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2021 Rookie Running Backs: The Elites

The 2021 rookie running back class is an exciting one as the NFL prepares for another influx of offensive talent. In this article, we take a look at the most highly regarded running back prospects in the 2021 rookie class.

#1- Najee Harris, Alabama, Senior (6’2, 230 lbs)

Najee Harris played his high school football at Antioch High School in his home state of California. At Antioch, Harris dominated from sophomore to senior, posting over 2,200 rushing yards in each season. Unsurprisingly, this production made Harris the #1 running back recruit and unanimous Top 3 overall recruit in the 2017 recruiting class. With offers from all the best programs in the nation, Harris ultimately chose to join Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide.

As evidenced below, Harris has maintained his elite production during his time in college.

Rushing

YearGPATTYDSTD
201710613703
2018151177834
201913209122413
202011214126224

Receiving

YearGPRECYDSTD
2017106450
201815470
201913273047
202011323163

Since taking over as the starter in 2019, Harris has racked up 3,106 all-purpose yards and 47 total touchdowns while playing against stout SEC competition. In each year with the Tide, Harris has continued to develop and refine his game while simultaneously increasing both his rushing and receiving production. You really can’t ask for more than that.

Strengths

At 6’2”, 230 lbs, Harris is an incredibly powerful and tough runner whose relentless effort makes him one of the most difficult backs to bring down. Always keeps his feet moving and consistently falls forward to pick up additional yardage. Contact balance is truly remarkable and he’ll excel in short yardage situations. For a bigger back, he possesses quick feet that enable him to make sharp cuts in a variety of contexts. Though acceleration isn’t elite, he has enough top end speed once he’s able to get going. Vision and patience have steadily improved during his time at Alabama.

Unlike many bigger backs, Harris complements his power with soft, reliable hands out of the backfield. Has repeatedly shown the ability to make adjustments on the ball regardless of where he is on the field. Capable in pass protection and fearlessly takes on opposing rushers. Owns a true three-down skill set. 

Weaknesses

Harris’ lack of elite agility and speed will certainly take away from his home run hitting ability in the NFL. I’m of the opinion that he’s shown more than enough elsewhere to compensate for this. 

Additionally, while Harris is a capable pass protector, he would stand to benefit from some refinement in his blocking technique. With his frame, he has the potential to be lights out in pass protection and all that will do is allow him to see the field earlier and more often in his career.

Fantasy Outlook

Harris is unlikely to last beyond the second pick in the vast majority of 1 QB rookie drafts. While neither comparison is perfect, Harris has been frequently compared to Matt Forte and to a lesser extent Derrick Henry. He possesses the ceiling of a set and forget RB 1 in fantasy football leagues for a long time. His receiving ability, paired with his dominance in short yardage situations will provide him with a very solid weekly floor. He shouldn’t last beyond Pick 40 in the 2021 NFL Draft.

#2 – Travis Etienne, Clemson, Senior (5’10, 205 lbs)

Travis Etienne played his high school ball at Jennings High in Louisiana. During his senior season he rushed for 2,459 yards and an absurd 35 touchdowns in 13 contests. He committed to playing college football for Clemson University after being ranked as the 15th best running back in the 2017 recruiting class. 

A look at his rushing and receiving totals help portray the versatile prospect Etienne is.

Rushing

YearGPATTYDSTD
20171310776613
201815204165824
201915207161419
20201115888213

Receiving

YearGPRECYDSTD
2017135570
20181512782
201915374324
202011445242

The production, with respect to school history, is truly impressive. Etienne is currently the all-time leading rusher in Clemson history and looks poised to hold that title for some time. He also holds the ACC career rushing record and NCAA record for most games with a touchdown.

Strengths

Etienne possesses the kind of elite burst and top-end speed to take it to the house any time he touches the ball. He should have no problem running in the 4.3’s at the NFL Combine. Acceleration is special, requiring no more than a few steps to reach top speed. Serial killer of pursuit angles. Moreover, he does a great job of using his size to his advantage and proves himself to be maddeningly elusive for defenders. Contact balance and power are excellent for his size and enable him to grind out extra yardage.

Etienne is correctly praised for demonstrating terrific receiving ability that continues to improve. His hands are among the best in class. His elite speed and agility make him a near impossibility to cover out of the backfield and once he has the ball in space, good luck.

Weaknesses

Vision has been one of the most persistent criticisms of Etienne throughout his time at Clemson. A drawback of his tremendous speed is that he doesn’t exercise as much patience as he should on occasion, resulting in him rushing the line of scrimmage. This is much more prevalent when running between the tackles. A lack of patience also contributes to an inability to identify cutbacks at times.

Although Etienne is willing in pass protection, he’s not consistently effective when tasked with it. This can be attributed to a lack of technique and recognition. Refinement in this area will be key to his development. An improvement in route running would also make him more lethal.

Fantasy Outlook

While the frequent comparisons to Alvin Kamara are lofty, they’re also not terribly inaccurate. Etienne has all the traits necessary to become a three-down workhorse in the NFL and a consistent RB 1 in fantasy lineups. Barring a devastating injury or catastrophic development, Etienne will be selected first or second in all but a handful of 1 QB rookie drafts this year. In 2 QB and SF formats he’s unlikely to last beyond 5-6. In regards to the NFL draft, he should wind up a late first or early second round selection.

If you enjoyed this article , check out the second tier of rookie running backs here 2021 Rookie Running Backs: Tier Two

I’ve also written pieces on 2021 Rookie Quarterbacks: The Fantastic Four and 2021 Rookie Tight Ends: The Big 3 for those of you interested.

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