“I just wanted to be a great role model to my little brother and the kids back in Jennings, Louisiana,” Etienne said. “Not everyone has a shot in the NFL. I wanted to be an example to those kids who aren’t going to have their shot. I want them to strive to get their college degree and graduate. A degree is going to last them a lifetime. Football is going to be over in a couple of years, I’ll still be young. I’ll have my degree and know that I’ll be able to transition in life that much easier.”
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. Instead, he came back and put himself in a similar, if not better, opportunity.
Etienne not only was the focal point in the run game, he proved to be a valuable asset as a receiver. In addition to his 914 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground, Etienne tallied 48 receptions for 588 yards and two receiving scores. His career at Clemson concluded with 4,952 rushing yards, 1,155 receiving yards and 78 total touchdowns.
“I’m one of the best skill guys in the draft. I am able to do it all,” Etienne said. “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. I feel like it’s just in me. If you’ve seen the film, I’m able to be out there three downs, and I’m able to play special teams. Just being able to impact the team on every down makes me different and worthy of the first round.”
The Falcons are in need of a running back and have been over the past few seasons. Since signing Devonta Freeman to a five-year, $41.25 million contract following the 2016 season, the Falcons have not had a running back total 1,000 rushing yards in a single season. Freeman was cut after the 2019 season.
Hoping to solve the run game’s problems, the previous front office signed running back Todd Gurley, the former Georgia standout who was named the NFL’s Offensive MVP in 2017, in free agency. After totaling 121 rushing yards and a touchdown in Week 5 against the Carolina Panthers, Gurley averaged only 30.3 rushing yards per outing in the 10 remaining games he appeared in.
Gurley, along with running back Brian Hill, are set to become free agents when the new league year begins Wednesday. The only running backs expected to be on the Falcons’ roster when free agency starts are Ito Smith and Tony Brooks-James.
With the Falcons picking fourth overall, it seems unlikely that they will take a running back at that spot.
That stated, Etienne -- like, presumably, most players at his position -- does not prescribe to the notion that teams should hold off on taking running backs in the first round. If that player can contribute early and in a meaningful way, and if they are the best overall player on a team’s board, Etienne believes they should be drafted accordingly.
“I do not buy into that lie,” Etienne said. “I feel like the best player should be picked where they are. At the end of the day, I can’t focus on that. I have to go out there and prove myself worthy.”
However, the Falcons’ first pick of the second round, the 35th overall selection, is a prime place to take a running back. Although NFL Media draft analyst Daniel Jeremiah doesn’t have Etienne going in the first round of his latest mock draft, he does rank him first among running backs and 18th of all prospects.
“What he’s done in college is turn 8 to 10 yards into 50- to 60-yard runs. … He’s a runway back,” Jeremiah said. “Give him a little room to get going, and you’re going to see some home runs.”
Before the season began, Etienne entered fall practice at 199 pounds. He’s since bulked up to the 215-pound range, stating that this was necessary to be able to hold up against the hits he’ll take during his NFL career.
Etienne has done more than needed to prove his value as one of the best running backs in this year’s draft class. And he certainly feels he’s worthy of being the first running back to hear his name called.
“What makes me the best back in the draft is my ability to do more with less -- being an all-around guy, a guy who is going to be out there on every down,” Etienne said.