NFL Draft 2021: Analyzing Expert Predictions for Travis Etienne, Top RBsMay 1, 2020
Travis Etienne made a risky decision when he opted to return to the Clemson Tigers for the 2020 college football season.
The senior had a chance of being one of the first running backs off the board in the 2020 NFL draft, but instead he chose to chase a national championship and enter the 2021 NFL draft. Etienne could still be selected high in 11 months' time as part of a running back class that also includes the Alabama Crimson Tide's Najee Harris and the Oklahoma State Cowboys' Chuba Hubbard.
The overall talent of the group at the position may see multiple running backs chosen in the first round for the first time since 2017.
Expert Predictions for Top Running Backs
Travis Etienne, Clemson
Etienne will be in the national spotlight for most of the season alongside two other potential first-round picks in the Clemson offense.
Quarterback Trevor Lawrence is expected to be the first quarterback off the board, and Justyn Ross is part of another terrific wide receiver class. Bleacher Report's Matt Miller projected Etienne to land at No. 11 in his first 2021 mock draft. Miller listed the Clemson running back as his No. 11 player in the 2020 draft class in a May 2019 ranking.
The Athletic's Dane Brugler positioned Etienee at No. 29 in his first projection for the selection process, which is set to take place in Cleveland.
Running back could have the largest variation in projections over the next year because of how teams value the position. In 2019, Josh Jacobs was the only tailback to go in the first round at No. 24. Clyde Edwards-Helaire was the first running back chosen at No. 32 in 2020.
Etienne comes into his senior season off back-to-back 1,600-yard campaigns. He has run for 4,038 yards and 56 touchdowns in his three years at Clemson. In 2019, he nearly doubled his reception total from his first two seasons, hauling in 37 catches for 452 yards. He had 17 receptions for 135 yards as a freshman and sophomore.
He already possesses a large role in the Clemson offense, and given the likely weakness across the ACC once again, he should put up massive totals alongside Lawrence and Ross.
Etienne's high level of production could be an issue for suitors in 2021 since he could have three straight years with over 200 carries under his belt. Jacobs had 251 carries in his collegiate career, while Edwards-Helaire had a single 200-touch season at LSU.
One way he could turn himself into a better asset is by working on his pass catching in 2020.
If he holds a larger role in the Clemson passing attack, he could be more intriguing to someone like the Miami Dolphins or the Atlanta Falcons, teams that could utilize him in both aspects of the offense.
Najee Harris, Alabama
Harris has worked his way up the Alabama depth chart and should be the feature back in 2020.
His junior campaign marked the first time in which he carried the ball more than 200 times and recorded a 1,000-yard season.
Miller has Harris positioned one spot ahead of Etienne in his initial 2021 projection, noting that the Alabama talent "would have been a top-three running back had he entered the 2020 class."
Harris may be relied upon more than Etienne in some stretches since Alabama is going through a transition at quarterback. Mac Jones and Bryce Young have plenty of standout targets to work with, including projected first-round picks DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, but there could be times early in the season when they rely on Harris' experience.
If he carries high first-round value in 2021, Harris could land in Atlanta or Miami. Barring trades, both enter the 2020 NFL season with questions at the position.
The Dolphins have employed Jordan Howard and Matt Breida, but Howard is coming off an injury and Breida was deemed as surplus in the San Francisco 49ers' crowded backfield. Atlanta does not contain much depth behind Todd Gurley, who dealt with injury issues of his own last season.
If the Jacksonville Jaguars part ways with Leonard Fournette, they could use the first-round selection earned in the Jalen Ramsey trade with the Los Angeles Rams to land a feature back.
Harris' selection in the first round would make him the fifth Alabama running back to earn that honor since 2000.
Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State
Hubbard led the FBS in rushing yards with 2,094 on 328 carries.
Two of the three other players to earn that total, Jonathan Taylor and J.K. Dobbins, were selected in the 2020 second round.
Miller positioned Hubbard at No. 29 to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in his first 2021 projection.
Hubbard will not be on the same stage as Etienne or Harris in 2020, but he could be more dynamic for Oklahoma State. The Canadian averaged 6.4 yards per carry, scored 21 times and had more than 100 rushing yards in all but one appearance.
He has a strong chance to maintain or improve on those totals because of the weaker defenses in the Big 12 and the reliance Oklahoma State has on him. And he could surge further up draft boards if he becomes a larger factor in the passing game—he only had 23 receptions in his sophomore season.
If he continues to improve, Hubbard could fit well with a contender looking to bolster its running back depth, like Tampa Bay or the New England Patriots.
Follow Joe on Twitter, @JTansey90. Statistics obtained from ESPN and Sports Reference.