News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft: Preseason running back rankings

Our takes on running backs here at PFF are always going to be a little bit different from the general public — not only from a valuation standpoint but also from an evaluation standpoint. If a running back can't add value as a receiver, tackle breaker or explosive playmaker, we’re not going to be high on him. With the 2021 NFL Draft still many months away, here are PFF's early running back rankings.

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1. Travis Etienne, Clemson

Etienne has a knack for breaking tackles and creating big plays at a level that we haven’t seen in our six years of college grading — not even from Saquon Barkley. Last season, Etienne averaged .44 broken tackles per rushing attempt with 91 broken tackles on 207 carries. That broken tackle figure ranked first in all of college football despite the fact that he ranked only 38th in total attempts.

He’s also got high 4.3 speed — as evidenced by him going neck and neck with Isaiah Simmons in the video below.

If there’s anything concerning on Etienne’s on tape, it’s his splits versus good and bad competition. While that’s kind of how it goes at the running back position (and why we don’t value them highly), Etienne’s running style also does him no favors when holes get clogged up. He gets lateral to the line of scrimmage far too often and won’t always plant his foot in the ground to take the few yards that are there.

Outlook for 2020

Don’t get hurt. That’s really it for Etienne. He showed he can be a key cog in a passing attack last season with 37 catches for 433 yards. Truthfully, there's not much more for him to prove.

2. Trey Sermon, Ohio State

Sermon is a sneaky big running back who holds his 221 pounds with ease. His cutting ability and smooth running style are far more reminiscent of a smaller back. That’s likely why would-be tacklers have bounced off his legs left and right over his career. He’s broken 113 tackles on 336 attempts over his three college seasons while averaging 3.65 yards after contact per attempt. While it’s not a perfect comparison, five backs had over 300 attempts last season and none had more than 87 broken tackles.

The biggest thing lacking from Sermon’s game is long speed. He’s more sudden than he is fast, and while he’s by no means slow, he’s not been much of a home-run threat. With teams coveting speed more and more at the position, that’s going to hurt Sermon in the eyes of some.

Outlook for 2020

Producing at a high level at two different schools is always going to boost a player's stock, as it shows one isn’t simply the “product of a scheme.” That’s not to say Sermon won’t have a favorable situation at Ohio State this fall with one of the best offensive lines in the nation but, rather, that he’s well-versed in a number of different concepts.

3. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State

You don’t have to worry about workload with the slightly undersized Hubbard (6-foot, 201 pounds). The Oklahoma State back led all of college football with 328 carries last season. And he had at least 19 carries and 99 rushing yards in all but one game (McNeese State). The rising senior runs far harder than his size would suggest, and he is more than willing to drag defenders between the tackles. He’s one of the more decisive runners in the class and will ramp up in speed after he makes his cut.

The biggest knock on Hubbard is his five fumbles last season. That isn’t terribly uncommon with running backs who see that extreme of a workload (Jonathan Taylor averaged more than that per season). One might worry about tread on his tires if he sees a similar workload from 2019, but once again, that’s not necessarily a talent knock.

Outlook for 2020

Hubbard is yet another player with little to prove. It’s difficult to see him boosting his draft stock with how consistently productive he was last season.

4. Najee Harris, Alabama

We knew Harris could shrug off arm tackles with the best of them heading into 2019 (112 career broken tackles on 387 attempts), but we didn’t know what the 6-foot-2, 230-pounder could do in the passing game after hauling in only 10 catches in two seasons. He proved that in a big way with 27 catches and this beauty against LSU in 2019.

While that boosted his draft stock in our eyes, there’s still one glaring issue. He’s likely the slowest running back on this entire list. Cracking 4.6 seconds in the 40 would be a massive surprise for the senior running back. On 387 career rushing attempts, Harris has never had a run longer than 35 yards. That’s not the way the position is trending in the NFL.

Outlook for 2020

You may be sensing a theme here. After multiple seasons with a hefty workload, Harris is who he is at this point. Unless there’s some unlocked speed potential we don’t know about, Harris is a limited power back with some pretty slick hands.

5. Zamir White, Georgia

White is the next man up in the Georgia running back pipeline that has seen D’Andre Swift, Sony Michel, and Nick Chubb all get drafted with top-35 picks in the past three years. White was a consensus five-star recruit coming out of North Carolina in 2018 and impressed last season as Swift’s backup. He broke 19 tackles and averaged 3.59 yards after contact on 78 carries.

White possesses an ideal blend of size (6-foot, 215 pounds) and explosiveness. He can burst through a hole with the best of them. However, based on the limited sample size, he’s not terribly creative as a runner and isn’t the type of back to make defenders miss. He’s been pretty much a “one cut and go”-type runner, which can have it’s positive and negatives.

Outlook for 2020

The rock is now his. With dual-threat quarterback Jamie Newman coming over from Wake Forest, White should have plenty of space with more option looks than Georgia could run with Jake Fromm. The sky is the limit with his physical tools, and we can’t wait to see what he does with a bigger workload.

6. Journey Brown, Penn State

Brown is the lone back on this list who can challenge Clemson's Travie Etienne from a pure size and explosiveness standpoint. He made Bruce Feldman’s Freaks List this year on the back of a reported 4.29-second 40-yard dash in offseason testing. Think that sounds a little inflated? Decide for yourself:

After toiling in anonymity in a four-way platoon with 51 carries for 297 yards over the first 10 weeks of the season, Brown grabbed the reins and went off for 593 yards on 78 carries with 26 broken tackles over the final four games of the season.

The biggest question is: What took him so long? It’s a bit of a red flag that the coaches who knew his skills best weren’t willing to make him the top dog in their running back rotation. Brown does have many of the same weaknesses you’d expect from a speed back. He lacks power in his lower half and the ability to drag defenders. You can see he’s hesitant to crank it up to full speed through anything resembling a tight hole. There’s a ton of natural ability, but we need to see running back polish.

Outlook for 2020

We’d like to see more from Brown as a receiver. He didn’t run many routes besides swings or check releases last season, and he also dropped four of his 19 catchable passes. With his athleticism, he should be a weapon in space, although that hasn’t been the case to date in the Penn State offense. Producing on a heftier workload than the 129 carries (not even 10 per game) he had last season would also go a long way for evaluators.

7. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis

Memphis: The Running Back Factory. Gainwell picked right up where Darrell Henderson left off, generating 1,466 yards and 56 broken tackles on 229 carries last season. His biggest impact may have come as a receiver, where he notched 51 catches for 610 yards and produced an 85.0 receiving grade. He’s arguably the most talented receiving back in this class, and his blend of speed/agility is top-notch.

There’s just one big problem: Gainwell is built more like a cornerback than he is a running back. He’s thrived as a runner with the space Memphis’ offense creates and the lesser competition he’s faced, but there’s reason to believe that, at 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, he’ll be seen as more of a scatback in the NFL. The good news is he’s only a rising junior, so there’s time to keep filling out.

Outlook for 2020

Pack on the mass. The on-field performance and talent are there, but the size is not. Gainwell's upshot is a back like Raheem Mostert, who checks in at 5-foot-10, 197 pounds. However, Mostert is one of the fastest backs in the NFL and thrived once he got in a 49ers scheme that afforded him similar space to what Gainwell sees at Memphis.

8. Elijah Mitchell, Louisiana

Yet another Group of Five back checks in on the list. Mitchell can lower his shoulder and bring the pain. Listed at 5-foot-11, 217 pounds, he has an ideal NFL body type with more than enough power and athleticism to carry a hefty workload.

For his career, he’s averaged 4.18 yards after contact per attempt and broken 102 tackles on 385 carries. Obviously, the level of competition is a concern — Mitchell went for 31 yards on 14 carries in his lone game against a Power Five school last season (Mississippi State). He possesses a very no-nonsense running style, though, that tends to translate well to the NFL.

Outlook for 2020

Mitchell is a senior with nearly 400 carries to his name. It’s unlikely this zebra is going to change his stripes. Seeing more touches in the passing game — where he’s caught only 33 passes in his career — could be helpful for his stock. He’ll split time with Trey Ragas, another highly thought-of running back prospect, this fall.

9. Max Borghi, Washington State

Let’s get this out of the way: Borghi is a running back in name only. With what he did last season at Washington State, he’s far closer to a slot wide receiver at the moment. His vision was nearly nonexistent, and he had nearly as many receptions (85) as carries (127).

That said, he’s pretty dynamic with the ball in his hands. He possesses legitimate angle-changing speed and was difficult to bring down in space (28 broken tackles after the catch). His ability to seamlessly move between the slot (65 snaps last season) is a skill we covet in our running backs here at PFF.

Outlook for 2020

I’d say Borghi could help himself by getting more action in pro-style run concepts now that Mike Leach is gone, but that simply won’t happen in 2020. Washington State hired one of the few football coaches whose offense is even more spread out than Leach’s. Nick Rolovich ran with at least four wide receivers on every single snap last season at Hawaii, so we may even see more of Borghi in the slot.

10. Demetric Felton, UCLA

Almost everything said for Borghi above can also apply to Felton. He averaged a paltry 3.8 yards per carry on 87 rushing attempts last season (although 3.11 came after contact). He’s also listed at only 5-foot-9, 185 pounds, making him a good 20 pounds shy of where you’d want an every-down back to come in at. One thing that Felton excels at is getting open. He’s bouncy as can be and separated at will against linebackers last season. He finished with 54 catches for 594 yards, breaking 18 tackles along the way. His jump cuts are straight out of a video game.

That sort of shiftiness plays in space no matter what level of football you’re at. Felton may ultimately end up as a slot receiver, but his ability to impact the passing game from the running back position still has value.

Outlook for 2020

If Felton is going to stay at running back, we need to see some added muscle and power to his game. That was nonexistent in 2019. Even if a Tarik Cohen role is his upshot, that would still be the case. Last year’s starter at UCLA, Joshua Kelley, was the Chargers' fourth-round selection this past spring, so Felton should get far more opportunities this fall.

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