2021 Pre-Draft Rookie Best Fits – Running Backs

Updated: April 20th 2021

This is the second part of our Rookie Best Fit series where we look to fit the player to the best team for their skillset based on the expected range for where the player will be drafted. In the first part, we looked at the quarterbacks which can be found here. This section will examine the running back class which has a strong top-end but lacks depth when compared to other recent classes. An overall suggestion if you are targeting a need at the position this year would be to try and be in the top 4 for standard leagues or top 8 in Superflex to secure one of the three biggest names. Otherwise, build some capital in the second or third round to take a couple of shots at the next tier of options. With that said, let us begin.

Michael Carter – North Carolina

DLF Ranking – 23rd (29th SF)

NFL Draft – 3rd Round

Best Fit – 3.71, Denver Broncos

Michael Carter lacks the overall size to be an every-down, 20+ carry NFL running back, but he does have quick feet and long speed to be an excellent 1b in just about any offense. Tarik Cohen comes to mind when watching him and if the Bears wanted to get younger Carter would be an excellent 1-for-1 transition. However, I do not think he will be there late in the third round and a team like Denver would be a great landing spot. Melvin Gordon has one more year left on his deal to share the backfield with Carter for now and the weapons on the outside would always leave favorable numbers on the line for him to use his short-area quickness.

Travis Etienne – Clemson

DLF – 2nd (5th SF)

NFL Draft – Late 1st/2nd Round

Best Fit – 2.35, Atlanta Falcons

The Todd Gurley experiment only lasted one season in Atlanta and currently, the Falcons only have Mike Davis as their most reliable runner. They also released Ito Smith leaving the depth chart wide-open for them to take a running back high in the second round. Etienne would immediately take control of the backfield and see between 200-250 touches in Atlanta’s offense. Coming from just down the road in Clemson would also give a big boost to his transition to the NFL.

Kenneth Gainwell – Memphis

DLF – 14th (18th SF)

NFL Draft – 3rd Round

Best Fit – 3.65, Jacksonville Jaguars 

On the surface, this would probably seem like a terrible landing spot as the team enjoyed a surprise breakout season from undrafted rookie James Robinson just last season. But the coaching staff has changed over which gives no player, especially a former UFA, any guarantee for touches. Gainwell draws immediate comparison to Antonio Gibson as both played the same dual-threat role at Memphis. If Urban Meyer is looking to bring more offensive collegiate flare like past coaches making the jump to the NFL then Gainwell would give him as much flexibility at the running back position with another RB/WR hybrid.

Najee Harris – Alabama

DLF – 3rd (6th SF)

NFL Draft – Late 1st/2nd Round

Best Fit – 1.24, Pittsburgh Steelers

Picking a running back in the first round is always a trade-off to taking other more impactful positions that a team could be drafting. Especially when it is the Pittsburgh Steelers who are one of the smarter organizations in the NFL when it comes to drafting and who might want to wait on the position till at least day two and take either a replacement for Bud Dupree or Ben Roethlisberger with their first selection instead. Still, the need at running back was a major focus all last season and taking a guy like Harris would give them a player that fits the Steelers RB model. He would immediately be considered the 1.01 for most rookie drafts and would be a good bet to lead the rookie class in rushing yards in 2021.

Khalil Herbert – Virginia Tech

DLF – 39th (53rd SF)

NFL Draft – 5th-7th Round

Best Fit – 6.194, San Francisco 49ers

Khalil Herbert will not have the draft capital to immediately take a backfield over but his talent should make him more likely to breakout than running backs taken around him. Landing in San Francisco on day three would be as great an opportunity as any due to the 49ers often using a platoon of runners but also are willing to feature a single runner if they showcase the skillset. Kyle Shanahan had a similar player while offensive coordinator in Atlanta with Devonta Freeman, who was also a later-round steal, and Herbert could play a similar role to Freeman in 2021. Like Freeman, Herbert has good zone-read ability and enough receiving capabilities to one day develop into a three-down back.

Kylin Hill – Mississippi State

DLF – 30th (30th SF)

NFL Draft – 5th-7th Round

Best Fit – 6.203, Houston Texans /6.223, Arizona Cardinals

Hill, like Herbert, will not have the draft capital to supplant a well-established veteran but could rise to the top in an offense with “meh” or aging talent. Houston does not have the draft capital to invest in a luxury position like running back early but with three (3) sixth-round picks could be looking to have younger options behind David Johnson and Mark Ingram. The same goes for Arizona who has no mid-picks and would either need to look at taking one of the first running backs off the board in the first/second round or go bargain shopping with one of their fifth through seventh-round selections. Hill may not be anything more than a backup for whatever team he ends up on but with the capital it would take to acquire him he only room to rise in value.

Chuba Hubbard – Oklahoma State

DLF – 25th (25th SF)

NFL Draft – 4th-6th Round

Best Fit – 5.156, Miami Dolphins

Chuba Hubbard lost a lot of value between 2019 and 2020 where he was being discussed in the top 3 with players like Etienne and Harris. Nevertheless, he still can develop into a primary ball carrier if he finds the right offensive scheme. There have been speculations that Miami could be in the market for a day two running back, one of which I will also recommend later, but if they either do not get their guy or prioritize other positions, Hubbard could be a fifth-round steal. Miami showed their commitment to the run game once Tua Tagovailoa took over last year and had success with guys like Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed. Hubbard could easily compete for the starting role in an emerging offense with a “chip on his shoulder” mentality.

Jermar Jefferson – Oregon State

DLF – 31st (35th SF)

NFL Draft – 5th-6th Round

Best Fit – 6.185, Los Angeles Chargers 

Truthfully, I would like to see Jefferson in Seattle and their heavy draw and zone run offense but they have such low draft capital in 2021, as well as might not be ready to give up on former first-round pick Rashaad Penny, that they will likely pass on running back this year. The consolation would be the LA Chargers to compliment Austin Ekeler with the chance to take over in 2022. With Justin Herbert and his cannon arm to go with Jefferson’s first step speed, he would feast in yards per carry without defenders crowding the box.

Trey Sermon – Ohio State

DLF – 22nd (20th SF)

NFL Draft – 3rd Round

Best Fit – 3.66, New York Jets

The Jets are among the most wide-open depth charts for a rookie running back to come in and immediately take over a heavy workload. They are locked in for quarterback with their first of their two first-round picks and then will likely address the defense with their next two selections. At the top of the third round though if Ohio State’s Trey Sermon is still there, he could be an ideal fit for the Jets’ new regime. Sermon already showed that he could handle a heavy workload in Columbus and would move from a mid-second round rookie pick to a potential end of the first selection for those that prioritize RB opportunity when drafting.

Rhamondre Stevenson – Oklahoma

DLF – 36th (31st SF)

NFL Draft – 4th-5th Round

Best Fit – 4.123, Philadelphia Eagles

The Eagles love their hammer RBs from LeGarrette Blount to Jordan Howard so why not go back to the well for another big back in Rhamondre Stevenson. Stevenson has even been compared to Blount so it would make plenty of sense. While Miles Sanders would cap his ceiling as a fantasy prospect, Stevenson would give the Eagles an immediate upgrade over Jordan Howard right now and would receive his share of goal-line work. Like Blount, he has deceptive speed for being 230lbs so he could be the benefactor of a tired defense rotating in for Miles Sanders.

Javonte Williams – North Carolina

DLF – 7th (10th SF)

NFL Draft – 2nd Round

Best Fit – 2.36, Miami Dolphins

As I mentioned earlier with Chubba Hubbard, the Dolphins running back room is one of the more lacking in the NFL and they are a strong candidate to take one of the first rookies off the board, likely as early as the second round. The team appears to be doing everything they can to align the stars for Tua Tagovailoa to have success in his second year and taking Javonte Williams would go a long way to doing that. Williams has prototypical size and speed to be an every-down back and landing in Miami would likely cement him in the 1.03-1.05 range in standard leagues and a late first-round steal in Superflex leagues.

More Analysis by Nick Andrews

The Watch List 2021: Week 1 Preview

Updated: August 30th 2020

Welcome to The Watch List for the 2021 NFL Draft season. a resource to help RSO owners identify the players from the college game that deserve your attention.  To view my observations, follow me on Twitter @robertfcowper.  Check back throughout the season as The Watch List will preview the top prospects and let you know who is fantasy relevant and worth your valuable draft capital.

The struggle of the spring and summer is perhaps more prologue than peak. It’s late August as I type this, and we’re days away from college football starting, and yet I have no idea where to begin. Typically this would be the time when I would be putting the finishing touches on the preliminary version of my rookie draft, but I’ve honestly lost the pundit’s path. Part of that is the upheaval and uncertainty surrounding the 2020 season, and part of that is how insignificant college football feels right now in America. Instead of trying to forecast the innumerable unknowns of our next draft season, I am going to take things a week or two at a time and highlight some draft eligible players you should focus on. Here’s who I’ll have my eye on in Week 1.

Thursday, September 3

Spencer Brown, RB, UAB

As a true freshman in 2017, Spencer Brown helped the Blazers earn an 8-5 record in their comeback season. Brown racked up 1,329 yards and 10 TDs that season and then followed with a 1,227-16 sophomore campaign. His efficiency dipped in 2019 as he battled injury but he still led the team in rushing (566-5). Brown is a power runner with a 6000/220 frame without receiving upside (just 15 career receptions). In 2018, I wondered whether Brown was “a one hit wonder or a star in the making.” I suppose he’s at least a two-hit wonder with his future still uncertain. Brown is unlikely to be a fantasy asset in 2021, but I’d bet he makes a camp roster and sometimes that opportunity is all a young running back needs.

Tim Jones, WR, Southern Miss

Admittedly, I had never heard of Tim Jones before doing research for this piece but he landed on Phil Steele’s preseason first team All C-USA squad so I figured I should check him out. Jones is primarily deployed from the slot which enabled him to collect 73 balls last year, enough to lead the team. He’s of average build (6010/192) and looks like he has a little giddy-up but is not a speedster. The highlight reel I watched showed him winning in myriad ways: in traffic, down field over the shoulder, lined up outside, in the air, etc. Jones may be the quintessential well-rounded mid-major receiver which probably isn’t enough to get drafted but it is enough to root for on Thursday night.

Saturday, September 5

Kenneth Gainwell, RB, Memphis

(Editor’s note: since this piece was posted, Gainwell has announced that he will be opting out of the 2020 season.)

Kenny Gainwell, without a doubt, is the most likely future fantasy star who will see the field in Week 1. As a redshirt freshman in 2019, Gainwell exploded for the potent Tiger offense. He earned 1,459 rushing yards on 231 attempts (6.3 ypa), 610 receiving yards on 51 receptions (12.0 ypr), and scored 16 total TDs. His stats are even more impressive when you consider he was sharing touches with Antonio Gibson (Washington) and Patrick Taylor (Green Bay) at times last season. Gainwell has great acceleration; he can make one smart cut at the line of scrimmage and then be behind the DBs before you blink. He also has enough pop to bounce off a tackle and fight for extra yards. Gainwell is also a superb receiver. He’s trusted as a pass catcher so much that he was split out and running receiver routes at times. If you can only watch one game this weekend, make it this contest between Memphis and Arkansas State. The Red Wolves allowed 215 rushing yards per game last year (114th worst in the NCAA), so there’s potential for Gainwell to feast in a primetime feature.

Brenden Knox, RB, Marshall

Heading into the 2019 season, I wrote that I would flag Knox’s name for 2021, so here we are. Knox, currently a late round draft prospect, might not normally get such a spotlight in the season’s opening weekend but I’m hopeful he can make the most of the national ESPN spotlight. Knox finished strong in 2018 as a freshman (578-4 in five late season starts) and similarly dominated the second half of 2019 (988-7 in eight conference games). Knox runs with above average speed, contact balance and elusiveness. He does well between the tackles even though he seems smaller than his listed size of 6000/223. From the bits I’ve seen, I think Knox can be a reliable receiver and pass blocker too. Knox is on the short list of players most likely to increase his draft stock with so many teams sidelined.

Monday, September 7

Zach Wilson, QB, BYU

I became obsessed with Zach Wilson when I saw him play a few times as a true freshman in 2018. He has a bit of a “je ne sais quoi” about him: even though he has flaws I really enjoy watching him. Wilson receives a lot of comparisons to Johnny Manziel, which I definitely see. He keeps plays alive with his feet and can turn a dead play into a touchdown with an effortless looking toss down field. It’s not all rainbows though, as Wilson’s efficiency dropped significantly last season. Apparently Wilson has not yet been named the starter for the 2020 Cougars but I would assume he gets the nod. I doubt Wilson is on NFL radars, especially as a true junior, but he’s fun to watch and should provide a captivating ending to the holiday weekend if he’s named the starter.

Matt Bushman, TE, BYU

Bushman has been receiving some much-deserved attention this offseason. He was named to the Mackey Award preseason watchlist, was named the Cougars most improved player in camp, and landed at TE6 on Phil Steele’s list of draft eligible prospects. Bushman has put up three solid years of production, with an average line of 42-573-3, and is poised to finish his career strong. He’s a receiver first who has soft, natural hands. Bushman also has some YAC in him, making plays after he secures the grab. Last year, I said that Bushman was one of the best underclassmen blocking tight ends I had watched, but after watching his 2019 tape against Washington I’m not as sure. At worst, he’s an average college blocker who could turn into a versatile two-way tight end in the NFL if he fills out his 6050/240 body. BYU starts the covid-impacted season with road games at Navy and at Army which will both be national telecasts on ESPN and CBS, respectively. Those opening service academy contests, before the other top tight end prospects start their season, will be key for Bushman to make the case as a Day Two contender.

 

Notes: Heights listed are using a notation common among scouts where the first digit corresponds to the feet, the next two digits correspond to the inches and the fourth digit corresponds to the fraction, in eighths.  So, somebody measuring 5’11” and 3/8 would be 5113.  This is helpful when trying to sort players by height. Full disclosure, I am not watching film of every single game any player plays, instead I am looking for a representative sample.  There are a lot of analysts out there who have a deeper depth of knowledge about certain players but I pride myself in a wide breadth of knowledge about many players.  When researching my articles I use a number of valuable resources. I would recommend bookmarking the below sites:

  • Stats: espn.com, sports-reference.com, pro-football-reference.com, cfbstats.com, herosports.com, fcs.football, mcubed.net, expandtheboxscore.com, washingtonpost.com
  • Recruiting: 247Sports.com, espn.com, sbnation.com, rivals.com
  • Film: 2021 NFL Draft Database by Mark Jarvis, youtube.com
  • Draft info and mocks: draftcountdown.com, draftscout.com, mattwaldmanrsp.com, draftek.com, thedraftnetwork.com, nfl.com
  • NFL rosters, depth charts and contract info: ourlads.com, spotrac.com
  • Draft history: drafthistory.com
  • Combine info: pro-football-reference.com, espn.com, nflcombineresults.com, mockdraftable.com
  • Season preview magazines: Phil Steele, Lindy’s, Street and Smith’s, Athlon Sports
  • Podcasts: ESPN’s First Draft, The Audible by Football Guys (specifically episodes w/ Matt Waldman), UTH Dynasty, Draft Dudes, Saturday 2 Sunday, Locked on NFL Draft, Cover 3 College Football
  • Logos & Player Media Photos: collegepressbox.com
  • Odds & Gambling Stats: vegasinsider.com

Robert F. Cowper is a freelance writer who lives in New Jersey.  He is a proud member of the Football Writers Association of America and the Fantasy Sports Writers Association.  Robert works as a certified park and recreation professional, specializing in youth sports, when he isn’t acting as commissioner for his many fantasy sports leagues.

More Analysis by Bob Cowper