News & Analysis

2021 NFL Draft running back rankings

Jan 1, 2021; New Orleans, LA, USA; Clemson Tigers running back Travis Etienne (9) scores a touchdown against the Ohio State Buckeyes during the first half at Mercedes-Benz Superdome. Mandatory Credit: Chuck Cook-USA TODAY Sports

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.

Know tomorrow, today. Western Southern Financial Group.


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

Editor's note: PFF's 2021 NFL Draft Guide is live and available to all EDGE and ELITE subscribers. If you're already an EDGE or ELITE subscriber, download your copy here.

1. Travis Etienne, Clemson

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…

…but he can also competently run downfield routes and haul in passes.

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.

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.

2. Javonte Williams, North Carolina

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.

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.

3. Najee Harris, Alabama

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.

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.

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.

4. Michael Carter, North Carolina

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).

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.

5. Khalil Herbert, Virginia Tech

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.

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.

6. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis

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.

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.

7. Demetric Felton, UCLA

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.

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.

8. Chris Evans, Michigan

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.

9. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State

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.

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.

10. Trey Sermon, Ohio State

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.

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.

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: 

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

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