The 2020 running back class is loaded with talent and riddled with quality NFL starters. From the first to the seventh round, teams can find players capable of helping their football teams improve dramatically. In comparison, the 2021 group has the early appearance of another dynamic group with some serious top-end talent. Last week, I discussed the top pass catchers for the 2021 Draft class, and now it’s time to talk about the running backs.
On the eve of the 2020 NFL Combine, I will dive into some prominent names that could grace the top of the running back class for the 2021 NFL Draft. This top five includes some unique and versatile players from each of the top conferences of college football. Some players included on this list would’ve topped the 2020 class but decided to return to school and provided instant excitement for the 2021 NFL Draft class.
1. Travis Etienne – Clemson
Etienne shocked the 2020 NFL Draft world with his announcement to return to school for his senior season. He already has a national championship under his belt and was considered one of the top three backs available, so his omission left a big hole in the depth of the 2020 running back group. However, he is the undisputed headliner of the 2021 running back class and figures to finish as a top-20 NFL Draft pick after his final campaign for the Tigers.
The explosive runner has the home-run speed to finish runs and give any team a dynamic threat carrying the ball. He has done that in bunches for a dynamic Clemson offense next to star quarterback Trevor Lawrence. Etienne has the chance to score any time he touches the ball, and he did that many times this season, as evidenced by this long run.
Travis Etienne for 6️⃣
Tied for the longest run in Clemson history ❗️ pic.twitter.com/EDdEFUNFOt
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) August 30, 2019
Now Clemson’s all-time leading rusher, Etienne’s junior year concluded with over 1,600 rushing yards and 23 total touchdowns. He has a long way to go as a receiver but improved this past year significantly. He caught 37 passes for 437 yards. If he can continue his progress as a receiver and become a consistent all-around threat, he could sneak into the top-15 of the 2021 NFL Draft.
2. Najee Harris – Alabama
Najee Harris finally stepped out of the shadows and into the limelight during the 2019 season. Entering the year, he had split the backfield reps with stars such as Oakland Raider’s star rookie Josh Jacobs, New England Patriot Damien Harris, and Bo Scarbrough of the Detroit Lions. However, 2019 was Najee’s time to shine, and he did that en route to 1,224 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns. The former top prep star showed power and surprising agility while making routine big plays for the Crimson Tide.
Harris shows off his soft hands, power, and excellent balance on this long catch and run for the score.
TOUCHDOWN. OF. THE. YEAR. NAJEE HARRIS pic.twitter.com/Howy33POT2
— Aaron Torres (@Aaron_Torres) September 14, 2019
Those soft hands allowed Harris to set the single-season mark for a Tide running back with seven receiving scores. He may not have the long speed of other players on this list like Etienne, but he may be the most complete back on this list. If Harris times well at the 2021 Combine, the sky is the limit for Harris and his draft stock. He is another potential first-round running back, and the extra year should solidify that for Harris.
3. Chuba Hubbard – Oklahoma State
Hubbard was one of the big stars and breakout performers of the 2019 college football season. He shocked and awed on his way to a nation-leading 2,094 rushing yards and 21 touchdowns. Hubbard averaged a very respectable 6.4 yards per rush on a staggering 328 carries, which also led the country. Finally breaking out of the shadow of Justice Hill, he is likely one of the early favorites for the Heisman Trophy due to his game-breaking ability.
He has shown flashes that remind some of the former Okie star, Barry Sanders. Hubbard’s agility and breakaway speed are reminiscent of the former Heisman winner and could lead to Hubbard being selected as a first-round pick. He certainly has the look of a future first-rounder on this long run against Kansas State.
There's a reason Chuba Hubbard leads the FBS in rushing ⚡️ pic.twitter.com/r2NYzyma70
— ESPN College Football (@ESPNCFB) September 29, 2019
Like Etienne, Hubbard is not much of a pass catcher at this stage, but the opportunities have been few thus far. This ranking feels low when it comes to the former Canada native, and he could go much higher with another elite college season. As a redshirt-junior, Hubbard will be one of the top players in the Big 12 and all of the nation entering 2020.
4. C.J. Verdell – Oregon
C.J. Verdell is yet another explosive, speedy back that electrified fans and onlookers in 2019. He shared a backfield with 2020 draft hopeful Justin Herbert this past season but will be the unquestioned leader of this Oregon offense moving forward. He’s a short, but compact back with legitimate breakaway speed and shiftiness in the mold of an Alvin Kamara or Dalvin Cook.
The MVP of the PAC-12 championship game, Verdell, has had multiple 200-yard rushing games, as well as a few game-winning touchdown runs in his career. Following back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, Verdell’s best seems yet to come. He opens 2020 as the best offensive weapon in the Pac-12 and could become an early-round 2021 NFL draft selection as one of the top running backs available.
5. Kylin Hill – Mississippi State
Kylin Hill is the most significant question mark on this list and also the most fascinating. He’s a local product with the ideal size for the position at 5’11, 215 lbs, and possesses all the tools to be a top-end starter in the league. Hill has excellent agility and the ability to separate in the open field. He may not have top speed like Etienne or Verdell, but he has enough to take runs the distance. Combine that speed with the physical nature with which he runs, and Hill would’ve been a top pick in either the 2020 or 2021 NFL Draft.
He only had 18 receptions this past season, but that number could see a tremendous spike in 2020. Mississippi State recently hired offensive guru and former Washington State coach Mike Leach. Leach decided to leave the Cougars for a chance at SEC lore with the Bulldogs. Under Leach’s tutelage in 2019, Washington State starter Max Borghi caught 86 passes out of the backfield. That number tied Borghi for 12th overall nationally and shows the type of elite offensive numbers that Leach and his air raid system could manufacture at the running back position. Leach’s passing offense has ranked within the top-three in the nation for the past five years.
Mike Leach’s Air Raid is an unstoppable offense. I’d love to see him with a good defense to help! pic.twitter.com/Rpb8OopnIb
— CFB Hype (@CFB_Hype) January 26, 2020
Hill is capable of another 1,000 yard rushing season accompanied by 40-50 receptions, and those numbers could land him inside the top-50 picks next April.
Scott Gorman is a writer for PFN covering the 2021 NFL Draft. You can follow him at @sgormanPFN on Twitter.