The 2021 NFL Draft will feature two sensational running back prospects in Clemson’s Travis Etienne and Alabama’s Najee Harris. While the absolutely loaded 2020 Draft class featuring J.K. Dobbins, Jonathan Taylor, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and D’Andre Swift might have produced more overall talent at the running back position, give me Etienne or Harris over anyone in that group. With that said, there is much debate in the draft community whether it’s Etienne or Harris who wins the moniker of “RB1” in the 2021 class.
Travis Etienne presents major Alvin Kamara vibes
There is a strong case to be made that Clemson running back Travis Etienne is RB1 in the 2021 NFL Draft over Najee Harris. Through eight games of the 2020 college football season, Etienne has rushed for 634 yards and 10 touchdowns while averaging an impressive 5.2 yards per carry. Etienne has demonstrated gradual improvement as a pass-catcher throughout his tenure at Clemson, and now he finds himself as a bonafide weapon out of the backfield. This season he has hauled in 37 receptions for 491 yards and two touchdowns while averaging a dazzling 13.3 yards per reception.
It’s been a record-setting season for Etienne, as he became the ACC’s leading rusher, surpassing a long-standing record held by North Carolina State RB Ted Brown. In terms of production, Etienne’s staggering career numbers will make your jaw drop. In his collegiate career, Etienne has rushed for an astonishing 4,672 rushing yards and 66 touchdowns.
Etienne’s production surely passes the test for box score scouts, but Etienne brings an elite arsenal of traits to the table as well. He has game-breaking speed, being rumored to run a 4.3 forty-yard dash. His breakaway speed in the open field is breathtaking, and so is his acceleration. He posses the ability to seamlessly hit a second gear and explode through any opening that presents itself. In what might come as a surprise given his size, Etienne is also an insanely tough runner who is able to churn yards after contact in chunks. He is a home-run threat who oozes big-play potential every time he touches the ball.
One issue Etienne must address before separating from Najee Harris is his ball security. Etienne has demonstrated the capacity to put the ball on the ground in crucial situations, which is something he must figure out quickly. In 2020, Etienne has notched four fumbles, including one that a Boston College defender returned for a 97-yard touchdown. In order to be an effective running back at the next level, Etienne must prove he can be reliable and not give away possessions by putting the ball on the ground.
Travis Etienne reminds me of Alvin Kamara. I’m on record saying:
“There are several popular comparisons out there for Etienne, but the player that Travis Etienne compares to most is New Orleans Saints’ superstar Alvin Kamara. They have comparable size and share similar elite traits, such as the speed, acceleration, and contact balance they bring to the table.”
Najee Harris is a wrecking ball who beats defenses into submission
With players such as Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris touting the rock for the Alabama Crimson Tide, Najee Harris had to patiently wait his turn to become the bell-cow for the Alabama offense. When the reigns were turned over to Harris in his junior season, he wasted no time in letting everyone know that he was an elite NFL prospect in his own right.
This season, Harris has been the best running back in college football, rushing for 797 yards and 16 touchdowns in seven games. In his two seasons as the team’s lead back, Harris has been a touchdown machine, rushing for a staggering 36 scores.
Harris runs with a unique blend of power, balance, agility, and vision. He is a wrecking ball who runs defenders over and rarely gets tackled on initial contact. For a bigger running back, Harris is quite elusive. In fact, in 2019, he forced 59 missed tackles, which led the SEC. Harris is light on his feet and has better speed than he is given credit for.
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In terms of checking all of the boxes when it comes to the duties of the running back position, Harris fits the bill, proving to have upper-echelon receiving ability with his terrific hands and the ability to pick up blitzers. His best trait is his ball security, as Harris has only fumbled one time on 524 carries during his time at Alabama. Simply put, Najee Harris is the most complete running back in the nation and could potentially be the top running back in 2021.
Tony Pauline agrees with me on Harris, stating:
“As far as I’m concerned, running back Najee Harris is a first-round talent playing a Day 2 position. He’s a three-down back who can do it all — grind it out on the inside, get around the corner and catch the ball out of the backfield. His vision, short-area quickness, and instincts are incredible, making Harris my top running back prospect in the 2021 NFL Draft.”
The verdict on the 2021 RB1
Deciding whether Travis Etienne or Najee Harris is the top running back in the 2021 NFL Draft is as close to a coin flip as it gets. For my money, both players grade out as first-round selections in the 2021 NFL Draft. The advantage goes to Etienne when factoring in big-play ability, production, speed, and explosiveness.
The advantage goes to Harris when factoring in running with power, ball security, and protecting the quarterback. While there is no doubt that Harris benefited from having the superior offensive line, Etienne played an inferior level of competition. Ultimately, you can’t teach speed, so for that reason, I will give a slight nod to Etienne as RB1 in 2021, with Harris being one hell of a consolation prize.