Breaking down the 2021 NFL Draft’s top available running backs

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Folks, it’s finally that time of year. The NFL Draft is set to kick off April 29, as a new class of athletes look to make a splash as rookies in the professional level. There’s a lot to talk about, watch and learn. So without any further ado, let’s get into it.

This series of position breakdowns will lean heavily on two things. One is my personal experience in the coaching world and the second is the experience of those around me — college-level athletes, coaches who have been at it longer than I’ve been alive and everyone else in between. This draft guide is by no means the law of the land, but it will contain a sneak peek as to who I think you be excited about if they land up on your team. This week, I’ll take a look at running backs.

1. Najee Harris, Alabama

I’ll keep this short and sweet — for my money, Harris is one of the best running backs to come out of Alabama in a very long time. Officially listed at 6’2” and 230 lbs., Harris is among the biggest backs available in the 2021 Draft. He possesses a lot of rare abilities as a ball carrier, while also boasting excellent vision while running the ball and having tremendous power and flexibility.

These are just a few of the clips I have pulled (the rest can be found on my Twitter), but as you can see, there’s a lot to love about Harris. His biggest flaws are not anything that would keep your team from drafting him near the end of the first round or in the early second round in April. What he lacks in elite top-end speed, Harris makes up for in pass protection, vision and everything else. He’s my RB1 for a reason — don’t overthink it.

Pro Comparison: Le’Veon Bell
Similar vision and patience when running the ball, a willingness to serve as pass protectors and good to great receiving skills mark both of these players as phenoms who lack top end speed.

2. Javonte Williams, North Carolina

I am all in on the Williams hype train. Standing at 5’10” and 220 lbs., Williams is an absolute force of a runner and has enough speed to go the distance. He features plus-plus contact balance and is a punishing one-cut runner despite his size. Built like an absolute brick house, Williams isn’t afraid to get physical. Williams is also a good receiver out of the backfield and shows plenty of ability to take the ball North to South with ease.

Overall, there’s not a lot to comment on with respect to Williams. What he does well translates well to the NFL. He holds up well in pass protection, has excellent production and is a strong runner who doesn’t try to do too much behind the line of scrimmage. As such, he would be an excellent fit for teams who run a lot of gap scheme running plays.

Pro Comparison: Josh Jacobs
Both are physical runners who possess the tools to be successful in the passing game. Jacobs might be slightly more proficient as a receiver, but Williams is not at all far behind.

3. Travis Etienne Jr., Clemson

If you’ve been living under a rock for the last four years or so, allow me to inform you that Clemson is good at football, and Etienne is a huge part of that success. Measuring in at his pro day at 5’10” and 215 lbs. and posting an impressive 4.40 40-yard dash time, Etienne looks to slot in as a player that can change the pace of an offense, as both a runner and a receiver. But he has significantly more concerns than his counterparts; his improved passing game prowess has certainly opened doors for him, but his pass protection leaves a lot to be desired. Etienne projects as a change-of-pace running back and a third down specialist at the professional level. His speed is among the best in all of college football and his production doesn’t lie. Etienne is a stud, but concerns about his fit and his ability to translate his skill set drop him down to my No. 3 running back in the 2021 class. But make no mistake about it: Etienne is that guy.

Etienne is a top-tier runner, and still fits extremely well with what the NFL is looking for in running backs today: top-end speed, receiving ability and good running.

Pro Comparison: C.J. Spiller
Admittedly, I didn’t come up with this comparison, but I love it. Both are capable runners who can excel as pass-catchers and change-of-pace running backs in the NFL. There is no shame in that.

Sleeper Pick: Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis

Gainwell is a name that could go earlier than you expect. He’s an excellent scat back in the mold of Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey. He lined up as both a slot receiver and a running back in his final season, and is quickly shooting up draft boards. Gainwell is going to make someone very happy on the second or third day of the draft.

So there you have it folks, those are my top three running backs and a sleeper pick for the 2021 NFL Draft. Stay tuned for more positions and breakdowns as we get closer to April.

Jesse Stewart covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @jessedstew.