NFL Draft News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft: Midseason running back rankings

Clemson, South Carolina, USA; Clemson running back Travis Etienne (9) runs the ball during their game against Syracuse at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ken Ruinard-USA TODAY Sports

So, you’ve come to PFF for running back rankings.

We neither endorse taking any of the players below too highly nor recommend re-signing them to big-money deals in five years, but running backs who can impact the passing game can still be value-adds. That’s going to be crucial in any running back rankings at PFF. If you can’t catch a cold and aren’t dynamic in space, you won’t rank highly on this list.

1. Travis Etienne, Clemson (Senior)

There’s no better player in space at the position in this entire draft class. Etienne is as explosive a running back as we’ve seen in the PFF College era. He’s broken 204 tackles on 648 career carries, averaging 7.3 total yards and 4.5 yards after contact per attempt.

2. Javonte Williams, North Carolina (Junior)

Big, explosive and elusive is a winning combination no matter what position you play offensively, but that combination is the difference-maker at running back. Williams has prototypical every-down back size at 5-foot-10, 220 pounds, and he gets upfield in a hurry when he plants his foot into the ground.

Williams is currently the highest graded back in the country (94.7) and is on pace for the single most elusive season we’ve ever seen. He’s already broken 64 tackles on only 131 attempts so far this year. The balance he routinely displays through contact is unlike anyone else's in the entire draft class outside of Travis Etienne. That’s why he’s moved up to second on this list. Oh, and he’s got a little nastiness to his game, as well.

3. Najee Harris, Alabama (Senior)

You don’t often see 230-pound running backs with Harris' kind of cutting ability. His jump cuts are reminiscent of a back 20 pounds lighter.

What really sold us on Harris as one of the top three backs in this class is his hands. He’s made some of the prettiest contested catches of any back in this class over the course of his Alabama career. He had the back-shoulder score against LSU last year …

… The catch and run against South Carolina …

… And yet another back-shoulder grab this season against Texas A&M.

After being somewhat of an afterthought in the passing game in his first two seasons at Alabama, Harris has been featured far more in Steve Sarkisian’s offense, with 51 catches over the past year and a half. For his career, Harris has only two drops on 63 catchable passes. Those hands are as reliable as it gets at the position.

4. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis (RS Sophomore)

While Harris is a good receiver for a running back, Gainwell is a good receiver full stop. The Memphis back could man the slot in your offense at the next level, and it’s a shame we didn’t get to see what he could do for an encore after opting out this season. You’re not going to see too many backs with 100-yard receiving days on this list, let alone the kind of 200-yard outing Gainwell had last year against Tulane.

At 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, size is the only thing holding him back from pushing higher on this list. And after not seeing him for a year, it will be interesting to see what Gainwell shows up looking like at the NFL scouting combine. His balance and shiftiness are superb and should translate immediately to the league.

He may not be your prototypical bell cow, but he’s the spread back you want.

5. Khalil Herbert, Virginia Tech (Grad Senior)

Yet another running back who has seen a meteoric rise up these rankings. Herbert toiled away in anonymity at Kansas for four years before leaving the program in the middle of the season last fall and transferring to Virginia Tech. Now, his talents have flourished with the Hokies, as he’s already racked up 924 yards on only 114 carries this season (8.1 yards per carry).

He’s never going to excite you too much from an athletic standpoint, but that hasn’t stopped him from consistently creating big plays in the running game.

When you see shorter backs with his kind of tackle-breaking ability (5-foot-9, 212 pounds), you can feel confident that it will continue in the NFL with that low center of gravity. Evaluators will also love the fact that Herbert has only fumbled twice on 433 career carries.

6. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State (RS Junior)

I still can’t quite figure out why Hubbard returned to school this fall, but his draft stock has certainly paid the price. After going over 2,000 yards as a redshirt sophomore in 2019, Hubbard hasn’t been nearly as efficient this season and has gotten a bit banged up, as well. That talent we saw on a massive workload in 2019 didn’t go away, though.

He’s a decisive and explosive player with the ball in his hands. He runs much stronger than his listed 208 pounds.

The worry is that there’s no real “trump card” ability with Hubbard — he’s just kind of solid across the board. That can still add up to a productive back in the league, but it’s why he doesn’t make our top five.

7. Michael Carter, North Carolina (Senior)

Yet another Tar Heels running back, as the program easily has the most dynamic duo in the country (although you might not know it the way Notre Dame shut them down). However, that was mostly Williams that they stopped, as Carter still handled his business against the Irish.

While he’s only listed at 5-foot-8, 199 pounds, make no mistake, Carter can bang with the big boys. There’s no fear to his running style. While the bounce in his cuts is his calling card, he’ll lower a shoulder just the same.

He’s also an accomplished receiver, with 77 career receptions and eight broken tackles on 22 catches already this season. Don’t expect him to come off the board too early, but he’ll be productive wherever he does go.

8. Demetric Felton, UCLA (RS Senior)

Felton is such an accomplished receiver for the position that he actually was a receiver way back in 2018. He's even been the slot receiver for UCLA at times throughout his career.

He took 397 snaps from the slot and split wide in 2018 before transitioning more to the backfield to spell Josh Kelley last year. Now, he’s a certified bell cow with 101 carries and 30 broken tackles through four games.

He can still look like a receiver playing running back at times, and he isn’t going to be the guy you want pounding the rock between the tackles, but his receiving ability is a difference-maker.

Felton is incredibly dynamic in space and has burst out of his cuts that can change angles. He’s among the shiftiest backs in the nation, and his jump cuts are reminiscent of LeSean McCoy‘s at times. Felton has already accepted a Senior Bowl invite and could see his stock rise considerably with an impressive performance in the receiving one-on-ones.

9. Trey Sermon, Ohio State (Senior)

It’s a shame we’ll never really get to see what Sermon can do with a bell-cow workload at any point in his college career. After splitting carries with Kennedy Brooks at Oklahoma for three years, he’s now ceding touches to Master Teague at Ohio State. He’s carried the ball 45 times for 232 yards with six broken tackles so far this season. However, Sermon possesses two of the 10 best seasons for elusive rating we’ve ever seen, dating back to his time at Oklahoma.

He’s got a stout lower half for a 6-foot-1, 215-pound back and can run through arm tackles with ease.

10. Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma (RS Senior)

One of the most imposing physical specimens at the position in all of college football, Stevenson simply needs more touches. The former junior college transfer has all of 114 carries in his career, but he has broken 34 tackles and averaged 5.2 yards after contact per attempt.

At 6-foot, 246 pounds, Stevenson is a certified hoss. The burst he possesses for a man that size is what’s easily his most impressive trait. You don’t expect a man that big to be able to run away from defenders, but he does it routinely.

Stevenson gives off some serious Michael Turner vibes with the way he carries that weight so easily. The last few weeks of the season could be huge for his evaluation.

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