Top 10 running backs in the 2021 NFL Draft

Ohio State running back Trey Sermon runs past Clemson safety Lannden Zanders during the first half of the Sugar Bowl Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in New Orleans. (Gerald Herbert/AP)
Ohio State running back Trey Sermon runs past Clemson safety Lannden Zanders during the first half of the Sugar Bowl Friday, Jan. 1, 2021, in New Orleans. (Gerald Herbert/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Here are the top 10 running back prospects (with projected round) for the 2021 NFL draft, which is set for April 29-May 1:

ExploreFalcons expected to add to backfield in draft

RUNNING BACKS

1. Najee Harris, Alabama, 6 feet 2, 230 pounds (first round): Harris is from Antioch, Calif., and was the Bobby Dodd national high school player of the year. He did not start a game over his first two seasons with the Crimson Tide. He finished his college 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 Derrick Henry. Harris’ 3,843 career rushing yards top Alabama’s all-time list.

ExploreNick Saban on Najee Harris: ‘An exceptional player’

2. Travis Etienne, Clemson, 5-10, 205 (first round): Etienne, arguably college football’s best running back during his junior season in 2019, opted to return for his senior year at Clemson because he wanted to set a positive example for his younger brother and other the children in his hometown of Jennings, La. Etienne, who completed his sports communication degree in December, likely would have been selected in the first two rounds of the 2020 NFL draft had he decided to declare early.

ExploreTravis Etienne believes he will is a first-round pick
North Carolina running back Michael Carter (8) is tackled by  Georgia Tech defensive back Tariq Carpenter Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Atlanta. North Carolina won 38-22. (John Amis/For the AJC)
North Carolina running back Michael Carter (8) is tackled by Georgia Tech defensive back Tariq Carpenter Saturday, Oct. 5, 2019, in Atlanta. North Carolina won 38-22. (John Amis/For the AJC)

Credit: John Amis

Credit: John Amis

3. Michael Carter, North Carolina, 5-8, 199 (second round): Carter enrolled at North Carolina in 2017 and was a role player for two seasons. As a junior in 2019, head coach Mack Brown elected to go with a two-back approach with Carter and Javonte Williams. In 2020, the two backs had a near split when it came to carries — Williams with 157 and Carter with 156. Carter ran for 1,245 yards and nine touchdowns while Williams totaled 1,140 yards and 19 touchdowns. Carter ranked fourth in the nation in yards and Williams was close behind at sixth.

4. Javonte Williams, North Carolina, 5-10, 220 (second/third round): North Carolina coach Mack Brown was asked to state why Williams has a case for being the top back in this year’s running back group. “The advantage you would give to Javonte is his size,” Brown said. “He’s so powerful and he bounced off players week-in and week-out. That big back sometimes in the fourth quarter is a lot better than any back in the first quarter because they just keep pounding and pounding.”

ExploreNorth Carolina kept running backs fresh for NFL
Memphis running back Kenneth Gainwell (19) pushes off South Florida defensive back Nick Roberts (2) during the first half Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, in Tampa, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/AP)
Memphis running back Kenneth Gainwell (19) pushes off South Florida defensive back Nick Roberts (2) during the first half Saturday, Nov. 23, 2019, in Tampa, Fla. (Chris O'Meara/AP)

Credit: Chris O'Meara

Credit: Chris O'Meara

5. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis, 5-11, 195 (third round): Memphis has produced three running backs to NFL rosters in recent years. In 2019, both Darrell Henderson (Los Angeles Rams, third round) and Tony Pollard (Dallas Cowboys, fourth round) were drafted. Last year, Antonio Gibson — who ran for 795 yards and 11 touchdowns in 10 starts as a rookie — was taken in the third round by the Washington Football Team. Gainwell and Gibson were teammates in 2019. Gainwell ran for 1,459 yards and 13 touchdowns. He also caught 51 passes for 610 yards and three scores. Gainwell said the Falcons have spoken to him during the pre-draft process.

ExploreKenneth Gainwell is latest Memphis back with NFL potential

6. Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma, 6-0, 235 (third/fourth round): Stevenson was suspended for the team’s college football playoff game against eventual champion LSU in 2019 after reportedly failing a drug test. That suspension continued for the first five games of last season. “I’ve talked to NFL scouts and coaches,” Stevenson said. “They understand what I went through last year. They know why I missed those games. I don’t think it will really affect me as much as people might think. I think they see my game.” He rushed for 665 yards on 101 carries and scored seven rushing touchdowns in five games. He was down to 235 pounds from 246 for his Pro Day.

7. Trey Sermon, Ohio State, 6-1, 215 (fourth round): Sermon, a native of Marietta, was a four-star recruit coming out of Sprayberry. He started his career at Oklahoma where, as a sophomore, he ran for 947 yards and 13 touchdowns — rushing for more than 100 yards four times. He had 26 carries for 206 yards and three touchdowns against Texas Tech. Sermon fell to third in the pecking order behind Kennedy Brooks and Rhamondre Stevenson in 2019 and transferred to Ohio State. He powered through Northwestern in the Big Ten title game for 331 yards on 29 carries and two touchdowns in the 22-10 victory. He ran for 193 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries in the 49-28 playoff win over Clemson in the playoffs. He had a 37-inch vertical jump at his Ohio State Pro Day.

ExploreLate surge should help Trey Sermon’s draft status

8. Kylin Hill, Mississippi State, 5-11, 210 (fifth round): In 2019, Hill rushed for 1,350 yards and 10 touchdowns and was named second-team All-SEC. Last season, he opted out after three games after making headlines for threatening to leave school if the state of Mississippi did not change its flag to remove the Confederate battle emblem. The state legislature voted to re-design the flag.

9. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State, 5-11, 210 (fifth round): Hubbard is a native of Canada. In 2020, Hubbard started the first seven games and was named second-team All-Big 12. He rushed 133 carries for 625 yards and five touchdowns. In 2019, he led the FBS with 328 carries and 2,094 yards and tied for third with 21 rushing touchdowns. He was named first-team Associated Press All-American. In June 2020, Hubbard challenged OSU head coach Mike Gundy after he appeared on a social media photo wearing a T-shirt with the logo of the One America News Network, a far-right conservative network. After a two-hour meeting with Hubbard, Gundy apologized to players later that week and committed to making changes.

Georgia defensive lineman Jordan Davis (99) defends as Missouri running back Larry Rountree III (right) runs with the ball Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Columbia, Mo. (L.G. Patterson/AP)
Georgia defensive lineman Jordan Davis (99) defends as Missouri running back Larry Rountree III (right) runs with the ball Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020, in Columbia, Mo. (L.G. Patterson/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

10. Larry Rountree III, Missouri, 5-11, 211 (sixth round): Rountree finished his career as the school’s all-time leading rusher among running backs and tied for the most rushing touchdowns by a running back (both records are held by quarterback Brad Smith). Rountree had a sub-par Pro Day, running the 40-yard dash in 4.6 seconds. He jumped an even 9-feet in the broad jump and 30 inches for the vertical, which are not good numbers for teams looking for explosiveness. His three-cone time was relatively good at 6.96 seconds, which he means he can move will in tight spaces.

Teams in need: Falcons, Steelers, Buccaneers, Dolphins, Cardinals. Need area for Falcons: Yes. The need to replace Toddy Gurley and Brian Hill. Top 5 RBs for 2022 draft: Oregon’s C.J. Verdell, Oklahoma’s Kennedy Brooks, Ohio State’s Master Teague, Texas’ Keaontay Ingram and Georgia’s Zamir White.

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)

The Bow Tie Chronicles Podcasts:

For more content about the Atlanta Falcons

Follow me on Twitter @DorlandoAJC

On Facebook at Atlanta Falcons News Now

In Other News