Running Backs Pre-Season Rankings for the 2021 NFL Draft
Updated: Nov 16, 2020
Welcome to my inaugural post of the Simple Scouting blog. I will cover the NFL draft primarily, but also dip into the NFL and college football season when they start. To preview the 2021 class, I watched 15 eligible draft prospects and rank them based on their talent, athleticism, production, and potential. My RB grading categories include vision, elusiveness, quickness/agility, speed/acceleration, receiving, blocking, strength, and ball security. This will be part of my summer scouting series, and I will preview each position before the season starts. The next post will preview the wide receiver class.
The 2021 RB class is an exciting one. There is top end talent with the potential to be deep. This class was made even better with the surprising returns of Travis Etienne, Najee Harris, and Chuba Hubbard. I only decided to watch 15 prospects, but I wanted to give some honorable mentions. Some running backs to watch out for include:
Cyrus Habibi-Likio (Oregon)
Elijah Mitchell and Trey Regas (Louisiana-Lafayette)
Master Teague (OSU)
Zamir White (Georgia)
Robert Mahone (Boise State)
Kennedy Brooks (Oklahoma)
Brian Robinson (Alabama)
Deon Jackson (Duke)
Mekhi Sargent (Iowa)
Elijah Collins (Michigan State)
Demetric Felton (UCLA)
JaTarvious Whitlow (Transfer TBD)
Alex Fontenot (Colorado)
Chris Evans (Michigan)
Mohamed Ibrahim (Minnesota)
Now for my rankings!
At #1 we have Najee Harris - Alabama
Najee Harris may have the best potential of the RBs in this class. He’s a strong runner who can pound the ball inside, but also has great footwork and quickness to slash side to side in tight areas. I really like his ability to avoid negative plays. He's a yards after contact machine and gets better as the game goes on, grinding teams down. He always gives 100% and keeps fighting for yards until he's on the ground. He also does well as a receiver out the backfield and showed great potential as a route runner when lined up on the outside. He’s elusive in several ways and has good diversity to his game. He’s a pretty complete back right now but he does need to continue developing his vision and ability to read defenders behind his line. He also isn't very explosive or fast, but I wouldn't say its bad enough to call a weakness. He has another year to continue developing, and this added experience should help him improve his field vision. I think the play below really sums up Harris as a player, highlighting his footwork, vision, and power.
#2 - Travis Etienne - Clemson
Etienne is a big play waiting to happen. He is incredibly fast and explodes through his gaps with strength and great contact balance. He’s tough to tackle, especially in space. If he breaks through the line and has leverage on the secondary, he’s gone. Where he really makes an impact is in the passing game. This allows him to get into space more often and is where he does his best work. His running ability, combined with his excellent receiving skills, make him a top back in the class. The play below is a great example of his playing style and what he can do if given space.
#3 - Chuba Hubbard - Oklahoma State
Hubbard’s vision and patience may be the best in the class. The way he manipulates defenders and understands how to gain leverage on defenders in front of his lineman is incredible. As for his running, he’s a fluid athlete with great lateral movement and he showed he has the speed to hit the long touchdowns. I still think he can improve, especially when it comes to just being consistent. I know it’s crazy to think he could be better this season, especially considering he ran for 2,000 yards last season, but I want to see him be more consistent when it comes to his footwork and quickness. I also want to see him build a little more strength so he can break through soft tackles and break into the second level more easily. The play below showcases his patience and vision as a runner, timing his burst perfectly through the gap.
#4 - Kenneth Gainwell - Memphis
The best way to describe Kenneth Gainwell is a weapon. Similar to Antonio Gibson last year, Gainwell was used as a RB and WR. He has experience running routes from the slot and the outside. But he's different from most hybrid RB/WR players. He actually has polished vision and receiving skills. He displays patience and picks his gaps well on outside runs. When he runs inside, he shows good quickness and footwork to work around his blockers. I love his feel for his surroundings, and he always looks for the open field. He's a great receiver out the back with real WR skills including route deception and clean breaks. He’s got creativity and a great stiff arm that he uses to keep his distance from tacklers. He is not the fastest or most explosive player, but he makes up for this with his vision and quickness. He may not hit the long runs, but his versatility as an offensive weapon is evident. He’s on pace to have another great season and hopefully can prove his speed at the combine if he declares. I chose this clip of Gainwell because it highlights his route running ability, his stiff arm, and his ability to find the open field.
#5 - Trey Sermon - Ohio State
Now at Ohio State, Trey Sermon will have a fantastic opportunity to improve his game and draft stock. His game is already pretty refined, and what I like most about him is his vision and agility. His vision was consistent at all levels, and he does a great job of balancing patience and decisiveness at the LOS. He’s got decent quickness and agility, and can change directions and slash upfield with fluid movements. He’s got an explosive first gear and he’s able to turn the jets on when he gets into the second level. He's a creative runner and loves to use a fake or hesitation move on outside runs and it almost always works. His moves are effective as he can sink his hips and plant his foot, bursting out of the cut all in one fluid movement. There is some improvement and development needed with his footwork and contact balance. He runs heavy footed and too upright, limiting his ability to get yards after contact. However, he’s got versatility and is a complete prospect, meaning he has the skills running the ball, catching, and blocking. A great season at OSU will put him on the map as a top RB prospect, and he has the skills to make that happen. This clip really highlights his explosiveness , second level vision, and lateral agility.
#6 - CJ Verdell - Oregon
The first thing you notice when you watch CJ Verdell is how fearless he is. He hits the hole hard and breaks through tackles, consistently getting into the second level. His ability to burst out of cuts makes him dangerous, as he is able to get upfield very quickly. He’s got great contact balance and gets yards after contact on a regular basis. He’s agile enough to make sharp cuts. He’s somehow able to squeeze himself into the smallest gaps and is a quality inside runner. He is explosive, quick, and powerful. Like most backs in this class, I want to see him develop his vision more. Throughout his tape you can see him miss open lanes/cuts, and he tries to force himself into closing gaps. He also needs to be more creative in space. He flashes moves and hesitations before getting to the second level, and hopefully he expands this throughout his game. But he has a lot of potential and is a versatile weapon in the backfield. I love the play from Verdell below. He makes a quick and sharp cut, explodes out of it, and gets many yards after contact.
#7 - Keaontay Ingram - Texas
The more I watched of Ingram, the more I liked him. He's much quicker and faster than I thought. I like his ability to build up his momentum quickly, allowing him to take advantage of his strength, He can run it hard inside and shows shiftiness on the outside. He can catch out the backfield and block pretty well. He has the tools to become a 3 down back in the NFL. He has some problems with recognizing developing lanes and sometimes runs with tunnel vision. He’s also not overly explosive or quick and is kind of an average athlete. But once he gets some momentum, he can truck players and surprisingly make some sharp cuts. I hope he can stay healthy and continue to improve his vision, and he can even decide to stay another year in school to develop further. His play style reminds me of Chris Carson, and I think he has the potential to develop into a player similar to Carson. This clip below shows his whole toolkit. He makes a nice snag, accelerates around the defender, and is elusive in space using his quickness and power.
#8 - Pooka Williams - Kansas
Pooka is an incredibly quick and agile player. He has great footwork and can apply fakes and hesitations on his runs without skipping a beat. He’s explosive out of his cuts and on his initial bursts. He has good speed and can hit a second gear to separate. His lateral agility is fluid and quick, allowing him to sidestep and increasing his short area burst. He’s a shifty runner and has the athleticism to create yards for himself. He also has solid receiving skills with experience running routes out the back and slot. The problem is that he’s 170 pounds. He’s too light to be taken high, as he likely won’t be a 3 down back. Even Tarik Cohen and Darren Sproles were at 180, and they’re built stockier than Pooka. He has the frame to put on more muscle. Still, he’s an exciting prospect and it will be interesting to see if he can build some more strength and power to his game. I had him graded higher than his ranking, but knocked him down a little due to his weight and usage limitations. In this clip of Pooka, you see his patience and explosiveness as he nearly hits a 75 yard TD run.
#9 - Vavae Malepeai - USC
I have Malepeai rated slightly higher than Carr because his vision is much more polished. I like his ability to read defenders and he breaks past the first level on a consistent basis. He’s able to achieve this with his strength, vision, and footwork. He always hits the hole hard with burst and strength, breaking through weaker tackles. He disguises his direction and is able to slash and cut around. He shows good instincts for the position. To really take his vision to the next level, he needs to show more patience and let plays develop. He’s often in a hurry and takes the first thing he sees. He also needs to work on maneuvering in tight spaces and understanding his surroundings more. Overall he’s a solid player who is very effective on zone runs. I’m hoping this season he can improve receiving abilities and elusiveness in the second level. He’ll become a much more rounded prospect with a high ceiling. I really like this play of Malepeai because it shows off his explosiveness out of cuts, his quickness, and strength.
#10 - Stephen Carr - USC
Carr has suffered quite a few injuries at his time at USC, but when he was on the field he looked good. What I like best about Carr is his quickness and agility. He's a super fluid runner with great lower body flexibility and lateral agility. He’s able to cut on a dime and work around defenders. He has great footwork and stays on his toes, increasing his ability to react to defenders. He freezes and jukes defenders with hesitations and fakes, making him very tough to get hands on. All these skills make him a great inside and zone runner, and he even demonstrated the ability to be a solid receiver out the back. I'm not a fan of his explosiveness and speed. He lacks the explosiveness and acceleration to take advantage of the space he creates with his quickness and agility. It's a shame because throughout his tape he slashes and cuts around defenders, but cannot escape the others or get into open space due to his poor acceleration. He also needs to improve his vision. He often misses developing and open cuts and he doesn’t show a good sense of his surroundings. He can improve his vision, but most likely not his burst or speed. He’s got potential to become a really effective zone runner if he develops his vision, as he is super slippery running between the tackles and he can cut quickly. This play below exhibits his ability as an inside runner. He has great flexibility in his waist, quick footwork, and lateral agility.
#11 - Larry Rountree - Missouri
Rountree is such an effortless and natural runner you want to love him. He’s almost graceful running the ball, as it looks so smooth. He’s got fantastic footwork and runs light on his feet, allowing him to react quickly when in stride. He explodes off his cuts and has great acceleration. He looks to have breakaway speed but it's not elite. He passes the eye test with flying colors, but when you look deeper you see his areas for improvement. He’s overly aggressive and impatient, forcing himself into gaps that aren’t there. He lacks contact balance and is often taken down with soft tackles. He relies too much on his athleticism and I hope he can develop his vision, which would unlock a lot for his game. I like his play style and potential, but there is some needed development to his vision. I like this play because it highlights his quickness, acceleration, and strength.
#12 - Rakeem Boyd - Arkansas
Boyd looked like a completely different player in his 2018 tape. He apparently gained 13 lbs before the 2019 season and this was noticeable. He became stronger but this severely hurt his quickness and speed. I prefer the 2018 Rakeem Boyd. He’s now more of a chunk yardage player than anything else. He won’t hit the home run plays and is not much of a playmaker. This isn’t a bad thing, as his style is still useful in the NFL, it’s just less valuable. But he still managed to impress. What I really like about Boyd is his inside running skills. He has good vision on the inside, and he’s elusive with his running style and strength. He’s decisive and doesn’t play around in the backfield. He easily breaks arm tackles and fall forward on contact, dragging defenders for extra yards. He’s also experienced in the passing game. He’s used often out the back on wheel routes and screens. I think he needs to become a more consistent player when in space, especially given how well he plays as a receiver. He needs to be a more dangerous player when given space, as right now I wouldn’t fear his playmaking abilities. For now, I see him as an inside runner only, with the ability to catch out the back. I like this clip because it highlights his best qualities, which include his inside running skills and strength.
#13 - Max Borghi - Washington State
Max Borghi is used very often as a receiving option, and he racked up 87 receptions last season. I really like the experience and talent he has as a pass catcher, and that skill is coveted in todays NFL. He has reliable hands and does well to be constantly active and get open for the QB when he needs an outlet. He does well to challenge defenders 1v1 in space and almost always gets by the first one using his strength and fakes. He’s also a decent runner and displays patience and good recognition of open lanes. He runs with a low pad level and has good strength and contact balance. Where he struggles is his athleticism. He has poor lateral agility and movement skills, as well as lacking explosiveness. He’s heavy footed and runs with choppy strides. He’s okay at everything and not really great at one thing. I think he can find a path to be a dependable 3rd down back in the NFL, I just worry that he will be beat out by players that can catch and block like he does but can do more with the ball in their hands. He's a low ceiling player to me. In the play below, Borghi catches the ball on the swing route and challenges the defender. He uses a great stiff arm to get around him and uses his contact balance to stay up and inbounds.
#14 - Jaret Patterson - Buffalo
Patterson is a strong runner who excels as a short yardage back, gaining yards after contact with his strength and contact balance. He displays good vision and patience, never over running his blockers and reading defenders movements. He has a strong compact build with a natural low center of gravity, and I like his ability to spin off tacklers, not losing his momentum as he continues his run. He’s good at what he does, but he has a rather low ceiling due to his poor athleticism and lack of playmaking skills. He also needs to show he can be a viable option out the back. The play below highlights his strength and vision, and his ability to shake off weak tackles.
#15 - Kylin Hill - Mississippi State
Hill was a tough one to scout. His offensive line was doing him no favors, and he faced a lot of stacked boxes due to the primarily running offense Mississippi State ran. That combination made it really hard for Hill to find space to run. But he's a tough player and fought hard to be productive. Hill plays with great toughness and strength, and I love his confidence as a player. He runs with a low pad level and when he meets contact, he keeps those legs churning and fights for extra yards. He can be really tough to bring down and runs with attitude. He flashes patience and has basic vision traits, but I hope he continues to develop this part of him game. His lack of athleticism is a little concerning, especially his inability to move laterally and explode out of cuts. Hill also lacks long speed and is unable to create yards for himself other than using his strength. He just doesn’t have the creativity or ability to generate yards for himself, and this is a major trait I look for in a running back prospect. I don’t like when a back is too dependent on the offensive line. If Hill can keep improving his vision and his ability as a receiver, he can move himself into the later rounds. This is a great play from Hill. He's patient behind his line and attacks his gap with strength, breaking through for a good gain.
Najee Harris - DAILY MOUNTAIN EAGLE - LEE WALLS
Travis Etienne - Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports