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Top 9 running backs in the 2021 NFL Draft

Behind the big three, who are the top running backs in the 2021 NFL Draft according to Pro Football Network’s consensus big board?

Top 9 running backs in the 2021 NFL Draft
Dec 5, 2020; Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Najee Harris (22) runs for a touchdown against the LSU Tigers during the first quarter at Tiger Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

In anticipation of the 2021 NFL Draft, the analysts at Pro Football Network have pooled our rankings to create our Top 300 Consensus Board. Using this 2021 board as our guide, here are our consensus top running backs in the 2021 NFL Draft.

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Top Running Backs in the 2021 NFL Draft | 6-9

The top of the class is highly touted, but who rounds out the top nine running backs in the 2021 NFL Draft?

9) Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma

The big bruiser from Oklahoma kicks off our list of the top running backs in 2021. Rhamondre Stevenson had a pretty steep range in rankings on our consensus board, from 97 down to 191. PFN Chief Draft Analyst and NFL Insider Tony Pauline described Stevenson as a “hard-charging” back who is at his best “running downhill and in between the tackles.” Stevenson is a powerful back who runs with patience and excellent pad level.

Despite missing half the season due to a suspension before the 2019 Peach Bowl, Stevenson managed to accumulate 665 rushing yards and 7 rushing touchdowns. Unlike some other power backs, Stevenson has third-down value with his pass protection. He likely won’t be a top-flight RB, but expect him to be a steady force in a committee and as a goal-line back. With a good offensive line ahead of him, Stevenson will produce.

8) Khalil Herbert, Virginia Tech

Next on the list of the top running backs in 2021 is Khalil “Juice” Herberta rather appropriate nomenclature for Herbert’s play. “Juice” is ranked around Rounds 4 and 5 among the PFN analysts, ranging from 105 to 160. Pauline was the highest among all of the PFN analysts on Herbert. He labeled Herbert as an “explosive multi-purpose back who picks up big chunks of yardage from the line of scrimmage as a ball carrier while also producing as a pass catcher.”

Herbert showed off his explosiveness with 7.68 yards per carry in 2020, second among all running backs with over 100 carries. Herbert broke out onto the scene last season, ranking fifth in the country in rushing yards. As a result of his playmaking ability, we’re projecting Herbert to be drafted early on Day 3. He’ll need a good offensive line to clear the way, but his explosiveness and third-down capability project well to the NFL.

7) Trey Sermon, Ohio State

A somewhat surprising name here, the Buckeye back received polar grades on the PFN rankings. Trey Sermon was highest on Pauline’s board at 89th, but his lowest was 155th. However, for the analysts who ranked him low, each cited Sermon’s injury history in their analysis. That’s for good reason too, as Sermon has dealt with several nagging injuries dating back to high school.

Nevertheless, his play on the field is impressive. Sermon is a physical runner who bangs out tough yardage on the ground. He has good third-down value as well, with solid pass protection and ability as a checkdown option. His average speed and injuries limit his ceiling at the next level, but Sermon can be a valuable committee back.

6) Demetric Felton, UCLA

Many other sites and analysts don’t have Demetric Felton listed here, but he ranked very high for a couple of PFN analysts. His versatility as both a WR and an RB sold him.

Felton was a nice sleeper for many analysts before the Senior Bowl. In Mobile, Felton participated in the wide receiver drills and looked solid against corners and defensive backs. Some of our analysts have listed him as a receiver, while others have kept him at running back.

That versatility pushed him up the board. He’s a bit of a projection, given the role he will play, but in a league that’s looking for receiving backs, Felton projects favorably to the next level.

Top-9 Running Backs in the 2021 NFL Draft | 1-5

Between Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, and Javonte Williams, who is the No. 1 RB?

5) Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis

Kenneth Gainwell‘s buzz dipped somewhat after he decided to opt-out of the 2020 season, yet, he still ranks high for the PFN analysts. Gainwell was the first player on this list of top running backs of 2021 who finished inside the top-100 for every analyst.

It’s easy to see Gainwell’s ability on film. He’s an electrifying runner who boasts a strong skill set as a receiver as well. His physicality cannot be questioned (ask Micah Parsons). PFN’s Dalton Miller explained, “Gainwell’s short-area agility and receiving ability makes him a three-down threat at the next level. He won’t break a ton of tackles, but he will make defenders look funny as he skips past them.”

4) Michael Carter, North Carolina

One member of the dynamic duo at North Carolina, Michael Carter was the lightning to Javonte Williams’ thunder. Carter ranked inside the top-75 for every analyst on the PFN consensus board, and for good reason. I was the highest on Carter and the only PFN analyst who ranked him above Williams.

Carter and Williams complemented each other seamlessly. It was evident that Carter was the more decisive runner of the two and had the best vision and footwork. Those traits are a big factor in my grades. Add in Carter’s ability as a receiver, and he seems like the perfect zone runner at the next level.

3) Javonte Williams, North Carolina

Javonte Williams is often thrown in with Etienne and Harris to create a “big three.” It doesn’t seem that way based on the PFN analysts’ rankings, however, where Williams has a range of 31 to 61. He graded out for most analysts as an excellent second-round back.

Williams’ game is predicated on breaking tackles through his contact balance. He has patience following his blockers, as he was a heavy gap-runner at North Carolina. His playstyle is a bit rough and rumble, but he shrugs off hits and tackles and rarely goes down at first contact. He isn’t the fastest running back in the 2021 class, but he has enough speed to win consistently against linebackers and defensive linemen.

2) Travis Etienne, Clemson

It’s been a raging debate among draft analysts on who the better back is between Travis Etienne and Harris. For our analysts, that decision was easy, as Etienne ranked second on the consensus board. He also ranked inside the top-30 for every analyst except one.

Etienne’s homerun ability led him to incredible production in college. He finished his career fourth in total touchdowns in NCAA history.

Etienne won’t break many tackles, but with his breakaway speed, he might not have to. There were some issues with his vision that analysts noted, but every report projects Etienne as an every-down RB1 at the next level.

1) Najee Harris, Alabama

Unsurprisingly, Najee Harris ranked as the unanimous RB1 of the top running backs of 2021.

What’s not to like with Harris? He’s a complete back as a runner and receiver. Harris broke Derrick Henry’s rushing record and tied Tim Tebow’s record for total touchdowns. He lined up outside as a receiver and inside, displaying an excellent third-down ability.

Pauline described Harris as, “An outstanding three-down running back with a complete game. Athletic, instinctive, and plays hard on every down. Possesses outstanding vision, instincts, and overall awareness. Harris is a tremendous ball carrier with a three-down game. Though not overly elusive or creative, he has feature-runner potential at the next level.” Harris projects as an early RB1 and fantasy stud in the NFL.

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