When you take on the task of evaluating prospects for the NFL Draft, you find that every year, there is a player you tend to gravitate toward because he check all of the boxes. Last year, Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa was that guy for me, as he demonstrated the football intelligence, mobility, and accuracy needed to thrive in today’s pass-heavy NFL. This year, Clemson running back Travis Etienne is that player for me, as he has the tools to be the best offensive skill player in the 2021 NFL Draft.
Travis Etienne’s background
Travis Etienne was Clemson’s last commitment in their 2017 class, coming in as ESPN’s 114th-ranked overall prospect and the 13th-ranked running back prospect. He played his high school football at Jennings High in Louisiana, where he had a spectacular senior season, rushing for 2,459 yards and 35 rushing touchdowns. He had many schools chasing after him, including LSU, Tennessee, and Texas A&M, but ultimately decided that playing for Dabo Swinney at Clemson was his best move.
Etienne’s historic production at Clemson
Since arriving on campus, Etienne has made his mark on the football field. As a true freshman in 2017, he rushed for 766 yards and 13 touchdowns, while averaging a staggering 7.2 yards per carry. He followed up his impressive freshman campaign with a record-breaking sophomore season, where he rushed for 1,658 yards and an astonishing 24 touchdowns while averaging a mind-blowing 8.1 yards per carry.
There was no way he could duplicate that performance in his junior season, right? Wrong. Etienne was equally dynamic as a runner in 2019, toting the rock for 1,614 yards and 19 touchdowns.
Overall, Travis Etienne is one of the most productive players in the history of Clemson football. He is currently the school’s all-time leading rusher with 4,281 yards, and his 65 career touchdowns are the most in school history for a non-quarterback. To put that in perspective, Etienne has played in 46 career games at Clemson, which means that he scores 1.4 touchdowns per game on average, a frankly staggering number.
Etienne’s brilliant 2018 and 2019 seasons are the best individual seasons for any running back in Clemson history. His greatness tends to be overshadowed a bit, as his teammate, quarterback Trevor Lawrence, is one of the most highly-regarded draft prospects in NFL history. But make no mistake about it: Travis Etienne is an elite talent and will be a force at the next level for years to come.
What traits back up Travis Etienne’s NFL Draft profile?
The 2021 running back class could be special with the likes of Najee Harris (Alabama), Chuba Hubbard (Oklahoma State), Kenneth Gainwell (Memphis), and Journey Brown (Penn State), but Clemson’s Travis Etienne is the best of the group. In fact, if he had declared for an even more talented 2020 class featuring Clyde Edwards-Helaire (LSU), D’Andre Swift (Georgia), J.K. Dobbins (Ohio State), and Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin), Etienne would have been the diamond of that group as well.
Despite having a very robust toolset, there are three elite traits that Etienne brings to the table that make him special. First, his speed is mesmerizing. As Matt Valdovinos pointed out: “With back to back 1,600-yard seasons and a strong blend of size and athletic ability, it’s no wonder Etienne is the consensus RB1 heading into the season. With legit 4.3 speed, Etienne is arguably the most explosive runner I’ve seen in my time evaluating players.”
Etienne’s unparalleled speed at the position demolishes pursuit angles and makes him a legitimate threat to take it to the house every time he touches the football. In the open field, Etienne is elusive and can make defenders miss.
Secondly, the 5’10”, 210-pound Etienne has game-changing acceleration. His ability to shift to a second-gear allows him to shoot through tight openings and create yards in chunks. Tony Pauline commented on Etienne’s ability to accelerate through openings, stating: “[Etienne] is an explosive runner with incredible quickness and speed and a second gear in his game. He shows burst through the hole, beats defenders into the open field, and can run to daylight.”
In what might be his best trait, Etienne’s toughness as a runner, paired with his tip-top contact balance, makes him tough to tackle. In fact, in 2019, he broke at least one tackle on 46% of his carries. He rarely goes down on initial contact and possesses the strength to discard defenders. Don’t make the mistake of labeling Etienne as purely an outside runner, as he can do serious damage in-between the tackles as well.
Etienne’s NFL Comparison
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.
Etienne’s progression as a receiver out of the backfield also draws parallels to Kamara. In every year of his collegiate career, Etienne has shown improvement as a pass-catcher. He has jumped from catching five passes for 57 yards as a freshman to hauling in 37 receptions for 432 yards and four touchdowns as a junior.
As Nick Farabaugh mentions, “Travis Etienne’s receiving ability in 2018 had to take another step forward in 2019. Then, it happened; it did take a step forward. In one year, Etienne quadrupled his production in the passing game by putting up 432 receiving yards and four scores.”
Etienne has truly blossomed into one of the best receiving backs in the nation and a bonafide weapon in the passing game. Similarly, Alvin Kamara just might be the best pass-catching running back in the NFL. Comparing anyone to Kamara is high praise, but Etienne is fit to live up to the hype.
Travis Etienne’s 2021 NFL Draft Prospectus
Albeit the running back position doesn’t carry the weight that it used to, it’s almost impossible to envision any scenario that does not end up with Clemson’s dynamic Travis Etienne being selected in Round 1 of the 2021 NFL Draft. Last year, the Chiefs spent a first-round selection on LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire and there is no doubt that Etienne is a superior player. Teams such as the Buffalo Bills or Pittsburgh Steelers selecting Etienne towards the end of Round 1 would make a lot of sense.