Top Five Running Back Prospects in the NFL Draft | Daily Brew

The 8th annual Harris 100 is complete, well, at least version 1.0 of a possible three versions/updates that will occur this offseason. I started on this draft class back as far back as the spring of 2019, nearly two full years ago and yet, per usual, I also feel like I'm missing something when I complete the initial Harris 100. Now, I submitted the Harris 100 around lunch time on Friday morning and I haven't had a pang of regret yet. That's a new record, really. What it means is that I've always hit send on the initial Harris 100 and immediately went, no, that's not right on that guy or I should've ranked that guy higher. That hasn't happened...yet, but it will. That's what this process is all about.

So, I thought I'd whet your appetite with a top five at a position that EVERYONE seems to love - RUNNING BACKS. The number relates to each running back's position in the Harris 100 so let's go!

22 - Najee Harris, Alabama (6-1 ⅞, 230 lb.)

Harris was one of the top recruits in the country heading into the 2017 season, but he was in a logjam at the position with Damien Harris, Josh Jacobs, Bo Scarbrough and Brian Robinson Jr. all in the offensive backfield. In 2018, though, he emerged as the star back many thought he would be in Tuscaloosa. He ran for 783 yards on 117 carries and four touchdowns. Heading into 2019, there was little tread off the tires as Harris only had 178 carries in two seasons. There are some backs that piled up that many over the last half of a season. But, in 2019 and 2020, Harris saw the football a ton. He carried it 209 times in 2019 then 251 times in the same number of games in 2020. Now, this is where I go into the "tread of the tire" concern that I've changed my tune on. It feels as if teams aren't looking for running backs to be more than one contract stars, so if the tread is off the tire at the end of the running back's first contract, just move on without extending a second contract mistake, errr, offer.

The one back that has defied all of that - tread, second contract swoon - is the guy that Harris is often compared to - Titans stud running back/former Alabama star Derrick Henry. Now, Henry is a bit faster and 20 pounds heavier so there's no direct comparison, but as big backs go, running styles, these two are similar.

He's upright and a bit stiff, but he exacts a punishment when he gets the big body rolling. He's slimmed down a bit from his high school weight so he seems a bit more agile than he was back at Antioch HS (CA). I love his ability to get in and out of a hole and bounce. That's uncanny. He's not lightning quick and has to slow down to make his cuts, but he's slippery in and out of his cuts. Jump cut to the perimeter, stiff arm for a cornerback? Yes please! He's got excellent vision and seems to see his cuts well in advance. His balance is top notch and he's a nightmare to bring down all the way to the ground. He won't run in the 4.4 range (if he does, I'll be shocked), but he has an innate feel for openings and where to exploit a defense running the rock. The one improvement that Harris made the past couple of seasons was in his receiving skills. Harris had ten catches in his first two years, but in the final two seasons, he had 70 (!!) receptions, including 43 in his senior season. I love the receiving threat that he's become in his career.

23 - Travis Etienne, Clemson (5-10, 210 lb.)

Man, Etienne's got some serious go-go juice and that's the first thing that stands out when studying the ACC's all-time leading rusher. It feels like he can get to volume ten in a hurry every time he touches the rock and Etienne's track speed is on full display. If he has a step, it's over as he just has a different gear than most backs in this draft class, perhaps all of them, honestly. His legs are like tree trunks and he runs like he's 180 lb. but plays overall like he's 230 lb. He's a powerful guy who will exact a punishment and has the ability to cut on a dime, give you change and redirect into/through a hole that wasn't present originally. His contact balance is just outstanding as he bounces off tackles regularly. He does see some things that other college backs don't see as he has outstanding vision and the burst/explosiveness to utilize that to his home-run hitting advantage.

He finished his career with 4,952 rushing yards, which will go down ACC history as the all-time record. Considering the shelf life of most college running backs and the proliferation of passing attacks in college football. He averaged, AVERAGED 7.2 yards per carry over his entire career. Over the past two seasons, he had 85 catches for 1,020 receiving yards and six touchdowns. In his career, he had 70 rushing touchdowns and 78 total touchdowns accounted for in his four years at Clemson.

Even though he had plenty of receptions in four years, I don't think he's got great hands and I've seen him drop or double catch a number of passes in his career. That said, his hands improved throughout his career as he was targeted that much more in the Clemson offensive scheme. That said, he's physical in pass protection and will stone rushers right in the teeth.

39 - Javonte Williams, North Carolina (5-10, 220 lb.)

Williams and Michael Carter shared the ball in the North Carolina backfield about as well as any two superstar running backs could. In his career, over 366 carries, Williams averaged 6.3 yards per rush and in 2020, he was just ridiculously great. He ran for 1,140 yards and 19 rushing touchdowns in leading his Tar Heels to the Capital One Orange Bowl.

I wouldn't say that he's a great pass protector but, man, watching NC State linebackers trying to match up with him on an angle route out of the backfield was pure comedy. Williams looked like Shady McCoy with the slip move and acceleration out of his deke. There are going to be very few linebackers that will be able to match up with him effectively on pass routes, yet his pass catching ability isn't even close to his best asset. His vision on the cutback of zone runs is superb. During the season, against NC State, he cut back on a zone run out the backdoor as he could see the contain player crashing inside. He planted his left foot immediately, let the defensive end crash and then hit a wide open lane on the backside for a 11-yard gain. Vision, stop on a dime quickness, short area burst and gas pedal speed all in one run. My gosh, his feet. On the very next run, he got outside one-on-one with NC State safety, froze him with constant buzzing of his feet and beat him around the corner easily. Then, he hit the gas up the field with seemingly no room on the sideline to do much of anything. One thing that also stood out to me was that in the Florida State game, North Carolina was dreadful and behind for much of the game, however, Williams ran his you-know-what off. I mean, he ran like he was punishing Florida State defenders for having the gall to tackle him. That was a little thing, but a big thing to see that he definitely isn't a front runner as I'd define one (only willing to do much of anything when ahead or winning).

North Carolina did use both Williams and Carter in the same backfield and Williams, as a lead blocker, was no Tom Rathman (old school reference) or Patrick Ricard (new school reference), but he was physical enough taking on edge linebackers. Size, speed, quickness, selflessness. What is there not to like about Williams?

81 - Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State (6-1, 207 lb.)

The Canadian high school star redshirted as a freshman in 2017, but took OFF like a shot as a redshirt freshman in 2018. He essentially took over as the lead back about 2/3 of the way through his redshirt freshman season. He averaged 6.0 yards per carry and tacked on 22 receptions for 229 yards and two touchdowns. He accounted for nine total touchdowns and entered the 2019 season as the perfect complement to star receiver Tylan Wallace, who unfortunately went down with an injury. Wallace's injury opened the door even further for Hubbard to star in 2019. He led the Big 12 in total points scored and total touchdowns and was the only player in the Big 12 to average 100+ rushing yards per game. He outpaced the next highest rusher in the Big 12 by nearly 65 yards per game. He had an active streak of 11 100+ yard rushing games at the end of the 2019 season in which he ran for 2,094 yards, the second highest total in school history (unfortunately, number one is Barry Sanders' 1988 season which will never be topped). He decided to return for the 2020 season, even though he struggled to find the type of success he had one year earlier. He only played seven games after dealing with a nasty ankle injury that took away his explosiveness and home run hitting ability. He still led the Cowboys in rushing, but averaged just under five yards per carry. That lack of success seemingly opened the door for others to vault over him on many draft boards but I'm not ready to do that. The Hubbard I saw at NRG Stadium in the 2019 Texas Bowl was a guy I'd love to see fall to me in round three. He's a one cut runner who has home run hitting speed. He doesn't waste time with jump cuts or hesitation moves or anything that slows him down. He finds holes with vision and burst and long speed for days. With that speed, he threatens to take it to the house once he gets to 2nd level. He's smooth in and out of holes without having to slow down and patient without being late to and through the hole. His 1st to 2nd level burst is insane. Now, he's not a plow runner (not going to run guys over) but a powerful runner and runs away from more guys than he makes miss in space or runs over. The speed I've mentioned is legit; he has some serious juice and when he gets into space, he's ridiculously difficult to bring down and/or slow down. He's tough and physical and, perhaps most importantly, he can absolutely fly. He was a track star in high school, running a 10.55 in the 100-meter dash, his favorite event, at the World Youth Championships in Colombia while in high school. I know analysts/scouts/people didn't see what they wanted in his final season, but I'll take him on my squad any day.

84 - Trey Sermon, Ohio State (Oklahoma) (6-0 ½, 213)

The 2020 season couldn't have been more of a roller coaster for Sermon. He transferred to Ohio State after three fairly productive seasons at Oklahoma then found out that the B1G wasn't going to play football in the fall of 2020. Then, the B1G reversed course and planned to get at least a portion of the season played. Then, Sermon got off to a slow start to the season. However, when starting running back Master Teague III went down with an injury later in the season, Sermon finished off the 2020 season, and his career, in about as outstanding fashion as could be. He ran for 112 yards on ten carries in the regular season finale against Michigan State. Then, he ran for 331 yards in the B1G Championship against Northwestern. In the CFP semifinal win over Clemson, Sermon had 254 total yards, including 193 yards and a touchdown on the ground. Unfortunately, he was injured on the first carry of the National Championship game against Alabama and missed the remainder of the game and the entire week of practice at the Senior Bowl.

I can't watch Sermon without thinking of former Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon. They're built similarly and look similar as runners, but Sermon has a bit more juice as a runner, better vision too. He showed just how much juice when he hurdled a defender in the CFP semifinal against Clemson. He did the same hurdling thing two weeks before against Northwestern in the B1G Championship game. I like his feel in the zone game and his patience in power/gap scheme runs. I don't think he's got crazy short area burst/acceleration like a few backs ahead of him on my Harris 100 and he has to slow down to make his cuts. However, he can be a one cut runner in a zone scheme and hit those cutup runs right behind the center. Furthermore, he's got size, more than adequate speed and the overwhelming desire to run through feeble tackle attempts. It felt like he decided to punish the entire Northwestern defense for bringing weak tackle attempts on his person. He must've just shrugged aside a dozen Wildcats on long runs throughout his 331 yard performance in that win. His contact balance is outstanding and down the stretch of the 2020 season, he just wasn't going to be tackled by one man. THAT Sermon is one that teams will covet for sure. He's a better receiver than his overall receiving numbers might indicate and has soft hands in the receiving game. He's not going to be the bellcow for a team immediately, but by the end of his rookie campaign, he's going to be the number one back for as long as he stays healthy.

Two other running backs made the Harris 100, but they'll stay a secret for now. Thanks for reading and have a safe, warm and wonderful weekend, everyone!

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