A little less than a year ago, Travis Etienne surprised fans, media and draft pundits when he opted to return to Clemson for a senior season rather than enter the NFL draft and become a professional football player.
It wasn't an easy decision, and there wasn't one dominating motive. Essentially, the Tigers' all-time leading rusher didn't feel "complete" as a person, a student and a running back. He wanted his college degree, and Etienne felt like he had a lot still to prove to NFL scouts and executives.
When draft grades were handed out to college football's juniors last year, Etienne was projected as a late first-round to mid-second-round selection. That, to him, wasn't good enough.
“I just felt like I could come back and improve that grade,” Etienne said in March of 2020. “I don’t have my degree. Coming back and going second round (in 2021), at least I’d have my degree. Leaving for the second round has never been a dream of mine. I feel like I can do so much better than that. The NFL is going to be there so I wasn’t leaving with no second-round draft grade.”
However, a year later, there's no guarantee that he did anything to improve his stock. One of the nation's most explosive players, Etienne absolutely showcased his improved skills in the passing game. He had 48 catches, 11 more than 2019, for 588 yards in 12 games.
According to Pro Football Focus' college football analysis, the All-American was tremendously productive after the catch.
Etienne's rushing numbers, meanwhile, suffered behind an offensive line that wasn't of the same caliber he's had previously in his career. Combined with a couple of games without star QB Trevor Lawrence and defenses' propensity to key on him, he went from averaging 7.8 yards per carry in 2019 to 5.4 yards per tote in 2020. After back-to-back seasons of over 1,600 yards in each, Etienne had just 914 via the ground. His yards per game average dropped by 30 from last year.
However, Etienne didn't come back to college to prove he could run the football. He did end up the ACC's all-time leading rusher and set school and league records that might not ever be touched. Oh, and he got his degree.
But did he help his draft stock? To be fair, some of these draft projections change daily, but as the NFL sorts out its selection order with the postseason beginning this weekend, where Etienne ends up will become clearer.
Right now, though, his draft stock is a very mixed bag. In most draft projections, you won't find him in a better spot than that 2019 draft grade.
Some have him in the first round. Many don't. ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. has Etienne second behind Alabama's Najee Harris in his RB rankings, yet four-letter network cohort Todd McShay has Etienne going 16th in the draft.
Essentially, Etienne might be a first-round pick. He might be a second-round pick. There's no guarantee that coming back changed anything for him because running back is an odd position at the next level.
Teams in the upper half of the draft order rarely prioritize rushers because of how offenses throughout the league have changed. Etienne's versatility garners attention, but he's not a workhorse like Dallas' Ezekial Elliott or an out-of-this-world talent like New York Giant Sayquon Barkley.
He's going to be a good, productive back and flourish in the right system like Alvin Kamara is doing with the Saints. Running backs' success largely stems from where they go because they aren't drafted to be battering rams 25-30 times a game.
That's not Etienne, and he'll be drafted as such in April. Until then, a lot about his stock could change. Regardless, it likely won't bother him as one goal is completed.
"If he leaves here as a second-rounder next year, he’ll do cartwheels,” Swinney said in February of 2020. “He’s got his degree. He feels ready. He just feels complete. I think leaving early for him as a second-rounder, I think he felt a little incomplete.”