In recent years, the running back position has lost its stock in the NFL draft. The last two drafts have seen just two players from the position selected in the first round in Josh Jacobs (2019: No. 24 overall) and Clyde EdwardsHelaire (2020: No. 32 overall). That means that for fantasy purposes, we can look pretty far down the draft board and find guys who could provide value far sooner than any other position. The 2020 fantasy football season even saw undrafted free agent James Robinson shoot up to RB1 status with the single-win Jaguars. Here are the top running back prospects heading into the 2021 NFL Draft. 

RB Travis Etienne, Clemson

Pros

  • Good decision maker, can find holes and follows blockers
  • Physical runner who can run inside
  • Gains solid yardage after initial contact
  • Can break off big runs with top-notch speed for a running back
  • Great athleticism in the receiving game

Cons

  • Needs to work on his pass-protection and blitz pickups
  • Occasionally drops passes as a result of looking up field too quick

Player Comparison: Alvin Kamara

Projected Round: First

Takeaway: As one of the only two projected running backs to go in the first round, Etienne should be a solid fantasy contributor for years to come. Etienne returned to Clemson for his senior season which allowed him to set the all-time ACC rushing record with 4,952 yards. He is above average to elite in all facets of the running game. He has great vision, explosiveness, elusiveness, and runs a 40-time in the 4.3-4.4 range. Etienne has also developed into a very good receiving back, and should get plenty of opportunities on Sundays. However, his pass-blocking could use some work. If he can get better at protecting the quarterback, he will see more snaps in the NFL.

RB Najee Harris, Alabama

Pros

  • Great size (6-2, 230 pounds)
  • Possesses great vision and field awareness
  • Runs extremely hard, constantly dragging defenders with him or breaking tackles
  • Has good hands in the passing game and can receive downfield
  • Gets upfield running north and south

Cons

  • Lacks explosiveness
  • Doesn’t have elite speed
  • Not a very creative ball carrier

Player Comparison: Derrick Henry

Projected Round: First

Takeaway: Harris is one of only two prospects projected to go in the first round. He’s been a solid contributor at Alabama for the past four years, and possesses the ability for that to translate to the next level. A tough runner as well as a great pass catcher, Harris gets north and south in a hurry. He’s not a home-run threat, but can take a ton of hits and compile stats both in the rushing and receiving game. He will undoubtedly win people some fantasy contests in the near future.

RB Javonte Williams, North Carolina

Pros

  • At 5-10, 225 pounds, runs with great power and a low center of gravity
  • Good explosiveness and can burst through holes
  • Runs downhill and can run over defenders
  • Very good pass catcher, can make catches on imperfect balls

Cons

  • Lacks speed to bounce to the outside
  • Not usually going to make defenders miss

Player Comparison: Melvin Gordon

Projected Round: Fourth

Takeaway: Williams put up monster numbers last year with 22 total touchdowns and 7.3 yards per carry for the Tar Heels. He was able to do this even with his buddy Michael Carter also putting up solid numbers out of the backfield. Williams is a rare breed who can burst through holes, run over defenders and catch passes with feathery soft hands. Williams will have a very high ceiling if he can find a system that plugs him in on red-zone and goal-line situations, as well as passing-down situations.

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