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The '21 Draft: Running backs

Alabama running back Najee Harris (22) hurdles Notre Dame cornerback Nick McCloud (4) as he carries the ball for a long gain in the first half of the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game in Arlington, Texas, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)
Alabama running back Najee Harris (22) hurdles Notre Dame cornerback Nick McCloud (4) as he carries the ball for a long gain in the first half of the Rose Bowl NCAA college football game in Arlington, Texas, Friday, Jan. 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Michael Ainsworth)

JACKSONVILLE – Running backs can be found throughout the 2021 NFL Draft.

As for whether they must be found in Round 1, ESPN NFL Draft analyst Mel Kiper says that's absolutely not the case this year.

"I've always believed you can find running backs in the draft after the first round," Kiper said, noting the success of Jaguars running back James Robinson as an undrafted rookie last season. "You're going to always find running backs like that (Robinson). It happens every year at running back."

That could be the case this season, with analysts mixed on whether any of the top three running backs – Travis Etienne of Clemson, Najee Harris of Alabama and Javonte Williams of North Carolina – will be selected in Round 1. Kiper doesn't project any of the three in Round 1, though many analysts project at least one of the trio later in the round.

"There are some good options there at the running back position," Daniel Jeremiah of NFL Network said.

NFL teams have stayed away from running backs at times in Round 1 in recent seasons. One running back has been selected in Round 1 each of the last two drafts, with seven – Saquon Barkley by the New York Giants in 2018, Leonard Fournette by the Jaguars in 2017, Christian McCaffrey by the Carolina Panthers in 2017, Ezekiel Elliott by the Dallas Cowboys and Todd Gurley by the Rams in 2016 and Trent Richardson by the Cleveland Browns in 2012 – selected in the Top 10 in the last decade.

"I think there are very talented running backs," NFL Media and Jaguars Media analyst Bucky Brooks said. "What happens is front offices weigh position value versus impact. There are a bunch of guys who can give you impact, but do you want to pull the trigger on draft day to get one of those running backs when it has been proven that you can get running backs outside the first round?"


It's tricky to project what the Jaguars will do here in the draft. While Robinson established himself as a consistent and reliable option last season with 1,070 yards and seven touchdowns, Head Coach Urban Meyer's offensive scheme figures to need multiple options out of the backfield – and General Manager Trent Baalke early this month spoke of the need to add explosiveness to the position this offseason. While Robinson was productive and versatile as a rookie, he's not necessarily a breakaway runner who stresses the defense with an ability to score from anywhere on the field. If the Jaguars see a potential complement to Robinson with special traits, it wouldn't be a surprise if they selected him anytime – if not with one of their second-round selections, sometime shortly thereafter.

--John Oehser


Travis Etienne, Clemson; Najee Harris, Alabama; Javonte Williams, North Carolina.


The 2021 running back class features a collection of versatile playmakers with size, speed and versatility. The group includes not only five-star talents at the top of the board with the capacity to put up big numbers from Day 1, but also a number of hidden gems that could be uncovered on Day 2 and Day 3 with impact potential as role players. Harris, Etienne and Williams are the headliners, but Ohio State's Trey Sermon and North Carolina's Michael Carter could emerge as blue-chip players selected outside of the first round.


Kylin Hill, Mississippi State

Keep an eye on the former SEC standout as an underrated playmaker with the potential to pop at the next level. Hill is a hard-nosed runner with a rugged running style that meshes well with a power-based running scheme; he also flashes the hands and polish to excel as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. As a likely Day 2 selection, Hill has the game to exceed his draft status as a surprise starter for a team looking for a versatile playmaker in the backfield.


Harris, the Alabama standout, offers offensive coordinators the best of both worlds as a big, physical back with the capacity to do the dirty work between the tackles while also displaying soft hands and outstanding route running ability in the passing game. He is an RB1 with a game that reminds scouts of perennial Pro Bowler Matt Forte during his prime.





James Robinson, Carlos Hyde, Dare Ogunbowale, Nathan Cottrell, Ryquell Armstead, Devine Ozigbo.


Kiper: "I don't know if there will even be a first-round running back – maybe one at the most. There are backs with talent that you're going to get three rounds later than you really should. I would say get a running back at any bargain point you see fit."

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