NFL Draft News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft RB Superlatives: Best home-run speed, toughest to tackle, best vision and more

Jan 11, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Najee Harris (22) celebrates during the third quarter against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The 2021 NFL Draft running back class may be top-heavy, but there are a lot of intriguing prospects later on with some receiving ability. Just because there won’t be the depth on Day 2 as there was in 2020, however, doesn’t mean you can’t get a specific skill set later on in the draft.

Let’s take a look at the superlatives for the running backs this year.

View PFF's 2021 NFL Draft position rankings:

QB | RB | WR | TE | T | iOL | DI | EDGE | LB | CB | S

Best Home-Run Speed: Travis Etienne, Clemson

Etienne was bottled up more in 2020 than ever before, but he still averaged more than one 15-plus-yard run per game. For his career, Etienne had 85 such runs — the most of any running back in the draft class. With 4.41-second speed at his Pro Day and a 10-foot-8 broad jump, you can bet on that translating to the next level.

Toughest to Bring Down: Javonte Williams, North Carolina

This one was very evident in PFF’s charting. The 20-year-old back was the most difficult back to bring down in college football last year and also had the single best tackle-breaking season in PFF College history. Williams shredded 76 tackles, ranking first in college football last year, on only 157 carries. And he’s only getting better.

Best Zone Runner: Khalil Herbert, Virginia Tech

PFF's grading on this is surprisingly not close. Herbert’s 93.9 rushing grade on zone concepts the past two seasons is tops in the class, and so is his 8.2 yards per attempt on 157 such carries. Watch how easily he navigates outside zone here out of shotgun — a notoriously more difficult alignment with the running back's angle than from under center.

It also helps that he’s been a monster to bring down in space, racking up 57 broken tackles on those 157 carries. With Herbert standing at only 5-foot-9, his low center of gravity makes it easy for him to cut and get upfield on dimes. Get this man in a zone scheme, and let him rip it up.

Best Gap Runner: Javonte Williams, North Carolina

93.8 grade. 65 broken tackles on 131 gap runs the past two years. 8.0 yards per attempt (only Rhamondre Stevenson has been better — 8.3 yards per attempt, although on only 69 carries). To put into context how insane those figures are, Williams broke 21 more tackles on 60 fewer attempts than Alabama's Najee Harris had on gap runs over that span.

Best Scatback: Pooka Williams, Kansas

If there was a “most difficult to touch” superlative in this running back draft class, Williams would likely be your winner. He is a lightning rod with the ball in his hands and needs only an inch to make a play.

At his Pro Day, Williams ran a 4.38-second 40-yard dash but checked in at only 175 pounds and did four bench press reps. He’s not going to do all your normal running back things, but he can still be a weapon.

Best Goal-Line Back: Najee Harris, Alabama

This superlative was hotly contested. Travis Etienne led the way with 37 career goal-to-go scores, with Harris coming in second (35). Harris, however, converted at a higher rate. Some 48.6% of Harris’ goal-to-go carries resulted in scores, while the same was true only 44.0% of the time for Etienne. Harris quite obviously has the bruising running style and size to be that guy at the NFL level, as well.

Best hands: Najee Harris, Alabama

After not being featured early in his Alabama career, Harris became a weapon in the Crimson Tide passing attack over the past two seasons. He tallied 80 career catches — 43 this past season — and dropped only three targets. Those sure hands will surely be utilized in the NFL.

Biggest Catch Radius: Najee Harris, Alabama

This completes the trifecta for Harris, who has more highlight-reel grabs on his tape than almost any running back in recent memory. At 6-foot-2 with 33 3/8-inch arms, Harris has one of the widest catch radii you’ll ever see at the position.

Best Vision: Jaret Patterson, Buffalo

Watching the 5-foot-7 Patterson navigate in tight quarters is a thing of beauty. He personifies the symbiotic relationship between runner and offensive line in the way he sets up his blocks.

It’s something you see consistently on his tape, and it helps out tremendously with offensive linemen establishing leverage. The way he presses holes and patiently waits to explode will translate nicely to the next level, even at his size. 

Best Route-Runner: Demetric Felton, UCLA

Not many NFL running backs can split out wide and get open as easily as Felton showed he could at the Senior Bowl. Felton had the fifth-highest grade of any receiver in attendance in the one-on-ones, and he hasn’t even played that position since 2018. If you want a receiving threat in your offense, this is the guy.

Best Athletic Testing: Elijah Mitchell, Louisiana

At 5-foot-10 and 201 pounds, Mitchell put up a 4.38-second 40-yard dash, did 17 bench reps, had a 38-inch vertical, a 10-foot-8 broad jump, a 4.19-second shuttle and a 6.94-second three-cone. Mitchell's bench press was his only Pro Day drill that was below the 70th percentile historically at the running back position. That’s quite the athletic display for a player who has the tape to match. He earned rushing grades over 80.0 in all three seasons as a starter and averaged 4.14 yards after contact per attempt for his career. When a small-school player tests that well athletically, it makes you feel better about their production translating to the next level.

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