I see three tiers of running backs for this class. The first is A-tier, which are guys who could and should be number one backs and three down backs their rookie year. These guys have massive amounts of upside and are simply great all-around running backs. The B-tier is a group of guys who have the potential to be three-down running backs but may not quite be there yet in their development. Finally, C-tier is made up of players that I do not project as starting NFL running backs. They could succeed in a committee, split back-field, or passing down roles. However, their NFL trajectory will probably keep them away from being a bell cow running back like a Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffrey, or Derrick Henry.
#1 Javonta Williams
The best runner in college football, and I truly do not believe that it is close. This is not shade being thrown at Najee Harris or Travis Etienne, but nobody ran with the toughness, agility, balance, and deception that Williams ran with last year. Going into this 2020 season, I had Williams only behind Etienne. This was because when looking at his 2019 tape, it was evident that nobody could tackle him.
I do not think that there are many players who are as gifted and as smart when they run as Williams is. He knows how to play angles, and he simply either makes guys miss or breaks tackle after tackle. His one cut ability reminds me of Kareem Hunt and Dalvin Cook, but I think that Williams runs better than both of them when it comes to evasion.
Williams does not lack almost anything in pass protection and the receiving game. His technique needs a bit of tweaking when it comes to the technical side of pass blocking, but he is as tough as nails. Then, his hands are great, and he simply needs to work on his routes just a tad, but he has a great feel for the passing game.
With all this said, it is clear that Williams can be the number one for many NFL teams. He will be an all-around great runner, pass blocker, and receiver.
#2 Najee Harris
Najee Harris is a close second for me on my rankings. His season at Alabama reminded me a ton of Derrick Henry. While not quite as physically gifted as Henry, Harris has fantastic vision and great route-running ability. He can make up for the fact that he may not be a home run hitter with the fact that he will net you positive yards on every possible opportunity.
Harris is the guy who consistently turns no-yard gains into 5-6 yards due to his vision, body control, and physicality. He also never needs to come off the field with his hands and pass blocking ability. So, similar to Williams, Harris is a true 3-down back in the NFL, and the team drafting Najee Harris should not be too worried about complimenting him in the backfield.
Literally, the only knock on Harris has to be his top-end speed; other than that, he is a great number one running back.
#3 Travis Etienne
Travis Etienne is the solidified number three running back in this class. I firmly believe that Williams and Harris are much better prospects but also believe no one behind Etienne comes close to his ability. Let us get the negatives out of the way. I do not love Etienne’s vision, elusiveness, or his hands. My issues with Etienne are similar to Jonathan Taylor’s, where both of these guys do not know how to patiently wait and then hit a hole. Etienne faced some fumbling and drop issues as well in 2020, plus his pass blocking was meh.
Now, what makes Etienne special is that he is faster and more balanced when he runs than almost all other prospects and young running backs in the league. I would compare him to an Alvin Kamara-light. He is not as elusive or slippery as Kamara, but both have ridiculous speed and agility that makes them incredible threats in the open field.
I think that Etienne is going to be a three-down back, but his role may be best suited for the Kamara role. This is where the backfield carries are somewhat split, but Etienne is always out there for passing downs. I could very easily see Etienne’s team relying on a bigger and stronger back who has better vision to take the goal-line carries or come in for some games. We saw this with Ingram and Murray complimenting Kamara. Therefore, I would much rather have Harris or Williams where that player is simply never needed.
#4 Trey Sermon
#5 Khalil Herbert
#6 Michael Carter
#7 Kenneth Gainwell
#8 Chuba Hubbard
#9 Elijah Mitchell
#10 Kylin Hill