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2021 NFL Draft RB rankings

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: March 3, 2021, 4:30 am ET

1. Javonte Williams (UNC) | 5'10/220

Comp: Nick Chubb


Javonte Williams was a high school state legend in North Carolina -- the valedictorian of his class who won four straight football state titles and a state title in the 4x100 relay -- but because of circumstances you may not be as familiar with him as you are Najee Harris and Travis Etienne. We never got to see Williams in the CFB playoff, for one, and, due to sharing a backfield with Day 2 prospect RB Michael Carter, Williams didn’t crack 1,000 yards rushing for the first time until 2020.

Last season was Williams’ national coming-out party. He ran for 1,140 yards and 19 TD on 7.3 YPC while posting a 25-305-3 line as a receiver. His tape against Miami (236 yards) specifically could be hung in the Louvre. And here’s the thing: He was 20-years old on that tape! Williams won’t turn 21 until just after the draft. He’s three months younger than Etienne, and more than two years younger than Harris. Among the top running backs prospects in this class, the guys with relevance, Williams is the youngest of them all.

Williams played linebacker earlier in his high school career. Physicality isn’t just a staple of his game, it's inherent to who is as a body-in-space mover. Such is the natural way disparate concepts like violence, balance, feet, vision and bounce coalesce, right there in front you, play after play, in Williams' catalogue of film.

The area of Williams’ game that really improved from college coaching was reading blocks, setting up blockers, and timing and decisiveness into and through the hole -- for instance, pausing behind pulling blockers and recognizing the moment he should punch the gas. You’ll notice, as he does, that he always squares his shoulders to the line, fortifying and readying himself for contact while getting into a sprinter’s stance towards the goal line.

As that area of his game improved, he exploded as a player. Because here’s the thing: Javonte Williams is utterly devastating in the second level. You don’t want him to get there, because he’s going to make a linebacker look silly. He does that with movement and outright violence. 

When Williams makes a decision, he accelerates as quickly as any back his size in this draft, taking the outside with impunity if you give it to him, and then he’s screaming downhill with zero remorse for human life. There is no hesitation, no dancing, no slowing-down to survey the field. After Javonte Williams’ initial acceleration occurs on a run, he’s going to be a bat out of hell screaming upfield until the moment the defense can get him down -- if they can get him down.

Williams is buoyed by a wicked stiff-arm and the extra force you get from running full speed with zero hesitation into every confrontation, which works for him because Williams also might have the best contact balance of any back we’ve seen enter the draft the past few classes. 

Williams can absorb a comical amount of force and keep churning forward (he flattened many stunned ACC defenders the past few seasons). It’s not just that. When he takes a clean enough hit to lose his balance, for instance, you’ll see Williams, stumbling, reflexively stick his non-ball hand to the turf to right himself. Or if he can’t, he'll keep kicking his feet into the turf to back-pedal for a few more yards until his butt hits the turf, bringing about the whistle. You won't have to have an Al Pacino in Any Given Sunday conversation with Javonte Williams about clawing for every inch -- that's in his DNA.

Williams is a master at subtle movements in the split-seconds leading up to contact, making him even more dangerous in these situations. Defenders, having done their homework, know Williams can drop the hammer with a force they haven’t seen before. So they adjust for this, fortifying their bases and approaching perhaps with more discipline and caution than usual, as though standing in a cage with a lion wearing a hamburger neckless.

Williams, a clever devil, will drop his pad level to alter the defender's strike zone or tilt his shoulders to shrink it in those precious milliseconds before the defender must commit, giving Williams a head-start in an interaction he entered as the heavy betting favorite in as is.

Last season, Williams led the nation with 76 broken tackles on only 157 attempts(!!!), breaking the PFF record for broken tackles per attempt (because he broke one on average every-other run!!!). He was easily tops in the country with 23 runs that gained 10-or-more yards after first contact. This is an area of his game that will absolutely translate to the next level.

Williams does not have Travis Etienne’s burst, nor his long-speed. No. But he doesn’t play that way. He plays more like Najee Harris, and he has more long speed and burst than Harris does (Williams will likely be a low 4.5 guy, with Harris in the high-4.5s or even low-4.6s). He can take the outside in a way Harris can’t, and he can get into the third level quicker. His tape reveals more seperation from defenders at full speed. Any big plays Williams provides are a bonus because, in baseball parlance, he rarely strikes out. 

He gained 10 yards or more on 26.8% of his attempts, an absurd output, and ranked No. 2 in the country with 27 carries of 15 yards or more. This behind a UNC offensive line that over the last two seasons ranked No. 71 and 74, respectively, in power success rate, No. 49 and 101 in Football Outsiders' stuff rate, and No. 91 and 81 in PFF run-block grading. Despite running behind that shoddy offensive line, Williams finished 2020 with a 95.9 rushing grade that was the highest of the PFF College era.

Harris is a better receiver, it’s true. But Williams is probably better in this area of the game than he’s given credit for. On 58 career targets over the last three years, Williams caught 49 balls (84.5%) and only dropped four catchable throws. And he's more than a screen guy, ranking No. 22 out of 98 qualified RBs last season with 1.64 yards per route run.

Williams only fumbled three times in college -- you can trust his hands. He would have been given much more work in this area had it not been for the presence of Michael Carter, a truly fabulous receiver out of the backfield. But Williams did usurp Carter as UNC’s preferred blocking back in 2020, with 64 pass-pro reps to Carter’s 32. Williams allowed only two hurries and two pressures in those reps.

Carter’s presence, plus Williams’ early declaration, means Williams not only enters the league young, but with less history of abuse than most runners his ilk. Williams only had 416 touches from scrimmage in college. Najee Harris had 294 touches from scrimmage last season.

Though Javonte never handled a monster workload at UNC, I have no doubt about his ability to be an all-day three-down NFL bell-cow due to his skillset, versatility, play-style and durability. One area I’d like to see him improve in is just an experience thing -- further development reading his blockers, setting them up and refining that moment he hits the accelerator.

For a runner so talented, young, and fresh, I’m not only confident in his ability to do do, and additionally prove he's a plus in the passing game with more usage, but sustain excellence in the NFL for years after having so done.

2. Najee Harris (Alabama) | 6'2/230

Comp: Steven Jackson


A consensus five-star recruit out of California, Harris, the No. 2 overall prospect in the 2017 class, seen as the gem of an Alabama haul that included Tua Tagovailoa and Jerry Jeudy, not only chose to sit early behind Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs in signing with the Crimson Tide, but he spurned a Day 2 draft slot last spring to return for his senior season. 

This decision was stunning at the time, seen as an unnecessary gamble by a physical back who was chopping a year off his pro career for little return upside. But Harris was ultimately vindicated as he locked himself in as a top-three runner in this class (and perhaps even RB1) by winning the Doak Walker Award and rushing for 1,466 yards and 26 TD with a 43-425-4 receiving line to help lead the Tide to another title.

Standing 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, Harris cuts an imposing figure -- as tall as former teammate TE Irv Smith Jr., and only 10 pounds lighter. The first thing you notice about Harris is his level of skill at that size. He had 80 catches in college -- 70 since the start of the 2019 season alone! -- on 100 targets, and dropped only three catchable balls. 

That’s even more impressive than it appears, because not only does Harris put himself in a position for more targets by running advanced, crisp, varied routes, but more balls flung his way are considered catchable by the mere fact of his unique dimensions.

With an 81-inch wingspan, Harris had a longer wingspan than any receiver that attended this year’s Senior Bowl, and was shorter than only one tight end (no RB at the event outside of Harris had a wingspan longer than 79 inches). Senior Bowl attendees Nico Collins, Trevon Grimes, Noah Gray, Kenny Yeboah and John Bates are 6’4 or taller… Harris has a longer wingspan than any of them. 

Harris creates separation out of the backfield, he offers his quarterback a second tight end-like target in terms of length (Irv Smith Jr. has a 74 ⅞ wingspan at the same height, for reference), and he’s a natural hands catcher in the vein of a high-end prospect at that position (he dropped three of 83 catchable targets in college for a drop rate of 3.6%).

Harris shows the ability to not only high-point the ball downfield, but turn upfield in one motion and smoothly transition from receiver to runner. It is during this shift that he becomes a monster, a smooth-moving 230-pound hammer that can evade linebackers and knock over defensive backs. Harris recorded 22 broken tackles on 43 catches this year, per PFF.

He’s a broken-tackle machine in general, of course. Harris’ long, rocked-up frame, it turns out, is also very bendy. Coming downhill in close quarters, Harris is a load. Give him a little space and he’s an even trickier puzzle because of his loose hips and precise footwork. In the open field you'd be forgiven for thinking he's as much of a slasher as he is a hammer. Harris tries to beat defenders with movement every bit as much as he does power.

In close quarters, Harris can change direction as smoothly as any oncoming defender, and since he’s bigger than most confronted beyond the first level, he’s able to turn full-body tackle attempts into arm-tackle attempts that he runs through like a high school paper football banner (183 broken tackles on 639 career carries).

Harris was dominant running behind the nation’s best offensive line in 2020. He’s a next-evolution hammer back, a three-down player that can handle ridiculous work loads and remain on the field. I'd always want him running routes when I'm passing, but heck, he's also a darn good pass-blocker. 

Unfortunately, Harris has one major weakness that he will never be able to fix: He’s not fast. He provides so much to an offense in terms of staying on schedule, controlling the clock, moving the chains, and cashing in on red zone opportunities. But in the NFL, it’s an open question as to when he’ll have his first 40-yard run. Harris will be caught from behind if and when he ever breaks away.

Reports of a 4.45 forty are belied by his tape, which is devoid of explosive runs and show him getting caught from behind. On 638 collegiate carries running behind an elite offensive line and between elite receivers in an offense schemed by the guy who is now the head coach at Texas, Harris only ran for more than 20 yards on 25 occasions. In four years, his longest collegiate rush was 42 yards. Last year, it was 26 yards on 251 carries.

His NFL team picks him knowing Harris will provide a whole heckuva lot but categorically will not produce explosive plays. If there are two other concerns, it’s that Harris is built high, runs high, and doles out punishment but also takes his fair share -- will he continue to be able to handle 300-touch loads in the NFL the next five years while staying off IR? 

The other is that, despite being a big back, he’s clearly more comfortable with a little space to maneuver. Harris barrels to the line with urgency with the ball in his hands every time, but he could stand to use his unique view of the field to more fully survey his options before making a choice. Harris does a nice job setting defenders up in space on the second level, but he doesn’t use it as well behind the line, perhaps because he doesn’t think about it in the same way.

I’d be comfortable taking Harris at the top of the second round. He isn’t bringing my offense any homers, but we’re going to get a heckuva lot of singles and doubles by leveraging his eat-eat-eat hammer-back-with-moves ethos with his unique second-TE-on-the-field receiver skillset out of the backfield.

3. Travis Etienne (Clemson) | 5'10/205

Comp: Reggie Bush


A no-nonsense, hyper-explosive, one-cut-and-go slasher, Etienne was the perfect fit beside Trevor Lawrence the past three years in Tony Elliott’s spread scheme at Clemson. Elliott opened up the field, Lawrence kept defenders on their heels with his ability to carve up the deep sector at will, and Etienne feasted off the open spaces he was provided, scoring 78 career TD.

Whereas the runners I rank above Etienne did not have many 40-yard plus plays in college, Etienne produced explosive plays with regularity -- 16 of his 78 TD, for instance, came from a distance of 44 yards or more. 

He’s a menace when he gets a head of steam behind him. Etienne reads blocks well, showing admirable patience behind the line without being tentative, and has a Lothario’s sense of timing for the precise moment he should cut upfield and accelerate. If he is given a little runway during this process, the play could end in a touchdown. 

Etienne accelerates as smoothly and electrically as any back since perhaps Chris Johnson. Etienne explodes through the hole with his shoulders square to the end zone and runs with a certain catalytic energy from there, combining high-4.3 speed with a fearless running style. 

At full speed, Etienne runs with more power than his frame would suggest, shredding arm tackles and bouncing clean away from off-target tackle attempts -- using speed as power. And because he accelerates so quickly, and advances down the field with such haste, he often creates poor angles for defenders, forcing them to play into his hands in this regard. He runs upright but with his head on a swivel.

My concern with Etienne is that he’s on the smaller side, just south of that 215-pound threshold you feel comfortable with, and his game, while explosive and dangerous, lacks nuance. For how good of a player he is, Etienne will always in some ways be a slave to circumstance because his style works so much better in a wide-open system behind a really good offensive line. 

When Etienne has a lane to accelerate through, remember, he’s deadly. When you clog up that space in the initial moments after the snap and don’t offer him an enticing hole to explode through, it's Etienne de-fanged. He is way more of an explosive north/south mover than he is  east/west.

When he gets to top speed, he has zero interest in moving off his straight line -- you’re going to have to make him. Etienne doesn’t change direction crisply in speed-of-sound mode and he rarely throttles down or alters his tempo -- live by the breakneck style, die by the breakneck style, amirite? 

He is not trying to pick down the line laterally and make people miss in the hole, that's not his game. He’s willing to wait for a hole, and when he sees it, he’s about to punch the gas and go into ballistic mode. But what happens when those holes show up with less regularity?

Etienne’s best seasons came in 2018-2019, when he posted 90.1 and 90.5 PFF grades, respectively, while his offensive line provided him 3.8 (2018) and 2.8 (2019) yards before contact. In 2020, upon losing four starters to the NFL, Clemson’s offensive line regressed from No. 15 in PFF’s run-blocking grades to No. 36, providing Etienne with only 1.8 yards before contact. 

Etienne regressed right along with it to an 82.0 PFF grade. That is a significant drop-off in efficiency for a running back that was still playing next to Trevor Lawrence in Tony Elliott's system -- especially when you consider that Etienne's grade was buoyed by his best-ever season as a receiver, which we'll talk about in a second.

Clemson’s best offensive lineman last season was LT Jackson Carman, also a prospect in this year's draft. Etienne averaged 6.7 YPC on 84 carries to the left side last year. On 82 carries to the right side, he averaged 4.4 YPC. 

To Etienne’s credit, he’s no longer a huge minus in the passing game. He admitted before the 2019 season that he got "nervous" as a receiver. After catching 17 balls with five drops his first two seasons on campus, posting an abomination of a 45.6 PFF receiving grade as a sophomore in 2018, Etienne went to work.

He improved his PFF receiving grade to 77.2 in 2019 and then to an elite 90.9 grade in 2020. Between 2019-2020, Etienne caught 85 balls and dropped five, an astounding rate of growth. When you hear Alvin Kamara comps, this is where they're coming from -- people that project continued breakneck growth in Etienne's receiving development. Fair enough.

Unfortunately, at this time, Etienne is still mostly confined to dump-offs, swings, screens and hitches. But to be fair, linebackers have no shot of sticking with him even on straightforward coverage assignments. And with the ball in his hands, Etienne becomes the same player he always is, looking for a short runway to accelerate to top speed through. It’s extremely, extremely, extremely fortunate that Etienne became a plus receiver, because he’s always been a poor pass blocker and likely always will be.

Etienne will also never be much of an inside runner, and he’s thus a bad fit for any team that likes its lead back to do so with regularity. Etienne is a three-true-outcomes running back: He’s waiting on his blockers, hoping to bounce it outside and hit the jets, and he’s trying to outrun you from there.

You can get him to start striking out by taking away his home runs. Ohio State was one team that showed how to do that. The Buckeyes’ stout defensive line controlled the LOS against Clemson in the last two playoff matchups, holding Etienne to 68 rushing yards on 20 carries across two games.

Etienne will go ballistic early in his career if he finds himself on a contender in a very specific kind of offense. But I worry he could disappoint outside of ideal circumstances. And though I love his progression as a receiver the past two seasons, he's not Kamara's equal in that department and I'd have to make a logical leap to project him to get there in the near future. For those reasons I cannot in good conscience rank him ahead of either Javonte Williams or Najee Harris, two players who will succeed no matter where they end up.

4. Michael Carter (North Carolina) | 5'8/202

Comp: Clyde Edwards-Helaire


Michael Carter is subthreshold small. But he’s dominated for years, and his body-type fits the game he’s bringing to the NFL. Similarly-proportioned to Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Carter posted 3,345 all-purpose yards and 45 total TD as a senior in high school. The lightning to Javonte Williams’ thunder in the UNC backfield the past few years, Carter holds UNC records for yards per carry in a game (12.83), season (7.98) and career (6.62).

The same caveats that apply to Williams’ offensive lines the past two years also apply to Carter (No. 71 and 74 in power success rate, No. 49 and 101 in Football Outsiders’ stuff rate, and No. 91 and 81 in PFF’s run blocking grades). But Carter excelled in college as a quick decision-maker that runs with a very low center of gravity and possesses ridiculous cutting ability. Last year, he and Williams ranked No. 1 and 2 in the FBS in percentage of runs that resulted in 10-plus-yards gained (26.8% and 26.1%, respectively).

Built with a thick lower-half, Carter is a jitterbug in close quarters, forcing off-target tackle attempts he pings off. Blessed with elite contact balance, Carter is able to stay safe through non-fatal contact despite his scatback frame because he's built so compactly, doesn't give his opponent much of a target to hit, and is a puzzle to figure out from a movement perspective. 

He’s not bothered by head-on collisions and fares better in them than you’d expect. Carter changes directions seamlessly and bursts from a neutral position with electricity akin only in this class to Travis Etienne.

Carter is an exceptional receiver, and got better as he went along at UNC. He runs good routes, he transitions from receiver to upfield runner very fluently, and he rarely drops the ball. Carter caught 80 passes in college and dropped only six.

While he showed great promise as a pass-blocker early in his career --  six hurries and eight pressures over 175 pass-blocking snaps his first three years, culminated by a strong 82.0 PFF pass-pro grade in 2019 -- Carter struggled in a small sample in 2020 (two hurries and three pressures on 32 pass-blocking snaps) and lost that gig to Javonte Williams

But it’s also fair to note that because of Carter’s presence, Williams got less run in the passing game than he should have the previous two years, and coaches were probably eager to find a reason to give him a few of Carter’s reps -- and Carter gave them one.

Either way, Carter brings a diverse skillset to an offense. If he booms, he’s another Dalvin Cook. If he falls on the lower-end of his development curve, he’ll have Gio Bernard’s career. More likely, he'll be something in between. Devonta Freeman or Clyde Edwards-Helaire are realistic old- and new-school outcomes.

5. Rhamondre Stevenson (Oklahoma) | 6'0/227

Comp: Eddie Lacy


Rhamondre Stevenson only played 235 snaps in the FBS (he didn’t qualify academically out of high school and was suspended for the first part of his senior season -- but, to be fair, in 2018, Stevenson had one of the great JUCO seasons of the past five years). And Stevenson categorically lacks speed. But he’s a good enough prospect to potentially go on Day 2, anyway.

A burly brawler who runs with Hulk power -- he was listed at 242 pounds last season and cut down to 227 pounds for Senior Bowl weigh-in -- Stevenson utterly dominated in his limited looks, rushing for 1,180 yards and 13 TD on 165 attempts (7.2 YPC). In 2020, he had a touchdown, first down, or 10+ yard run 59 times on 101 attempts (58.4%). Of his 7.2 career YPC, 2.5 came before contact, and 4.7 came after contact. 

Stevenson posted an 86.6 PFF offensive grade in 2019, and a 90.4 grade in 2020. In addition to his rushing acumen, Stevenson proved adept as a receiver in limited looks, catching 28 of 33 targets (84.8%, a high percentage) with only two drops for 298 receiving yards (10.6 YPR). Scouting reports that suggest Stevenson is a zero in the receiving game are telling on themselves -- 28 catches for 298 yards with two drops over 235 collegiate snaps is about as promising a start to a big back's receiving career as you could hope for.

Stevenson has a slightly-lesser Najee Harris skillset in a prospect with a much smaller sample size -- whereas Stevenson played 235 snaps in college, Harris played 1,578. Harris is the superior receiver, for sure, but he’s special in that regard. Stevenson, in his touches, compares favorably to Harris in every other regard. Stevenson also looked great in pass-pro in 2020, posting an 80.9 grade that ranked among the top of the running backs on this list.

Stevenson has more straight-line speed than you’d expect for a back that in the tape you're watching weighed just under 250 pounds. The attitude he brings to the north/south force he runs with manifests a sort of super-human run power, zapping defenders who come at him from off-angles like dogs who walked too close to an electrical fence. Christian Okoye Tecmo Bowl vibes, is what I'm saying.

While Stevenson is a force to wrangle down when he has a head of steam running downhill, and while he’ll get downfield quicker than you expect and even mess with defenders’ angles, Stevenson labors to make defenders miss and, in truth, doesn’t try to do so often. He barrels downfield like a burning car tumbles down a mountain, with the same fiery intentions and general lack of maneuverability.  

Stevenson's 2020 season started late because of a suspension due to a flagged marijuana test before last year's bowl game. Marijuana is now legal in some form in 44 of 50 states and is favored by two-thirds of Americans to be legalized nationally. It is longer tested for in the NBA. Changes to the NFL's CBA make for less marijuana testing in the future, and a suspension only after a third positive test. In the future, there will likely be no testing at all.

Here’s what Stevenson’s JUCO coach, Dean Grosfeld, who has worked at the school for more than 25 years, had to say about Stevenson, vis-a-vis his failed test:

“I was shocked. Because we do drug testing at our level, and there were no signs of it. We were shocked. I think in some people’s eyes, that’s a character flaw. In my eyes, it’s not necessarily a character flaw, it’s a mistake. … Does he own this? Yes. Is he embarrassed? Yes. I think embarrassment shows you sometimes a human emotion. He was embarrassed. He was embarrassed as all get out. He didn’t blame anybody else. But he was embarrassed, and that shows you what kind of human he is. He’s an incredible human being. He’s just awesome. I love the kid to death. I work with a lot of kids, and he’s just as solid as a rock. He’s just a good human being.”

I think Stevenson's suspension is something that will in the future be viewed as draconian. With the above context in mind, I don't see that failed test as a red flag. Nor do I see his high school academic struggles as a red flag.

What I see is a big, hard-charging, downhill back that requires multiple defenders to wrestle to the ground. A guy that is willing and able to play special teams for you while he develops. And one of the few running backs in this class with true three-down ability. I think Stevenson is being slept on.

6. Trey Sermon (Ohio State) | 6’0/213

Comp: Marshawn Lynch


Trey Sermon made a lot of money during the last month of the season. But it’s important to mention firstly that he was always capable of this, and we saw flashes of it throughout his career. Sermon rushed for 331 yards and two TD on 29 carries against Northwestern’s top-10 defense in the Big Ten Championship Game and 193 yards and one TD on 31 carries against Clemson in the playoff semis, breaking an incredible 24 tackles in those two games. 

Extend that stretch a game back to the Michigan State game, and Sermon ran for 636 rushing yards and four TD on 9.1 YPC in his last three collegiate games (he was most unfortunately injured immediately in the national title game against Alabama).

Sermon runs with unmistakable conviction, a no-nonsense bruiser that comes with sweet feet, good vision, and the kind of burst that made him a ballyhooed recruit back when he signed with Oklahoma out of high school. Sermon evokes Marshawn Lynch both in his come-get-it style, but also in his ludicrous contact balance, absorbing massive amounts of force and spinning off it. 

Sermon had an interesting career. A four-star Oklahoma recruit, Sermon put up 744 yards and five touchdowns as a freshman in Norman, and then truly looked like a star in the making as a sophomore in 2018 with 947 yards and 13 TD. But a leg injury and Kennedy Brooks’ ascension tanked Sermon's 2019 campaign (54 carries for 385 yards and four TD) and sent him packing for Columbus. Sermon's transfer to Ohio State was an inspired decision that was ultimately vindicated.

Sermon runs tall, and he lacks long speed. He takes a lot of hits. With his recent injury rap sheet (torn ACL, bum shoulder), durability is a concern. I do think he’s a slightly better pass-catcher than he’s given credit for, with 48 receptions and only three drops in his career working with a variety of quarterbacks. 

But Sermon is more of a check-down and screen option in this area, extremely reliable when called upon, but unable to do much more than wrangle in the pass and churn out the yards available to him. Perhaps this area of his game can improve with work in the pros. Sermon had the benefit of playing on good teams and behind great offensive lines in college, that's true, but he also had to share the backfield with great backs who also needed usage, and he probably didn't get the receiving-game work he could have.

Sermon’s impressive blend of size, feet, vision and contact balance flashed whenever he was on the field in college, and the way he finished his career gives hope that he’ll transition smoothly as a three-down back. I think Trey Sermon is an NFL starter -- I think he's that good -- so I can’t rank him any lower than this.

7. Kenneth Gainwell (Memphis) | 5'11/195

Comp: Raheem Mostert


A true one-year wonder, Gainwell ran for only 91 yards in 2018 (behind Darrell Henderson, Tony Pollard and Patrick Taylor Jr. on a team that also had Antonio Gibson) before exploding for 1,459 rushing yards in 2019. He opted-out in 2020 citing COVID-19 concerns.

An extremely shifty runner with outstanding vision, Gainwell knows he can’t run over you, so he’s trying to make you miss. His feet are ridiculous, making Gainwell a Rubik's cube to square up in close quarters and a mirage to get your bearings on when you’re screaming down on him.

He’s obviously highly flammable in space. Memphis made sure he was in it often. Gainwell needs to learn to follow his blocks better. He sees the field well enough, but believes in his evasion qualities to such a degree that he’ll flip the script and run where he pleases, flow of his blockers be danged. 

He’s so young and inexperienced that I wouldn’t hold this quirk against him long-term. But it’s an area that’ll need to be addressed in coaching. Because Gainwell’s game would be aided by making more consistent decisions behind the line of scrimmage, as it would free him to get into the second level more often, the area in which he’s scary as an apparition because of his feet.

Gainwell is a really, really, really good-pass catcher. Perhaps no surprise, since Memphis recruited him as a receiver and only later shifted him to running back. He remains skilled enough as a route runner that Memphis had no issues flexing him into the slot in 2019.

It’s fair to say that Gainwell was better running routes flexed into that position than Antonio Gibson, even though it was the latter’s stated position. Gainwell posted a jumbo 51-610-3 receiving line in 2019 in addition to his monster rushing output.

Because of his hard-charging style, Gainwell runs with more wattage than the scale would suggest. But he still has that scatback frame, and lacks the deep speed needed to convert the sorts of explosive touchdowns Travis Etienne does (which isn't to say he's slow, just that he has no chance of cracking the 4.3s).

I see Gainwell as a strong platoon option at the next level, capable of picking off yards as a runner with his elusiveness, and offering plenty in the passing game, whether as a receiver out of the backfield or flexed into the slot. Just don’t take him thinking you’re getting a bellcow. Or a finished product, for that matter. 

8. Demetric Felton (UCLA) | 5'9/189

Comp: Randall Cobb


I consider Felton more of an OW, a RB/WR if you prefer, than a running back. But for simplicity sakes I'm ranking him with the running backs, with a ranking that reflects the total value I feel he’ll provide in the NFL, as opposed to an apples-to-apples comparison of running back traits against the guys listed around him.

In a lot of ways, I prefer Felton as a slot receiver. As a running back, he’s a freelancer, constantly attempting to turn the coach’s calls for inside runs into bounce-outside opportunities. Clearly more comfortable in space, Felton hates working between the tackles, lacking the power, patience and fortitude for the job.

A slot receiver earlier in his career, this is the area Felton shines, even as a running back. He runs crisp routes, creates separation, catches the ball cleanly, and seamlessly transitions from receiver to runner. He annihilates linebackers who try to cover him. Felton remains a very strong receiver out of the slot (this could be his ultimate long-term destination -- Felton practiced with the receivers in Mobile and posted a sterling 62% win rate in one-on-ones).

I respect that he added weight to transition to running back, and that he showed toughness by breaking 36 tackles on 132 attempts and durability by taking 25-or-more carries in three of six games last season. As a runner, Felton’s strengths are insane shakability and explosive burst. When he gets to the second and third levels, you see the returner in him, weaving through traffic and making guys miss.

Felton is inexperienced as a running back, so perhaps he’ll eventually become comfortable enough running inside to keep defenses honest. Until he does, NFL defenses will sit dead-red on Felton’s forte, only feigning movement inside in order to bounce outside. In the meantime, he’s a dangerous receiver wherever you want to play him with joystick agility in the open field but ultimately capped as a playmaker by a lack of sprinter’s long speed.

9. Khalil Herbert (Virginia Tech) | 5'9/204

Comp: Olandis Gary


If I can get personal for a second, I am a University of Kansas graduate. And Khalil Herbert is an example of why it’s so infuriating to be a Jayhawks football fan. In four seasons at KU, mostly spent behind Pooka Williams, a prospect ranked lower on this list, Herbert never ran for more than 663 yards.

Following a grad transfer, in 11 starts at Virginia Tech in 2020, Herbert ran for 1,183 yards on 7.6 YPC, becoming the first 1,000-yard rusher in Justin Fuente’s nine years. That was also Herbert’s first-ever 1,000-yard season, even going back to his high school career, part of the reason he was only a three-star recruit. But signs of this player flashed from time-to-time at Kansas. In only 43 attempts in 2019, he averaged 8.9 YPC on a KU team with an awful offensive line.

Built low to the ground and equipped with X-ray vision, Herbert is a bouncy, bursty back who seeks to set defenders up and use their momentum against them. He runs through arm tackles and retains momentum on off-angle shots. Last year, Herbert tied for No. 1 in the nation in yards after contact per attempt (4.74). And he has enough juice to take it the distance, ranking No. 2 last season with 16 runs of 20-plus yards. He was Virginia Tech’s kick returner in 2020 and led the ACC in all-purpose yards (1,791).

What Herbert doesn’t do, at least to this point, is contribute on passing downs. He’s never caught more than 10 balls in a season, and he’s unproven, at best, as a pass-blocker. In addition, as a fifth-year senior coming into the league, he’s on the old-end for a prospect. But the NFL loves it some outside-zone concepts, and Herbert’s game is perfectly suited for that system, making him an intriguing target for teams that run that scheme. Fantasy players should pay close attention to the situation he ends up in. 

10. Spencer Brown (UAB) | 5'11/228

Comp: AJ Dillon


If you’re looking for this year’s AJ Dillon at a sticker-price discount, Spencer Brown is your guy. I have a soft spot for Brown, admittedly. Brown signed with UAB in 2017 when the Blazers were re-activating their football program after shuttering it for two years. UAB essentially imposed consecutive Death Penalties on itself, an act of egregious self-destruction that should have made it impossible for them to make a bowl game for years.

But that’s not how it played out. In that first season, 2017, Brown’s true freshman season, he ran for 1,329 yards and 10 TD for a rag-tag squad that shocked the country by going 8-5. The next season, the Blazers went 11-3, with Brown running for 1,227 yards and 16 TD while playing through a left foot injury that coaches said left him 60-80%. 

“The Moose” was banged up again in 2019, missing five games, but UAB went 9-5 anyway. And then Brown went for 889 yards and 10 TD in nine games as a senior as UAB went 6-3. UAB qualified for a bowl all four seasons (and played in three, with 2020’s bowl against South Carolina canceled due to the Gamecocks’ COVID issues at the time). UAB was in the FBS from 1996-2014 before shuttering its program for two years. In those 19 seasons, the Blazers made only one bowl game, the 2004 Hawaii Bowl. Timmy Chang out-gunned the Roddy White-led Blazers 59-40.

UAB HC Bill Clark deserves much credit for the renaissance. It wouldn’t have been possible without Brown, around whom Clark built the offense from day 1, a run-first, control-the-clock sort of attack that feasted on deep shots when defenses inevitably cheated up to deal with Brown.

Brown played linebacker in high school and, ala Javonte Williams, brings that edge to running back. He comes with a truck stick, a stiff arm, and shoulder pads deployed like a fender in monster derby. He's also super-reliable over high usage (six career fumbles on 858 carries, with only three of them coming after his freshman year).

But, like Dillon, he’s not just a big plodder. Brown is an amazing athlete, an alumni of Bruce Feldman's freak list. Listed No. 44 in 2018, Brown was reported at that time to have a 4.52-second 40-yard dash, along with a 650-pound max squat and 385-pound max power clean

Last offseason, Brown went on a diet to cut from 242 pounds to around 210, a decision he talks about in the clip below. He’s shown to be effective anywhere in that weight range, sacrificing power for speed when he cuts pounds, giving his NFL team some options as far as how they want to go about utilizing him.

Brown doesn’t change directions crisply, he wasn’t used as a receiver in college (20 career catches), and his playing style leads to, at the very least, minor injuries -- he was able to play through one in 2018, but wasn’t so lucky in 2019. But Brown had an 80% catch rate in college and appears to have decent hands on tape, giving hope he could eventually provide at least an outlet receiver at the next level.

Either way, fortunately, he’s shown in the past to be a promising pass-blocker, posting pass-pro PFF grades of 71.1, 66.2, and 73.6 before falling off to 59.6 in 2020. He probably won’t return kicks or punts in the NFL, but Brown is willing to play on coverage units and still hits like a truck, ala his linebacker days.

You could do far, far worse on Day 3. And since Brown is being ranked as a late-Day 3 guy or even a UDFA around the industry, I believe he’ll provide good return on value.

11. Chuba Hubbard (Oklahoma State) | 6'0/207

Comp: Tevin Coleman


Fascinating eval of a back who was one of the nation’s best in 2019, and merely pedestrian in 2020. Who is Chuba Hubbard? The guy who ran for 2,094 yards and 21 TD on 6.4 YPC in 2019? Or the guy who ran for 625 yards and five TD on 4.7 YPC in 2020?

A sprinter from Alberta, Canada, Hubbard also ran for the Cowboy track and field team. His biggest asset on the football field is pure speed. While returning to school for another year worked out like gangbusters for Najee Harris, it really hurt Hubbard. 

Here is his HC, Mike Gundy, explaining Hubbard’s NFL decision when Hubbard eventually decided to return to school last winter: "[P]eople really didn't know where he would go — middle second round all the way to fourth round, a dramatic difference financially up front and those rounds in the draft. What we told Chuba is, 'You're only 20 years old. You've only played 15 games in American football. You have a chance to develop yourself into a first-, second- and third-down back. In the NFL, if you're a first-, second- and third-down back, you become way more valuable. So he had the most upside, in my opinion, of any player we've had here, deciding to return for another year."


Chubbard is poor in pass protection and hasn’t been the weapon as a pass-catcher his athleticism suggests he could be, either. Hubbard posted a 53-479-3 receiving line with four drops in college, the vast majority of those catches coming at or behind the line of scrimmage. He didn't show much after the catch, averaging 9.0 YPR, almost two yards less than Rhamondre Stevenson averaged per catch.

He fumbles too often (seven in 461 rushing attempts the past two years) and comes with a skinny frame and an upright style that invites hits. Hubbard got banged up a little last season and looked zapped of his powers. He doesn’t run with much power, getting taken to the ground by arm tackles, and avoids contact when he can.

In 2019, he had 328 carries and was still running with explosion at the end of the season -- so he’s not categorically incapable of carrying the load. But Oklahoma State’s offense was much better in 2019, and it catered to Hubbard’s strengths, a wide-open, up-tempo system, offering Hubbard running lanes to exploit. When he gets an obvious hole like that, Hubbard is deadly. He accelerates quickly, has world-class high-end speed, and can make defenders miss with his jump cut. 

But when Hubbard doesn’t have space, like a poor man’s Travis Etienne, he loses his utility. Hubbard really needs to find a wide-open passing offense with a good enough quarterback to keep extra defenders out of the box. If he’s drafted by team further behind in its offensive evolution, I’m concerned that Hubbard will be a sweet-passing point guard that can’t shoot on a team full of one-on-one slashers -- with one world-class skill that'll rot on the vine.

12. Elijah Mitchell (Louisiana) | 5'10/215

Comp: Royce Freeman


For a runner who posted 3,864 yards from scrimmage and 46 total TD in college despite platooning with Trey Ragas and Raymond Calais and meets NFL size and burst thresholds, it’s a little surprising Mitchell isn’t getting more love early in the draft process.

A well put-together, densely-built back, Mitchell shows nice burst through holes and keeps his legs moving on contact. At full speed, he’s a load. I like Mitchell’s feet for a back over 220 pounds. He presses the line of scrimmage with purpose, and shows a one-cut-and-go feeling for zone football.

He also shows nice, soft hands as a receiver, if not the most diverse route-package. Mitchell caught 49-of-57 targets (86.0%) while dropping only four balls. Mitchell also has plenty of experience in pass-pro, and improved to a 74.8 PFF grade in that area after struggling earlier in his career.

Mitchell labors to change directions in space, lacks high-end speed, will be jumping up in competition in the NFL, and isn’t a standout in any one trait. But he’s a well-rounded, above-the-thresholds prospect with multiple years of high-end FBS production in his past. I think he hangs around the NFL for a long time.

13. Jermar Jefferson (Oregon State) | 5'9/216

Comp: Ronald Jones


In his first year on campus, Jefferson utterly displaced a strong starting running back (Artavis Pierce) and went on to run for 2,933 yards and 27 TD over two-and-a-half years as a starter.

Jefferson’s calling cards are vision and burst, reasons his best fit in the NFL are in a zone-read scheme. Jefferson notes cut-back lanes, and sets up defenders at the second-level really well. 

Jefferson makes tight, efficient cuts in claustrophobic quarters, and runs with a wide base that allows him to absorb off-target contact and keep churning upfield when on the hunt.

My concerns for Jefferson are lack of durability and a “running backs don’t matter” game that is utterly dependent on his blocking. Jefferson needs space to work with off the snap and a clearly delineated path upfield shortly thereafter, or he’s apt to get swallowed up. He doesn’t make guys miss behind the line of scrimmage, and he gets into trouble too much in this regard by freelancing. 

Jefferson gets what’s blocked for him and every now and then rips off an enormous run. But he struggles to create when he doesn’t get good blocking. And his contact balance is mediocre when he isn’t moving at full speed, in circumstances such as behind the line of scrimmage -- you can pull him down quite easily as he’s looking for a lane. And for a back that lacks burner speed, I don’t love that he needs power, as opposed to movement, to beat defenders in the second and third levels -- he’s not a power back, but he labors to come off his path when he gets going full speed.

Oregon State strangely didn’t use Jefferson as a receiver much the past few years, but he’s shown to be a decent outlet receiver whenever given the chance, catching 43-of-49 targets (87.8%) in college with only one single drop. Jefferson gives effort in pass-pro but hasn’t been tested there much and likely has an “average” ceiling in this area.

To me, Jefferson projects as a depth back. He can contribute in multiple areas, but perhaps not well enough in any to ever pull away in a timeshare. Increasing his utility on third down will go a long way towards determining how long he sticks in the NFL.

14. Javian Hawkins (Louisville) | 5'9/179

Comp: Noel Devine


A dynamic playmaker, Hawkins shows blazing speed in the open field and incredible short-area quickness to often get him there in college. In terms of home run ability as a runner, Hawkins ranks in the top-five of this class. 

He wasn’t used much as a receiver and will be a poor pass-blocker at the next level. A lack of third-down utility for a scatback in this mold is a huge red flag, and in part explains my pessimistic ranking despite liking his athletic traits.

But Hawkins could argue he was a victim of circumstance in college, not dropping any of his 21 career targets. If Javian Hawkins becomes a good receiver at the next level, he’ll be an extremely dangerous player. We just don’t know if he’s capable of handling anything but dump-offs and screens.

Either way, he hasn’t yet learned how to consistently read his blocks, in part because he’s so dang electric that he felt he could beat defenses with athleticism alone in college -- and was vindicated often enough.

Becoming more willing to work with his teammates in this area will be key, as it’ll likely allow him to enter the second level clean more often in the NFL. Hawkins is often taken down on first contact, so he doesn’t want to be messing around behind the line or running against the flow of his blockers too often.  

Still, he's an exciting young back worth taking a chance on. Platoon backfields are all the rage, and if you're going to be packing light with a Swiss Army knife instead of a machete, Hawkins can at least function as the blade, while giving you your kick and punt returner for the next several years.

15. Jaret Patterson (Buffalo) | 5'9/195

Comp: Devin Singletary


Patterson ran for over 1,000 yards all three years he was in college, with a high of 1,799 in 2019 followed by 1,072 yards in only six games in 2020. He and Kevin Marks were extremely difficult to stop in Buffalo’s run-heavy offense.

As was the case with Devin “Motor” Singletary at FAU, Patterson is difficult to get your hands on. He runs like a spinning top, low-to-the-ground and very difficult to knock to the ground. Patterson changes directions like he’s playing frogger, cutting ridiculously crisp angles from any speed more like an NHL skater than a running back. Despite his frame, Patterson ranked No. 8 in broken tackles per attempt (0.32) and No. 6 in yards after contact per attempt (4.7) last year.

A prototypical zone runner, Patterson’s game is all about reading blocking flow, picking the right time to accelerate upfield, and evasion, evasion, evasion. Patterson sees the field well and runs with good tempo and patience, allowing his blockers to dictate the action in front of him before making a decision. He was in a really nice situation the last few seasons. Buffalo was PFF’s No. 1 graded run-blocking team in 2020.

The issue with Patterson is he’s the size of a scatback with average speed and burst, and he’s a zero in the passing game. Patterson didn’t catch one single pass in 2020, which, to be fair, was in part because of the system. But over three seasons, he caught only 19 passes while dropping three. And he’s also a poor pass-blocker who doesn’t have the frame to be relied upon in the NFL in that department, anyway.

Patterson’s utility as a mighty-mite that sees the field well and is difficult to corral and hard to arm tackle means he has an NFL future. But it’s likely as a Motor Singletary type, preferably the 1B in a committee, with a skillset that is always replaceable. 

16. Pooka Williams Jr. (Kansas) | 5'10/170 

Comp: Dexter McCluster


Pooka accelerates from zero quicker perhaps than any back in this draft -- he is legitimately and stupefyingly explosive. This is his trump card and the reason he will likely be drafted. 

Once he finds the open field, he shows both high-end speed and human joystick agility -- this is also why he’s a good return man and will be so in the NFL. He broke a bunch of tackles in college despite lacking power because he’s difficult to square up and he runs very hard. Pooka also showed in college to be a strong receiver. In fact, if the running back thing doesn’t work out, he should be tried in the slot. 

If that ends up being the case, it’ll be because Pooka freelances far too often for a runner who is taken down on first contact. At Kansas, Pooka treated handoffs like kickoffs, unilaterally deciding where he’d be running, regardless of blocking assignments. Interestingly, Williams has no toes on his right foot from a childhood lawnmower accident, but this has never hampered him. 

His slight frame has led to nagging injuries, however. Williams’ utility as a return man and receiver in conjunction with his big-play ability make him worthy of a draft slot. But after Williams was arrested for domestic battery and suspended for one game in 2019, his drafting team will have to be comfortable with his off-field to make the investment. 

17. Kylin Hill (Mississippi State) | 5'10/214

Comp: Ameer Abdullah


Hill never had a star-turn as he was expected to at Mississippi State. That included 2020, where he appeared to be a perfect fit in Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, but played in only three games.

What I like about Hill is that he’s a natural hands-catching receiver with years of production behind him -- 67 receptions on 83 collegiate targets with only seven drops -- who runs with undeniable burst. With an exclamation-point stiff arm, Hill broke 116 tackles on 453 career carries, per PFF. Hill will stick around long-term in the NFL if he learns to vary his running tempo and take what’s given to him instead of trying to bounce every attempt outside. 

He may just be too undisciplined to trust as a contributor in an NFL offense. But it’s also possible that minor tweaks in his game unlock an explosive passing game weapon with the size and explosion to at least force defenses to respect him as a runner. He could be a very valuable rotation piece for a very specific kind of team.

18. Larry Rountree III (Missouri) | 5'9/210

Comp: Ke’Shawn Vaughn


If Pooka is your flashy late-round option, Rountree is your boring late-round grinder alternative. I have no doubt about Rountree’s well-rounded game. My concern is that he’s more of a Quad-A type player. Rountree is a reliable back that grades out around average to slightly below-average across the board -- speed, athleticism, size. 

He’s a grinder that alters tempo, shows nice footwork, and can identify the hole and get through it. But Rountree will win no footraces, and he won’t shake any defenders with movement. And for a grinding, churning sort of back, he goes down on initial contact too often, failing to create a second opportunity, lacking the pop to get himself out of trouble. 

Rountree showed promise in pass-pro in college, which is good, because he’s not natural in the receiving game and likely won’t get a ton of opportunities in that department in the pros. Rountree played in a zone scheme in college and offers a team running a similar scheme low-ceiling reliability.

Best of the rest...

19. Trey Ragas (Louisiana) | 5'11/227

20. Chris Evans (Michigan) | 5'10/216 

21. Rakeem Boyd (Arkansas) | 5'11/200

22. JaQuan Hardy (Tiffin) | 5'9/225

23. Vavae Malepeai (USC) | 5'11/215

24. Jah-Maine Martin (North Carolina A&T) | 5'9/220

25.  Brenden Knox (Marshall) | 6'0/220

26. CJ Marable (Coastal Carolina) | 5'9/190

27. Deon Jackson (Duke) | 5'11/220
28. Asim Rose (Kentucky) | 6'1/210
29. Stevie Scott III (Indiana) | 6'1/231
30. Josh Johnson (Louisiana-Monroe) | 5'9/215

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is NBC Sports Edge’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!