Welcome to the 2021 NFL Draft Optimal Running Back Landing Spots!
With a little less than two weeks to the NFL Draft, things are starting to unravel. Storylines are forming, articles are being written, and things are getting said. Don't believe everything out there but don't completely shut it all out either.
It's the most important time of the year for some of these teams. A lot of franchises are going to select potential franchise-altering talents on days one through three and who knows, maybe the team you root for will be one of them.
In this article, I'll be breaking down what I view to be the perfect realistic matches for some of the NFL's top running back prospects. You may read people projecting players like Najee Harris to go in the first round to the Jets but we live in the real world and not fantasy land.
I'll be breaking down options where I see players potentially landing and how it will affect their fantasy values and much more. Now let's dive into it!
2021 NFL Draft Optimal Running Back Landing Spots
Check out the rest of our 2021 NFL Draft coverage including mock draft, rankings, and player profiles.
Najee Harris, RB, Alabama (Draft Range: 23-32)
— 247Sports (@247Sports) April 9, 2021
Perfect Fit: Pittsburgh Steelers
If you've seen anything I've written in the past about Harris, then you would know how much I think of this young man. In my opinion, he is a true five-tool running back that can cause havoc for opposing defenses. His quick blend and mashup of juke moves paired with an incredibly bulky bruising frame make him nearly unstoppable.
It's no secret the level of prospect he was at Alabama. His production told the story as he ran for 3,843 yards and 46 touchdowns on 638 carries during his illustrious career at Alabama. He is a four-year guy that likely would have garnered a day two pick in the 2020 draft class that was loaded to the brim with talent.
Najee Harris in 2020
? 30 total TDs
? 47 runs of 10+ yards
Most in college football ? pic.twitter.com/3Ldtc5MbJR
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) March 3, 2021
Guys like Antonio Gibson, Jonathan Taylor, and JK Dobbins were all selected and highly productive in year one from last year's NFL draft. Now it's time for Harris to claim the spotlight and hit the center stage on draft night. Even though he likely won't garner a first-round pick, I still see him being there for the Steelers to take him whether it be on day one or two.
The fit makes total sense for both sides if you break it down. It's no secret the Steelers have been hurting at the position since they lost Le'Veon Bell way back in 2018. Replacements like James Conner, Benny Snell, Anthony McFarland, and others have tried and failed to fill the void left by the former superstar runner.
The hole is so wide in fact, the Steelers ranked dead last in terms of rushing yards per game at the position. Their pitiful run game racked up only 84.4 yards per game, 7.2 yards per game below every team. The situation and running back room in Pittsburgh is bleak.
A jolt of lightning like Harris will likely inject a massive boost into a struggling running back room. His bruising nature may be enticing for a team that drafted James Conner to do exactly that. With that being said, easing the pressure off an aging quarterback like Ben Roethlisberger just makes too much sense.
His upright bruising quick feet style is something that reminds me of a former Chargers great, LaDainian Tomlinson. Everything points to the pairing of the Steelers and Harris just making too much sense.
Travis Etienne, RB, Clemson (Draft Range: 33-36)
Among 2021 running backs who worked out at their respective pro days, @ClemsonFB's Travis Etienne & @RaginCajunsFB's Elijah Mitchell lead this year's class when it comes to the most predictive athletic traits of future pro success.
The rest of the top 5: pic.twitter.com/1AbKYcK6ZE
— Next Gen Stats (@NextGenStats) April 13, 2021
Perfect Fit: Jacksonville Jaguars
Etienne is of college football's most versatile and elite-level backs. I haven't watched a ton of film on him, but from what I have watched I'm not in love. He has fallen to my third-ranked back, behind Najee Harris and JaVonte Williams - both guys I view to be the elite-level game-changing type of backs.
Nonetheless, Etienne is still a fantastic prospect and one of fantasy football and Twitter's favorite players out of this year's draft. Just like Harris, Etienne was a productive four-year player, rushing for 4,962 yards on 686 carries in his college career.
He also was a highly productive receiving back, hauling in 1,155 yards on 102 receptions. To make things even better, he combined both receiving and rushing skills to score 78 touchdowns during his time at Clemson.
His playmaking ability makes a lot of sense for me which is why I see him heading to Jacksonville among other reasons. It's no secret at this point that Clemson star Trevor Lawrence is going to be drafted by the Jaguars at number one overall - which is exactly one of the reasons why I like Etienne to the Jaguars.
What better than pairing your franchise quarterback with his college teammate that he saw and played three years with? Making your franchise guy comfortable, protected, and happy is all you need in this new day and age.
But that isn't the only reason. For as good as the Jaguars backs were in 2020, the group could get even better by adding an elite prospect.
Travis Etienne forced 135 missed tackles on runs since 2019
More than any player in College Football
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) March 29, 2021
Etienne is an explosive, athletic, productive, and tough runner with significant upside at the NFL level. His timing and anticipation make a lot of sense for a Jaguars team that ranked 29th in rushing yards per game in 2020.
And just a reminder the Jaguars coaching staff was spotted at the workouts for Clemson viewing the running back prospect in the past week.
RB coaches in attendance at @ClemsonFB pro-day leading Travis Etienne through position drills are Dolphins Co-OC/ RB Coach Eric Studesville and Jaguars RB Coach Bernie Parmalee.
— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) March 11, 2021
Javonte Williams, RB, North Carolina (Draft Range: 38-56)
Javonte Williams had a 94.3 PFF grade last season
Highest among all RBs in college football ? pic.twitter.com/IntjOLaoIO
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) April 14, 2021
Perfect Fit: Pittsburgh Steelers
After viewing the tape, Williams is arguably my favorite back in the draft just slightly behind Najee Harris of Alabama. His blend of tough bullish running, electric cutting, quick flashes of smarts, and timing make him a nearly unstoppable and unpredictable back.
This amazing prospect has gone from fourth or fifth back in the class behind fellow Tar Heel runner Michael Carter, to everyone's trending back and potentially favorite runner.
His college career wasn't special but in 2020 he was one of the sport’s finest. The UNC product ran for 1,140 yards on just 157 carries and totaled 17 touchdowns on the ground.
That’s pure madness for a guy who was splitting time with another projected day two draft pick at the position. My comparison for this lovable back is Nick Chubb of the Cleveland Browns. An amazing blend of bulky, quick, elite running matched with an unwillingness to go down is what makes this young gun so exciting of a prospect.
Most missed tackles forced on runs last season
? Javonte Williams - 76
— PFF Draft (@PFF_College) March 27, 2021
All that is reasoning on why I love him to go to the Steelers. As I touched on above, it's no secret that the Steelers need a running back. A rotational group of James Conner, Benny Snell, and Anthony McFarland are just not going to get in done in this day and age.
Williams is a perfect fit in the same way that Najee Harris is. He is an upright runner that never goes down and fights for extra yards. He has shades of James Conner mashed with Le'Veon Bell, who are both former Steelers.
Trey Sermon, RB, Ohio State (Draft Range: Fourth-Round)
TREY SERMON CAME TO PLAY ?
He set an Ohio State single-game record AND Big Ten Championship record with 331 rushing yards ‼️ pic.twitter.com/EeHYg9sVrL
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) December 19, 2020
Perfect Fit: Baltimore Ravens
One of the biggest risers in 2020 was none other than Trey Sermon from Ohio State. A team known for producing high-quality backs like JK Dobbins. This makes it even more of a perfect match knowing that Dobbins is a Raven.
Before transferring to Ohio State, Sermon amassed over 2,000 yards rushing and scored 25 touchdowns in his three seasons with the Oklahoma Sooners. In eight games at Ohio State, Sermon averaged a collegiate career-high 7.5 yards per attempt for 870 yards and four touchdowns.
He isn't the most athletic prospect in the entire draft but that doesn't take away from his pop and flair during the game. His vision, contact balance, and burst make for a runner who should be consistently productive at the next level. His balance shows through broken tackle attempts and an ability to pick up yards after contact.
#OhioState RB Trey Sermon (6-foot, 215) — Contact balance.
— Matt Bowen (@MattBowen41) April 10, 2021
Sermon is also a willing pass blocker as well which should help him remain a dual-threat. This of course helps him stay on the field during every down.
The Ravens from a fit standpoint just make a ton of sense. They are a team that is looking to continue to get better on the offensive side of the ball. Especially after losing Mark Ingram last season. Adding Sermon would be ideal as well now that Gus Edwards will likely be gone in 2022 as he is a free agent.
With JK Dobbins being the main dog in the field, getting another back to keep him fresh should help him stay fresh. We all know that the Ravens love to run the ball and adding another guy that has major upside is never a bad thing.
Michael Carter, RB, North Carolina (Draft Range: Fourth-Round)
Michael Carter sitting at FF RB10 for me in this class. That doesn’t sound like consensus. Someone tell me if I’m missing something ? pic.twitter.com/XDXSrkvEpv
— The Roto Lounge (@RotoLounge) April 15, 2021
Perfect Fit: Denver Broncos
North Carolina's top back until this season, Michael Carter had shades of being an elite back but a shadow was cast upon him by that of his teammate, Javonte Williams. Even left in the shadows, Carter still made his mark, rushing for 1,245 yards last season on 156 carries and adding nine touchdowns.
The UNC product amassed 3,404 yards and 22 touchdowns on a combined 514 carries in his productive college career. He was also a useful pass-catcher, totaling over 600 yards on 82 receptions with six added touchdowns.
Carter is a quick shifty back that showed tremendous ability to wreak havoc on the defense. The most impressive thing about this young man is his patience, timing, and pure ability to see the play before it happens. He is an incredibly smooth and mature back for his age and he consistently shows fight in his game.
His name is Michael Carter, and he's better than your favorite UNC running back?? pic.twitter.com/Y1W3bmVUB2
— Adithya Prabakaran (@ADP_514) April 14, 2021
He fits all too well with the Denver Broncos. This offseason, the Broncos let go of former undrafted free agent running back Phillip Lindsay, arguably the best runner on the team.
Not the greatest running back room and neither of which are incredibly quick or explosive. That's where you can insert Carter. The UNC product has flashes of being a C.J. Anderson-type of running back who could complement Gordon nicely in the run game. His flashes of quick jolts of movement should be an exciting change from the bruising style of back that Gordon is.
Javonte Williams from UNC gets a lot of hype, but his backup Michael Carter is a monster and slept on. In 2020 he had 1,245 on only 156 rushes, 8.0 YPC, 9 tds, better footwork than Williams, and he lines up at wide and runs routes like Cmac. Would be a steal in later rounds! pic.twitter.com/BPL7OTqbkU
— JazzyJeffRealTalk (@JazzyJeffRealT1) April 9, 2021
The fit also makes a ton of sense to help their struggling QB improve. They need a future guy at the position and a handcuff for the present. Carter just makes too much sense for the Broncos and fits all too well in their system.
Kenneth Gainwell, RB, Memphis (Draft Range: Fourth-Round)
— All Time Misfits Podcast (@ATMisfitspod) April 12, 2021
Perfect Fit: New England Patriots
Gainwell is a former high school quarterback who was converted into a running back. He eventually turned into a true offensive weapon. He took snaps as a “Wildcat” QB (was a run-first QB in high school), lined up in the slot and out wide, and was featured in the backfield. Some NFL teams have kicked around the idea of moving him to slot receiver.
He has versatility as a swiss army knife type that reminds me of Laviska Shenault of the Jaguars. His quick feet, burst, and insane lightning-quick change of direction skills helped him amass over 1,500 career yards in just two seasons. He also showed insane pass-catching skills as a second-year man.
He's a talented pass-catching back that grabs the ball in stride and can run a diverse route tree. Even for his small stature, he is an incredibly willing pass blocker which should allow him to stay on the field for every down. I love his array of tools he offers to teams, but he does have flaws.
He struggled with health but aside from that I truly believe he can be a difference-maker at the next level. Besides, look at the Memphis backs that have come out recently such as Antonio Gibson and Tony Pollard. Both players look to be difference-makers themselves.
The perfect fit for a guy like this to me is the Patriots. It's clear the Patriots made a statement this offseason that they want to run the ball and be unpredictable. The signed two stud tight ends to pair with an elite offensive line and Cam Newton. Now if you add in a back like Gainwell it's just the icing on the cake.
2021 NFL Draft Scouting Report: Kenneth Gainwell, Running Back from the University of Memphis #memphis #memphisfootball #memphistigers #NCAA #ncaafootball #collegefootball #college #football #CFB #NFL #NFLDraft #nfldraft2021 #steelers #Dolphins #Cardinals #Nike pic.twitter.com/z8TQfl04EB
— Scouting Insiders (@S_Insiders) April 12, 2021
Although his injury could push him down draft boards, Gainwell's unpredictability and overall talent screams value. That's exactly the thing the Patriots look for. Opportunity, talent, and value. The Patriot way.
With the team letting Rex Burkhead go in free agency and only bringing back James White for a year spells that they could be on the verge of drafting a guy like Gainwell. Sony Michel is set to hit free agency as well this year and both him and Damien Harris both have been unable to dependably stay on the field.
Be sure to check out the Fantasy Six Pack 2021 Fantasy Football Mock Draft