Five Day 2 RBs Who Deserve Starting Consideration

  • Chuba Hubbard
  • Jaret Patterson
  • Kenneth Gainwell
  • Kylin Hill
  • Najee Harris
  • NFl Draft
  • Running back
By Daniel Kitchen December 6, 2020 0 Comment
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The first-round running back is a dying breed.

From the last decade to this one, the rate of running backs going in the first round of the NFL Draft has fallen by 53%. That’s 30 running backs taken in the draft’s first round from 2001-2010, and just 14 taken from 2011-2020.

The landscape has shifted for how the running back position is valued in the draft. Teams know that to maximize value at the position, they don’t select a running back with their top draft pick, and watch as other positions of need thin out quickly. They wait until Day 2 and select a player to be the bell-cow over the course of his rookie deal.

Out of all 32 teams’ leading rushers (non-QB) this season to date, only six were selected in the first round. Seven were second-rounders, 10 were taken in the third, and then three each went in the fourth, went between Rounds 5-7, and were signed as undrafted free agents.

Even if injuries and missed games are factored in to account for players like Saquon Barkley and Christian McCaffrey (likely leaders who don’t lead their teams because of missed time), the splits favor Day 2 picks. That scenario has eight second-rounders leading their teams in rushing, and 10 third-rounders. Seven first-rounders lead their teams — the same total as leaders drafted in Rounds 5-7 or signed as UDFAs.

Of the Top 25 rushers in the NFL this season (non-QB), 10 were third-round picks, six were selected in the second, and five went in the first. Get the picture? Elite talents like Barkley, Run CMC, and Ezekiel Elliott may appear here and there. But most modern-day running backs come on Day 2 of the draft.

At this flashpoint in time, at least eight teams require an upgrade in the backfield, and every one of those teams has more important needs to spend an early pick on. With that in mind, here are five RBs in the 2021 NFL Draft class that, as of now, can be drafted or considered on Day 2, with the chance of earning the starting job as rookies.

Najee Harris, Alabama

Of these five names, Harris is currently the one with the best chance of breaking into the first round and rivaling Clemson’s Travis Etienne as the best running back in the draft.

This is Harris’ second season as the feature back in Tuscaloosa. He is the next in a lineage of Alabama bruisers that will be drafted on Days 1 and 2. His 17 rushing TDs lead the nation and his 893 yards are 10th. Every season with the Tide, he has averaged a minimum of 5.9 yards per carry.

While Etienne is a burner that players can’t catch, Harris uses his physicality to fight off defenders and maximize yardage, like former teammates Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris (and many others before them). Tougher than fast, Harris is not a liability as a receiver. With four more receptions, he will eclipse last year’s career-best 27 catches.

A good end to the season, big performance in the College Football Playoffs, and compelling display of athleticism in the pre-draft process can help Harris climb off this list and get some team (Miami, perhaps?) to gamble on him over Etienne in the back half of the first round.

The way Harris is playing, though, and his status as the next Alabama bruiser to enter the draft, have his floor firmly set on Day 2, with a strong chance that an RB-needy team gives him a chance to start.

Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State

There’s a running back in this draft class that deserves much, much more hype that he is getting, and here he is.

Hubbard is a game-breaker, a tremendously fun player to watch with top-tier speed to rival the NFL’s best. That excitement when a Henry Ruggs type gets to the open field and it’s all down to speed and athleticism? That’s Hubbard, who has the vision to get to open space and balance to absorb contact and keep moving upfield.

Chuba proved last season he can be a workhorse. Given 328 carries, Hubbard ran for only the second 2,000-yard season in Cowboys’ history, gaining 2,094 yards and 21 touchdowns. He finished eighth in Heisman voting, only the third Cowboys player to receive votes since Barry Sanders won in 1988.

Like Harris, Hubbard’s draft stock is sitting on Day 2 right now, even with only 625 yards and five TDs through seven games this season. And like Harris, a good rest of the year and some truly eye-catching Combine numbers should have him in late Day 1 consideration, and rivaling Etienne to be RB1.

Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis

Here is the absolute wild card of this class. Gainwell’s college tape is explosive and leaves an impression you just watched a future NFL starter. The only catch is that there is just one season of it to sample.

Opting out of the 2020 season and declaring for the 2021 NFL Draft, Gainwell left Memphis with only his redshirt freshman year to make his case as a top pick. What a rookie season it was, though.

Gainwell led all running backs with 610 receiving yards, catching 51 passes while lining up at both RB and WR. As a RB, he gained 1,459 yards and scored 13 times over 231 carries. All that offense came as the featured choice in the Tigers’ offense, despite the presence of now-NFC Rookie of the Year candidate Antonio Gibson and Green Bay UDFA signee Patrick Taylor Jr. in the backfield.

Gainwell is elusive and has the speed to do damage in the open field, and makes players miss. The running and receiving ability make him somebody all offensive schemes can find a key role for. Can you draft a running back in the Top 50 picks based on one season of play? That’s the question for front offices to answer. The temptation is there with Gainwell.

Kylin Hill, Mississippi State

Cheating a bit here, given Hill is likelier to go on Day 3 right now than Day 2. But there is serious potential with Hill. Not in a Derrick Henry-style workhorse role, but in a style similar to how the Chargers use Austin Ekeler and KC uses Clyde Edwards-Helaire — a back who is frequently used not just on carries but is targeted often out of the backfield.

Hill used his three games this season before opting out to show his proficiency as a receiver. The year prior, he ran for 1,350 yards as the focal point of the team’s offense. In all situations with the ball, he plays with a combination of strength and explosiveness that makes him dangerous, even without top-end speed, and his determination to gain the extra yard every snap is something coaches wish every player did.

He has to overcome a small sample size, though there’s more to go on than Gainwell. He took only 15 carries this season before opting out. Last season was his only one acting as the primary running threat for Mississippi State. There’s a lot to love here, though, and it isn’t hard to imagine a team falling in love with him. It’s not an incredible stretch to imagine Hill being a Day 2 pick. But if he does go Day 3, there’s immense value and a potential steal as a starter to be had.

Jaret Patterson, Buffalo

Concluding this list is the name that has vaulted into public consciousness recently, after a 409-yard, 8 touchdown game against Kent State. That tied the touchdown record and was 18 yards from the rushing record. Eleven days before, he lit up Bowling Green for 301 yards and four TDs.

The games have the junior fifth in the NCAA in rushing yardage, and second in touchdowns. It’s far from his first workhorse season. Last year, he took 312 carries 1,799 yards and scored 19 touchdowns; before that, it was 1,013 yards and 14 TDs as a freshman.

The junior can shift in traffic and consistently add an extra few yards to every run before being brought down. But he has yet to catch a pass this season, and has only 20 receptions in his Buffalo career.

Like Hill, Patterson’s draft stock isn’t quite locked into Day 2 yet. Without a bigger receiving aspect to his game, it might not get there without more 300/400-yard performances. Those games have unquestionably put the Buffalo RB on the draft radar, though. With eyes on him, his remaining games are a chance to prove he can be taking as many carries for an NFL franchise next season.

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Here to discuss and examine all things NFL Draft. Occasionally sarcastic. Life is better with more scrambling QBs.

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