There might not be a position with a bigger disconnect in terms of how fans think about it and how NFL teams approach it in the draft than running back. Because of fantasy football and general workload, many still view RB as a glamour position, but fewer RBs are going early in drafts. The 2021 NFL Draft figures to follow that pattern, as there might be just one or two backs taken in the first round (Najee Harris, Travis Etienne) — if there are any at all.
Of course, just because there aren’t many backs taken during the draft’s opening night doesn’t mean there won’t be several impact RBs selected in 2021. Running back has proven to be a position at which you can find value in the middle and late rounds, and rookies of any stature can make immediate impacts.
With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at Sporting News’ top-10 RBs for the 2021 NFL Draft.
NFL Draft 2021 running back rankings
1. Najee Harris, Alabama
Harris averaged 6.0 yards per carry during his four-year career at Alabama, and he really shined during his senior season, posting 1,891 total yards (1,466 rushing, 425 rushing) and 30 total TDs on 294 touches. At 6-2, 230 pounds, Harris is somewhat reminiscent of Derrick Henry, and while he lacks Henry’s elite power-running ability, he far exceeds the former ‘Bama back in receiving ability. Harris might not get drafted until the late first round, but he has the potential to be a three-down star.
2. Travis Etienne, Clemson
Etienne took a step back as a runner during his final year at Clemson, going from 107.6 rushing yards per game and 7.8 yards per carry as a junior (and even slightly better numbers as a sophomore) to 76.2 yards per came and 5.4 yards per carry as a senior. However, he improved as a pass-catcher, hauling in 48 passes for 588 yards in just 12 games. That versatility will play well in the NFL, as will his 4.45 40-yard dash time. At 5-10, 215 pounds, Etienne is big enough to survive as an every-down back and will likely start or see a prominent time-share role even if he isn’t drafted in the first round.
3. Javonte Williams, North Carolina
Williams steadily improved during his three-year career at UNC, posting 1,140 rushing yards (7.3 yards per carry), 19 rushing TDs, 305 receiving yards, and three receiving TDs during his final season. At nearly 5-10, 212 pounds, Williams ran a 4.55 40-yard dash at his pro day, and the rest of his speed, strength, and agility numbers were well above average. He operated in a timeshare with Michael Carter while at UNC, so Williams shouldn’t have a problem adapting to that role in the NFL. As a likely second-round pick, Williams is the type of power back who should make waves early in his career.
4. Michael Carter, North Carolina
Carter had remarkably similar stats to his teammate Williams during his final season at UNC, putting up 1,245 rushing yards (8.0 yards per carry), nine rushing TDs, 267 receiving yards, and two receiving TDs. The difference between the two is a couple inches in height and about 20 pounds, which is why Carter figures to be more of a “change-of-pace” back in the NFL. Even though he doesn’t figure to see the lion’s share of the backfield touches wherever he winds up as a rookie, Carter has plenty of upside and will be a worthwhile contributor thanks to his shiftiness and 4.5 speed.
5. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis
Gainwell played only one full season at Memphis (2019), but he impressed with 1,459 rushing yards (6.3 yards per carry), 13 rushing TDs, 51 receptions, 610 receiving yards, and three receiving TDs. Despite being undersized in college (5-11, 191 pounds), it’s been reported Gainwell is up to around 200 pounds and ran a 4.42 40-yard dash. It wouldn’t be surprising to see him jump some of the other backs on this list and get drafted in the second or third round. Either way, he clearly has the versatility offensive coordinators crave, and if he goes to the right team, he should be a dynamic player.
6. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State
An ankle injury limited Hubbard in 2020, but he led the nation in rushing in ’19, posting 2,094 yards (6.5 yards per carry) and 21 TDs. Hubbard has good size (6-0, 210 pounds) and speed (4.48 40-yard dash), and he’s obviously shown an ability to produce with a heavy workload. He might not go until Day 3 considering he never showed much as a receiver in college, but it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him starting at some point this season.
7. Kylin Hill, Mississippi State
Hill played just three games for Mississippi State in 2020, but he impressed the season before, totaling 1,350 rushing yards (5.6 yards per carry) and 10 TDs. The 5-11, 214-pounder ran a 4.51 40-yard dash and showed impressive strength at his pro day. He’s the type of late-round pick who has upside and could excel in the right system, but he likely won’t be an impact player early in the 2021 season.
8. Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma
A failed drug test cost Stevenson half of last season, but he excelled in the six games he played, rushing for 665 yards and seven TDs and adding another 211 yards through the air. The 6-foot, 230-pound bruiser isn’t particularly fast (4.63 40), but his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield gives him more versatility than you might expect. That overall package makes Stevenson an intriguing prospect who could surprise this year.
9. Jaret Patterson, Buffalo
Patterson was a high-level producer in his three-year career, running for 1,799 yards (5.8 yards per carry) and 19 TDs in 13 games in 2019 and an even more impressive 1,072 yards (7.6 yards per carry) and 19 TDs in just six games in ’20. That included a 409-yard, eight-TD game against Kent State. Patterson’s size is an issue, as he measured in shorter than 5-7 and just 195 pounds. His 4.52 40-yard-dash time was decent, but clearly he’ll have to overcome concerns about his size to get a chance at regular playing time. He could be a dynamic change-of-pace back in the right offense, though.
10. Trey Sermon, Ohio State
Sermon showcased his skills during his first three years at Oklahoma, but he shined during his senior season at Ohio State. Specifically, he really stood out during his final two games (not counting the National Championship game in which he got injured on the first series), rushing 60 times for 524 yards and three scores against Northwestern in the Big 10 Championship game and Clemson in the Sugar Bowl. The 6-3, 215-pound Sermon ran a 4.57 40-yard dash, which shows he has decent speed for his size. There’s potential here for the likely late-round pick.