Welcome to the 12th entry in my scouting notebook I call, Saturdays Are For the Scouts - 2021 NFL Draft RBs.
The NFL Draft cycle never ends, but the 2021 Draft season is now in full swing.
I'll be using the next few weeks to roll out my positional previews. I'll share a glimpse of my thoughts and my top five players per position.
This week, I reviewed the 2021 running back class. Below I share my top-5 and my thoughts on each prospect.
You'll find my full positional rankings, big board and all my scouting reports in the 2021 NFL Draft Scouting Portfolio, released mid-April. The pre-order form is tagged at the bottom of the article.
Click here to read the next page in my SAFTS Notebook - Non-FBS 2021 NFL Draft Prospects.
Saturdays Are For The Scouts - 2021 NFL Draft RBs
2021 NFL Draft Running Back Preview
The 2021 running back class is quite particular in terms of talent distribution. I identified four prospects with NFL featured-back potential and a significant gap before we get to some intriguing players with specific roles that can translate to the next level.
- Najee Harris - Alabama
- Travis Etienne - Clemson
- Javonte Williams - North Carolina
- Kenny Gainwell - Memphis
- Michael Carter - North Carolina
The talent at the top of the class is undeniable. As we inch closer to draft day, you'll see some analysts with Etienne as the top back, and some with Harris. But don't sleep on the Tar Heels running backs, especially Javonte Williams.
To cut to the chase, the only factor leading me to rank Harris as RB1, is his clear progression from one year to the next. He made clear jumps every season he played for the Crimson Tide, and really made the most of his decision to go back to school for an extra year.
His footwork in 2020 looks so much cleaner and more compact than it did in 2019. He shows more spring, better angles and he looks so natural catching the football.
Harris presents the ideal skill set and blends power and patience in his running style. He's a very nuanced prospect that keeps on getting better every season.
In the end, who you have at RB1 between Harris and Etienne depends on stylistic preference in the scouts' eyes.
While my excitement for Javonte Williams' game has grown significantly over the last four months, Harris and Etienne are still RB1 and RB2 respectively on my board. The order in which these two prospects fall really depends on the scouts' preference. They are two very different players.
Etienne is the big-play star in the 2021 class. It kind of feels like he's been at Clemson forever, with the kind of production he put up for the past four seasons. But he finally enters the draft cycle.
I have Etienne listed at a shade under 5'10, 210 pounds, ideal size for his style of play. Etienne plays an electric brand of football. He's agile with cat-like quickness and terrific burst to daylight when he sees it. His lateral movement skills are top-notch and short-area quickness and agility as well. He's flexible and twitched up in his lower half. Etienne plays low with outstanding contact balance and physicality. He's instinctive and decisive behind the line of scrimmage with good second-level manipulation out of the mesh point.
He grew as a decision-maker over the years, improving the discipline in his running style by not going big-play hunting too often and taking big losses.
Etienne got a lot better as a receiver over the last two seasons and projects to be a big-time matchup threat for defensive coordinators in the NFL.
Williams moves exceptionally well for a 220 pound back. On film, he shows off exceptional footwork and flexibility in his lower half, combined with elite physicality and contact balance. He's not the receiving threat Etienne and Harris are, but he's a reliable pass catcher.
His biggest asset on passing downs comes in the form of pass protection. The former Tar Heel is hands down the best pass protector in the class and it isn't very close. He's stout, with terrific leverage and a ton of power when he strikes.
His vision out of the backfield is excellent and he's decisive with good burst and acceleration. He takes great angles navigating through his blockers and he's a very efficient ball carrier with good body control.
View this post on Instagram
Kenny Gainwell had a ton of buzz during the summer scouting period, but his decision to opt-out of 2020 killed his draft stock's momentum a little bit. But when you turn on his 2019 film once more, he deserves to be in top five conversations more frequently as we're only two months away from draft day.
Listed at 5'10, a lot of scouts will be waiting to get his official weight at the Memphis pro-day. 191 pounds is a bit light. But given his growth potential and a year of behind-the-scenes work, he could realistically have reached the 200 lb threshold.
On film, Gainwell is a dynamic high-ceiling prospect with the potential to become a 3-down featured weapon at the NFL level. The film he put together in his RS-Freshman season (and his first season ever playing RB) is phenomenal.
The former HS quarterback runs with great instincts and patience, which leads you to believe the upside is through the roof.
He has elite lateral mobility, spring in his footwork and agility in a phone booth. He takes good angles in the second level and is more powerful than his frame would indicate.
Gainwell is a tough back who won't shy away from physicality and runs with great knee bend and pad level that result in very good contact balance. His flexibility in his lower limbs translates to outstanding burst and ability to change directions.
One of his biggest assets is his work in the passing game. As Memphis has done with many of their RBs in the past, he saw a ton of work out of the slot and in the flats. He's natural addressing the football with his hand, and a big-play threat any times he finds himself in open space.
I have a sizeable gap between my RB4 and the rest of the class. And through 15 reports written up, I haven't found a prospect with a clear 3-down featured back upside. But there are intriguing options late day 2 and early day 3 that can have a role at the next level. One of my favorite ones is Michael Carter (late 3rd round grade).
Carter is a short, compact running back prospect with quick feet and terrific vision and patience. He's a bit of a one-gear athlete but he finds ways to win in space by taking terrific angles. He's elusive with his instincts and vision in space and can make sharp cuts due to his shorter stride length and high step rate.
His vision, discipline and instincts as a polished running back give him a very solid floor in a zone-heavy scheme. He does very nice work as a receiver out of the backfield as well, with very natural hands.
Saturdays Are For The Scouts
I'll be back next week with more profiles!
You can find me on Instagram for more film breakdown and analysis.
Back to the film room!