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2021 NFL Draft: BTSC Big Board, Running Backs

Ranking and analyzing the top 26 running backs in the 2021 NFL Draft.

College Football Playoff Semifinal at the Rose Bowl Game presented by Capital One - Alabama v Notre Dame Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Despite the disappointment of the Steelers’ season ending in the Wild Card round, there was one small silver lining: draft season started a few weeks early.

The NFL Draft has often been described as “Christmas in April” for NFL fans, as their favorite teams get to add an exciting class of new prospects to their roster each year. However, with 32 teams picking players over 7 rounds, as well as through compensatory picks and undrafted free agency, the sheer number of college prospects entering the NFL in a single draft can be overwhelming.

So here at BTSC, we’re proud to present our new collaborative big board. This year, we’ve taken on the task of ranking and analyzing most of the prospects in the 2021 draft class in an attempt to create a helpful and informative resource that will hopefully bring some more interest to the draft process.

We’ll be releasing the board in segments, focusing on one position at a time, with this edition being on the running backs.

In case you missed it, make sure to check out the first edition of the board where we broke down the top quarterbacks in the draft HERE.

The main rankings and grades are steelerfan11’s, while overall analysis is a collaborative effort. If you are interested in the draft and would like to contribute to the board, let us know in the comments below.

1. Najee Harris — Alabama

Late 1st round grade

#22, Senior, 6’ 2”, 230 lbs

2020 season stats: 1,466 rushing yards, 26 rushing touchdowns, 5.8 yards per carry (YPC), 43 receptions, 425 receiving yards, 4 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: Harris reminds me a lot of Le’Veon Bell. Bell was a bigger back coming out of college before he slimmed up in the NFL. I don’t know that Harris will slim up like Bell did, but he has a very patient running style reminiscent of Bell. Being 6’2, he sometimes runs a bit too tall, but that issue is fixable. He may not run a good 40 time at his pro day, but he has sufficient speed (don’t forget that Bell ran a 4.6). Harris isn’t quite Derrick Henry, as he is a good twenty pounds smaller, but he is a very powerful and determined runner, and he does a good job of leaning forward for that extra one or two yards. That is something that none of the Steelers running backs were able to do last year. He has improved as a receiver each season, and he is very consistent as a pass protector. One has to question how much of Harris’ success was from the talent around him, but he showed me enough to rank him as the top back in this class.

Ryland B.: Considered a top recruit coming out of high school, Najee Harris underwhelmed in his first few years at Alabama, but slowly improved each season to become the best running back in his draft class by his senior year. Harris has the size of a NFL running back, but he also has the power and athleticism to succeed at the next level. He is a patient runner with good vision, and can consistently make something out of nothing if the play breaks down. He ends runs with power, and is hard to bring down once he gets going, even unleashing an impressive hurdling ability at times. He isn’t the fastest, but has enough speed and burst to succeed at the NFL level. As a receiver, Harris showed some good hands and yards after catch ability in 2020. If there’s one concern, it’s mileage, as Harris had over 800 touches during his 4 years at Alabama. He hasn’t shown any durability concerns, but it’s certainly something to be aware of due to the short shelf life on NFL running backs. Overall, Harris is the most complete and NFL-ready back in the draft class, having shown athleticism, talent, and production over his successful college career.

2. Travis Etienne — Clemson

Late 1st round grade

#9, Senior, 5’ 10”, 205 lbs

2020 season stats: 914 rushing yards, 14 rushing touchdowns, 5.4 YPC, 48 receptions, 588 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: Etienne could have entered the draft last year, but he returned to work on his receiving and pass-blocking skills. He achieved both of those goals, becoming a much more complete back. He seemed to take a mini step back as a pure runner, but part of it could be due to inconsistent play from the interior of Clemson’s offensive line. He is very good after contact and has breakaway speed, but he also remains disciplined as a runner. He is a little late to his assignment in pass protection at times, and he does not always display the greatest vision, but he has as much upside as anyone in this class if he can clean up the minor issues in his game.

Ryland B.: Etienne made the right choice returning to school for 2020, but ended up having a down year statistically, failing to crack a thousand rushing yards for the first time since his freshman season in 2017. He did improve as a pass-catcher, totaling a career high in receiving yards and better hands overall. As a runner, Etienne is a speedster, one of the fastest in this class. His smaller frame is a concern, but he hasn’t had any major injury issues and always plays bigger than he is, finishing runs with some power and giving his all every play. He doesn’t have the greatest vision, and will sometimes try to push runs too far outside. Etienne isn’t the most agile, either, even though his speed certainly gives him an advantage in avoiding defenders. Etienne isn’t a complete running back just yet, but he has a solid foundation of tools and his impressive speed gives him lots of upside as an NFL back.

3. Javonte Williams — North Carolina

Mid 2nd round grade

#25, Junior, 5’ 10”, 220 lbs

2020 season stats: 1,140 rushing yards, 19 rushing touchdowns, 7.3 YPC, 25 receptions, 305 receiving yards, 3 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: I was super impressed with Williams’ performance this season as a runner. He hit the hole with authority, had sufficient elusiveness, good speed, and excellent contact balance, which led to a lot of broken tackles. His vision and acceleration allowed for him to find the hole quickly and hit it. Pass protection is something that the Steelers value in their running backs, and Williams showed the ability to do it at a high level at North Carolina. He was surrounded by good skill players and a good offensive line, but the progress he made each year in college cannot be ignored. He will likely go in round two and could be a potential fit with the Steelers.

Ryland B.: I’ve seen some debates on the internet over the past month or so arguing that Williams is the second-best running back in this class over Travis Etienne — and while I’m not ready to go that far yet, Williams’ incredible 2020 season certainly puts him in the discussion. He’s a running back that screams “Pittsburgh Steeler”, as he’s an underclassmen, runs with power and an attitude, and produced well in college. If he gets a good SPARQ score you might as well pencil him in as the Steelers’ second round pick. In a way, I see Javonte Williams as Benny Snell 2.0, someone with the powerful rushing style and contact balance the Steelers liked in Snell, but paired with good speed and burst to make him a complete back, something that Snell certainly lacks. Williams isn’t the fastest in this class, but he’s an excellent power back with enough speed to be a starter in the NFL. He’s definitely someone to keep an eye on as the draft gets nearer.

4. Trey Sermon — Ohio State

Mid 3rd round grade

#8, Senior, 6’ 1”, 215 lbs

2020 season stats: 870 rushing yards, 4 rushing touchdowns, 7.5 YPC, 12 receptions, 95 receiving yards, 0 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: Sermon was playing second fiddle to Master Teague for a good part of the year, but he absolutely exploded toward the end of the season, setting records in Ohio State’s Big Ten Championship Game victory against a stout Northwestern defense. Sermon shows good patience to the hole and acceleration through it. He played behind good offensive lines at both Oklahoma and Ohio State, but there were several instances in 2020 where he created yardage that was not there. He has incredible balance through contact, and he shows good power in short yardage situations. He has some ability as a receiver and pass protector as well. Injuries are the biggest issue with Sermon. He has the talent to be a second round pick, but right once he looked completely healed from the ACL tear last season, he suffered a shoulder injury in the National championship game. If he can stay healthy in the NFL, he has the potential to be an upper echelon running back.

Ryland B.: I knew Trey Sermon existed, but hadn’t paid much attention to his draft stock until his impressive postseason this year stole my attention. He had a historic Big Ten Championship game, in which he had 331 rushing yards, followed by another dominating performance against Clemson in the CFP semifinal, in which he nearly had 200 rushing yards. He was injured in the National Championship against Alababa, which was a shame because he might have brought a much-needed spark for the Buckeyes in that game. Sermon is a big, powerful, explosive runner with lots of upside, even though he was in a limited role with Ohio State his senior year. We didn’t get to see much of him catching passes in college, but he has the ability and will look to improve on that in the NFL. I think Sermon’s injury issues are a little overblown, as an ACL injury and shoulder injury in separate years feel more like bad luck than injury-proneness. If anything, the ACL tear in 2019 would’ve been the hardest to come back from, but Sermon bounced back nicely in 2020. If the shoulder injury heals well there shouldn’t be much to worry about long-term. Sermon is an interesting prospect this draft, as he has lots of potential but never really seemed to develop all the way. He definitely has starter upside if he can learn the ropes in the NFL.

5. Rhamondre Stevenson — Oklahoma

Mid 3rd round grade

#29, Senior, 6’0”, 246 lbs

2020 season stats: 665 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns, 6.6 YPC, 18 receptions, 211 receiving yards, 0 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: Stevenson’s grade would be higher if not for off-field concerns. He is an explosive and powerful runner that has shown the needed lateral agility to make sharp cuts. He is a potentially dominant pass-protector but isn’t there yet, although his reps at the Senior Bowl were quite impressive. He is not known for his receiving skills, but he isn’t a liability as a receiver. Vision is not the best, which is evident by occasional poor decisions he made as a runner, but he has the power and explosiveness to be a starting running back in the league if he stays out of trouble.

Ryland B.: I hadn’t seen much of Rhamondre Stevenson during his time in college, but when I turned on the tape my first thought was, Wow, he moves FAST for a big guy. For a nearly 250-pound running back, Stevenson looks like the fastest guy on the field at times. He’s big, fast, powerful, and explosive, with nearly all of the athletic potential you could ask for in an NFL running back. He doesn’t have the same level of footwork or shiftiness as some of the smaller backs in this class, but again, for the big runner that Stevenson is, it’s pretty impressive. Stevenson is one of my favorite prospects I’ve seen so far in this draft process, but some off the field issues damper the hype a bit. A failed drug test at Oklahoma, as well as some academic issues earlier in his career, could be a red flag on his NFL resume. However, if Stevenson can prove that it won’t be an issue in the future, there’s a lot to be excited about concerning his NFL career.

6. Chuba Hubbard — Oklahoma State

Late 3rd round grade

#30, Junior, 6’0”, 208 lbs

2020 season stats: 625 rushing yards, 5 rushing touchdowns, 4.7 YPC, 8 receptions, 52 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown.

steelerfan11: Hubbard had an exceptional 2019 campaign but seemed to take a step back in 2020. The burst that he showed a year ago just was not there this year, and it has caused his draft stock to fall. He has good patience and awareness as a runner, and he knows when to hit the hole. He has very good speed, although it was not quite as evident when watching him play this past season. His biggest flaw is as a pass protector. He has poor technique and looks weak at the point of attack. He also does not have natural hands, which could lead to more drops at the next level. There is certainly upside here, but this season left more questions unanswered than answered about his game.

Ryland B.: Hubbard’s athleticism was never anything to write home about (for college football), instead, it was his production that really stood out. Hubbard totaled over 2,000 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns in an impressive Sophomore campaign for Oklahoma State in 2019, but that stellar production faded in 2020, leaving the overall impression of Hubbard as somewhat average (again, for college football). Hubbard’s greatest strength as a runner is his vision, but he has solid speed as well and a decent arsenal of moves. Hubbard isn’t a very powerful runner, however, and plays smaller than his size, which is always a concern with running backs. He can avoid contact sometimes as well, running out of bounds instead of trying to gain a few more yards, and doesn’t seem to invite contact the way the other top running backs in this class do. He isn’t great in pass protection or pass-catching, either. All of this isn’t to call Hubbard a bad running back or soft football player, but he just simply isn’t on the same par as some of the other backs this year. Still, his impressive sophomore year shows that Hubbard can be a dynamic weapon, and he’ll definitely be worth a pick at some point in the middle rounds of the draft.

7. Michael Carter — North Carolina

Early 4th round grade

#8, Senior, 5’8”, 199 lbs

2020 season stats: 1,245 rushing yards, 9 rushing touchdowns, 8.0 YPC, 25 receptions, 267 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: Carter was one of the most explosive backs in the country over the past two seasons, rushing for over 2,600 yards and 16 scores. The first thing that pops out is his burst. He is very dangerous in open space and can win a footrace against many defensive backs. He has tremendous vision as well. While he isn’t going to be breaking a ton of tackles, his elusiveness makes it difficult for defenders to bring him down in the open field. He may not be big enough to be a bell-cow running back in the NFL, but he will be a very good complimentary option in a backfield committee.

Ryland B.: Carter was sharing a backfield with the talented Javonte Williams in 2020, but still managed to set career-highs in nearly every statistical category, rushing for over 1,200 yards with a whopping 8 yards per carry. Carter is compactly built with a fast, explosive running style. He’s a smooth runner with excellent footwork, and navigates through traffic well, often out-maneuvering defensive backs once he gets to the second level of the defense. He’s not the greatest at getting through contact, but shows good effort and has solid balance. He wasn’t used as a pass-catcher a lot at North Carolina, but he can catch, and has the potential to be a dangerous receiver out of the backfield in the NFL.

8. Kenneth Gainwell — Memphis

Early 4th round grade

#19, Sophomore, 5’11”, 191 lbs

2020 season stats: Opted out

2019 season stats: 1,459 rushing yards, 13 rushing touchdowns, 6.3 YPC, 51 receptions, 610 receiving yards, 3 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: Gainwell is not the biggest back either, but he is super elusive in open space. He is a good route-runner out of the backfield and displays good pass-catching ability. Memphis put him in the slot fairly often, which is something he will likely be asked to do at the next level given his skill set. He has good footwork and vision as a runner, and he plays bigger than his size. He is not much of a pass-blocker at this point, which is something that the Steelers value in their running backs, but he will be a nice pick in the middle rounds for a team that can use his versatility.

Ryland B.: Gainwell opted out of the 2020 season, which is always something to take into account. However, if he can prove at his pro day that he stayed in shape this year, there should be no reason to worry. A versatile player, Gainwell can play both out of the running back position and in the slot — and he was successful in both during his breakout 2019 season. Gainwell has good speed and is a shifty, elusive runner. He isn’t the biggest back out there, but is a surprisingly powerful rusher even though he might want to bulk up in the NFL. As a receiver, Gainwell has good hands and can run solid routes. His versatility and speed are great assets that will make him an exciting addition to any backfield in the next level.

9. Jaret Patterson — Buffalo

Early 4th round grade

#26, Junior, 5’9”, 195 lbs

2020 season stats: 1,072 rushing yards, 19 rushing touchdowns, 7.6 YPC, 0 receptions, 0 receiving yards, 0 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: Patterson nearly set a single game FBS rushing record this season before being pulled in the fourth quarter. He shows good balance through contact and the ability to sneak through the tiniest hole. Footwork is tremendous, and he displays natural hands as a receiver. One knock on him is that he doesn’t have top end speed, and it takes him a while to build up his speed. Overall, he projects as a key piece in a committee backfield that can fill in as a workhorse back if necessary.

Ryland B.: Patterson has been very productive throughout his college career, and despite having only a 6-game season in 2020, he still broke a thousand yards and scored 19 touchdowns, with much of it coming in an incredible two game stretch in which he ran for 12 touchdowns and over 700 yards. It’s worth mentioning that Buffalo didn’t play many great defenses that year, and Patterson’s highlight reel has some stellar offensive line play on it as well, but his production is due mainly to his talent as a runner. He has good vision, is elusive, and is a powerful runner. He doesn’t have elite speed or acceleration, but showed enough long speed to break some big runs throughout his Buffalo career. He wasn’t used much as a receiver in college, logging zero stats in that category in 2020, but has the ability to do so. Still, Patterson is a highly-productive running back with a good enough athletic profile to have starter upside in the NFL.

10. Elijah Mitchell — Louisiana

Mid 4th round grade

#15, Senior, 5’11”, 218 lbs

2020 season stats: 878 rushing yards, 8 rushing touchdowns, 6.2 YPC, 16 receptions, 153 receiving yards, 0 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: Mitchell could be this year’s Marlon Mack. Mitchell was part of a really good backfield at Louisiana, but he was the best runner of the guys in that backfield. He displays good awareness as a runner, and his balance through contact is impressive as well. He also has good short area quickness and decent footwork. Mitchell has seemed to regress slightly as a receiver, but he has shown ability in that department. Becoming consistent in that area will likely determine whether he can be relied upon as a three-down back in the NFL or not.

Ryland B.: A solid overall back, with nothing that particularly stands out positively or negatively. He has decent size and power, good speed, and impressive agility. Mitchell has had a productive college career, but he wasn’t used a lot as a receiver, something he can hopefully improve on in the NFL. Mitchell has all the attributes to be successful in the next level, and I see him as a solid-all-around addition to a running back committee somewhere, although I think he has starter upside like much of this running back class does.

11. Khalil Herbert — Virginia Tech

Late 4th round grade

#21, Senior, 5’9”, 212 lbs

2020 season stats: 1,182 rushing yards, 8 rushing touchdowns, 7.7 YPC, 10 receptions, 179 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown.

steelerfan11: Herbert broke out for the Hokies this season, racking up over 1,300 scrimmage yards on 165 touches. He displays good burst and takes excellent angles, but he has not shown the ability to be a good pass protector (he has done well in this department in Mobile this week, though). He could be a starter down the line, but he needs to show more value on third downs first.

Ryland B.: Herbert transferred from Kansas to Virginia Tech for the 2020 season, and was rewarded with the best year of career. He’s a patient runner with good vision, especially when he gets to the second level. He’s a solid athlete with good burst, but doesn’t have the greatest speed. Herbert was hardly used as a pass-catcher during his time in college, which could be a concern, but overall he’s a solid mid-round prospect.

12. Kylin Hill — Mississippi State

Late 4th round grade

#8, Senior, 5’11”, 215 lbs

2020 season stats: (Opted out during season) 58 rushing yards, 0 rushing touchdowns, 3.9 YPC, 23 receptions, 237 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown.

steelerfan11: Hill is a strong runner who displays impressive upper body strength. He needs to show more patience as a runner, but he is very good running through contact and creating yards after contact. He is lacking in the speed department, and he is not elusive at all, which is why I think he should attempt to bulk up and become a short yardage specialist.

Ryland B.: Hill opted out to prep for the NFL Draft partway through the 2020 season, which won’t be a big concern if he can prove that he stayed in shape. He’s a strong runner who finishes plays with good power, always looking for contact (which can be both a good and bad thing). He isn’t the fastest or most elusive, but he has good athleticism, jumping over the pile or even hurdling defenders at times successfully. For more of a power back, Hill is a good receiver out of the backfield, and has good hands along with the ability to track the ball well. Hill’s aggressive running style and solid-all-around athletic profile make him an interesting prospect to watch at the running back position as the draft gets closer.

13. C.J. Verdell — Oregon

Late 4th round grade

#7, Junior, 5’10”, 210 lbs

2020 season stats: 285 rushing yards, 3 rushing touchdowns, 4.4 YPC, 9 receptions, 96 receiving yards, 0 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: If Verdell could pass protect, he would be in the day two conversation. He isn’t terribly agile, but he has good vision and burst. One scouting report that I read pointed out his poor decision making on zone reads, which is noteworthy considering that NFL teams seem to be running more zone-read concepts every year. He will likely be limited to a role in a committee backfield in the NFL until he can become a better pass-blocker.

Ryland B.: C.J. Verdell wasn’t used as much by the Ducks in 2020, but a COVID-19 shortened season and a good year by his backfield mate Travis Dye didn’t make for a great scenario for the Junior running back in the first place. He’s an excellent straight line runner, always looking to get upfield and make the big play, with good acceleration and speed. He has good contact balance and vision, and often broke short power runs into big gains during his time in college, although you could attribute some of that to the powerful offensive line he ran behind in 2018 and 2019. Nearly all of that line didn’t play in 2020, which was clearly a big factor in Verdell’s down year. He doesn’t have the greatest size and isn’t very shifty, and questions remain concerning if his success was a product of the Oregon O-line, but overall there’s still a lot to like about Verdell as a prospect.

14. Pooka Williams — Kansas

Late 4th round grade

#1, Junior, 5’10”, 170 lbs

2020 season stats: (Opted out during season) 196 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns, 3.8 YPC, 6 receptions, 31 receiving yards, 0 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: Williams is an electric playmaker who could not be contained coming out of the backfield in college. He has good vision, quickness, and elusiveness, which makes him nearly impossible to bring down one-on-one in the open field. He runs good routes out of the backfield and displays good hands as well. Size will limit him to being a change-of-pace option in the NFL.

Ryland B.: Williams is an incredibly elusive and shifty running back with great speed and acceleration. He’s a versatile player, having had success as both a runner and a receiver out of the backfield, even tossing a touchdown pass in his Kansas career. Williams is one of the shiftiest players in this year’s class, but with that will come some concerns regarding his power and size, neither of which are strengths. However, if his game translates well to the NFL, defenses will have their hands full. He was an incredibly dangerous weapon in the Kansas offense in 2019, but ended up opting out four games into his team’s 2020 season due to COVID-19 worries concerning his mother’s health. As I’ve mentioned with all of the prospects who have opted out, this is worth keeping an eye on as time away from the field can result in regression, but most of these guys are great athletes who will continue to train hard away from their teams.

15. Rakeem Boyd — Arkansas

Early 5th round grade

#5, Senior, 6’0”, 206 lbs

2020 season stats: 309 rushing yards, 3 rushing touchdowns, 3.8 YPC, 10 receptions, 33 receiving yards, 0 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: Boyd is a very patient runner who does not do a good job of making defenders miss. He was lined up in the slot and came on jet sweeps often in college, and he generally displayed good hands. As a runner, he isn’t going to create extra yards on his own, but he has good burst through the hole. He will need to get stronger if he wants to have any shot of being a starter in the league.

Ryland B.: Boyd reminds me a little bit of Oregon running back C.J. Verdell. They both have that north and south running style, with little agility but good straight line speed, although I would argue that Boyd is faster. However, Boyd isn’t the biggest running back out there, and isn’t the most powerful, either. A lack of power paired with a lack of elusiveness is a bit of a problem, but Boyd’s excellent speed and vision make up for it. He has really good hands for a running back, and even though his receiving talent wasn’t used much in college, it will likely be taken advantage of in the pros.

16. Ben Mason (FB) — Michigan

Mid 5th round grade

#42, Senior, 6’3”, 254 lbs

2020 season stats: 0 rushing yards, 0 rushing touchdowns, N/A YPC, 2 receptions, 17 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown.

steelerfan11: Fullbacks don’t generally get this high of a grade, but I had to make an exception for Big Ben Mason. Michigan used him sporadically at defensive end because of his outstanding strength. Mason generally does a good job of picking up blitzes as a pass blocker, and he maintains a good pad level as a run blocker. He got opportunities as a runner in short yardage situations as well, and Michigan had success with it. His contributions on special teams also helps his draft stock. Considering that the Steelers could save money by cutting Derek Watt, Mason is a guy that Steeler fans should not ignore.

Ryland B.: Fullback is a dying breed in the NFL, but it isn’t completely irrelevant yet, with teams like the 49ers using versatile pieces like Kyle Juszczyk to bring another dimension to their offense. And while Ben Mason isn’t the weapon that Juszczyk is, his versatility makes him the epitome of a modern NFL fullback. Besides fullback, Mason has been used as a running back, tight end, defensive end, and special teamer during his time at Michigan. As a lead blocker, Mason takes advantage of his strength and aggressiveness, pushing defenders out of the way and clearing running lanes successfully. One thing that really stood out on his tape was his willingness to initiate contact, as once Mason finished one blocking assignment, he would continue to look for someone else to block until the whistle blew — just a high effort player all around. His strength also showed up on his few rushing attempts in college, resulting in a lot of success in short-yardage scenarios. Mason is probably a little too small to play defensive line in the NFL, but he still has the upside to be a very good special-teamer. He’ll be a good add for a team in the later rounds, although I have to disagree with steelerfan11 on this one — there’s no way he’ll be coming to the Steelers in the draft this year. Pittsburgh won’t be cutting Derek Watt on the eve of T.J.’s contract extension, and besides, I think Derek deserves a second year to prove himself after a season where he was often injured and barely used.

17. Javian Hawkins — Louisville

Mid 5th round grade

#10, Sophomore, 5’9”, 196 lbs

2020 season stats (Opted out during season): 822 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns, 6.2 YPC, 16 receptions, 127 receiving yards, 1 receiving touchdown.

steelerfan11: Hawkins is a true home run threat who displays great elusiveness and quickness. He isn’t the most secure ball handler, and one would think that a player with his skill set would be a better receiver than what he is. His vision isn’t that great as a runner either. In the right system, Hawkins could develop into an explosive change-of-pace option, but he has a lot in his game to fix.

Ryland B.: At this point in his career, Hawkins is merely a scatback and not much else. He’s extremely fast, is fairly shifty, but the rest isn’t great. He’s undersized, goes down on first contact more often than not, and has a fumbling issue. Hawkins is willing as a pass blocker but not great at picking up defenders, and is too small to do much about it when he does. He opted out to prepare for the draft eight games into the regular season, so staying in shape shouldn’t be a problem, but he might have been better off staying in school one more year to round out his game.

18. Larry Roundtree III — Missouri

Late 5th round grade

#34, Senior, 5’10”, 210 lbs

2020 season stats: 972 rushing yards, 14 rushing touchdowns, 4.7 YPC, 15 receptions, 100 receiving yards, 0 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: Roundtree was one of the more underrated backs in 2020, tearing up some respectable SEC defenses. He uses his size well, playing with great leverage and leaning forward for the additional yard. He shows good effort as a pass blocker, and he has fairly reliable hands as a receiver. His 40 time at his pro day will be telling as to whether he has the desired speed for a running back.

Ryland B.: Roundtree is similar to fellow 2021 draft hopeful Elijah Mitchell in that he’s a solid all-around back with not much that stands out in a good or bad way, with the exception of his impressive vision as a runner. Roundtree has good size with solid speed and agility, and seems pro-ready concerning his receiving and blocking abilities. NFL Draft Diamonds compared Roundtree to Bills running back Devin Singletary, which I thought was a good comp. I don’t think Roundtree has Pro Bowl upside per se, but he’s NFL ready and has a solid floor. He definitely could be a middle of the road starter in the next year or two.

19. Demetric Felton — UCLA

Late 5th round grade

#10, Senior, 5’10”, 200 lbs

2020 season stats: 668 rushing yards, 5 rushing touchdowns, 5.1 YPC, 22 receptions, 159 receiving yards, 3 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: In the early portions of Senior Bowl week, Felton has been one of the standouts. Last year, we saw Antonio Gipson switch from receiver to running back, and he had a phenomenal rookie season. This year, the exact opposite is taking place with Felton. He weighed in lighter than what some scouts were hoping for, but he has flashed his quickness and ability as a receiver this week. Whether he plays as a change-of-pace back in the NFL or as a slot receiver, he is an intriguing chess piece that a good coach could get a lot out of.

Ryland B.: Felton is a highly athletic and versatile running back. He has great speed and excellent agility, although his lack of size and power could be a concern at the NFL level. Felton is dynamic on the outside, but running between the tackles will not be an option for him at the next level. What makes Felton special is his ability to play receiver, as he lined up in the slot at times at UCLA, and has looked good running routes at the Senior Bowl this year against good competition. Felton’s strong hands and aforementioned quickness make him a threat catching passes, and his speed and running ability make him an interesting day three option, although he is far from an every down player.

20. Jermar Jefferson — Oregon State

6th round grade

#6, Junior, 5’10”, 217 lbs

2020 season stats: 858 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns, 6.5 YPC, 9 receptions, 67 receiving yards, 0 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: Jefferson is a patient runner who is dangerous as a receiver out of the backfield. He seems to have pretty good vision, but he does not show much pop when hitting the hole. Footwork is good as well, but he does not have an extremely strong lower body and will not be able to gain tough yards until he gets stronger.

Ryland B.: Jermar Jefferson was the Beavers’ offense last year. Oregon State had a few nice plays through the passing game as well, but if the Beavers won a game it was because they fed Jefferson the ball. Jefferson is a fairly good athlete, and although he isn’t the fastest, he was a homerun hitter all year. Jefferson has some of the best vision in the class, and although he isn’t particularly shifty, he’s a very slippery runner, navigating well through traffic and usually making it back to the line of scrimmage on broken plays. As a receiver Jefferson doesn’t have the strongest hands, and although he wasn’t used much as a pass-catcher, I think that’s a skill he can easily add to his repertoire on the next level. Jefferson may not have the elite physical traits as some of the other running backs in this class, but I think he could be a starter in the right system in the NFL.

21. Mekhi Sargent — Iowa

6th round grade

#10, Junior, 5’9”, 209 lbs

2020 season stats: 432 rushing yards, 7 rushing touchdowns, 5.7 YPC, 1 reception, 6 receiving yards, 0 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: Sargent has the elusiveness to make defenders miss, and he makes good cuts. He hasn’t been very productive as a receiver, and he does not have great balance through contact. He isn’t a bruiser, but he has shown the ability to gain the tough yards if even the smallest hole is there. He may be able to find a role in a committee and develop into something more if he can show value on third downs.

Ryland B.: A compactly-built runner, Mekhi Sargent packs good speed, footwork, and power in his 5’9” frame. He has good vision and is fairly shifty, although he isn’t exactly a homerun threat. He wasn’t the most productive during his time in college, still putting up respectable numbers on the ground although he never did much as a receiver. Overall he’s a solid prospect with a fairly high floor, but he doesn’t have the highest ceiling. Size could be a small concern as well.

22. Jah Maine-Martin — North Carolina A&T

6th round grade

#30, Junior, 5’10”, 203 lbs

2020 season stats: No season

2019 season stats: 1,246 rushing yards, 20 rushing touchdowns, 8.3 YPC, 7 receptions, 38 receiving yards, 0 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: I was very impressed with Maine-Martin’s explosiveness when I watched him. He has tremendous burst and has a nasty stiff arm. He isn’t easy to bring down on first contact, and he has some sneaky power as well. He is not a dangerous receiver at this point, and he needs to become a more consistent pass protector, but there is definitely potential here.

Ryland B.: A true “sleeper” in this year’s draft class, Maine-Martin has plenty of upside but wasn’t noticed a lot due to playing at smaller schools during his career. He is a physical, fast runner who runs with good power and explosiveness. A good pro day might shoot him up boards as we get closer to the draft.

23. CJ Marable — Coastal Carolina

6th round grade

#1, Junior, 5’10”, 200 lbs

2020 season stats: 886 rushing yards, 12 rushing touchdowns, 5.2 YPC, 31 receptions, 228 receiving yards, 7 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: Marable was a big part of Coastal Carolina’s success on offense this season. He is a speedy and shifty runner who is a dangerous threat as a receiver, averaging 8 yards per reception for his career. He does bring value as a kick returner as well, which is something that gives him value in year one. Pass protection still needs work.

Ryland B.: An incredibly fast and elusive runner, Marable was a versatile back during his time in college, having impressive production through the air and on the ground. Marable packed some occasional power to the end of his runs, which paired with his shiftiness made him very hard to bring down, especially in the open field. As a receiver, Marable displays good hands and route running, with his speed making him very dangerous as a pass-catcher coming out of the backfield. He’s a high-upside speed back who isn’t completely one-dimensional, making him a promising NFL prospect.

24. Stephen Carr — USC

7th round grade

#7, Senior, 6’0”, 215 lbs

2020 season stats: 176 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns, 3.8 YPC, 10 receptions, 64 receiving yards, 0 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: Carr was a former five-star recruit who has battled injuries throughout his collegiate career. He has very good speed and footwork, and he is as good as anyone at making defenders miss. If he can stay healthy, he could be a really good back in the NFL, but that seems to be a very big “if.”

Ryland B.: The talent is there, but not much else has gone Carr’s way during his time at USC. He has good size and impressive intangibles, but injury issues and poor production have really hurt his college career. That being said, Carr has all of the tools to be an NFL running back, and will definitely be worth a late round pick — which could potentially pay off in a big way for the team that drafts him.

25. Shakif Seymour — Toledo

7th round-UDFA grade

#21, Senior, 6’0”, 215 lbs

2020 season stats: 127 rushing yards, 2 rushing touchdowns, 7.9 YPC, 2 receptions, 10 receiving yards, 0 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: Seymour does a good job avoiding unnecessary contact, but he will not be out-juking many defenders. He wins with his upper body strength and instincts, and he seems to get better as the game goes on. We have seen good MAC running backs be taken on day three of the draft before, and Seymour could be the next one.

Ryland B.: Seymour is a strong downhill runner with a good powerback-type skillset. He isn’t particularly fast or shifty, but he can avoid tackles and has good vision. It’s well known that the Steelers scout the MAC a little more diligently than most NFL teams, meaning that the Toledo running back will likely be on Pittsburgh’s radar.

26. Trey Ragas — Louisiana

7th round-UDFA grade

#9, Senior, 5’10”, 230 lbs

2020 season stats: 758 rushing yards, 10 rushing touchdowns, 5.8 YPC, 9 receptions, 106 receiving yards, 2 receiving touchdowns.

steelerfan11: Ragas is a physical back who is difficult to bring down. He shows some potential as a pass blocker, but he is not a great receiver. He doesn’t have a lot of tread on the tires, but he will likely be limited to short yardage situations until he can prove something as a receiver.

Ryland B.: Ragas is another good powerback with a late round grade. He doesn’t have top end speed and won’t make many guys miss, but he has good footwork and vision. Ragas should be a solid addition to a running back room somewhere as a situational player.

Notable prospects who decided to return to school for 2021:

Washington State RB Max Borghi

Georgia RB Zamir White

Minnesota RB Mohamed Ibraham

Oklahoma RB Kennedy Brooks

Ohio State RB Master Teague

Penn State RB Journey Brown (medically retired due to heart condition, won’t play football again)

Should the Steelers draft a running back in the 2021 NFL Draft?

steelerfan11: More than likely, yes. A lot depends on what happens in free agency, and once we see who is staying and who is leaving, we will have a better idea of how many needs we have to fill. I think the better question is when we take a running back. Najee Harris is a great fit in round one given his Le’Veon Bell style running, but would the Steelers really take a 23 year old prospect in round one over a young franchise tackle? Javonte Williams is another nice fit for us, but the Steelers generally build the offensive line from the inside out. If Landon Dickerson is there, would we take Williams over Dickerson? Maybe, but it would be a tough decision.

I understand the craze for the next Derrick Henry or Josh Jacobs, but if you look at Super Bowl champions in recent history, we can see that none of the Super Bowl winners had elite running backs. They were, in most cases, pass first offenses with competent running games. The last time I checked, Ezekiel Elliott has not won a Super Bowl. Neither has Henry or Jacobs. The point being is that even if you have an elite running back, it does not make you the favorite in an AFC that has Patrick Mahomes and Josh Allen leading the way. All four of the teams in conference championship week rank inside the top 10 in passing yards, with Kansas City, Tampa Bay, and Buffalo ranking 1-3 respectively. It is fun to watch Derrick Henry and hope for the next great back in the draft, but the truth is that the pass happy teams are having the most success.

I realize that the Steelers have not necessarily hit on a ton of mid to late round running backs, but we see it happen all across the league. Aaron Jones and Marlon Mack were day three picks. Alvin Kamara and Kareem Hunt were taken on late day two. James Robinson and Philip Lindsay were undrafted. Running back is the most expendable position, which is why using a first round pick on one is not usually a wise thing. If the tackles dry up quicker than expected, by all means take Harris if he is clearly the best player available, but he should not be the frontrunner for the pick. Trey Sermon could be available in round 3. If Rhamondre Stevenson has moved past his off-field issues and gotten his life in order, maybe the Steelers get a steal in the middle rounds and pair him with Anthony McFarland to create a true thunder and lightning backfield.

While it would be nice to have an elite runner like Harris, it is not a necessity to win a super bowl. Plus, the Steelers’ offensive line was schematically not in a position to run-block. They were aligned in an upright position to protect Big Ben and nothing else. Combine that with all of our running backs running upright and not leaning forward for extra yards (could this be at the fault of Faulkner?), we had the worst rushing output in the league. If James Conner is not re-signed, it would make sense to consider a Jamaal Williams or Marlon Mack to solidify the running back room. Then, if we land a top running back in the draft, we have excellent depth. If we don’t, we are not any worse off than last year. I also expect Anthony McFarland to take on a bigger role if Matt Canada does indeed become the next offensive coordinator. But when you look at the success of Henry, Jacobs, Kamara, Jones, or even the J.K. Dobbins and Jonathan Taylors of the world, look at the offensive lines they are running behind. No running back having success in the league currently is running behind a bad run-blocking offensive line. Once the Steelers’ issues up front are resolved, watch many (not all, but many) of our running game issues vanish. That said, adding a running back in the draft would be a good idea if the value is there.

Ryland B.: On whether or not the Steelers should draft a running back this year, it’s a matter of “what round”, not “yes” or “no”. The first round options are the likes of Najee Harris and Travis Etienne, both of whom would be great additions to the Steeler offense. However, it’s never a great idea to burn a first round pick on a position like running back, where some of the best are found in the later rounds and careers are short. Besides, the Steelers have more pressing needs on their offense line, as nearly every position beside Kevin Dotson’s guard spot will need to be replaced over the next season or two. So while I wouldn’t be heartbroken if the Steelers grabbed Najee Harris at #24 overall, I’d much rather the team pick a stud center or tackle there and then pick a running back in the second or third round. Thankfully, it’s a strong class, and there should be plenty of starting caliber backs available such as Javonte Williams, Chuba Hubbard, Trey Sermon, (and a later on) Rhamondre Stevenson. All of those backs have a good all-around skillset with good speed, power, and elusiveness — which would be a welcome change from the Steelers’ group of one-dimensional runners. Ultimately, the Steelers absolutely need to upgrade their running game in time for the 2021 season, but they’ll have to be wise in how they address it.


When should the Steelers draft a running back in the 2021 NFL Draft?

This poll is closed

  • 10%
    Round 1
    (23 votes)
  • 63%
    Rounds 2-3
    (139 votes)
  • 22%
    Rounds 4-5
    (50 votes)
  • 0%
    Rounds 6-7
    (1 vote)
  • 2%
    UDFA/Don’t draft a running back
    (6 votes)
219 votes total Vote Now

This is a collaborative effort, and we are looking for more contributors to add to the board by helping with the rankings and/or analysis.

If you are interested in contributing, or just want to share your thoughts about the draft, please let us know in the comments below.

Some of the prospects included in this series are participating in this year’s Senior Bowl, which could have a big impact on their draft stock. Make sure to check out Pittsblitz56’s articles on the subject for analysis and conversation regarding this year’s top seniors. You can find the latest edition HERE.

Stay tuned to Behind the Steel Curtain for more content, including the rest of this big board, as we inch closer to the 2021 NFL Draft.