The Most-Interesting Rookie RB

The Footballguys staff discusses the top rookie running backs

Links to similar discussions on other positions:

Each year, the incoming group of rookies offers hope for the new season. We asked our staff to offer up the rookie running back they are most interested in.

Here are the names who were mentioned.

And here are all of the reasons.

Troy King

I’ll go with the obvious and say, Najee Harris. Steelers were the worst rushing team last year. We know Mike Tomlin loves to use a workhorse back. The Steelers were forced to use a committee last year due to Conner dealing with injuries. The offensive line is a concern, but I’m still confident Najee can produce with enough volume. Most of the other rookies in this class will most likely have to be involved in a timeshare.

Jeff Haseley

In terms of fantasy relevance and closest to true clarity of his role, it's Najee Harris. He is going to be the featured top back for Pittsburgh from day one. He displays an excellent blend of rushing and receiving skills that have long been utilized by Mike Tomlin and orchestrated by Ben Roethlisberger. Harris has top-20 and perhaps even top-10 potential due to his dual-threat talent, but also the expected volume that he will receive this season. He's a great RB2 target who could give us much more than that. Other backs in this class may be more elusive or faster, but Harris and his opportunity make him the most likely to consistently provide adequate fantasy production.

Jordan McNamara

While I recognize the talent that Najee Harris provides, I'll echo what our Sigmund Bloom has said: you fix a running game through the offensive line, not by drafting a running back. How Pittsburgh restructure their offensive line will be an interesting watch this offseason.

Ryan Hester

It has to be Harris here. Redraft is the commonly played version of fantasy football, and Harris will be selected in the first three rounds of most redraft leagues. He's the one rookie likely to be a fantasy football starter for the duration of the season.

And the debate around Harris makes him intriguing as well. Will the volume he's almost certain to acquire be enough to overcome a potentially terrible offensive line? Fantasy football production relies upon volume and efficiency. Harris will get volume, but will his line allow him to be dynamic and make splash plays? Or will he add low-value sub-4.0 yards-per-carry touches?

Victoria Geary

As much as I love Najee Harris, I am so intrigued by Javonte Williams. He was touted by some as the No. 1 running back in this class but unfortunately landed in Denver where he will be the RB2 behind Melvin Gordon III. At 5'10 and 220 pounds, Williams is a very physical back who can power through almost anyone on the field. He has excellent balance and made sure to take care of the ball, fumbling only twice in his college career and not once in his 2020 season. Williams certainly won't be a Week 1 starter, but I expect him to take over this backfield after Denver's Week 11 bye. I love Williams' dynasty outlook though, as Gordon is 28 years old and in the final year of his contract. Denver already has a potent offense, and if they can get competent quarterback play soon, they are a team primed to take off. Williams should be the lead back in 2022 and beyond.

Anthony Amico

To tack onto what Victoria said, Williams stands to increase in value a ton before the start of the season. Denver can save $7 million against the cap, with only a $2 million hit by trading Melvin Gordon III, and Denver has been a popular destination prognostication for Aaron Rodgers. One or both of these things happening would be instant wheels up for Williams.

Chad Parsons

The most interesting goes to Trey Sermon in my book. He might not have the biggest stat line at the end of the season. However, the 49ers traded up and spent up at the running back position where they typically go nomad with their optimized run game to turn Day 3 and UDFA types into household fantasy names. Raheem Mostert and Jeffrey Wilson (and Wayne Gallman) could be part of a frustrating big committee for much of the year outside of injuries. But there is a shot that Sermon is just plain better than all of them and, whether Week 1, 8, for 14, turns into the primary back and runs with the job. There is league-winning potential here, which is intoxicating.

Jason Wood

I certainly agree Harris is the odds-on favorite to be the most impactful rookie running back. But I'm with Chad in choosing Trey Sermon as the most interesting. Our own Matt Waldman rated Sermon as the No. 1 rookie running back in his incomparable Rookie Scouting Portfolio, and that holds a lot of weight with me. Landing in San Francisco is a potential dream scenario given the near-universal success Kyle Shanahan's ground game attains regardless of personnel or game script. While there are no guarantees Sermon will play much in 2021, I love his chances. He's more talented than either Raheem Mostert or Jeff Wilson, and that's before we factor the veteran back's propensity for injury. Some mistakenly view Shanahan as a committee coach, but in truth, he prefers a single workhorse. It's just that he's more than happy to alter the workhorse depending on who's available. If Sermon is the play I think he is, he'll be the feature back in a run-friendly system before long. And given his cost versus Harris' in redrafts, Sermon could be a league winner.

Andy Hicks

Between picks 35 and 107 in this year's NFL draft, only one running back was selected in Trey Sermon. This is a shame. Normally a few get taken in each of the second and third rounds. These players can fly under the radar like your David Johnsons, Kenyan Drakes, DeMarco Murrays, etc.

That leaves little up in the air. Michael Carter, despite the dearth in the Jets backfield, will have his work cut out to make an impact. Trey Sermon has at least three experienced NFL backs to beat out, which he won’t. He was picked at 88, not 38. He will need to wait for his opportunity.

The interesting ones are the first three drafted. All have been talked about already, but Travis Etienne piques my curiosity the most. James Robinson and Carlos Hyde can pound the ball all day long, so Etienne should be utilized to his strengths. Can the Jaguars get him in space? How many touches does he get a game?

Sigmund Bloom

Sermon is the most likely to make your draft. He's a perfect fit for the Shanahan offense and Kyle knew what he was doing when the 49ers traded up for him. He's very interesting, but I'll say Travis Etienne because how he is used and how much he is used will be an indicator of whether James Robinson is headed down the disrespect-divorce road that Phillip Lindsay traveled with Denver. Robinson is better than Etienne at getting the tough yards, but will Urban Meyer force Etienne on the field in most situations to try to prove how smart of a pick he was in the first round? Or will Meyer accurately assess what he has and use both of his backs to do the things they do best? The relative efficiency or inefficiency of backfield usage in Jacksonville could be a sign of whether the Meyer era will be long and glorious or short and ignominious.

Danny Tuccitto

Travis Etienne is an enigma in the context of Jacksonville's backfield. Per analytics, his profile is top of the class. Per film analysis, not so much. Even as (or especially as) a UF grad, I have zero faith in Urban Meyer and his (already suspect) staff to maximize Etienne's fantasy or real football value. By the time Etienne's up for a contract renewal, I suspect Meyer will be long gone, either due to a new scandal or a health scare, both of which he's used to maximize his income for the past 20 years.

So I guess if you draft Etienne, anticipate two years of dynasty value and then cut bait. Or if I'm completely wrong, draft and hold. I guess that's what makes him the most interesting to me.

Jordan McNamara

I think Travis Etienne is the most interesting rookie in the class. The selection and landing spot has been largely panned by the dynasty community, which is showing up in draft data. In real Superflex startup drafts after the NFL Draft, Etienne has been an early fifth-round pick. Etienne's cost is the same round as second-round pick Javonte Williams and two rounds lower than fellow first-rounder Najee Harris.

A good rule of thumb for drafting dynasty teams is to identify the premium profiles and take the last one when there is a gap in the costs of the profiles. First-round running backs are amongst the most premium profiles in all of dynasty. With Harris going two full rounds ahead of Etienne, Etienne represents the classic collect the pedigree bet of this year.

Phil Alexander

Reports on Etienne taking all of his minicamp reps at wide receiver caused a recent kerfuffle on Twitter, with many pointing to the development as a sign the rookie will take a clear back seat to James Robinson in the running game.

Personally, I see it as an outstanding signal for Etienne's year-one fantasy prospects. Urban Meyer is tipping his hand. He wants to get the ball to Etienne in space where he's a mismatch nightmare for linebackers in coverage.

If he's going to be put in a position to catch four to six passes per game, Etienne only needs to be on the short side of a 60/40 split with Robinson to pay off on his current back-end RB2 ADP. And that is without considering the upside his elite blend of strength and open-field speed adds to every touch.

Sigmund Bloom

Re: Etienne at wide receiver in minicamp, Albert Breer writes:

"In case you missed it, the new Jacksonville coach deployed the Clemson dynamo as a receiver at rookie minicamp over the weekend, and I think it’s more than an experiment. In fact, I think it’s one of the first clues to what Meyer is planning to bring with him from the college game. And I referenced it Saturday on Twitter, when I grouped Etienne together with former Florida star Percy Harvin, and ex-Ohio State stud Curtis Samuel...the position that Harvin and Samuel played was commonly referred to as “the H” (or H-back, though it’s not what you’d think of as an H-back from an NFL standpoint, outside of their involvement in presnap movement) at their respective alma maters. That’s a position that Meyer deployed with a player named Paris Warren all the way back at Utah. And the concept is one that, even all these years later, remains a forward-thinking one—that a versatile athlete can break the offensive huddle as “positionless,” and force the defense to adjust...when you consider that the Jags have James Robinson and Carlos Hyde already at the position and that they were looking at a Harvin-type in Kadarius Toney before taking Etienne, the whole thing makes sense."

Anthony Amico

I think it would be severely misguided to draft Etienne for this purpose when you already have Laviska Shenault Jr on the roster.

Sigmund Bloom


Meyer: "All his individual training [at rookie camp] was at WR. That's the reason we drafted him, is the opportunity to be a dual-threat guy. Right now, we're focusing on the fundamentals of WR play, learning the offense from WR"

Phil Alexander

So Sigmund, are you taking Breer's writeup to mean Etienne will be deployed exclusively as a Harvin-esque tweener? My interpretation (or maybe my assumption) was he'll rotate with Robinson AND get a handful of those creative "H-back" touches per game, which would be great.

Sigmund Bloom

Yeah, I would say it's not an either/or proposition, but it certainly shows you where urban's mind is at. Combining this with the item that Meyer was "heartbroken" to miss out on Kadarius Toney at 1.25 makes me wonder if he was fixated on having someone for his "H-back" role that Percy Harvin and Curtis Samuel occupied under Meyer. Etienne will definitely get run in the backfield and this development helps him in PPR, although that is contingent on him taking to the role, which isn't usually an unknown when we discuss how a first-round pick is deployed.

Chad Parsons

From mainly a dynasty lens I will mention Michael Carter. He has ventured into Round 1 of rookie drafts with some regularly and early in Round 2 otherwise. Carter was a Day 3 selection but viewed as landing in a wide-open situation for early touches with the Jets. I prefer the more affordable bets on Tevin Coleman, La'Mical Perine, and even Ty Johnson, however, the historical view of Carter's high price point compared to his pedigree will be interesting to track.

Anthony Amico

Javian Hawkins is a name to keep in mind for both the late phases of season-long and dynasty drafts. He was a workhorse runner at Louisville, amassing over 18 carries per game in his final two seasons. Hawkins is only 183 pounds and went undrafted, but the Atlanta depth chart is rather thin behind Mike Davis, who many would consider a fringe starter already. Hawkins could easily work his way into a role within this offense, and take on a sizable one should anything happen to Davis.

Jeff Tefertiller

I will go with Kenneth Gainwell. How can a guy with that name NOT be interesting? Gainwell is the next Memphis running back to be drafted in the NFL after Antonio Gibson, Tony Pollard, and Darrell Henderson were drafted in the 2019 and 2020 NFL Drafts.

Gainwell came out after his Redshirt Sophomore season and was drafted in the fifth round by the Philadelphia Eagles. The Eagles, by drafting Gainwell and signing Jordan Howard, are signaling a committee approach to the position.

Gainwell is short, but not small. He measured in at 5'8, 201 pounds. He also has big hands (9 7/8").

Most people forget that he opted out for the 2020 season due to the pandemic. in 2019, Gainwell was the team's leading rusher, garnering the primary back duties, even with these NFL players on the team. That year, he carried the ball 231 times, gaining 1,459 yards. Gainwell added another 610 yards on 51 receptions.

He is a solid player but forgotten by many because he did not play in 2020.

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