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2021 Rookie Running Backs: Tier Two

Previously, we examined the top two running backs in the 2021 rookie running back class, Najee Harris and Travis Etienne (Here: 2021 Rookie Running Backs: The Elites). Gifted with a deep and talented 2021 rookie class, dynasty managers have plenty of opportunity to find outstanding values beyond the consensus studs. With that in mind, doing your own due diligence and staying current with the rookies should yield favorable results for you come draft day. A good process will almost always lead to good outcomes over time. 

Here, we’ll dive into the second tier of running back prospects in similar fashion. While they don’t provide the same level of certainty as Harris or Etienne, there’s plenty of upside. Without further ado, let’s get to it.

#3 – Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis, RS Sophomore (5’11, 195 lbs)

Kenneth Gainwell played high school football in his hometown at Yazoo County High School. Surprisingly, Gainwell played quarterback at Yazoo County and started for the team from sophomore to senior. Unsurprisingly, Gainwell excelled as a dual-threat quarterback, finishing his high school career with 3,682 passing yards and 4,730 rushing yards. He committed to playing college football for the Memphis Tigers prior to his senior season and was ranked as the 124th athlete (247Sports) in the 2018 recruiting class.

During his first training camp at Memphis, Gainwell made the transition to running back and hasn’t looked back since. Below we can see his production during his brief time with the Tigers. 

Rushing

YearGPATTYDSTD
201844911
201914231145913

Receiving

YearGPRECYDSTD
201846520
201914516103

Gainwell impressively finished with over 2,000 all-purpose yards in his redshirt freshman season, helping the Tigers to a 12-2 record, AAC title, and Cotton Bowl appearance. He was the only player in the NCAA to rush for over 1,000 yards and have more than 500 receiving yards in 2019.

Strengths

Gainwell is lauded for his decisiveness and consistency as a ball carrier. He’s quick and elusive, with the ability to power through contact and turn negative plays into positive ones. Cuts are crisp, and he explodes out of them. Deceptively powerful for his size and very capable of picking up extra yards after contact.

Gainwell is a tremendous receiver all over the field. At Memphis he was utilized effectively out of the backfield, slot and out wide. Ball skills and tracking are legitimately better than a lot of receivers. Route running shows the understanding and feel that few running backs ever can, setting up defenders and exploding out of breaks routinely. Extremely reliable hands are evident on tape.

Weaknesses

Being potentially undersized is a frequent criticism of Gainwell’s. The NFL’s transition away from this line of thinking has me less concerned than others. A common theme among rookie running backs, Gainwell needs to improve in pass protection. Some of this criticism can be attributed to Memphis’ offense as Gainwell was sparingly asked to pass block. Adding more strength to his game is essential and will also serve to benefit him in pass protection situations.

Fantasy Outlook

Gainwell is a truly unique prospect due to the exceptional receiving ability he possesses. Regardless of whether or not he becomes a true bell-cow, Gainwell’s versatility will make him a desirable weapon at the next level. Currently, he projects as a Day 2 pick in the NFL Draft. From a fantasy perspective, Gainwell offers a ceiling that is not too distant from that of Etienne or Harris while also capable of providing a steady floor due to his receiving chops. It’s likely he cements himself among the Top 7-10 picks in 1 QB rookie drafts this spring.

#4 – Javonte Williams, North Carolina, Junior (5’10, 220 lbs)

Javonte Williams played high school football in his hometown of Wallace, North Carolina. As a senior Williams rushed for 2,271 yards and 27 touchdowns en route to a state title. He also added 13 receptions for an additional 363 yards and 5 touchdowns. 

Williams was ranked as the 94th running back in the 2018 recruiting class by 247Sports and committed to playing college football for the University of North Carolina. Since joining the Tar Heels, Williams has shown steady, and strong development as both a runner and a receiver. His college production can be seen below.

Rushing

YearGPATTYDSTD
201810432245
2019131669335
202011157114019

Receiving

YearGPRECYDSTD
2018108580
201913171761
202011253053

For good reason, Williams’ 2020 statistics leap off the page. He set career highs in both rushing and receiving while also setting the school record for touchdowns in a season. Alongside fellow draft entrant Michael Carter, they formed one of the most dynamic backfields in UNC history.

Strengths

Williams possesses a very well-rounded skill set that was constantly on display during the 2020 season. An extremely powerful runner with terrific lower body strength, he utilized those traits to break countless tackles. Looked impossible to bring down on more than just a few plays this season. Tough, hard working and dedicated are all adjectives used by those describing Williams.

Williams is also a very capable athlete with enough acceleration and explosiveness to hit the hole hard and consistently gain positive yardage. Not a true burner, but certainly fast enough to break off long runs. Footwork looked very good and instinctive. With respect to the passing game, Williams proved himself to be a very willing blocker with an ability to hold up in pass protection situations. As a receiver, he was effective but has room to grow in that department.

Weaknesses

It’s tough to find any glaring weaknesses in Williams’ game. There are, however, some areas of his game that are not truly elite. As mentioned earlier, Williams lacks next-level speed. There’s also the question of whether or not he can slide into a full-time role at the NFL level after splitting so evenly with Carter. Will more snaps lead to a decline in production and tackle breaking ability?

Williams also has room to improve as a receiver out of the backfield and he’ll benefit immensely from becoming a more polished and diverse route runner.

Fantasy Outlook

Williams has gone from a relative unknown at the beginning of the season, to a household name among scouts and dynasty GMs. His rise has been nothing short of meteoric, and it’s remarkable he’s played his way into a likely Day 2 selection. As for his fantasy prospects, Williams has become a very intriguing pick in the later stages of the first round in 1 QB rookie drafts. His every down skill set, in combination with his ability to pass protect will provide him with plenty of opportunity to see the field as a rookie. While there’s definitely some RB 1 upside to Williams, he’s more likely to become some form of RB 2.

#5 – Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State, RS Junior (6’0, 208 lbs)

Rounding out tier two of our 2021 rookie running backs is none other than Chuba Hubbard. Hubbard was born north of the border in Edmonton, Alberta, and played his high school football at Bev Facey Community High where he posted 6,880 yards and 82 touchdowns in three years. Although he played in Canada, Chuba was a highly touted recruit who received offers from some of the most prestigious programs in the country. He was the 23rd ranked running back in the 2017 class (247Sports) and ultimately committed to Oklahoma State.

Hubbard exploded onto the scene following an exceptional 2019 season as a key cog in the prolific Oklahoma State offense. He earned plenty of honors following that season, becoming the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year, a unanimous All-American and winning the Weeden Award. His rushing and receiving production with the Cowboys can be seen below.

Rushing

YearGPATTYDSTD
2018131247407
201913328209421
202071336255

Receiving

YearGPRECYDSTD
201813222292
201913231980
202078521

The 2019 numbers speak for themselves. Chuba was the definition of a workhorse, handling over 350 total touches and turning them into a combined 2,292 yards. Unfortunately, he sputtered early and often in his senior season, illustrated clearly by his lackluster production in a conference that lacks stout defenses.

Strengths

Explosiveness and speed are among Hubbard’s strongest traits. Track speed is evident on long runs and once he advances past the first level. No issues beating defenders to the edge. Acceleration and change of direction ability are very good. Consistently hits holes fast and cuts effectively. A natural at making defenders miss and keeps his legs churning through contact. 

Hubbard displays good vision and patience on many of his runs, waiting for blocks to develop and finding open space. Appears to be a great fit for teams that deploy a zone scheme. The majority of his touches came from the shotgun.

Weaknesses

Hubbard would certainly benefit from some improvement in the passing game. As a receiver, he’s been relatively effective, while often making things look more difficult than necessary. It’s evident on tape he’s not a natural pass catcher which has led to unnecessary bobbles and/or drops. Furthermore, he’s proven himself to be very inconsistent in pass protection which can be largely attributed to poor technique.

As a runner, Hubbard lacks elite power and play strength. He’s unlikely to find consistent success running between the tackles and could possibly cede goal line touches to a more powerful teammate. The Oklahoma State offense was prolific in 2019 and there were plenty of running lanes to take advantage of. How Chuba’s game translates to the NFL will be very interesting to see.

Fantasy Outlook

Any back with Hubbard’s speed will have an above average ceiling due to home run hitting ability. In addition, if he continues to develop as a receiver and in pass protection he could find himself in an every down role. Once a lock to be a Day 2 pick, few backs have seen their draft stock suffer like Hubbard. In terms of fantasy, Hubbard has seen his stock drop from a consensus Top 6 pick in 1 QB leagues to somewhere in the 9 – 15 range. Draft capital and landing spot will be essential for Hubbard and will best determine his fantasy prospects moving forward. Right now, a better-case (not best) scenario for Hubbard would be developing into a mid-range RB 2 with middling RB 3 being closer to the worst.

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