2021 NFL Draft: Ranking the Top 10 running backs in the class

The 2020 class was heralded as an impressive running back group. Could 2021 possibly surpass it with the talent it has? Matt Valdovinos breaks down the rankings with a surprise RB1.

The 2020 running back class was very strong, specifically at the top. My top-five consisted of D’Andre Swift, JK Dobbins, Cam Akers, Jonathan Taylor, and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. All were top-50 prospects for me. With that being said, I think it’s possible the 2021 class could be even better. Unlike 2020, 2021 is heavily reliant on its production from the senior class. This year, the first senior RB taken was Antonio Gibson, the seventh running back off the board. In 2021, we could see the first two or three backs selected be seniors.

For my rankings, I’m looking at skill-sets that translate to the next level and doing a little bit of projection for how these players will fare in the coming season. I value things like receiving ability and vision far more than I do rushing production and testing numbers. You’ll notice this immediately as my RB1 will come as a surprise to those who don’t follow me on Twitter.

Top 10 running backs in the 2021 NFL Draft Class

1) Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis

This may come as a bit of a shocker, but I’m enamored with the skill-set of Gainwell. Next in a line of numerous NFL runners to hail from Memphis, Gainwell could quite possibly be the most talented of any running back to wear the Tiger uniform. Last season, he finished 12th in the nation in rushing yards and led all RBs in receiving yards. He’s a complete back who can dominant on the ground with a strong vision and contact balance, or through the air with quality route running and soft hands. He’s also younger than the next four running backs listed.

2) Travis Etienne, Clemson:

With back to back 1600 yard seasons and a strong blend of size and athletic ability, it’s no wonder Etienne is the consensus RB1 heading into the season. Legit 4.3 speed, Etienne is arguably the most explosive runner I’ve seen in my time evaluating players. However, a lack of agility in open space and refinement as a receiver limit him. I expect him to be one of the nation’s most productive runners, and to test very well at the NFL Scouting Combine.

3) Najee Harris, Alabama 

I went into last season believing that Harris was one of the more overrated prospects in college football. He proved me completely wrong. Harris is a tenacious runner with dominant size and strong production. While it’s easy to look at him and assume he’s just a power back, Harris is so much more. He’s a phenomenal receiver and a load to tackle. Although he doesn’t possess elite athletic ability, he still possesses requisite burst and impressive wiggle for a 230 pound back.

4) Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State

I’m not as enamored with Hubbard as a number of twitter analysts are. He has athletic limitations and, despite a large frame, is not one to run through contact. He has impressive stop-start ability, and vision, but he plays like a back much smaller than 6’0″ 200lbs. However, his dominance can’t be denied as he was the most productive rusher in the nation last year. I just hope people don’t get too caught up in his production numbers.

5) Max Borghi, Washington State

I had major trouble ranking the next two runners. I ended up giving the edge to Borghi because I believe his ability as a rusher was hindered by playing in Mike Leach’s offense at Washington State. Displaying impressive contact balance and vision in limited opportunity, Borghi will prove this season that he can handle the workload of a workhorse back. Everyone already knows he’s an elite receiver, what can he show us in a season where he should have up to 200 carries?

6) Kylin Hill, Mississippi State

Hill was criminally underused as a receiver in his first three seasons at Mississippi State but now he’ll be under Leach. He is a punishing runner with a thick frame. However, his ability as both a tough, in between the tackles runner, and an impressive receiver is why I’m truly interested in him. I think Hill is already a better pure runner than Borghi, now under Leach, and we’ll find out if he’s as good of a receiver. It will also be an opportunity to keep his body fresh as he’ll likely carry the ball half as much as he did last season.

7) Journey Brown, Penn State

The next dominant Penn State running back, Brown was one of the most productive rushers in the nation over the last five weeks of the season. Brown averaged 118.6 yards per game and averaged 7.6 yards per carry. Add in his nine touchdowns over those five games, and it’s easy to see why I’m so excited about Brown. Brown split time throughout the season last year, only rushing the ball 129 total times. Brown is talented enough to see double that amount of carries, and should this coming season.

8) Zamir White, Georgia

When does Georgia not have an impressive running back prospect? This answer isn’t this year, as White will look to continue the Bulldog legacy. The very talented player was once the top RB prospect in his high school class, but some unfortunate early-career injuries have derailed that start of his time at Georgia. White is a blend of size and speed but has never been healthy for a full season. The best thing for his draft stock is simply staying healthy. Don’t be surprised if White ends the season as the consensus RB1, or if the injuries were too insurmountable.

9) CJ Verdell, Oregon 

After back to back 1,000-yard seasons, it’s no wonder Verdell finds himself on this list. He saw fewer total touches last year than the year before but managed to increase his rushing totals. He has a strong blend of power in a compact frame and speed to take it to the house. Verdell is a capable receiver but is typically only used on screens and hot reads. With the loss of Justin Herbert, it’s likely the Oregon offense will run through Verdell.

10) Pooka Williams, Kansas

In two years at Kansas, Williams has accumulated over 2,600 yards of offense and 14 total touchdowns. He’s displayed excellent vision while running behind one of the worst offensive lines in the country. He’s also proven to be a very capable receiver with soft hands both out of the backfield and 20+ yards down the field. He possesses a small frame, but that doesn’t prevent him from taking defenders head-on. He has requisite breakaway speed and showed it against teams like Oklahoma and Texas.

Honorable Mention: Jaret Patterson, Buffalo. Kennedy Brooks, Oklahoma. Master Teague, Ohio State. 

This 2021 running back class possesses loads of talent. However, as of right now, I don’t believe it possesses the high-end talent 2020 did. That can change though, with players like Brown and White finally getting opportunities as full-time workhorses. With a strong season, my RB1, Gainwell, will also likely be my highest-graded running back between either class.

The 2021 class separates itself with the depth it possesses. Some of that is due to the number of talented rushers that returned for their senior season. Etienne, Harris, Hubbard, and Hill were all thought to be potential top-100 players. Instead, they chose to return to school and will lead the 2021 class. With the running back position being devalued every year, there is a very good chance teams could leave the 2021 class with their starting running backs.

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