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2021 NFL Draft: Fantasy Rookie Report - Running Backs

Senior fantasy analyst Michael Fabiano breaks down the incoming rookie running backs on-field & fantasy potential

Fabiano's Fantasy Rookie Reports

Running backs have long been the lifeblood of fantasy football. The position has had the most appeal in the early rounds of drafts for as long as I can remember. It's the one place where rookies have made the biggest statistical impact. Dating back into the 1980s, guys like Eric Dickerson, George Rogers, Marcus Allen, and Roger Craig (among others) have come right into the league and produced solid numbers.

Since 2000, we’ve seen numerous running backs find statistical success too. In fact, six of the top 10 rookie running back seasons based on fantasy points have come in the last 20 years. That list of talented runners includes current fantasy superstars like Saquon Barkley (2018), Ezekiel Elliott (2016), and Alvin Kamara (2017).

This past season, two of the top seven running backs, Jonathan Taylor and James Robinson, were rookies. We also saw other first-year backs like Antonio Gibson, D'Andre Swift, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, J.K. Dobbins, and Cam Akers make some noise in the stat sheets. The 2021 class might not be as deep, but there are plenty of players with upside. So, for those fans looking to get a head start on doing their due diligence at the position, here’s my look at my top 10 running backs for 2021.

Note: Age listed is at the start of the 2021 NFL season.

Clemson football Travis Etienne NFL draft

1. Travis Etienne, Clemson

  • 22 years old, 5-foot-10, 205 pounds

2020 Stats: (12 games) 168 carries, 914 yards, 5.4 YPC, 14 touchdowns, 48 catches, 588 yards, 12.3 YPC, 2 touchdowns, 1,520 scrimmage yards

During his time at Clemson, Etienne had a tremendous statistical career that included a pair of seasons with 1,600-plus yards on the ground. He rushed for 19 or more touchdowns twice, including a 2018 campaign that saw Etienne rush for a bananas 24 touchdowns. He also ranked sixth among 2020 backs in broken tackles (25).

Most scouts believe Etienne has the tools to be a three-down back at the next level. Not only did he compile a 7.2 yards-per-carry average during his four years with the Tigers, but he also proved to be a willing pass catcher. Over his final 27 games, he hauled in 85 passes for 1,020 yards and six touchdowns. If he can improve just a bit in pass protection, the sky could be the limit for Etienne as a rookie and beyond.

Alabama running back Najee Harris celebrates after scoring a touchdown vs. Florida.

2. Najee Harris, Alabama

  • 23 years old, 6-foot-2, 230 pounds

2020 Stats: (13 games) 251 carries, 1,466 yards, 5.8 YPC, 26 touchdowns, 43 catches, 425 yards, 9.9 YPC, 4 touchdowns, 1,891 scrimmage yards

Harris is the latest in a long line of superstar running backs to come out of Alabama. He averaged nearly six yards per carry in his final collegiate season and put up a ridiculous 26 rushing touchdowns. That led the nation. Harris also proved he can handle a featured workload in 2020, seeing 251 carries and nearly 300 touches.

Like Etienne, Harris projects to be a three-down back at the NFL level, he doesn't have top-end speed, but he's a smooth runner who can also make some noise as a pass-catcher. In fact, his 43 receptions this past season were a personal best. Harris also ranked third in the nation among running backs in broken tackles and yards after contact. NFL Network draft guru Daniel Jeremiah compares him to Matt Forte.

UNC Javonte Williams

3. Javonte Williams, North Carolina

  • 21 years old, 5-foot-10, 220 pounds

2020 Stats: (11 games) 157 carries, 1,140 yards, 7.3 YPC, 19 touchdowns, 25 catches, 305 yards, 12.2 YPC, 3 touchdowns, 1,445 scrimmage yards

Williams is coming off a monster final season with the Tar Heels, producing over 1,100 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground while averaging more than seven yards per carry. He worked in a committee during his collegiate career, so he will enter the NFL with fresh legs and the potential to be a three-down running back.

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Williams is a powerful runner, as he finished second among running backs in yards after contact. He also led all runners in broken tackles with 50 in just 11 games. The next-best total was Tank Bigsby's 36 broken tackles. Williams is also strong as a pass catcher, and his 25 catches this past season was a personal best. He's also a good pass protector, and I wouldn't be shocked if he snuck into the end of Round 1.

UNC Michael Carter

4. Michael Carter, North Carolina

  • 22 years old, 5-foot-8, 199 pounds

2020 Stats: (11 games) 145 carries, 1,245 yards, 8.0 YPC, 9 touchdowns, 25 catches, 267 yards, 10.7 YPC, 2 touchdowns, 1,512 scrimmage yards

Carter isn't the biggest back at 5-foot-8, but that didn't stop him from rushing for 1,000-plus yards in consecutive seasons at North Carolina. In 2020, he averaged a tremendous eight yards per rush. A versatile performer, Carter has caught at least 21 passes in each of his last three seasons, including 25 this past campaign.

Carter ranked 15th among running backs in yards after contact, and his 113.1 yards per game averaged was 13th at the position. He doesn't figure to be a featured back at the next level. Still, Carter could be a big part of a rotational situation or earn a complementary role because of his elusiveness and versatile skill set. He’s most likely a second-day pick and could bring PPR value in re-drafts and dynasty formats.

Memphis Kenneth Gainwell

5. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis

  • 22 years old, 5-foot-11, 191 pounds

2019 Stats: (14 games) 231 carries, 1,459 yards, 6.3 YPC, 13 touchdowns, 51 catches, 610 yards, 12.0 YPC, 3 touchdowns, 2,069 scrimmage yards

Gainwell opted out of the 2020 campaign due to the COVID-19 pandemic, so he's been preparing for the 2021 NFL Draft. Much like his fellow Tigers alum Antonio Gibson, Gainwell was featured as a running back and receiver during the 2019 campaign. In that role, he developed into quite a dynamic offensive playmaker for Memphis.

An elusive weapon that brings a surprising amount of power for a back of his size, Gainwell was also lined up in the slot and utilized in the screen game. He played out of a spread offense in college, so he will have a transition when he enters the NFL. Gainwell is smaller than Gibson, who ultimately found success as a rookie with the Football Team, so I wouldn’t project a true featured role. He could be a PPR asset.

Ohio State running back Trey Sermon runs in the playoff semifinal

Trey Sermon, Ohio State

  • 22 years old, 6-foot-1, 215 pounds

2020 Stats: (8 games) 116 carries, 870 yards, 7.5 YPC, 4 touchdowns, 12 catches, 95 yards, 7.9 YPC, 0 touchdowns, 965 scrimmage yards

Sermon didn’t post huge overall numbers in his final collegiate season, but he did finish strong after previously splitting the workload with Master Teague. In his final three games before being hurt in the National Championship, Sermon recorded a combined 636 rushing yards and scored three touchdowns on the ground.

Sermon finished the season ranked tied for 10th in broken tackles among running backs, and he'll come to the NFL with fresh legs. Between three seasons with the Oklahoma Sooners and one with the Buckeyes, Sermon never had more than 164 carries. He's not going to offer teams on the next level much as a pass-catcher, but he could be a bruising part of a committee situation. He'll likely be a Day 3 selection.

Virginia Tech Hokies Khalil Herbert

7. Khalil Herbert, Virginia Tech

  • (23 years old, 5-foot-9, 205 pounds)

2020 Stats: (11 games) 155 carries, 1,183 yards, 7.6 YPC, 8 touchdowns, 10 catches, 179 yards, 17.9 YPC, 1 touchdown, 1,362 scrimmage yards

Herbert left Kansas and took over as the top running back at Virginia Tech last year. He went on to rush for nearly 1,200 yards and averaged 7.6 yards per attempt. PFF also ranked him tied for first in the nation with Buffalo's Jaret Patterson in yards after contact per attempt (4.74). Only Alabama's Najee Harris was better than Herbert in total yards after contact (734) among 2021 draft class runners, too.

If there’s one downside to his game, it’s that Herbert has never had more than 10 catches in a single season, and he finished with just 34 catches during his time with the Jayhawks and Hokies. He’s also 23, which hurts his dynasty appeal somewhat.

Chuba Hubbard

8. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State

  • 22 years old, 6-foot-0, 208 pounds

2020 Stats: (7 games) 133 carries, 625 yards, 4.7 YPC, 5 touchdowns, 8 catches, 52 yards, 6.5 YPC, 1 touchdown, 677 scrimmage yards

Hubbard was a Heisman trophy candidate in 2019 when he racked up 2,094 yards on the ground and 21 touchdowns for the Cowboys. He also led all running backs in yards after contact and total yards per game, and he tied for 14th in the nation in broken tackles. Rather than go pro, Hubbard decided to return to college in 2020.

That didn't work out, as he rushed for a modest 625 yards and saw his yards-per-rush average decline nearly two full yards. He also caught just eight passes on 141 plays, down from the 23 receptions he produced during his previous campaign. A former Canadian track star, Hubbard has speed to burn and is an elusive runner when he's right. Pass protection is a concern and will have to be addressed, though.

jaret patterson buffalo football

9. Jaret Patterson, Buffalo 

  • (21 years old, 5-foot-6 1/2, 195 pounds)

2020 Stats: (6 games) 141 carries, 1,072 yards, 7.6 YPC, 19 touchdowns, 0 catches, 0 yards, 0 YPC, 0 touchdowns, 1,072 scrimmage yards

Patterson put up phenomenal numbers during his three seasons at Buffalo, finishing with 3,884 rushing yards and 52 rushing touchdowns in 32 games. He averaged more than six yards per rushing attempt in that time, including a 2020 campaign that saw him produce 7.6 yards per tout. Per PFF, he ranked second in offensive yards per snaps (3.51) and was eighth in the nation based on PFF’s rushing grade (91.3).

Patterson didn't do so much as a pass-catcher in college, however. In fact, he had just 20 catches in those 32 games and didn’t haul in a single pass last season. Some would also argue that he benefited from playing less-than-stellar competition while running behind a solid offensive line. Still, Patterson does have some sleeper appeal in both re-drafts and dynasty leagues if he lands in a beneficial NFL situation.

rhamondre stevenson

10. Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma

  • 23 years old, 6-foot-0, 246 pounds

2020 Stats: (6 games) 101 carries, 665 yards, 6.6 YPC, 7 touchdowns, 18 catches, 211 yards, 11.7 YPC, 0 touchdowns, 876 scrimmage yards

Stevenson played in just 19 games at the collegiate level. He didn't see a huge role in the Sooners offense until his final season. During that time, he averaged 16.8 carries and three receptions per game. He played in just six contests in 2020 due to being suspended for a positive THC test before the 2019 Peach Bowl.

Stevenson is a powerful, downhill runner who can also give NFL teams a good pass-catching option out of the backfield. He doesn’t figure to see a featured role at the next level, but Stevenson could be a part of a committee scenario. He’s likely to be a Day 3 selection for a team looking to add running back talent and depth for 2021.

Michael Fabiano is an award-winning fantasy football analyst on Sports Illustrated and a member of the Fantasy Sports Writers Association (FSWA) Hall of Fame. You can follow Michael on Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram for all of the latest breaking fantasy football news and the best analysis in the business!

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