Ask most people who the top running back prospects are in the 2021 NFL Draft and you'll usually get some combination of the same names, just in varying order. Clemson's Travis Etienne, Alabama's Najee Harris, North Carolina's Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, and Memphis' Kenneth Gainwell typically get the most attention. Deservedly so, as each back brings a unique set of skills to the table that will make them attractive fits in different offensive styles and the potential to be a high volume back. And if you're going to be a featured player at the position these days, you need to be able to command reps on all three downs.
But with that group of five establishing itself as the most popular set of names, there is a bit of a void to be filled immediately after them. Each and every year we are reminded that opportunity is a very large piece of the puzzle for running back success entering the league, and the right mixture of reps, skill, and surrounding talent can oftentimes lead to a breakout back that flew under the radar throughout the process. You don't have to look any further than former UDFA running backs like Phillip Lindsay and James Robinson for proof.
While the NFL was content to let those players slip through the cracks, I'm hoping to find the one with the best skill potential for a breakout in 2021 and slot him as my 2021 NFL Draft's No. 6-rated running back. The field is messy, but I do have two candidates who stand out from the pack.
Meet my contenders for RB6: Ohio State's Trey Sermon and Oklahoma's Rhamondre Stevenson. Each of these backs provides plenty of power and physicality to their playstyle, but there are certainly gaps in their resumes that will cap their respective ceilings.
For Stevenson, there seems to be a unique disconnect between his pure size and his running style. Stevenson is more likely to hit you with a spin move than he is the "truck stick," but as a player who checked in at this year's Senior Bowl event at 227 pounds, there's plenty of power rolled into his frame. If a team can get him to unlock a more aggressive running style, Stevenson has plenty of appeal for a team.
One of the bright spots is in pass protection. We had a chance to watch Stevenson mix it up during Senior Bowl practices and it reaffirmed what we saw at Oklahoma: he's a bruiser in pass pro. So with a leg up on the third-down role, Stevenson can make a strong case for the RB6 spot—even if he's not overly dynamic in the open field and he can run with frustrating finesse at times. That finesse isn't always a dead end, either. Stevenson has surprising wiggle for a back of his size and for me simply needs the fine-tuning to be able to become the best, most well-balanced version of himself in the pros.
For Sermon, I see a more scheme-specific fit. Teams that run inside zone should love the package that Sermon brings to the table as an early-down runner. As he got his feet underneath of him after a 2020 transfer to Ohio State from, ironically enough, Oklahoma, Sermon's play steadily boomed. He was terrific during a three-game stretch this season in the biggest moments for the Buckeyes, shining specifically in the Big Ten Championship Game against Northwestern (331 yards and 11.4 yards per carry) and in the first round of the College Football Playoff against Clemson (193 yards).
At 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, Sermon isn't exactly a lean back, but he's smaller than Stevenson—and the difference in their games is clear when you see Sermon react to a flashing gap. He's got the short-area burst to stick his foot in the ground and press into a gap, whereas Stevenson is more dependent on staying "on the tracks" as a rusher to find his chunk gains. But I would give Stevenson the edge in pass protection and neither has been utilized with any significance as pass-catchers.
Between their respective six seasons played at the college level, they've combined for just 60 catches. And Stevenson's 18 receptions in 2020 is the high-water mark. So if you're wondering why these two backs don't necessarily have a high ceiling in this respective class, bear in mind that Harris caught 70 passes in just the last two seasons. In that same stretch, Etienne has caught 85. Carter (46), Williams (42), and Gainwell (51, all in 2019 after opting out of 2020) all outpace this pair of backs in the passing game, too.
This isn't meant to be casting shade, but rather exploring why a pleasantly nimble big back who can pass block (Stevenson) and an inside zone standout who played his best ball in the biggest moments (Sermon) aren't among the top-five backs on TDN's consensus running back rankings.
For what it's worth, if my offense ran high volumes of inside zone, I'd likely covet Sermon over Gainwell and Carter. And that clear forecast behind a Buckeyes offensive line that asked Sermon to constantly press the line of scrimmage and read inside and split zone is what gives me the conviction to rank Sermon as my 2021 RB6. In the right spot, I wouldn't be surprised if he was a top-three productive back in the class of 2021 as a rookie too.