The summer of 2020 will forever be remembered by some for COVID-19, but I can’t say the same. This summer was the first that I intensely studied NFL Draft prospects, and it has absolutely consumed my life, for better or for worse. Even if you’re not a NFL draft fan, don’t worry, you’ll enjoy my documentation of the scouting world.
This year, more than ever, summer scouting will be valued at a higher rate because of the situation with COVID-19. Normally, scouts go through their preliminary stages in the summer then revise them once the college football season is over, but with the season up in the air, it makes these summer evaluations of higher importance.
Here’s an early look at the top ten running backs of the 2021 NFL Draft class:
- Najee Harris, Alabama
The Alabama product is the best all around running back in this class. His ability to dominate between the tackles and outside makes him a valuable prospect to any NFL offense. Harris runs with a tenacity and physicality that is unmatched as he does most of his work after first contact. In addition to being a productive runner with 1,224 rushing yards in 2019, he is also a threat as a receiver due to his ability in space. Najee Harris will be the next great running back to come out of Alabama, and his all around ability has him at #1.
- Journey Brown, Penn State
While Brown isn’t a consensus top three back in this class, he will undoubtedly turn out to be one of 2021’s best pros. Brown’s game is predicated on a blend of speed and change of direction. He possesses the uncanny ability to make defenders miss anywhere on the field and displays out of this world athleticism once he hits the second level of defenses.
He’s got the speed, agility, and effort to succeed in the NFL, but my biggest question is how will he handle stronger defenders when they meet him at the line of scrimmage. All around, Brown displays an elite rushing ability that is arguably the best in the class, and he will follow Le’Veon Bell and Saquon Barkley as the next great PSU running back.
- Travis Etienne, Clemson
Travis Etienne is an explosive playmaker that will be a treat for any NFL coordinator to deploy. Throughout college, Etienne has exhibited the ability to be a terrific runner between the tackles while also being dangerous as a receiver. Despite being only 210 pounds, the Clemson back led the FBS in yards after contact, with most of which occurring in space.
While I tend to stay away from comparing prospects to NFL players, I couldn’t stay away from the Alvin Kamara comparison. Due to Etienne’s struggles in short yardage situations, his NFL career has the best outlook when he is paired with a power running back, similar to what New Orleans has done with Kamara.
- Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis
Gainwell was definitely one of the biggest risers amongst NFL draft circles this offseason. Playing at a lesser known school than the rest of the top prospects, Gainwell will often be left out of discussions for the sake of unfamiliarity, but I’m here to say that he is a must watch for 2021.
As a runner, he possesses every trait that teams look for; the ability to be patient behind his line, fluid agility behind the line of scrimmage, and burst into the second level. Another enticing trait that he possesses is his contact balance which is evident whenever he has the ball in his hands. The Memphis running back is still new to the position as he used to be a pure receiver, which is why his potential could be a top 10 running back in the NFL one day.
- Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State
Yes, Hubbard is ranked lower than you expected but there is a real reason for concern.
First off, the Oklahoma State running back is arguably the fastest back in the nation and has a plethora of open field moves that allowed for him to lead the FBS in rushing yards. While many are salivating over his exceptional speed, it’s worth noting that long speed is one of the most overrated traits that scouts use to evaluate running backs.
Hubbard is going to thrive in a zone running scheme that will utilize his field vision and allow for his speed to really shine. The area that is most concerning with Hubbard is his lack of power. Too often does he lose in between the tackles due to his 200 pound frame, but if he can improve here, he will shoot up this list.
- Kylin Hill, Mississippi State
Kylin Hill, to put this very simply, is an electrifying runner that runs with a purpose. Hill is a tenacious runner that is looking to run directly at defenders which goes hand in hand with his tremendous contact balance. His running style is both a blessing and a curse because it also leads to a major lack of patience behind his offensive line that often results in missed opportunities. When I look to project players into the next level, I’m looking for translatable traits, and both his athleticism and his competitive nature will undoubtedly translate.
- CJ Verdell, Oregon
The biggest takeaway you’ll get from watching Verdell is how he consistently finishes through contact. At Oregon, he had a perfect system that allowed him to utilize his vision and footwork to hit holes in a hurry. The biggest question mark around his game is his issue in short yardage situations as he often tends to get lost in the bigger bodies. Throughout college, Verdell has been ultra productive as a downhill runner, and that looks to be his calling card as an early down complement in the NFL.
- Max Borghi, Washington State
Borghi is easily one of my favorite players in this class. The critics of Borghi will emphasize the fact that his stats were heavily inflated because of Mike Leach’s air raid offense, but they also fail to recognize Borghi’s pure talent. Borghi’s ability in space is heavily underrated as he has a unique blend of power and elusiveness. He has displayed his elusiveness when maneuvering through traffic between the tackles, and his power in space (48 broken tackles in two seasons). Borghi’s ability to both run between the tackles and catch passes out of the backfield is very useful to NFL teams which will allow him to find his place on an NFL team.
- Pooka Williams, Kansas
Pooka Williams is explosive as hell, that is all. While there are major concerns about Williams’s slight frame, his playstyle and production prove that he will be a major weapon for an NFL offense one day. Initially watching Williams will have you in awe of his game breaking speed as he often looks as if he’s being shot out of a cannon, but a second look will have you notice his impeccable footwork.
As a runner, Williams showcases his sneaky ability to escape the grasp of defenders while also possessing a unique contact balance for his size. His 170 pound frame figures to limit him into a situational weapon in the NFL, but he will nonetheless be a factor at the next level.
- Rakeem Boyd, Arkansas
Rakeem Boyd thrives when he’s able to utilize his impressive truck stick in the downhill rushing attack. Not only does he have impressive production, 1,100 rushing yards in 2019, but his journey from JUCO to being considered for the Doak Award (given to the nations best running back) speaks volumes about his character. While many critics will point to his lack of open field elusiveness and lackluster receiving ability, they fail to realize that running backs are asked to play roles that fit their playstyle.
Boyd projects to be the power factor in a teams running back committee, which is very similar to how Jordan Howard’s career has played out. If he’s put in a situation where he could get the early down work and utilize his power and decisiveness, he will have a long lasting career in the NFL.
Just missed the cut: Trey Sermon (Ohio State), Javian Hawkins (Louisville), Elijah Mitchell (Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns)
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