We’re in the thick of the NFL offseason and it’s officially time to start fantasy football prep. I’ll be answering the biggest questions heading into the 2021 season. Click here to read the series of questions answered so far.
The Jacksonville Jaguars were one of several teams in the 2021 NFL Draft to pair their young quarterback with a former teammate, reuniting No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence with fellow Clemson Tiger RB Travis Etienne. Using the No. 25 pick on a running back might not be the best idea in real life, but in fantasy land it tends to indicate a large workload is on the way.
Running backs have nearly twice as many top-24 rookie performers (30) than wide receivers (16) over the past decade. Overall, 80% of top-performing rookie backs were selected inside of the top three rounds since 2010. The idea that running backs don't matter is true in the sense that there are far more than 32 high-end backs on planet Earth. Still, running backs still need to matter enough to win their team's respective job, and players who have received the backing from the front office via draft capital have typically performed better as rookies than those who have had to fight to even keep a roster spot.
For every Phillip Lindsay and James Robinson, there have been dozens of unheralded backs with rookie seasons that more closely resembled Darwin Thompson or Justice Hill; the recent history of first-round running backs is far more consistent:
- Clyde Edwards-Helaire: 217 touches, PPR RB22
- Josh Jacobs: 262, RB21
- Saquon Barkley: 352, RB1
- Rashaad Penny: 94, RB68
- Sony Michel: 216, RB34
- Leonard Fournette: 304, RB10
- Christian McCaffrey: 197, RB9
- Ezekiel Elliott: 354, RB2
- Todd Gurley: 250, RB9
- Melvin Gordon: 217, RB43
- Trent Richardson: 318, RB8
- Doug Martin: 368, RB2
- David Wilson: 75, RB55
- Mark Ingram: 133, RB46
What follows is a breakdown on just how good Etienne was at Clemson and whether or not we should expect him to become the next-great rookie running back.
Etienne is fast fast
PFF stated the following about Etienne in our 2021 draft guide:
“While it's a tad concerning that Etienne's efficiency took a massive hit — Clemson's offensive line faltered this season after losing four starters to the NFL — what Etienne did as a receiver likely turned some heads. He was a downfield passing weapon in the Clemson attack after being an afterthought in that regard early in his career. His 588 receiving yards were the most of any back in the country this year. His explosiveness and tackle-breaking ability didn't go away; rather, Etienne only saw 1.8 yards before contact this season compared to 2.8 in 2019 and 3.8 in 2018.”
There have been instances of Etienne looking absolutely unstoppable with the ball in his hands. As the kids say: Speed kills, and Etienne has more of it than any other running back in this class.
Well, I was watching Rashad Weaver cut-ups until Travis Etienne turned it into an Etienne highlight reel.
Wild play. Only a handful of football players at any level have this kind of speed. pic.twitter.com/w8U6IcX4Ji
— Trevor Sikkema (@TampaBayTre) March 8, 2021
I was concerned with Etienne’s dropoff in overall explosiveness last season, although the concerns surrounding the team’s offensive line, combined with covid-induced issues, makes me willing to give him a pass in a situation expected to afford plenty of touches. That does appear to be where Etienne has landed, as coach Urban Meyer indicated his new running back’s dual-threat and big-play ability were the key selling points in making the move.
There’s just one potential problem with projecting Etienne for a massive role in 2021 ….