Apr 242021
 
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Travis Etienne, Clemson Tigers (January 1, 2021)

Travis Etienne – © USA TODAY Sports

RUNNING BACKS

Format includes a quick position overview, my grading scale and what the number means, the summary and final grade from my final report on my top 15, a quick additional note on the player, and my ranks 16-30 with grades only.

*I AM NOT DOING NFL COMPARISONS

QUICK POSITION OVERVIEW

Since this front office regime selected Saquon Barkley with the 2nd pick of the 2018 draft, NYG’s running game has ranked 24th, 19th, and 19th in rushing year by year. Out of 48 possible games, Barkley has played in just 31 of them. The jury is still out on long term projection of this group, mostly centering around Barkley, but for 2021 and 2022, they are set at the top. Devontae Booker was signed from LV to a two-year deal to offer a really solid backup presence. He has averaged just under 5 yards per carry over the past 3 years combined. He is also a really underrated pass catcher even though LV didn’t use him much there in 2020. Wayne Gallman left town for SF, leaving the rest of the depth chart pretty bare. Elijhaa Penny is a solid fullback.

GRADING SCALE

90+ All Pro Projection

85+: Pro Bowl Projection

81-84: 1st rounder – Should be able to play right away

79-80: 2nd rounder – Should be able to rotate right away – Year 2 starter

77-78: 3rd rounder – Should be able to rotate by end of rookie year – Year 2/3 starter

74-76: Early Day 3 – Special Teams – Future backup/possible starter

71-73: Mid Day 3 – Special Teams – Future backup / gamble starter

68-70: Late Day 3 – Back end of roster / Practice Squad / Development guy

65-67: Preferred UDFA

60-64: Undrafted FA

TOP 15 GRADES AND ANALYSIS

1. Travis Etienne / Clemson / 5’10-215

Grade: 86

Summary: Senior entry from Jennings, Louisiana. Four-year starter that led the program in rushing all four seasons. Etienne is a two-time ACC Offensive Player of the Year and a three time All American. The two-time Doak Walker Award finalist re-wrote the program’s record book for both career and single season production. Etienne is one of the more decorated and accomplished running backs to enter the league in a long time. It is rare for a running back to produce at such a high level from day one as a freshman and play out all four years of his college career. He will enter the league as a playmaker that can contribute to both the running and passing game respectively right away. His ability to run low to the ground with elite balance and leg drive in combination with the breakaway burst and speed will make him one of the more dangerous weapons in the NFL right away. He is a no-nonsense, dependable worker bee that will change an offense right away.

*I have always seen some Alvin Kamara in Etienne’s game. When looking at how low he can run to the ground with thick but loose enough base, how well they both do in traffic, and how much they can equally impact the running/passing games respectively, that is the trajectory I see Etienne having. He is such a solid all-around player, a week 1 starter for sure. You also know you are getting a hardworking, smart kid that will continue to refine his craft as his career gets going.

2. Najee Harris / Alabama / 6’1-232

Grade: 86

Summary: Senior entry from Antioch, Alabama. Two-year starter that was also a key part of the running game in 2018. Former 5-star recruit that earned 1st Team All SEC and All-American honors in 2020. Harris had to patiently wait his turn in the Crimson Tide’s backfield early on in his career. In front of him were current NFL running backs Josh Jacobs, Damien Harris, and Bo Scarborough. As some of those predecessors left for the league, Harris saw his playing time increase year after year. He blossomed at the right time as a senior, finishing as the program’s all-time leader in touchdowns with 54. The Doak Walker Award winner put together the kind of tape that can easily put him in the top running back in the class discussion. He has unique size, power, and hunger. His every down capabilities should land him a starting spot in a backfield right away.

*I really think Harris can be considered the top back in this class. His swift and fluid lower body movement at that size is rare. He also has the kind of vision and toughness that you want in the backfield. He is such a gamer and will come up big in the big moments. The one drawback on him centers around he is just a step below the desired top end athletic ability. I’m not sure he will break off the big play and his high-hipped frame may make it hard to get out of a crowded phone booth. That feels like nitpicking though. He really can be a Pro Bowler early on if he gets to the right situation.

3. Javonte Williams / North Carolina / 5’10-212

Grade: 80

Summary: Junior entry from Wallace, North Carolina. Two-year contributor that split action with fellow draft prospect Michael Carter, who earned 1st Team All ACC honors. Williams finished 2nd Team All-Conference, as he finished tied for third in the nation with 19 rushing touchdowns. Williams was a part of a two-back system in which he was the one that laid the thunder on opposing defenders. He is a big and powerful bruiser that matches that ability with the aggressive mentality that never sleeps. He runs through contact consistently and pushes the pile. What sets Williams apart is the surprising ability to anticipate and miss tacklers at the final instant. He excels at altering his weight and coupled with his power, he is a tackle breaking machine. Williams has the potential to be a very solid feature back despite some top end physical shortcomings.

*I really like the kid Carter that he shared the backfield with, but Williams is a better pro prospect. He is one of the more physical backs in the class and I love his grit. Being a power back is about one third about size and strength, two thirds desire and toughness. He loves contact and will push NFL defenders back. I see a little Josh Jacobs here.

4. Trey Sermon / Ohio State / 6’0-215

Grade: 80

Summary: Senior entry from Marietta, Georgia. Started sporadically all four years of his career. Spent three seasons at Oklahoma where he won Co-Big 12 Freshman of the Year honors in 2017 before earning Honorable Mention All-Conference in 2018. Sermon’s 2019 was cut short after hyperextending his knee. He then transferred to Ohio State for the 2020 season and ended as the team’s leading rusher. Sermon left Oklahoma because he was being phased out of the offense, as they had multiple future NFL running backs on the roster. He shined in his lone season with Ohio State and ended it strong. Sermon is a physical downhill slasher that will run hungry and smart. His vision is a plus, he holds onto the ball, and he knows where to find extra yards. He can change up his running style on demand but will best be used in a complimentary role rather than being a feature back.

*I am surprised there isn’t more talk about Sermon and his upside. He has rare lower body movement traits attached to a rather sizable frame. He looked to be at a different speed as he got more and more comfortable in the Ohio State scheme. There are certain backs that just look quicker twitched than others, that is Sermon. He had a few speed bumps in college that impacted his ability to truly shine but when he did, he looked like a top tier prospect.

5. Khalil Herbert / Virginia Tech / 5’9-210

Grade: 78

Summary: Fifth year senior from Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Spent four years at Kansas before grad-transferring to Virginia Tech where he became the starter right away and earned 3rd Team All ACC honors, finishing second in the conference in rushing. Herbert averaged just under 8 yards per carry over his final two seasons. He is one of the best backs, if not the best, at gaining yards after contact in the entire class. He has a stout, muscular frame but can move with plenty of twitch and a surprising level of burst. Physically, Herbert has it. Mentally, he shows advanced ability when it comes to reading the defense and reacting to it. His vision is a major plus. He didn’t show much as a receiver and there are occasions he gets a little too east/west when he shouldn’t. Herbert put the ball on the turf just one time over his 500+ carry career in college. This is a starting caliber back that will produce in multiple ways within the running game no matter what scheme he is put into.

*I think Herbert is one of the more overlooked players in the class. He doesn’t have a ton of splash plays and he doesn’t look the way some want in a starting caliber back, but just watch him game to game and it is easy to see that he is a pro. I think he has some Tiki Barber in him when it comes to size, lower body power, and running style.

6. Chuba Hubbard / Oklahoma State / 6’0-210

Grade: 78

Final Grade: Fourth year junior entry from Sherwood Park, Alberta, Canada. Three-year starter that initially got his first real action when current NFL running back Justice Hill went down with an injury in 2017. Ended his career with two straight All Big 12 honors. He really broke out of his shell in 2019, where he earned 1st Team All American honors and won the Big 12 Offensive Player of the Year Award. He led the nation with 2,094 rushing yards and was a finalist for the Doak Walker Award. Hubbard’s 2020 season did not go as well, as he fought though a lower body injury in the shortened season and his per-touch production decreased across the board. While the scheme and lack of quality defense in the Big 12 could have inflated his initial outlook, there is no denying the big play potential here. He is well north for 200 pounds and the former worldwide ranked 100 M sprinter on the track shows elite level footwork, hip flow, and speed in space. He would be an ideal fit for zone-heavy rushing scheme and has starer potential.

*There are some that think Hubbard will be the next big thing at running back in the NFL. That size + pure speed combination will be dangerous in the open field. Add in the lower body looseness and big-time production in 2019, a strong case can be made. I actually question some of the toughness traits I look for in a back. He needs the space to be effective and while any back can have that said about him, he is more dependent on it than others. I get nervous about Big 12 backs in general as well. I try to avoid saying things like that in a general sense, but that conference just doesn’t play defense and their offenses create so much space. Boom or bust.

7. Michael Carter / North Carolina / 5’8-201

Grade: 77

Summary: Senior entry from Navarre, Florida. Started games all four years and shared touches from the beginning. Led the team in rushing his last three seasons. 1st Team All ACC in 2020, 3rd Team in 2019. Carter is the prototype third down back when it comes to running routes, catching the ball, and making plays. He is productive on all fronts and set a school record for yards per carry. Even though he isn’t blessed with size, Carter is a tough kid that will break tackles and run through initial contact. He is strong below the waist, has great balance, and will take off when he finds a crease. He comes from a military family background and has been touted for how hard he works and how disciplined he is with his approach. Carter is the kind of piece that gets added to a backfield and creates a spark right away. If he is in the right role, namely one that gets him in space or quick bursts upfield, he is going to be a playmaker.

*Even though I don’t have a high grade on Carter, I am as confident in his potential to be a solid contributor as any back in the class. He is a football player, plain and simple. Some teams are better than others when it comes to creating opportunities for backs than others, thus how much we see out of Carter will largely depend on what city he goes to. If he falls into Day 3, I think this is one of the few backs I would want NYG to use a 4th on. He is such a good pass catching back and he has knack for creating big plays. He plays faster than he times, he plays bigger than he looks.

8. Rhamondre Stevenson / Oklahoma / 6’0-231

Grade: 76

Summary: Senior entry from Las Vegas, Nevada. Two years at Oklahoma after two seasons in Junior College where he ended up being the top available running back recruit afterward. Spent his first year after high school away from the game. One-year starter at Oklahoma that missed the first 5 games of the 2020 season because of a drug suspension. Even though he played in just 6 games, he led the Sooners in rushing and touchdowns. Honorable Mention All-Big 12 in 2020. Stevenson is a big-bodied back that will bring a physical presence to the backfield he is added to. He isn’t the kind of the dynamic athlete that will create big plays and run away from the defense, but he is a pure tackle-breaker that can bounce off defenders, maintain his north movement, and push piles. Paired with a complimentary back, Stevenson can be an important weapon that will pick up the tough yards and touchdowns routinely.

*When you get into this area of the running back stack, you are most of the time looking for certain traits that complement your existing backfield. One area where I think Barkley coming off the field can be a good idea is in short yardage. He just isn’t very assertive in that area. Stevenson could solve that problem and fill that role in year one. He made the most of that opportunity in 2020 with Kennedy Brooks out and Trey Sermon transferred. The question with him will be a few character red flags. Good player though.

9. Kylin Hill / Mississippi State / 5’11-214

Grade: 75

Summary: Senior entry from Columbus, Mississippi. Three-year starter that opted out of 2020 after just three games. Hill had a really consistent and productive career in the SEC. He averaged 5.6 yards per rushing attempt and caught 67 passes. Hill has the kind of frame and contact balance to withhold a full beating from NFL defenses week to week. He is stronger than he looks, and he knows how to miss the brunt of a hit. Hill may be best suited for a 1A role in a backfield, however. He is a really good pass catcher and blocker but doesn’t always run with enough burst and speed nor does he push the pile. He can be a really effective backfield piece if his role is clearly defined with another solid back.

*Hill might end up being a really good pass catching back. I think that will be his best shot at really earning a useable spot on a good offense. There really isn’t a dynamic athletic component in his arsenal, and he has some tightness. But the more I watched, the more I respected his game. He plays smart and consistent, just wouldn’t want him being THE guy back there.

10. Demetric Felton / UCLA / 5’9-189

Grade: 74

Summary: Fifth year senior from Temecula, California. Three-year starter that has been a key contributor to the offense from day one. A hybrid receiver/running back that split his snaps at the two positions but really took over the backfield in the shortened 2020 season. Felton earned 1st Team All-Pac 12 honors at the athlete position. Felton is exactly that. He is someone that should not be restricted to one spot on the depth chart. His quickness, acceleration with the ball, and vision can be used in a variety of ways. He can run routes and catch the ball like a slot receiver and knows how to press the running lane like a seasoned running back. The more you can do, the more likely you will find yourself active on game day. Felton is a unique and versatile threat that should add multiple options to an offense.

*Felton is going to be graded very different among teams. Some will see a 3rd rounder; some will see a 6th rounder. I am right in the middle but will acknowledge that he is going to be scheme specific. Tom Brady can use a weapon like this to fullest. Sam Darnold? We would never see his name anywhere. If NYG wants to add a pass catcher into the backfield, Felton will be talked about at length. That quickness is lethal in space; however the question is will Garrett + Jones be able to use it.

11. Kenneth Gainwell / Memphis / 5’8-201

Grade: 74

Summary: Third year sophomore from Yazoo City, Mississippi. One-year starter that certainly left his mark in that one season. Won the FWAA Freshman of the Year Award, the AAC Rookie of the Year Award, and earned 1st Team All-Conference honors after producing 2,069 all-purpose yards. The other two players to do that in school history were former and current NFL running backs DeAngelo Williams and Darrell Henderson. Gainwell plays in fast forward mode. His feet look like fingers on a piano, constantly moving left and right, up and down. He stays square to his target and will maximize his speed and agility. Gainwell isn’t an every down player when looking at the backfield, but he can man the slot and run quality routes paired with good hands. If a team can create a specific plan for him, he can touch the ball 10+ times per game and put points on the board.

*I wanted to put a higher grade on Gainwell and this is one that may come back and bite me. He doesn’t have some of the natural traits I want in a running back mentally, but his speed is legit. He will make plays at the next level but the question will be what does he do in between? Another back that really needs to be planned around.

12. Larry Rountree III / Missouri / 5’11-211

Grade: 73

Summary: Senior entry from Raleigh, North Carolina. Three-year starter that led the Tigers in rushing each of the last three seasons with the program. Rountree III left campus ranked second all-time in both rushing yards and touchdowns. The compiler is a patient runner that will eat at a defense play by play, inch by inch. He wasn’t a big play back, but instead one that seemed to get hot the more touches he received. He is well put together, he runs hard, and he is smart. Rountree III plays at a different gear near the end zone. He excels at pressing the line, making a decision, and bursting into the crease. His vision is a plus. Rountree III doesn’t look like a feature back but he can be a part of a weekly committee approach because of his versatile skill set.

*You may not look at his physical profile and see a high-end short yardage back, but if you watch the tape you will see what I mean. Certain guys just play at a different gear when they are in a short yardage or goal line scenario, and that is Rountree III. As I said earlier, that is where Barkley just isn’t that good, and I think this could be a nice piece to add back there. At the end of the day, that is what it takes to be successful in that specific department.

13. Javian Hawkins / Louisville / 5’8-183

Grade: 71

Summary: Third year sophomore entry from Titusville, Florida. Two-year starter that earned 2nd Team All ACC honors in 2019. Hawkins opened eyes in 2019, setting a new school record for running backs with 1,525 rushing yards as a redshirt freshman. Hawkins is a small, but quick and explosive playmaker that is as dangerous as it gets in the open field. He has a rare ability to twist and turn his hips while moving at his top speed. The issue is, he needs to reach the open field. His lack of size and power will show up in traffic, as he goes down on initial contact too often and shows ball security issues. He is not an every down player but can be a dangerous secondary option that can have a portion of the playbook carved out for him.

*Speed kills, yes. Hawkins has plenty of it and he reaches that gear in a blink. Those space-friendly offenses can make it easier for a guy like this to play to that strength. Hawkins is really small though, and he plays small. You don’t see him running through arm contact well, he is a non-factor as a blocker, and he won’t fall forward. Maybe he creates a few big plays in specific packages, but there is a cap on his every down impact.

14. Stevie Scott III / Indiana / 6’0-225

Grade: 71

Summary: Junior entry from Syracuse, New York. Three-year starter that began his career with a loud bang, winning Big 10 Offensive Newcomer of the Year and set program freshman rushing records. He earned All Big 10 honors in both 2018 and 2019. Scott’s 30 touchdowns over his three-year career are notable, as he often ran behind an offensive line that was overmatched at the point of attack. His future in the league will revolve around short yardage duties, where his downhill force and push will be sought after. He is a straight-line burst, downhill runner that can quickly generate power behind his 230+ pound frame. He is also a big-time blocker that imposes his will on pass rushers. Scott lacks wiggle and top end athletic ability when he needs to adjust his intentions. That will limit his upside and role at the next level, but there will be a spot for him on the back end of a depth chart.

*I was more excited about Scott III at the start of the process than I was at the end. I still think he is a solid prospect that can impact a game, but he is just really limited when it comes to change of direction and lateral movement. That is fine if he is in for the specific short yardage roles. But even there, he had far too many runs where he didn’t get the job done. He isn’t always a big time physical, aggressive guy. That switch went on and off too often.

15. Elijah Mitchell / Louisiana-Lafayette / 5’10-201

Grade: 70

Summary: Senior entry from Enrath, Louisiana. Three-year starter that has been a part of a two-back system with fellow draft prospect Trey Ragas. 2nd Team All Sun Belt in 2018 and 2019, 1st Team in 2020. Mitchell scored 41 touchdowns over the past three seasons combined. He is built like an inside runner that runs with a no-nonsense approach. He prefers north-south movement and at the very least will put his head down and push the pile when nothing is there. Mitchell has some slasher in him, meaning he will approach the line with a nice forward lean, find the lane, put his foot in the ground, and just go. He lacks standout physical traits and there isn’t a ton of variety in his game, but there is a natural skill set here that can find a home on the back end of a depth chart.

*There are some scouts that see Mitchell as a 3rd/4th rounder. They see a starting caliber back if he can progress over his first year or two. I think the tool set is too limited to go in that direction but he can fill the back end of a depth chart and possibly evolve into a Wayne Gallman type.

16. Jaret Patterson / Buffalo / 5’7-195: 70

17. Ben Mason / Michigan / 6’3-246: 70

18. Chris Evans / Michigan / 5’11-211: 70

19. Gary Brightwell / Arizona / 5’11-218: 70

20. Mekhi Sargent / Iowa / 5’8-208: 69

21. Trey Ragas / Louisiana-Lafayette / 5’10-218: 69

22. Gerrid Doaks / Cincinnati / 5’11-228: 69

23. BJ Emmons / Florida Atlantic / 5’11-215: 68

24. Pooka Williams Jr. / Kansas / 5’9-175: 68

25. Jermar Jefferson / Oregon State / 5’10-206: 67

26. CJ Marable / Coastal Carolina / 5’7-195: 67

27. Spencer Brown / UAB / 5’10-208: 66

28. Josh Johnson / Louisiana-Monroe / 5’9-209: 65

29. Brenden Knox / Marshall / 5’11-215: 65

30. Rakeem Boyd / Arkansas / 5’11-213: 65

NYG APPROACH

This is actually a position I really want to see NYG zero in on day three. There are good complimentary backs that would fit in well with Barkley and Booker. I consider those two solid every-situation backs. They can catch the ball, they can run in space, they can run between the tackles. The third back that is brought in should have a specialty in an area where you don’t mind keep Barkley/Booker off the field. As previously stated, I think Barkley struggles most in short yardage in relation to the rest of his arsenal. He is big and strong enough, but he doesn’t have that “reckless” mindset, there is always a tad of hesitation in his game. Booker simply isn’t a pile pusher, so he won’t be much better in that role. I think NYG should lean toward a sizable power back if they want to add to the backfield. I like Stevenson, but there are questions about his character. I also like Rountree III if they want to wait a little longer, or Sargent if they want to wait until the free agency period. One last kicker here, Michael Carter is one of my favorite backs if he were to fall. He would be another do-it-all back, but I think his receiving skill set could be a usable asset if Barkley’s touches need to be limited.

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David Syvertsen

David Syvertsen, aka Sy'56, has worked for Ourlads Scouting LLC since 2013, starting off as a college depth chart manager and now a lead scout for one the most-sold NFL draft guides year-in, year-out. He has been scouting for over 10 years and will compile anywhere from 400-600 scouting reports per season, with that number increasing year by year. He watches and studies game films 20-25 hours per week throughout the entire year with his main focus being NFL Draft prospects.

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