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A way-too-early look at the 2021 NFL Draft: Running Backs

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Which runners could be donning the black and gold next year? Let’s look at the top running backs Steeler fans should be watching this college football season.

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College Football Playoff National Championship - Clemson v LSU Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Draft speculation for 2021 began the moment that 2020’s edition finished.

So, in that spirit, here we are with an article series highlighting prospects who look to be this upcoming draft’s biggest stars.

And the season hasn't even started yet.

Admittedly, “way too early” draft predictions are exactly what they’re titled: Way too early— and as a result, are very rarely, or perhaps never, accurate at all.

In this draft primer series, we won’t be mocking players to any teams, but rather looking at the top players at each position who could get drafted by the Steelers with their first few picks in 2021. Prospects such as Trevor Lawrence, Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Fields, and Penei Sewell, who are all expected to be gone long before the Steelers are projected to pick in the first round, will not be included.

The goal? Not to make any “hot take” predictions, but rather to look at some players that Steelers fans might want to watch a little closer than usual this college season.

Second in this series will be an important position that is severely undervalued in the modern NFL: running backs. They are ranked in no particular order.


Travis Etienne, RB #9, Clemson

2019 stats: 1,614 rushing yards, 19 rushing touchdowns, 432 receiving yards, 4 receiving touchdowns.

Height/Weight: 5’10”, 210 lbs.

If you want to add a change-of-pace speedster to your backfield, look no farther than Travis Etienne.

The Clemson runner has next-level speed and acceleration and won’t get caught from behind on long runs. Speed is his calling card. But he is also a surprisingly tough runner who will give his all on every play, even though he won’t be bowling defenders over.

Like most college running backs, he has a tendency to bump runs outside and will likely need to improve his vision a bit more to succeed in the NFL. He’s incredibly elusive due to his pure speed, but his lateral agility, though certainly NFL-caliber, isn’t anything to write home about.

Etienne isn’t a natural pass-catcher yet, but he was successful last year catching check-downs and making plays in space. If Etienne can continue to improve his receiving game, he will be able to maximize his talent.

At 210 pounds, Etienne’s slight frame is a concern for some, especially at a position where durability is a massive issue. However, he has shown the capability to stay consistent and productive throughout his time in the NCA, and has always played bigger than he is.

Etienne surprisingly sat out the 2020 NFL Draft with his stock at an all-time high, but if he can improve upon his few remaining flaws this season, he will solidify himself as the top running back in his class this year.

Some notable articles about Travis Etienne:

Travis Etienne Draft Profile - The Draft Network

2021 NFL Draft: Travis Etienne has got the juice - With the First Pick

Travis Etienne scouting report - Draft Wire

Clemson RB Travis Etienne Will Forgo 2020 NFL Draft, Return to School - Bleacher Report


Najee Harris, RB #22, Alabama

2019 stats: 1,224 rushing yards, 13 rushing touchdowns, 304 receiving yards, 7 receiving touchdowns.

Height/Weight: 6’2”, 230 lbs.

Harris is a powerfully built runner with all of the intangibles you could want. He was highly recruited out of high school, choosing to play college football at Alabama. He slid into a bigger role last season, and looks to be a full-time starter in 2020.

Harris is a load to bring down once he gets going, even though he doesn't consistently run with his freight train ability. He isn't a freak athlete, but has good burst and speed for a runner his size.

Najee Harris hasn't shown a lot as a receiver during his time at Alabama, but it’s more a of a matter of opportunity than ability. He could improve in his pass protection and ball carrier vision as well.

Harris is the prototype for an NFL running back, with great size, speed, and power. He joined Travis Etienne in returning to school for an extra year, most likely to improve his draft stock.

The Alabama running back is near the top of his positional group heading up to the 2021 draft, but projects anywhere from the first to third rounds entering his final season.

Some notable articles about Najee Harris:

Najee Harris Draft Profile - The Draft Network

Alabama RB Najee’ Harris returning to school for 2020 season - Draft Wire


Chuba Hubbard, RB #30, Oklahoma State

2019 stats: 2,094 rushing yards, 21 rushing touchdowns, 198 receiving yards, 0 receiving touchdowns.

Height/Weight: 6’1”, 207 lbs.

Like extreme production from your running backs? If so, Hubbard is your guy.

Chuba Hubbard possesses great vision, and an overall above-average athletic profile. He has good speed and decent power, and a nice arsenal of moves to avoid defenders.

The main knock on Hubbard is that he plays much smaller than his size. He doesn't offer much in pass protection and isn’t the most punishing runner you’ll ever see. As a receiver, Hubbard didn't put up great numbers either.

Playing in the Big 12 puts an asterisk by Hubbard’s production as the conference has gained a reputation as lacking challenging defenses. Rushing for 2,094 yards is no joke, but it would be interesting to see how different they would be in the SEC.

A Draft Network analysis challenged Hubbard’s willingness to initiate contact, which could spring concerns due to his smaller frame.

Hubbard beat out players such as Notre Dame receiver Chase Claypool and Oklahoma defensive lineman Neville Gallimore for the Cornish Award as college football’s top Canadian player as a redshirt sophomore last year. He was eligible for the draft, but decided to sit out and play another season at Oklahoma State. Another great season would help him immensely, as Hubbard’s current draft position is a mystery for many.

Some notable articles about Chuba Hubbard:

Chuba Hubbard Draft Profile - The Draft Network

Chuba Hubbard Wins Cornish Trophy - OKState.com

Chuba Hubbard joins a deep class of running back prospects - CBS Sports


Max Borhgi, RB #11, Washington State

2019 stats: 817 rushing yards, 11 rushing touchdowns, 597 receiving yards, 5 receiving touchdowns.

Height/Weight: 5’10”, 197 lbs.

A surprising star running back in Mike Leach’s air raid offense, Borghi’s diverse skill set has made him an interesting player to watch entering this year’s draft.

Borghi’s main calling is at receiving back, as he caught 86 passes last year along with his 127 carries. He broke 28 tackles after the catch last season as well.

As a runner, Borghi has been fairly productive, but lacks the ideal size to succeed at running between the tackles in the NFL. If he can bulk up and improve on his power this season he will be much more of a complete prospect.

Broghi has often drawn comparisons to former Stanford star Christian McCaffery due to his playing style, but still has a ways to go to achieve McCaffery’s insane levels of production.

Much like Chuba Hubbard, Borghi’s conference, the PAC-12, is fairly weak in terms of overall defensive play. How his size and production will translate against better defenses will be integral to his future.

With Mike Leach taking his signature scheme to Mississippi State for the 2020 season, it will be interesting to see how Broghi adapts to the new coaching staff. As of right now, Borghi projects to be a third down back in the NFL thanks to his receiving ability and quickness, but he’ll need to develop more as a pure runner to move into the second/third round conversation.

Some notable articles about Max Borghi:

2021 NFL Draft: Is running back Max Borghi the next McCaffrey? - Pro Football Network

PFF’s early list of players to watch ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft - Pro Football Focus


Some other names to look out for this season include Oregon’s C.J. Verdell, Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell, Penn State’s Journey Brown, Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson, Oklahoma’s Kennedy Brooks, Mississippi State’s Kylin Hill, and Kansas’ Pooka Williams.

Poll

Which running back would you most like to see as a Pittsburgh Steeler next year?

This poll is closed

  • 40%
    Travis Etienne
    (150 votes)
  • 33%
    Najee Harris
    (124 votes)
  • 11%
    Chuba Hubbard
    (43 votes)
  • 3%
    Max Borghi
    (13 votes)
  • 9%
    Other
    (36 votes)
366 votes total Vote Now

Will the Steelers have any interest in drafting a running back next season?

It all starts with James Conner, who has proven to be a feature back when healthy but has struggled to stay on the field. His health and production will determine whether or not he is offered a second contract by Pittsburgh.

Behind Conner is a crowded backfield, with names such as Benny Snell Jr., Anthony McFarland, Jaylen Samuels, and Kerrith Whyte Jr. All of these players combined make for an excellent running-back-by-committee group, with Snell and possibly even McFarland having a starter ceiling.

If enough of the team’s current running backs stay with team in 2021 and remain productive and healthy, running back shouldn't be a team need for a long time. However, with an entire season waiting to be played before the upcoming draft, it’s foolish to make predictions on which positions the Steelers will and won't be picking.

Let’s just focus on this season for know, and hope that James Conner returns to healthy, Pro Bowl form.