The class of running back prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft is a bit of a mixed bag. There is a near consensus group of three elite talents at the top of the class and a handful of others in the middle that have the talent to end up productive starters on fantasy rosters. Beyond those top names, there are still prospects worth gambling on late in rookie drafts before knowing which professional team they’ll end up on based on skill sets alone.
Tier One: The Elite
In the 2021 NFL Draft, the headliner for running backs is Alabama’s Najee Harris. A true three-down runner, Harris has the physical profile and athletic traits of a fantasy football superstar. He is incredibly sound as both a receiver and pass protector and should end up in a featured role regardless of which team drafts him. Not far behind Harris is Clemson’s Travis Etienne. As explosive as they come at the running back position, Etienne has a long track record of production in the ACC. After rushing for over 1,600 yards in consecutive seasons (2018 and 2019), Etienne started to grow as a pass-catcher in 2020. He was able to record career highs in receptions (48) and receiving yards (588) despite appearing in the fewest amount of games in his four-year college career. Perhaps no running back boosted their draft stock more this season than North Carolina’s Javonte Williams. A physical, powerful runner built to withstand being a lead back in the NFL, Williams also shows plenty of breakaway speed. He is a menace to tackle in the open field.
Tier Two: Productive Fantasy Starters
After opting out of the college football season in 2020 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, many fantasy fans may have forgotten about Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell. Possessing a skill set that fits the modern NFL wonderfully, Gainwell’s abilities as a pass-catcher will give his fantasy value an immediate boost. Fantasy football managers also know all too well what an edge elite speed can give a running back. Despite a mildly disappointing pro day, Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard has repeatedly shown he has plenty of top-end speed in his repertoire. Both Gainwell and Hubbard would thrive in zone running schemes that allow them to showcase their burst and athleticism on the outside.
Tier Three: Flex Plays / Committee Backs
It wasn’t all Javonte Williams for the Tar Heels, as North Carolina’s Michael Carter showed fantasy fans plenty of excitement of his own. A different style than Williams entirely, Carter shows off top-notch agility and elusiveness. He is exceptionally elegant with his footwork and can make defenders trip over themselves in the open field. If not for injuries, Ohio State’s Trey Sermon may have had much more buzz surrounding his name leading up to the draft. After transferring to Ohio State from Oklahoma, Sermon was a star in the latter half of the year for the Buckeyes and showed an ability to shine as an inside zone runner.
Tier Four: Bench Depth and Worthwhile Gambles
Another big man who is surprisingly light on his feet is Oklahoma’s Rhamondre Stevenson. He has the power to run defenders over and the ability to make them miss with a spin move. He is a better pass catcher than he gets credit for, and his frame may afford him additional opportunities around the goal line. After never topping 663 rushing yards for Kansas, Virginia Tech’s Khalil Herbert burst onto the scene in 2020 to the tune of 1,183 rushing yards and eight rushing touchdowns. He shows off great vision and contact balance and is easily worth a gamble in the latter portion of rookie drafts (currently the 35th rookie off the board per NFL Draft Bible ADP). In a season that was only six games long due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson racked up 143 rushing yards per game in those six contests. He likely will end up as part of a committee in the NFL but he has shown that he can be a productive runner when given the opportunity.
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