NFL Draft: 2021 Running back fantasy football primer

Liz Loza
·6-min read

With just a couple days until the 2021 NFL Draft, football analyst Liz Loza offers a snapshot of the top prospects at each position, including their pro comparison and best fantasy fit. Here, you have the top running backs in the class: Alabama's Najee Harris, North Carolina's Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, Clemson's Travis Etienne, Ohio State's Trey Sermon, Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard and UCLA's Demetric Felton.

[2021 NFL Draft: Quarterback fantasy primer]

1. Najee Harris, Alabama Crimson Tide

Pros: Tackle-breaking strength, outstanding catch radius, plus vision

Cons: Lacks high-end speed; ran behind an elite offensive line

NFL Comp: Matt Forte

Fantasy Fit: The Dolphins aren’t afraid to utilize a single-RB backfield, as evidenced by the numbers that Myles Gaskins (and, when Gaskin was banged up, Salvon Ahmed) posted in 2020. I think it’s likely, though, that the Phins upgrade the position in 2021. While an ankle issue prevented Harris from playing in the Senior Bowl a few months ago, he was able to spend a solid amount of time with Coach Flores. In a year without a combine and given the numerous restrictions surrounding travel, one-on-one exposure like that is all the more important.

While being interviewed by Yahoo Sports Draft Expert Eric Edholm, Tua Tagovailoa — sans prompting or prodding — said he hoped to end up on the “same team” as Harris.

For what it’s worth, Tua didn’t say that about any of his other former teammates.

Whether Harris lands in Miami or another RB-needy squad, he figures to step into a starting role rather immediately. Plenty of questions remain, but right now, it’s hard to imagine him not being at least a third-round fantasy selection heading into this fall.

Click here for Najee Harris' full Rookie Snapshot profile

TUSCALOOSA, AL - OCTOBER 17: Najee Harris #22 of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates after diving into the endzone for a touchdown in the second half against the Georgia Bulldogs at Bryant-Denny Stadium on October 17, 2020 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. (Photo by UA Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)
Najee Harris leads a group of running backs who will have fantasy football appeal as rookies. (Photo by UA Athletics/Collegiate Images/Getty Images)

2. Javonte Williams, North Carolina Tar Heels

Pros: Head-shaking contact balance; an aggressive runner who doesn’t just break tackles but busts them; strikingly elusive

(Per PFF, Williams recorded the most forced missed tackles at the highest rate among any college running back in the last 7 years)

Cons: Sufficient but not eye-popping long speed; never commanded a full workload in college

NFL Comp: Nick Chubb at his ceiling. David Montgomery at his floor.

Fantasy Fit: Before the James Conner trade, I thought Arizona would be an ideal landing spot for Williams. Now, however, it seems unlikely that the Cardinals will use an early-round draft pick on a running back. The Jets or the Falcons would, obviously, be lovely for fantasy. The Broncos and 49ers could also be in play. 

Given his do-it-all skill set and every-down potential, Williams should work his way to the top of a depth chart. The only questions are... which one and how quickly. I've got my fingers crossed he lands in New York. 

Click here for Javonte Williams' full Rookie Snapshot profile

3. Travis Etienne, Clemson Tigers

Pros: Burst, balance, evolution as a legit weapon in the receiving game.

Cons: Smaller frame could limit his usage in short-yardage and goal-line situations; has a tendency to bounce it outside.

NFL Comp: Somewhere between Alvin Kamara and Kenyan Drake.

Fantasy Fit: Todd Gurley’s return to Georgia was many things, but explosive was not one of them. Averaging 3.5 YPC and seeing his usage wane down the stretch, it’s clear that the Falcons were dissatisfied with the TG3 experiment of 2020.

The good news is that they’re in the market for a dazzling young back who can catch out of the backfield and further energize the offense.

ETN to the ATL makes perfect sense.

Click here for Travis Etienne's full Rookie Snapshot profile

4. Michael Carter, North Carolina Tar Heels

Pros: Elite change of direction and lateral quickness, natural receiver, takes care of the football (recorded zero fumbles over his 2020 effort).

Cons: Undersized at barely 200 pounds, lacks oomph in tackle-breaking situations, struggles in pass protection.

NFL Comp: A faster Devonta Freeman

Fantasy Fit: With Phillip Lindsay in Houston and Melvin Gordon entering the last year of his deal, Denver might be in the market for an elusive pass-catching back. Giving off Dion Lewis vibes in his first year, Carter could grow into a Devonta Freeman-esque role for the Broncos come 2022.

Click here for Michael Carter's full Rookie Snapshot profile

5. Trey Sermon, Ohio State Buckeyes

Pros: Powerful runner, has the build and contact balance repel defenders; clutch performer

Cons: Numerous injuries (back, knee, shoulder) could point to long-term durability issues; missing elite speed; limited experience as a pass-catcher

NFL Comp: I see shades of Chris Carson, but a less-athletic Joe Mixon makes for a more accurate comparison.

Fantasy Fit: There’s a real possibility that Sermon could fall to Day 3 of the draft.

I think it’s unlikely he’ll make an immediate fantasy impact. Spending his first year running behind an established vet either on a short-term deal or nearing the end of a current contract (think Seattle) makes a lot of sense. I could also see Pittsburgh — a team that has plenty of holes to fill — leaning into the value presented by the position and snagging Sermon late-ish.

In either of those instances, Sermon wouldn’t be a player to draft in August. However, he would be someone to drop FAB on (and, therefore, needs to stay on your radar), as fresh legs will be even more important in 2021. Plus, this is a player who knows how to make the most of his opportunities, particularly when the lights are the brightest.

Click here for Trey Sermon's full Rookie Snapshot profile

6. Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State Cowboys

Pros: Impressive first-cut; straight-line speed for days; solid vision.

Cons: Limited experience as a pass-catcher; struggles in pass-protection; coming off an ankle injury that forced him to end his 2020 effort prematurely.

NFL Comp: (a *slightly* slower) Tevin Coleman

Fantasy Fit: Limited to a two-down role, Hubbard’s production will probably frustrate fantasy managers who are lured in by the home-run hitter. And with PPR becoming an increasingly regular part of the virtual game’s scoring system, it’s hard to chase the former Cowboy’s flash. In his first year, I’d anticipate Hubbard delivering more in DFS than redraft.

Click here for more on Chuba Hubbard from the Rookie Snapshot series

7. Demetric Felton, UCLA Bruins

Pros: Change of direction; demonstrated growth and refinement as a route-runner; dynamic in space.

Cons: Slight build; lacks power.

NFL Comp: Nyheim Hines

Fantasy Fit: As evidenced by his success in Chip Kelly’s system, Felton will be best utilized by a creative play-caller who employs an up-tempo offense with spread concepts. Assuming that happens, his potential dual-eligibility (thanks again, Ty Montgomery) would offer fantasy managers regular upside as a flex play.

Click here for more on Demetric Felton from the Rookie Snapshot series

Engage with Liz on social @LizLoza_FF

Listen to the Running Back episode of the Rookie Snapshot Podcast

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