2021 NFL Draft Summer Scouting: Running Backs

Photo: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

The 2020 class of running backs was labeled as being strong. Despite that, there was plenty of speculation about whether or not we'd see a player at the position selected in the first round. It did ultimately happen, as the Kansas City Chiefs selected former LSU rusher Clyde Edwards-Helaire with the final pick of the round.

Following up a strong class with another one that has another group of headliners, the 2021 crop is filled with senior-laden talent. Continuing my summer scouting series with a look at a few prospects who could be near the top of the class. Click here to check out my summer scouting article on the top quarterbacks.

1. Travis Etienne, Clemson, Senior

(5-foot-10, 210 pounds)

What Stands Out: Etienne is a constant big-play threat who can take it the distance at any moment during games. He operates at a different tempo than his surroundings. The Tigers rusher is able to floor the gas pedal and accelerate quickly. He also has the ability to increase speeds without flaming out, which results in multiple explosive plays. Proven to be a consistent angle destroyer even when defenders have the initial cutoff path to meet him, he outruns the angle to win.

Etienne is much stronger runner than his reputation and body indicate. He contains well above average contact balance and has the body armor in order to fend off and run through defenders. Having the strength throughout his body to keep his legs churning, it results in breaking tackles on many different surfaces. He's also not shy about welcoming contact and will make it a point to run through it in order to attack challenges on the following plane.

When seeing holes or creases along the interior, Etienne attacks them with a full head of steam. At times, he doesn't realize how fast he’s really moving. His speed and momentum help carry him through the first level to where arm tackle attempts from defensive linemen hardly ever impact or slow down his process of getting to the next level of the defense.

What Must Improve: Etienne can often catch himself playing too fast. Because of his pedal to the metal speed, his playing style can become a bit reckless. He has left many yards on the field due to him overrunning holes or turning into a bit of a crash dummy when trying to squeeze his way through tight quarters.

On the field, he has world-class speed that needs to be contained at times because it results in negative plays that could’ve been avoided if he was playing under control. Etienne is unafraid of running between the tackles, but there are many runs where he bounces to the sideline or outside prematurely. He's often overly confident in his speed and rightfully so, but more yards could’ve been gained if he remained on track instead of trying to outpace the opposition directly to the sideline. 

Scouts Take: "He shocked a lot of people with going back, but I thought he didn't have much more to prove after showing to be capable of catching the ball. He has unreal speed, but he isn't just one of those traditional speed backs. He can do much more than that. Him and Lawrence will light it up again if they play next year, but he's already put everything on film that he needs to."

2. Najee Harris, Alabama, Senior

(6-foot-2, 230 pounds)

What Stands Out: Harris' value is really seen if able to advance to the second level to put stress on low hanging defensive backs and linebackers. He's an urgent runner that carries lots of momentum behind his pads. Harris is sufficient with lowering his shoulder and finishing runs in a sometimes reckless manner. He loves to also jump over defenders as well. He's proven to be comfortable when able to set up moves from a distance or jumping into new opportunities in adjacent lanes. Harris is always a tenacious and high-energy runner. Even if undisciplined, he will do whatever it takes to break free of tackles. Harris will squirm through the whistle and force defenders to bring him down once it is blown. He churns his feet and is able to grind out hidden yardage even when on his way down to the turf. He had a highlight catch and run against South Carolina where he refused to go down on his way to a heroic touchdown that is a microcosm of his extra efforts as a runner.

What Must Improve: Harris often gets stuck at a standstill in one direction. Lack of hip mobility and elusiveness are glorified when forced to make moves in tight spaces. He relegates to an ineffective spin move or slight side steps that hardly ever cause trouble for oncoming tacklers. His initial moves are ineffective and there’s a severe lack of consistent moves in his arsenal. Harris won’t win many foot races in the open field. He rather relies on his effort and determination in order to win and maximize yardage on runs. Defenses that are disciplined with their run fits, locations and tackling techniques will be highly effective against his running style. He is a taller running back prospect that runs just as high as his height indicates. Harris' upright manner results in him being a larger target for defenders. He takes lots of clean shots to all areas of his body because of how tall he runs.

Scouts Take: "You look at his film and him in person and he won't wow you with many parts of his game, but you appreciate the way he goes about his business. He's been a big time recruit forever and you wouldn't be able to tell because of his demeanor. He truly runs pissed off and makes guys come correct when trying to bring him down. The most surprising part though is how good of a pass catcher he is. He had a highly impressive catch against LSU over Queen (Patrick) near the front pylon last year."

3. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State, Senior

(6-foot-0, 200 pounds)

What Stands Out: Hubbard has high strength levels in his lower half, which allow him to avoid would-be tacklers even when they make contact with his body. Thick, stout legs and body overall enabled him to take on and avoid the contact dished out by defenses. He incorporates great pad level that enables him to fend off lots of contact and act as if it had little effect on his body. Hubbard demonstrates a body and shoulder lean tactic that helps him remain moving forward through contact. He understands the importance of blocking schemes and isn’t a runner that runs simply to be doing so. He remains aware of how and where pullers are expected to maneuver and the assignments that they are tasked with. He's also able to remain patient, but accelerate once getting a proper read from blockers ahead of him. Hubbard possesses terrific vision and hardly ever misses running lanes when they appear. He allows holes to form, but isn’t impatient with allowing them to come to fruition.

What Must Improve: He's a highly effective runner, but when forced to create off-schedule or off of one-way runway, he has struggles with making defenders miss in condensed areas. Hubbard prefers to lower his shoulder and get what amounts of yardage that he can garner instead of trying to make tacklers miss in space to pick up even more yardage. There's the light box theory that he benefits from as well, which is what comes with playing in such an up-tempo and wide open offense like the one Oklahoma State deploys.

Scouts Take: "That offense is explosive and as crazy as it is to say, I think the passing game benefits off of the effect that he has on the operation a whole. I want to see him improve as a pass catcher because he doesn't seem quite natural at it, but his fit in a zone scheme is ideal. They run the heck out of outside and wide zone there and he's a perfect match in it."

4. Kylin Hill, Mississippi State, Senior

(5-foot-11, 215 pounds)

What Stands Out: Hills has a rocked up upper body and the arm size of rushers bigger than his listed body size. Muscular and round legs plus a stout trunk help him break tackles when defenders attempt to take out his lower half. His strong shoulders and core help him run through arm tackles and shake off reaching or lunging last resort players. As a result of his mature figure, he often tries to lower his shoulder to finish runs. While he isn't a running back that will be able to cut on a dime and quickly change directions in an instant, he notices his deficiencies by stuttering his feet repeatedly to speed up the mind and tempo of defenders before choosing his plan of attack. He's shown to utilize quick jump overs, one-hand swipes, aggressive jab steps in both directions and aggression with trying to run through contact in order to gain extra yardage. 

Hill wastes little time with making decisions and is quick with making them on some plays that may require more patience. He always trusts his first instinct and hardly ever second guesses his initial plan of attack. There are some instances of where he presses the front-side and feels cutback lanes, but it is not a primary objective for him. He keeps most of his runs on the designed side.

What Must Improve: He's a physical runner that turns into a contact magnet instead of seeking ways to stay clean and free of the opposition. Many times there were open lanes to run, but he’d rather opt to punish the tacklers by running over them instead of taking the lanes that were available. Learning to take less punishment and cash in on the open avenues that are presented to him is needed. While his decisiveness and ability to make quick decisions are a welcomed sight to see, he has a bad habit of running into the back-side of his blockers frequently.

Some of his runs are similar to a collision course of where he turns into a pinball that just so happens to find room to operate. Hill will have very few long runs that end in scoring points because he doesn’t have the top-end speed necessary to outrun angles. Positive chunk plays are considered 10-to-15 yards at a time for him.

Scouts Take: "He's a chiseled dude. I think he has his warts here and there, but there's plenty there to work with. Being in the Leach system may hurt his stock a little because he's going to be asked to be more of a pass catcher, but I think he'll be a nice addition to someone's committee. I know he hasn't been healthy recently, but he reminds me a little bit of McKinnon (Jerick) when he was in Minnesota. Not nearly as straight line fast, but similar body type, skill set and future role."

5. Zamir White, Georgia, Junior

(6-foot-0, 215 pounds)

What Stands Out: One of the best high school recruits to come out of North Carolina in recent memory, White was a highly decorated recruit upon his commitment to Georgia. He's a physically mature and well put together running back prospect that runs with a lot of purpose. It's easy to see and feel the passion that he runs with when the ball is in his possession. In a committee like the Bulldogs have demonstrated in years past, he made the most of his carries. Still awaiting his opportunity, he's expected to assume the full-time duties as a starter in 2020. White is a true downhill runner that has little trouble with picking and choosing his spots to attack. In a ground and pound scheme as he's in, he's found small spurts of success in a reserve role.

What Must Improve: His comfort as a pass catcher is where White will need to take his game to the next level, but the biggest question surrounding his stock is durability. Prior to his arrival in Athens, he suffered a torn ACL in his right knee during the state playoffs (Nov. 2017). Still honoring his scholarship, he arrived early to Georgia (Jan. 2018) still with plenty of hype. He would experience another set back though as he suffered (Aug. 2018) a torn ACL in his other knee (left). Another set of frustrating circumstances, but he would return during the 2019 season to appear in 13 of 14 games. Being at such a disposable position and already suffering ACL tears in each knee will be a red flag for some teams.

Scouts Take: "That place is a running back factory and he's definitely the next in line. He had some hype coming in from what I remember, but the knees are what many are worried about. How much longer until the next injury or will he last the entire season? That's the question you have to ask with him, but he obviously has the talent. It all revolves around how healthy he can stay, but even then there's huge risk involved. I'm a fan of the player, but at that position, it's an interesting debate considering the shelf life and his injury history."

Written By:

Jordan Reid

Senior NFL Draft Analyst

Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-Founder of ClimbingThePocket.com. Former QB and Coach at North Carolina Central Univ.

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