Philadelphia Eagles

NFL Draft 2021: Travis Etienne, Javonte Williams lead top 10 RBs


The NFL draft offers teams a chance to select a franchise-altering star at quarterback or on defense, but they can also reinvigorate their offense with a new running back.

Some top running backs have not lived up to their draft position in recent years, while some teams have found diamonds in the rough in the later rounds. Will one of the premier prospects be the best running back in this class, or could a late-round selection emerge as a steal?

Here are some of the key questions surrounding the running back class in the 2021 NFL Draft along with the top players at the position:

Who is the top rated running back in the 2021 NFL draft?

The top two running backs in this class have gone head-to-head on the national stage before. Travis Etienne's Clemson Tigers bested Najee Harris' Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2019 College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Etienne out-rushed Harris in that game while finding the end zone three times, and Etienne is likely to come off the board before Harris in the 2021 draft. 

How many running backs are expected to go in the first round?

It takes a special running back to be selected in the first round. Only eight have been selected in the first round over the last five drafts combined, with Clyde Edwards-Helaire being the lone first-round running in 2020, selected at No. 32 by the Kansas City Chiefs. Etienne has the best chance of getting drafted within the first 32 picks, but he could also fall into the early second round.

How do the top 10 running backs in the 2021 class rank?

1. Travis Etienne, Clemson

As previously mentioned, Etienne has balled out when the spotlight is on him. Over his four-year career, he picked up 4,952 rushing yards, 1,155 receiving yards and 78 total touchdowns. Etienne can become a special running back in both the running and passing game at the next level.

2. Najee Harris, Alabama

Along with a national championship, Harris won the 2020 Doak Walker Award as the nation's top running back. He went off for 1,466 rushing yards and 26 rushing touchdowns while also snagging four receiving touchdowns for the undefeated Crimson Tide. He possesses the skill set of a three-down NFL running back.

3. Javonte Williams, North Carolina

Williams could be one of the most powerful running backs to come from the 2021 draft class. He served as the Tar Heels' bell-cow back, rushing for 1,140 yards and 19 scores in 2020 as part of a dynamic running-back tandem. Williams' tough running ability puts him in play as a dark horse to be the first back taken in this draft.

4. Kenny Gainwell, Memphis

Gainwell opted out of the 2020 season after losing four family members to COVID-19, but he still projects as a top-five running back in this class. He reached 2,069 total yards and 16 total touchdowns while playing alongside Washington Football Team standout rookie Antonio Gibson with the Tigers in 2019. He projects as a dynamic playmaker at the next level.

5. Kylin Hill, Mississippi State

Hill only played three games in 2020 as he sat out the rest of the season after being suspended for the Aggies' game against Texas A&M in October. He put up outstanding receiving stats in those three contests, though, notably picking up eight catches for 158 yards and a touchdown in a season-opening upset over LSU. His receiving ability combined with strong running and blocking make him an intriguing prospect.

6. Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma

Stevenson was suspended for the first six games of the 2020 season because of a failed drug test at the end of the 2019 season, but he showed his NFL potential to close out his Sooner career. He opened his season with three touchdowns against Texas Tech and capped off the season with a 186-yard performance against Florida in the Cotton Bowl. Stevenson could be a workhorse with solid catching and blocking at the next level.

7. Trey Sermon, Ohio State

After transferring from Oklahoma to Ohio State, Sermon made his carries count despite splitting action with Master Teague throughout the 2020 season. He finished out the season with some astonishing stats, highlighted by a 29-carry, 331-yard, two-touchdown eruption against Northwestern in the Big Ten title game. His ability to gain yards after contact should intrigue teams in this draft.

8. Michael Carter, North Carolina

Carter was the other, quicker half of the Tar Heels' 2020 backfield. He eclipsed 1,000 rushing yards in back-to-back seasons, picking up 1,245 yards on eight yards a carry in his senior season. He may not become an every-down running back in the NFL, but he has shown promise in the passing game as well to potentially contribute in the NFL.

9. Jaret Patterson, Buffalo

Patterson put up absurd numbers in his three seasons at Buffalo. Along with 1,000-plus yards in all three seasons, he also collected 19 rushing touchdowns in each of his final two years. He also put up one of the best single-game performances in all of college football on Nov. 28 against Kent State: 36 carries, 409 yards and eight touchdowns. Patterson earned the chance to find the end zone more at the next level.

10. Demetric Felton, UCLA

Felton is listed as both a running back and wide receiver going into the draft. He spent more time as a receiver in his sophomore and junior seasons, but he picked up 132 carries for 668 yards and five touchdowns in six games with the Bruins in 2020. He showcased versatility that could translate for a team willing to take a flier in the mid-to-late rounds of the draft.

Max Molski contributed to this story.

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