Ultimate NFL Draft Preview: History Guides Look at Running Back Prospects

The Green Bay Packers could use a third back to join with Aaron Jones and AJ Dillon. History suggests GM Brian Gutekunst will be looking at this list of prospects.
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GREEN BAY, Wis. – Here’s a look at the Green Bay Packers’ running backs situation ahead of the NFL Draft, including pertinent history and potential draft picks.

State of the Packers at Running Back

At this time last year, running back was a major need. With 2017 draft picks Aaron Jones and Jamaal Williams headed to free agency, it was clear the Packers needed to expend some draft capital. Thus, with the second-round pick used on AJ Dillon and the surprise re-signing of Pro Bowler Aaron Jones, Green Bay will enter the 2021 season with the potential for one of the top backfields in the NFL.

That doesn’t mean general manager Brian Gutekunst can afford to ignore the running back position, though. Running back is a physical position and even the toughest backs in the game can wind up missing time with injuries. At this point, the No. 3 back is Dexter Williams, a sixth-round pick in 2019 who hasn’t panned out. Mike Weber, a seventh-round pick by Dallas in 2019, and Patrick Taylor, who went undrafted in 2020 in large part because of a foot injury, round out the group.

NFL Draft Position Ranking

9 out of 11. The top of the draft is strong, with Alabama’s Najee Harris, Clemson’s Travis Etienne and North Carolina’s Javonte Williams all viable candidates to be the first back off the board, but the depth fades away in a hurry.

History Says You Can (Maybe) Forget These Guys

The Packers simply don’t draft short guys. That’s well-established at receiver and cornerback but also true at running back. During the 16 drafts conducted by Ted Thompson and Gutekunst, the Packers have selected 11 running backs. Or, make it 12 if you include Ty Montgomery, who was drafted to play receiver but made his mark at running back. Jones was the shortest at 5-foot-9 1/8. No running back had hands smaller than 9 inches.

Based on height, Memphis’ versatile Kenneth Gainwell (5-8 3/8) and North Carolina’s explosive Michael Carter (5-7 7/8) are two high-quality backs who could be out of the mix. Ditto for Buffalo’s Jaret Patterson (5-6 1/2) and Kansas’ Pooka Williams (5-8 5/8). Virginia Tech’s Khalil Herbert (5-8 7/8), a potential choice early in Day 3, could be on the fringe … until the next paragraph.

Based on hand size – a big deal with ball security being such a challenge in December and January – Carter (8 3/4), Oklahoma’s Rhamondre Stevenson (8 3/4), Herbert (8 1/2) and Louisville’s Javian Hawkins (7 7/8) could be out.

Interestingly, the team has not been beholden to testing numbers. Relative Athletic Score compares a player’s testing results against their position group and places them on a 0-to-10 scale. Jones (9.21) and Dillon (9.16) were superb athletes. Eddie Lacy (4.58) and Jamaal Williams (4.55)? Not so much. The burly Lacy ran the slowest 40 (4.64). Missouri’s Larry Rountree (4.68), Arkansas’ Rakeem Boyd (4.68) Marshall’s Brenden Knox (4.66), who are not burly, ran slower than Lacy so presumably would be off the board.

So, who’s left?

Harris, Etienne, Williams Lead First-Round Prospects

Najee Harris, Alabama (6-foot-1 3/8, 232 pounds; no workout - ankle; 10 1/4 hands): Want a do-it-all back with the power to run through defenders? Harris is your man. He’s big in every sense off the term, standing 6-foot-1 3/8 and 232 pounds with oven-mitt hands of 10 1/4 inches. Harris overcame a difficult childhood to be a top recruit coming out of high school and a top recruit coming out of college. As a senior, he rushed for 1,466 yards and 26 touchdowns and added 43 receptions for 425 yards and four more scores. He led the nation with 7.7 broken tackles per game, according to Sports Info Solutions. According to SIS, his 100-touch rates were 0.3 fumbles and 34 missed tackles.

Draft Bible says: Harris shows great ability to plow through initial contact and drag defenders along for a ride. He also demonstrates tremendous balance, jump cuts and does show the propensity to want to hurdle defenders. His natural instincts allow for a good feel on distance and angles. Perhaps one of his best traits is his ability as a receiver with ideal ball skills, terrific coordination/body control and outstanding leaping ability to go for jump balls.

Javonte Williams, North Carolina (5-9 5/8, 212 pounds; 4.55 40; 4.09 shuttle; 9 3/8 hands): Want a back who’s an absolute nightmare in the open field? Williams is your man. Williams was overlooked by recruiters as a star linebacker so his coach moved him to running back. Williams runs with the violence of a linebacker. Working in tandem with fellow draft prospect Michael Carter, Williams rushed for 933 yards in 2019 and 1,140 yards in 2020. He led the nation with 75 missed tackles forced – a remarkable achievement considering he tied for 20th in the nation in rushing attempts – and averaged a ridiculous 4.59 yards after contact, according to Pro Football Focus. Only Buffalo’s Patterson did better. Williams had 0.48 missed tackles per carry. Among backs with at least 100 carries, Oklahoma’s Rhamondre Stevenson was a distant second with 0.36. According to SIS, his 100-touch rates in 2020 were 0.5 fumbles and 43 missed tackles.

Draft Bible says: Williams might have the best contact balance from a prospect at the running back position in a number of years. His short, squatty build allows him to stay low and level through some very physical contact. Combine his leg power with his flexibility, and it seems like defenses can’t get this guy down without forcing him to trip. He is a scheme-diverse player that can handle a three-down workload immediately at the next level. His top-tier pass protection skills and ability to be a pass-catching weapon will keep him on the field for third downs and obvious passing downs.

Travis Etienne, Clemson (5-10 1/8, 215 pounds; 4.44 40; DNP shuttle; 9 3/8 hands): Want a back capable of taking it the distance every time he touches the ball? Etienne is your man. The final man in Clemson’s recruiting class, Etienne finished his four seasons with 6,107 yards from scrimmage and 78 total touchdowns. Following back-to-back seasons of 1,600-plus rushing yards, Etienne rushed for only 914 yards and a 5.4-yard average as a senior – he averaged 8.0 yards in 2018 and 2019 – he set career highs with 48 receptions for 588 yards. According to PFF, he ranked fifth in the nation with 822 yards after contact. According to SIS, his 100-touch rates in 2020 were 1.9 fumbles and 25 missed tackles.

Draft Bible says: Etienne’s excellent vision allows him to understand cutback lanes and anticipate where holes are going to open. Whether it be a spin move, a stiff arm or an amazing cutback, Etienne seems to find a way to make plays. The Louisiana native has elite breakaway speed, as he never gets tackled from behind, and the collision balance to churn out valuable yards after contact. Etienne does struggle at times in protection but is a versatile threat who puts defenses into some very difficult situations.

Trey Sermon Tops Day 2 Prospect

Round 1 leftovers: Too many teams are like the Packers and found their star running back with a Day 3 pick. It’s more likely that zero running backs go in the first round than the three listed above.

Trey Sermon, Ohio State (6-foot 3/8, 215 pounds; 4.59 40; 4.30 shuttle; 9 3/8 hands): Sermon spent his first three seasons at Oklahoma, where he topped 2,000 rushing yards. With degree in hand and having missed most of the 2019 season with a knee injury, he transferred to Ohio State to join quarterback Justin Fields, whom he got to know through a mutual trainer. In eight games and just two starts, Sermon rushed for 870 yards (7.5 average) and four touchdowns. The bulk of that came during an electric 331-yard throttling of Northwestern in the Big Ten title game and a 193-yard smackdown of Clemson in the playoffs. He suffered an injured shoulder on his first carry of the national title game. His four-year receiving total counted 48 catches.

According to SIS, his 100-touch rates in 2020 were 0.0 fumbles and 30 missed tackles. That missed-tackle rate ranks third in the draft class behind Williams and Harris. He hasn’t fumbled since 2018. In his predraft testing, he ranked fourth among running backs in Relative Athletic Score.

Draft Bible Says: A barrel of a runner to bring down, Sermon demonstrates great power and balance, in addition to being tough to stop in his tracks. His expertise comes between the tackles, where he is effective using his short-area burst to make precise cuts and change direction quickly. Where he falls short is in the area of his explosiveness. Sermon has some between-the-tackle burst, but outside of that he is very limited.

Day 3 Prospects

Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State (6-0, 210 pounds; 4.50 40; 4.30 shuttle; 9 hands): Hubbard had a monumental 2019 season with an FBS-leading 2,094 rushing yards (6.4 average) to earn unanimous All-American accolades. In seven games in 2020, Hubbard added 625 yards (47 average), his season derailed by an injured ankle. He caught 45 passes his first two seasons. According to SIS, his 100-touch rates in 2020 were 0.7 fumbles and 19 missed tackles. He made big progress from a ball-security perspective after fumble rates of 2.7 in 2018 and 1.4 in 2019.

For most Canadians who believe they have a bright football future, they finish their high school in the United States to gain recruiting exposure. A native of Alberta, Canada, Hubbard stayed home. “I had all these prep schools hitting me up, saying, 'Come on down, we'll get you right, we'll teach you American football,’” Hubbard told NFL.com. “But I knew it would probably cost a lot of money, so I cut it out of mind and just decided, ‘If I'm good enough, they'll find me. Hopefully.’”

He is a speed back. In 2015, he finished fourth in the 100 meters at the World Youth Championships in Colombia. Before being a star back, he dreamed about the Olympics.

Draft Bible says: Hubbard runs exclusively out of the shotgun in the Cowboys’ very spaced-out attack. Possessing exciting speed and burst, he makes use of large openings, exploding into holes and taking it the distance. When playing quickly, he gives second-level defenders no chance to hesitate while filling their gaps as he is gone in an instant. While he does not jump-cut explosively, Hubbard can change directions in the open field and find cutback lanes on lateral runs. Once in space, the Canadian loves using a stiff arm that is very effective on defensive backs. He is not physical, which leaves yards on the field as a runner and takes him off the field in the passing game.

Kylin Hill, Mississippi State (5-10 1/2, 214 pounds; 4.55 40; 4.35 shuttle; 9 3/4 hands): With 734 yards as a sophomore and 1,350 yards as a junior, Hill looked like a top prospect entering his senior year. Instead, his 2020 campaign went nowhere fast. In three games in new coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid system, he carried only 15 times for 58 yards but did catch 23 passes. He was suspended by Leach and ultimately opted out.

It was an about-face after he was hailed for his maturity and leadership in 2019.

“Growing up, it was hard,” Hill told The Athletic, referencing the deaths of people close to him and his relationship with his father. “I always stayed in trouble. I quit football in my sophomore year of high school, then we got (coach Randal Montgomery). I would always quit and he would just always tell me that I didn’t know what I was capable of, that I had talent, but if I kept doing what I was doing, I was going to waste it. When he told me that, it was just like the light clicked.”

According to SIS, his 100-touch rates for his career were 0.2 fumbles and 28 missed tackles.

NFL Draft Bible says: With a powerfully built frame, Hill possesses some of the best contact balance in this draft class. Playing with outstanding effort, Hill is rarely corralled on first contact, with the ability to churn out extra yardage after first contact. He’s a runaway freight train once he is able to get into the second level, presenting a long day for opposing defensive backs coming downhill. The biggest improvement in Hill’s game is his vision in zone concepts. He improved his patience, allowing for blocks to develop in front of him. So, while his downhill style may be more suited for a gap power system, Hill will certainly be able to transition to a zone scheme. His physicality shows up as a pass protector, where he is inconsistent but flashes some real nice fits in that department.

Elijah Mitchell, Louisiana (5-10 1/4, 201 pounds; 4.33 40; 4.20 shuttle; 9 1/2 hands): The head of the team’s quality group of runners, Mitchell rushed for 3,267 yards in four seasons. Following a dreaded Lisfranc foot injury that ended his freshman season and required two surgeries, Mitchell rushed for 985 yards and 13 touchdowns as a sophomore, 1,147 yards and 16 touchdowns as a junior and 878 yards and eight touchdowns in 10 games as a senior. Of his 49 career receptions, 20 came in 2018. According to SIS, his 100-touch rates in 2020 were 1.3 fumbles and 23 missed tackles. He didn’t fumble in 2019. His missed-tackle rate has dropped every year since it was 47 in 2017.

He was the youngest of five boys. "Elijah was a handful, yes he was," said his mom, Penny. "Elijah, he was the littlest. He was always wanting to fight his big brothers. So they was like, 'Mama, can you get Elijah? Elijah, can you stop?'"

The 40 time of 4.33 was startling because it was so unexpected. Greg Cosell, among others, noted Mitchell’s “lack of breakaway speed.” Listed at 218 pounds by the football team, he showed up at pro day at 201. He finished sixth among backs in Relative Athletic Score.

Draft Bible says: A rugged, tough, downhill runner, Mitchell understands which hole to hit and has the ability to run to daylight. He demonstrates the balance to shed tackles and elude defenders, maintaining a low center of gravity as a ball-carrier. Mitchell is a running back who can control the game; his knack for gaining positive yardage on most of his carries wears down defenses. He can then hit a home run after breaking defenses down with his physical style of running. Mitchell was used sparingly in the pass game in 2019, but in 2018 he proved he has soft hands and can adjust to the ball effectively and make great catches.

Gerrid Doaks, Cincinnati (5-11 3/8, 228 pounds; 4.57 40; 4.28 shuttle; 9 3/4 hands): Doaks’ three-year tally was 1,712 rushing yards (5.2 average) and 14 touchdowns, plus 36 receptions. A one-year starter who missed the 2018 season with a torn Achilles, Doaks rushed for 673 yards (4.7 average) and seven touchdowns and added 14 receptions for 202 yards and two touchdowns in 2020 to earn first-team all-conference. According to PFF, his 100-touch rates in 2020 were 1.4 fumbles and 17 missed tackles.

“Obviously, (Doaks) has had injuries, but we’ve got the utmost confidence in him as a ball-carrier, him as a (pass) protector and him as a leader,” coach Luke Fickell said before the season. “That gives the guy a little bit more of a leg up.”

Draft Bible says: Having to wait his turn behind former Bearcat star Michael Warren and dealing with some durability concerns, Doaks might be the most underrated running back prospect in the 2021 draft. Boasting a well put together power frame, Doaks brings a no-nonsense running style to the position. He has some absurd contact balance and power, rarely ever getting stalled at the initial point of contact. Playing with good toughness and balance, Doaks churns out a ton of extra yardage after contact.

Jermar Jefferson, Oregon State (5-10 1/8, 206 pounds; 4.56 40; 4.39 shuttle; 9 5/8 hands): In three seasons, Jefferson rushed for 2,923 yards (5.7 average) and 27 touchdowns. The bulk of his production came in 2018, when he was a Freshman All-American following a season of 1,380 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground and 25 receptions. According to SIS, his 100-touch rates in 2020 were 2.1 fumbles and 11 missed tackles. He trailed only Buffalo’s Patterson and UCLA’s Demetric Felton (who is being viewed as more of a receiver than a runner) in the draft class with 71.3 rushing yards per game after contact.

His running backs coach compared him to Maurice Jones-Drew, a former teammate at UCLA. "It was always about the other guys. He wanted to pass the credit to them," Michael Pitre told The Oregonian. "That's one thing Jermar understands as we're watching film. He sees what he can do better, but he's also watching the other 10 guys and saying, look at the block, he's doing a great job."

Draft Bible says: With consistent production in his Oregon State career, Jefferson looks to be that “jack of all trades, master of none” running back prospect. Though there aren’t many glaring concerns or holes for Jefferson projecting to the next level, he doesn’t have a niche that will make him a valuable asset. He was able to put himself on the radar this year with his outstanding performance against Oregon where he broke out for 226 rushing yards and two touchdowns. With the ability to find open space and possessing plus vision, Jefferson is a safe, stable option at the position.

Chris Evans, Michigan (5-11, 211 pounds; 4.51 40; 4.14 shuttle; 9 3/4 hands): Evans rushed for 1,795 yards at Michigan. Not as a senior. In his career. One of the great athletes in this draft class, his pre-draft testing ranked him second among running backs in Relative Athletic Score. According to SIS, his 100-touch rates for his career were 1.1 fumbles and 36 missed tackles.

Upon arriving at Michigan, he was viewed as a running back, slot receiver and cornerback. In his college debut he rushed for 112 yards. “He really can do everything you’d want a back to do,” coach Jim Harbaugh said afterward. “He blocks. He runs the ball between the tackles. He can run on the edge. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He’s a good contributor on special teams as well. There’s a lot of ways he’ll be used. He’s a special player.”

However, after rushing for 614 yards and a gaudy 7.0 yards per carry as a freshman in 2016 and 685 yards in 2017, he flipped to 423 yards in 2018. It went from bad to worse in 2019, when he was suspended for the season for academic reasons, left school and got a job filling takeout orders at a restaurant. Back in 2020, he carried the ball only 16 times as a senior. But, with elite athleticism and a weak running back class, chances are Evans will be drafted.

Draft Bible says: The forgotten man in the Wolverines offense, Evans has an appealing all-around skill set that can affect the game in a variety of ways. While suspended for the entirety of the 2019 season dealing with academic issues, most forget how exciting an athlete Evans can be in space. He is a smooth athlete who can take advantage of manufactured opportunities in the run and pass game. With plus explosiveness and ability to change direction quickly, Evans is a headache to deal with in the open field. There should be an easy projection for him as a third-down and change-of-pace option to an NFL team’s backfield.

Kene Nwangwu, Iowa State (6-0 1/8, 210 pounds; 4.31 40; 4.25 shuttle; 9 1/4 hands): Nwangwu and Evans are two peas in a pod as superb athletes with invisible college careers. In 50 career games, Nwangwu started three times and finished with 744 rushing yards and seven receptions. Where he did make his mark was a kickoff returner, with a 26.8-yard average and one touchdown. He’s also atop the running back class in Relative Athletic Score, which should open some NFL team’s door.

"I think it's important to be versatile and I think that's what I showed today,” Nwangwu said following his electric pro day. “Whether it's kick returner, being a gunner, being an inside gunner, whatever that might be like, I just want to make sure I showed that during the pro day."

NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein says: Height, weight and speed all work in his favor, but when the ball is in his hands, there just isn't much about his running style that feels natural. Nwangwu has open-field speed to hit a crease and go, but he's often indecisive with the ball in his hands, as he lacks a runner's instincts and fails to anticipate run-lane development.

Get to Know the Top Running Back Prospects

RB1: Alabama’s Najee Harris

RB2: Clemson’s Travis Etienne

RB3: North Carolina’s Javonte Williams

RB4: Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell

RB5: North Carolina’s Michael Carter

Composite Running Back Rankings