremely strong for a back that size and has an Alvin Kamara-esque ability to bounce off tackles. He has outstanding burst and acceleration and has the explosiveness to beat almost any angle. Etienne shows good patience to let things develop and vision to see cutback lanes. He proved in 2020 that he is more than capable as a receiver out of the backfield and can actually be quite the weapon in that regard due to his speed, quickness, and lateral agility in the open field.
As much as I like Harris, I just like Etienne more. Harris is phenomenal, and I appreciate how solid of a player he is, but I want a little more than solid. Where Harris can consistently churn out 4-5 yards per carry, Etienne has the burst and speed to pop for 60 in a flash. In today’s NFL where everyone is big and everyone is fast, I want my running back to be able to defeat angles with speed and be able to explode through a gap rather than rely on power to plow over defenders.
How these running backs stack up on individual team’s boards is going to come down to preference and taste. If a team values consistency, ability to gain the tough yards, and power then Harris may be their pick; but if a team wants a home-run hitting back with explosiveness to stress defenses every time he touches the ball then Etienne may be their cup of tea. Both of these players and the UNC duo will all be productive in the league, and much of their success will largely depend on which team and offensive situation they land in.
With the talent in last year’s class and the talent that these four runners have, one thing is certain: The future of the running back position in the NFL is in good hands.