Falcons expected to add to backfield in the upcoming NFL draft

Here’s the second story of our position-by-position NFL draft series. Today, we’ll look at the top running backs.

The Falcons elected not to re-sign Todd Gurley, who entered last season as their No. 1 running back, nor his top backup Brian Hill this offseason.

Ito Smith finished the season as the team’s top running back and they signed the hard-charging Mike Davis in free agency.

New coach Arthur Smith is coming over from Tennessee where he had Derrick Henry to power the Titans’ offense and is expected to add to the backfield in this draft.

The Falcons, who pick fourth overall in the draft and 35th in the second-round, are not in prime position to select one of the top two running backs in the draft: Alabama’s Najee Harris or Clemson’s Travis Etienne.

“When you look at the combination of Etienne, who’s maybe a little bit undersized, but has big time juice, big time speed, then you have Najee Harris who’s 230 pounds,” NFL Network’s draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah said. “He has balance and can bang inside, but he can also get involved in the pass game.”

The Falcons will have a shot at some quality running backs in the middle rounds in Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell, Oklahoma’s Rhamondre Stevenson and Ohio State’s Trey Sermon, who played at Sprayberry High.

The Falcons would likely have to trade back into the first-round to get Harris.

“I think if you check the record, every running back that we’ve had here since we came here has been a third-round or better in terms of the draft and how they got drafted,” Alabama coach Nick Saban said. “We’re very proud of that in terms of the quality of guys that we’ve been able to recruit, but also with how they have developed in the program here.”

Saban doesn’t like to compare his former players, but he spoke to the merits of Harris’ game.

Najee is, I think, an exceptional player,” Saban said. “He’s got great size. He’s a really good receiver. His instinctive as a runner. He’s tough. He’s hard to tackle. He kind of gets better as the game goes on.”

Harris is listed at 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds. Henry is 6-3, 247 and became just the eighth player to rush for more than 2,000 yards last season in Smith’s offense.

Henry was selected in the second round (45th overall) by the Titans in 2016.

Harris finished his career as Alabama’s all-time leader for total touchdowns with 57 (46 rushing, 11 receiving). He’s the school’s career leader for rushing scores with 46, which surpassed the previous record of 42 held by Mark Ingram and Henry.

Harris’ 3,843 career rushing yards tops Alabama’s all-time list.

“So, he’s got some really, really positive attributes,” Saban said. “He’s always been a good team guy here. I love the guy and think he’ll be really, really good player at the next level.”

Credit: ACC

Former Clemson running back Travis Etienne goes through drills for NFL scouts at Clemson’s Pro Day March 11, 2021.

Etienne is a dynamic runner and receiver. He rushed for 914 yards and 12 touchdowns last season and caught 48 passes for 588 yards and two receiving touchdowns. Over his fine career at Clemson, he rushed for 4,952 yards, had 1,155 yards receiving and scored 78 touchdowns.

“I’m one of the best skill guys in the draft,” Etienne said. “I am able to do it all. I feel like I add that component to teams in that next tier. I feel like me being in the game, I just possess a lot of things that are God-given that most guys don’t possess.”

Etienne is especially proud of his development as a pass catcher.

“Coming here out of high school from a Wing T, I probably had 16 targets my whole career in high school,” Etienne said. “Coming here, it was really different. Had to really change my whole game.”

Etienne is fine with being compared to Minnesota’s Dalvin Cook and New Orleans’ Alvin Kamara.

“I feel like both of those guys are very dynamic guys,” Etienne said. “They’re able to change the game, running the ball and catching the ball. Yes, I feel like it’s fair to compare me to those guys.”

North Carolina running back Javonte Williams barrels through the Georgia Tech secondary for yardage during the second half Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Atlanta. North Carolina won 38-22. (John Amis/For the AJC)

Credit: John Amis

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Credit: John Amis

North Carolina’s Javonte Williams is another intriguing running back prospect.

“I loved him from the first tape that I popped on,” Jeremiah said. “I didn’t hear much about him during the fall. They ran the heck out of him, him and Michael Carter their other running back at North Carolina.”

Williams rushed 157 times for 1,190 yards and 19 touchdowns last season. He caught 25 passes for 305 yards and three touchdowns.

“This kid kind of gives you a little bit of everything,” Jeremiah said. “He’s 220 pounds, but he has big time burst and he’s got really good vision … he’s going to continue to go up because everything I keep digging on and finding out from the school and finding out from guys that have been around him and coached him and played with him, is the kid’s wiring is off the charts.

“In a year where we don’t maybe (don’t) have as much information, when you get a kid who’s got great tape, who’s got high, weight, speed and now the character and the work ethic is off the charts, you bet on those kids.”

AJC’S POSITION-BY-POSITION SERIES

QUARTERBACKS: How far will Justin Fields drop in draft? | Top 10 QBs

RUNNING BACKS: Plenty of prospects to pick from | Top 10 RBs

Falcons’ 2021 draft position: Here are the top 10 picks in D. Led’s Mock Draft 4.0:

1. Jacksonville Jaguars: Trevor Lawrence (QB, Clemson)

2. New York Jets: Zach Wilson, (QB, BYU)

3. San Francisco 49ers: Justin Fields (QB, Ohio State)

4. Atlanta Falcons: Penei Sewell (OT, Oregon)

5. Cincinnati Bengals: Ja’Marr Chase (WR, LSU)

6. Miami Dolphins: Kyle Pitts (TE, Florida)

7. Detroit Lions: DeVonta Smith (WR, Alabama)

8. Carolina Panthers: Jaylen Waddle (WR, Alabama)

9. Denver Broncos: Trey Lance (QB, North Dakota State)

10. Dallas Cowboys: Patrick Surtain (CB, Alabama)

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