Sun Sentinel Broward Edition
Omar Kelly continues his draft preview series, looking at the top prospects at tailback.
Miami Dolphins columnist Omar Kelly continues our 10-part series looking at the top prospects in the upcoming NFL draft (April 29-May 1) with the tailbacks. This year’s class of running backs doesn’t have the depth of last year’s, where 11 were selected in the first three rounds of the 2020 draft. But there are a handful of backs who should become NFL starters in a year or two.
Alabama’s Najee Harris
Harris leaves Alabama as the school’s all-time leading rusher after gaining 3,843 yards and scoring 46 rushing touchdowns in the 55 games he’s played over the past four seasons. He’s a big back (6-2, 230) that is nimble on his feet and has soft hands, which makes him a threat in the passing game. Because he lacks breakaway speed and has handled a heavy workload in college, it’s possible he could slide into Day 2 of the draft.
Clemson’s Travis Etienne
Etienne’s speed, and body control allowed him to carry the Tigers rushing attack. He has a knack for eluding would-be tacklers, and has the ability to escape pile ups. But he hasn’t always shown the best vision when it comes to finding running lanes. Even though he’s caught 102 passes during his four-year collegiate career, he’s had a handful of drops. And his pass protection skills need work. He’d fit best with a team that runs an outside-zone scheme.
North Carolina’s Javonte Williams
Williams, who averaged 6.3 yards per carry and scored 33 touchdowns during his three seasons sharing the backfield with the Tar Heels, is the type of tailback who rarely goes down on first contact. He powers through tackles, and has the vision to find creases. He’s a bruising ball carrier — which means he likely won’t last long in the NFL.
Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell
Gainwell is an explosive and creative ball carrier who can not only carry your team’s rushing attack (1,459 rushing yards in 2019), but he has the skills to play slot receiver (51 receptions for 610 yards and three touchdowns in 2019). He opted out of 2020 season, so he’s only got one season of high-level productivity. Most teams will view him as a situational back, or an run-pass-option-style playmaker.
Carter is a shifty, compact (5-9, 190) back who possesses good vision, and has the lateral speed to deliver big runs. He rushed for more than 1,000 yards the past two seasons while sharing the backfield with Williams. But both tailbacks benefited from phenomenal blocking from North Carolina’s offensive line. He’s not a clean pass catcher despite bringing down 82 catches during his four-year career.
Best of the rest
Oklahoma’s Rhamondre Stevenson and Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard are two hard-charging backs who pick up the tough yards by making a habit of breaking tackles. Ohio State’s Trey Sermon runs with urgency, but doesn’t show a lot of creativity as a runner. Kansas’ Pooka Williams Jr., UCLA’s Demetric Felton and Buffalo’s Jaret Patterson each have great feel and vision as a runner. Despite their small stature, they could develop into NFL standouts.
Class grade: C
Outside of Harris, Etienne and Williams, this class of tailbacks isn’t special. A handful might evolve into featured backs if they end up in the right offensive system. But few will have staying power in the league if they don’t excel as special teams contributors. There might be a run on the position on the second day of the draft, but don’t be surprised if most of the tailbacks don’t get taken until the later rounds.
Teams in need
The Dolphins, Cardinals, Steelers, Falcons and Jets have the most glaring need for an upgrade at tailback. But don’t be surprised if a handful of other teams like the Ravens, Rams and Broncos add a young tailback to their stable, giving the rookie a chance to carve out a role for himself by competing with the veterans.
Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed propped up last year’s inconsistent rushing attack, collectively contributing 903 rushing yards and eight touchdown on 217 carries. But more is needed for Miami’s RPO-based offense to find the next gear. Malcolm Brown, who signed a one-year deal this offseason that guarantees him $1.75 million, is a decent complimentary back, who can help on special teams. The Dolphins are missing a bell-cow who can gain tough yardage running between the tackles, and close out games where Miami possesses a lead and needs to extinguish the game by running out the clock.