So, you came to PFF for running back rankings. Very bold of you.
While we may not value the position anywhere near as highly as some NFL teams will, we still take pride in properly evaluating the skill sets of each and projecting how valuable those traits will be in the league. It’s not a terribly deep class, but several quality receivers are in the mix at the top of the 2021 NFL Draft.
Best home-run speed: Travis Etienne, Clemson
Best power back: Najee Harris, Alabama
Toughest to bring down: Javonte Williams, North Carolina
Best hands: Najee Harris, Alabama
Best route-runner: Demetric Felton, UCLA
During his time at Clemson, Etienne reinvented himself from an afterthought in the passing game to the nation's leading receiver at the position. It was a change that Etienne himself vied for with the Clemson coaching staff.
Etienne can not only make special things happen on run-of-the-mill swings or screens…
Travis Etienne Receiving in 2020:
????9/9 172yds, 1 TD
????21.4 YAC per Catch ????
Etienne can take something small and make a huge play! Elusive. Tough. Fast. NFL wants and needs these type of playmakers with ball in their hands! pic.twitter.com/PEaht5iYD7
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) October 10, 2020
…but he can also competently run downfield routes and haul in passes.
After only 12 catches for 78 yards as a sophomore, Travis Etienne came to camp the next year asking for more practice reps in the passing game
In 2020, Etienne led all running backs in college football with 588 receiving yards pic.twitter.com/3NEx4cs8jN
— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) February 17, 2021
Etienne is a threat to take it to the house from anywhere and often did at Clemson. His 55 career runs of 20-plus yards are the most of any Power 5 running back since we started grading. It’s not only his long speed but also his acceleration that can change angles in the open field.
TRAVIS ETIENNE PUTS ON THE BURNERS ????
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) October 11, 2020
The biggest knock on him is that he will go home-run searching at times instead of taking what’s blocked. It was an issue that got exposed more behind a bad Clemson line this season. It’s not an uncommon problem with physical freaks, though. Saquon Barkley had the same knock coming out of Penn State, but it hasn’t particularly limited his effectiveness.
If you’ve followed PFF at all over the last six months, you likely know Williams' calling card: contact balance. He is a human pinball machine who refuses to go down without a fight.
✅ Truck Stick
✅ Spin Move
— ACC Network (@accnetwork) December 13, 2020
His 76 broken tackles on 157 attempts this past season set the PFF record for broken tackles per attempt. He has an ideal build at 5-foot-10, 220 pounds, with short-area explosiveness that makes you think those broken tackles will continue in gobs at the NFL level. While he may not be the elite athlete that Etienne is, Williams still well above average for the position.
While he wasn’t featured the way teammate Michael Carter was in the passing game, don’t let that make you think he can’t create space independently. Williams has the sort of do-it-all physical toolbox to never come off the field in the NFL.
Harris has a very proven skill set at this point, with three years as a lead back for the Crimson Tide on his resume. He’s a bruising 6-foot-2, 230-pounder who consistently falls forward. He’s also been consistently difficult to bring down, period, with 183 broken tackles on 639 career carries.
— Alex Kozora (@Alex_Kozora) February 15, 2021
Unlike most backs his size, Harris also shines in the passing game — his catch radius is bigger than most running back prospects I’ve ever seen, and he dropped just three of his 83 catchable targets over his career. That tackle-breaking ability has translated to the passing game, as well, as he’s broken 35 tackles on those 80 career catches.
NAJEE HARRIS, YOU CAN'T BE SERIOUS!
• Run someone over
• Hurdle someone
• Drag someone into the end zone pic.twitter.com/pFnPok0HU3
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 14, 2019
The only thing missing from Harris’ game is game-breaker athleticism. He’s not been near the big-play threat as the guys above him on this list.
Carter may be light, but he’s not weak. Carter is an ultra-compact 5-foot-8, 202 pounds. Body-type-wise, he’s almost a dead ringer for last year’s lone first-round running back, Clyde Edwards-Helaire.
Still, there’s reason to believe that Carter has a little more juice than the 4.6-running CEH. The North Carolina back averaged an absurd 7.9 yards per carry this past season, tallying a run of 20-plus yards in nine of his 11 games (10 of 12 if you include the Senior Bowl).
If you thought Jeff Wilson could run that choice route. Michael Carter, ladies and gentlemen. pic.twitter.com/0RijPZfSSI
— Jason Aponte (@JasonAponte2103) February 16, 2021
While he has a number of ways he can break tackles, Carter’s main selling point is the bounce in his routes as a pass-catcher. Carter is a nightmare for linebackers on option routes out of the backfield. He hauled in 25 of his 30 targets for 267 yards this past season, with only one drop and eight broken tackles.
Herbert didn’t technically come out of nowhere, but Kansas might as well be the Power 5 equivalent. After leaving the Jayhawks midway through 2019, Herbert ended up at Virginia Tech this fall and was one of the country's most productive backs on a per-touch basis. He averaged 7.6 yards per carry — 4.7 of which came after contact — and he broke 42 tackles on 155 attempts.
At 5-foot-9, 212 pounds, Herbert is thickly built and low to the earth. That low center of gravity, well, it helps with leverage battles.
Ohio State LB Tuf Borland getting bullied by Virginia Tech RB Khalil Herbert.
Borland has 4 inches and 25 pounds on Herbert. pic.twitter.com/bmgvlelCbQ
— Boom or Bust: The Draft Show (@BoomOrBustDraft) January 27, 2021
It also makes you think that those YAC and broken tackle numbers are no fluke. Herbert has the kind of juice and skill set to step in and start right away at the next level. He’s likely the last one in these rankings I’d feel comfortable saying that about.
While Carter is dense enough at his small stature to get by as an every-down back, Gainwell still firmly looked like a scatback in 2019, which is when we last saw him due to his decision to opt out. He is only a redshirt sophomore, however, and could very well have filled out his frame since we last saw him.
Gainwell similarly will be making his money as a pass-catcher. He’s an incredibly natural receiver who can seamlessly split wide and run routes like anyone else. In 2019, he caught 51 of his 59 targets for 610 yards with three drops and 20 broken tackles.
Shanahan has had success with UDFA RB’s, but I would love to see the #49ers draft Kenneth Gainwell. My favorite RB of this draft that would fit the niners run scheme and can be used in the slot or outside as a pass catcher. He’s a speedy playmaker. #FTTB pic.twitter.com/UeaZMwwxSn
— Christian (@ChristianR_Vill) December 24, 2020
His speed isn’t going to be anything special for the position, and he still has work to do as a between-the-tackles runner, but that sort of receiving ability and shiftiness is a great starting point.
After Felton’s Senior Bowl performance, I’m not sure this is even the right position to include him in anymore. After playing this past season for UCLA at over 200 pounds and handling a larger workload than he’s ever had in the past, Felton decided to trim down 189 pounds at the Senior Bowl and run routes all week with the receivers. The good news is that not only did he look comfortable in the one-on-ones, but he also looked like one of the best route-runners in attendance.
WFT rookie star @AntonioGibson14 repped exclusively at RB in Senior Bowl after playing mostly WR at Memphis & his draft stock ???? multiple rounds. This year @UCLAFootball RB Demetric Felton worked at WR and was electric. @demetricfelton7 will be an immediate contributor in NFL.???? pic.twitter.com/VsYIdRDUM1
— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) February 11, 2021
The bad news is that there’s not likely to be any team in the NFL willing to give the bulk of their rushing workload to a 189-pound back. That’s even more true when you flip on the tape and see the type of hesitation he ran with as a between-the-tackles runner. He’ll be an intriguing movable piece but unlikely a true running back.
There was a point in time when Evans looked poised to be the next stud running back for the Wolverines. In his true freshman season back in 2016, he racked up 614 yards on only 88 carries (7.0 yards per carry) and broke 28 tackles in the process. That would ultimately be his peak statistically, as that promise was never realized.
Evans wound up being suspended for the entire 2019 season for academic reasons then managed only 25 touches in his return in 2020. However, what he did as a receiver at the Senior Bowl was intriguing enough to sneak his way into being a Day 3 pick.
While guys like Travis Etienne and Najee Harris returned for their senior seasons and only boosted their stock, Hubbard’s return had the opposite effect.
Not only did his volume take a hit with injury, but his efficiency took a step back in every way, shape and form from his 2,090-yard 2019 campaign. Not only that but the fumble problem that we saw last year (five on 328 attempts) was still very apparent, as he had two on 133 attempts this season.
Hubbard still is an exceptionally tough runner willing to lower his shoulders between the tackles. He’s got good enough speed to stride away from backers in the open field, as well.
Chuba Hubbard is faster than….well everyone.
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) September 29, 2019
He’s just not near the dynamic weapon that others above him on this list are and doesn’t have the size to get away with it.
Sermon is the definition of solid. He can do pretty much everything you could ask him to do at the running back position — break tackles, pass protect, catch out of the backfield, etc. And he does it all with ideal size at 6-foot, 213 pounds.
TREY SERMON DOES NOT GO DOWN EASY ???? pic.twitter.com/DHCX3kwykp
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) January 2, 2021
What he doesn’t have is any special sort of physical traits. Heck, his own quarterback almost tracked him down from behind once in the open field.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) December 5, 2020
Still, after four years of consistently breaking tackles (146 on 452 career attempts), Sermon could very easily be a productive back in the league.
Courtesy of PFF’s 2021 NFL Draft Guide, find PFF's top draft prospect, biggest riser and wild card to watch at each position here: