Don't Tell Travis Etienne RBs Don’t Have 1st-Round Value

Photo: Photo courtesy Clemson's Pro Day

In hindsight, it’s almost ludicrous Travis Etienne, one of the best, most dynamic collegiate running backs, who will leave Clemson as the ACC’s all-time leading rusher, wasn’t at the forefront of the Tigers’ mind during the 2017 recruiting cycle. Etienne was one of the best backs in the 2017 class and a 4-star recruit from Jennings, Louisiana; but Clemson was focused on another player: Cordarrian Richardson. Once Richardson de-committed, the Tigers were forced to look elsewhere. They honed in on Etienne.

Now, as the consensus RB1 in the 2021 NFL Draft, Etienne is hoping to change the narrative around running backs’ value. After an accomplished career at Clemson—where he also leads the ACC in career rushing touchdowns (54), total touchdowns (57), and points by a non-kicker (348)—he’s projected to be “one of the NFL’s most dangerous offensive weapons.”

Etienne is versatile; he’s explosive and disciplined out of the backfield. Etienne’s skill set can transcend any scheme; what’s more, he’s become a more vocal leader and improved as a receiving threat, developing as a pass-catcher in his final season at Clemson. In 2020, he totaled 588 receiving yards and two receiving touchdowns. It was a skill he steadily developed over four years and a testament to his commitment to growth.

Etienne had, maybe, 16 targets in high school; and under the direction of then-co-offensive coordinator and wide receivers coach Jeff Scott and teammates like top-110 prospect Amari Rodgers, Etienne’s confidence and range grew. While running backs are rarely taken in the first round of the draft anymore—with Clyde Edwards-Helaire the most recent exception as the No. 32 pick in last year’s draft—Etienne’s abilities as a back, receiver, and special-teams player can entice a team to go against the grain.

“I’m one of the best skill guys in the draft. I’m able to do it all,” he said after Clemson’s Pro Day on Thursday. “I feel like I add a component to [take] teams to the next tier. I just possess a lot of things that are God-given, that most guys don’t possess. I feel like it’s just in me. You see in the film, I’m able to be out there three downs. I’m able to play special teams; just being able to impact the team each and every down makes me different and makes me worthy of the first round.”

Etienne was arguably the best collegiate back in 2019, but instead of leaving after his junior year and declaring for the draft, Etienne returned to Clemson for an unprecedented season. It was “the best decision” he could have made; it transcended football. Etienne was able to complete his degree and leave a lasting legacy as a two-time ACC Player of the Year.

“I just wanted to be a great role model to my little brother and the kids back in Jennings, Louisiana,” Etienne said. “Not everyone has a shot in the NFL; I wanted to be an example to those kids who aren’t going to have their shot. I want them to strive to get their college degree and graduate. A degree is going to last them a lifetime. Football is going to be over in a couple of years, I’ll still be young. I’ll have my degree and know that I’ll be able to transition in life that much easier.”

Etienne was in the RB1 conversation leading up to last year’s draft. After his 2018 and 2019 seasons, which were the best individual seasons for any back in Clemson’s history, Etienne rivaled, if not exceeded, the skill set of last year’s only first-round running back, Edwards-Helaire. Returning for another season of college football isn’t always fruitful; players risk career-altering injuries, lose out on a year of income, and have the potential to fall down draft boards. But Etienne was uber-productive during a COVID-19-stricken season and his draft stock appears to be mostly unaffected.

Etienne is in the same position, if not a better one, than he was leading up to last year’s draft. He is more pro-ready now with added weight. His 199-pound frame was a concern, and even he realized he needed to bulk up to make it at the next level. Etienne weighed in at 215 pounds at his Pro Day, the average size of NFL backs.

“At 199 in the league, you won’t really thrive at the running back position, you won’t be able to play that for long,” Etienne said. 

And while he doesn’t “buy into the lie” that running backs can only take so many hits, he still focused on getting to the threshold for prototypical running backs.

“I definitely wanted to get my body right and get it right in the right way.”

Etienne’s been compared to the Minnesota Vikings’ Dalvin Cook and the New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara. All three are game-changers and dynamic backs in their own right. He would like to end up in Arizona, playing alongside Kenyan Drake; and, in one of The Draft Network’s recent mock drafts, Etienne landed with the Cardinals in Round 2. He’s also been projected to go earlier in the second round to the Atlanta Falcons. But don’t rule out the first round. Etienne has everything an NFL team could want. He’s the best at his position, and that, Etienne believes, should supersede any notion that running backs don’t have first-round value.

“I feel like the best player should be picked where they are,” he said.