One of the top running backs in the nation, Memphis‘ Kenneth Gainwell has recently opted out of the 2020 football season and has declared for the NFL. Gainwell came into summer as a relatively unknown and underrated prospect. He was one of the nation’s most productive rushers last season and he led all running backs in receiving yards during the 2019 season. With Gainwell’s ability to impact the offense as both a runner and receiver, could he be the next Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara? Was Gainwell’s opt-out the correct decision for his draft stock?
Kenneth Gainwell opt-out
Opting out of the 2020 season is getting less and less surprising every day. Players whose draft stock is good enough simply don’t need to risk their long term health. Gainwell’s opt-out is no different. Many believe he has already separated himself as one of the top backs in the nation.
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Gainwell’s stock could have theoretically increased with another highly productive season, but he was much more likely to lower his stock with a chance of injury, lower production, or even just taking a step back in his play. For a volatile and undervalued position like running back, it makes sense that Gainwell would want to avoid any risks.
What separates Gainwell
Gainwell isn’t the first major prospect to opt-out of the 2020 season but he is the first elite running back prospect to do so. The 2021 running back class is pretty deep with a number of very talented senior rushers. Players like Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, and Chuba Hubbard all chose to return to school instead of declaring for the 2021 NFL Draft.
This heavily saturated the running back talent in the 2021 class, and it seemed unlikely that any underclassman would have a chance at being this year’s RB1. However, Gainwell will look to curb that thought process as his film was explosive and his production was off the charts.
The first thing you notice when researching Gainwell is his dominant receiving statistics as a running back. He posted over 600 receiving yards for a ridiculous 12 yards per reception. He displayed a nuance for route running and soft hands making him more than a hot route receiver. Gainwell is a weapon to be used how his offensive coordinator sees fit. Similar to a player like McCaffrey, he can line up as a receiver both inside and out and create separation off his dynamic athletic ability and well-developed route running.
Gainwell is more than just a receiver that looks like a running back. He’s more than an above-average rusher. He produced nearly 1500 yards last year while registering an impressive 6.3 yards per carry and 13 touchdowns. His biggest calling card is his burst out of the backfield. He naturally shifts and commonly forces defenders to miss tackles.
He’s not big by any means, but he’s more than willing to attempt to run through a defender. He possesses above-average vision and has a good feel for how blocking lanes develop. Expect him to be a productive rusher at the next level.
As I mentioned earlier, Gainwell is not the biggest runner. Memphis lists him at 5-11 and 195 pounds. He won’t intimidate anyone with his stature. His size most evidently limits him in pass protection, as he struggles to stop defenders coming downhill through him. He can also be taken down by the occasional arm tackle and some defenders can push him off course with minimal contact.
Gainwell’s production as a receiver is well documented, but not many realize that nearly a third of his total receiving production last year came in one game against Tulane. Gainwell showed that he can be an effective receiver in other games, but there is a caveat to his dominant production.
Where is his current draft stock
For me personally, Gainwell has the inside track to my RB1 title come the end of the draft process. However, one man’s opinion does not make a consensus so I took to twitter to see how other draft analysts viewed him. With the options being RB1, RB2 or 3, RB4 or 5, or RB6 and beyond.
The results came back 11% thinking he was the top back in the class, 43% thinking he was either the second or third best rusher, 37% thinking he was fourth or fifth, and 9% thinking he was not a top-five running back in the 2021 NFL Draft. This means over 90% of the people polled viewed him as a top-five rusher.
A huge number for a player that was no well known coming into the 2020 summer. His ability as a rusher and receiver are the likely causes of this infatuation, as running backs who can affect both the running game and passing game hold significantly more value over rushers who can only do that, rush. After opting out, expect Gainwell to train and produce a strong combine performance before being one of the top running backs drafted in the 2021 NFL Draft.