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Will the Packers Prioritize Drafting a Running Back in 2021

Brian Gutekunst drafted a running back with his second round pick in 2020. At the time he had a potential All-Pro in Aaron Jones, and a solid backup who still has never fumbled the ball in his NFL career, Jamaal Williams. Both of those picks have exceeded their draft status as day three draft picks.

While many saw A.J.Dillon as a luxury pick last year, his breakout game against Tennessee impressed fans and pundits alike. Smart money would bet Gutekunst will tag Williams or Jones and try another day three dive into the 2021 NFL Draft running back draft pool and hope to find another Williams or Jones. But last year’s draft selections make it clear, Gutekunst doesn’t always follow a plan that drafts for the upcoming season. He is also thinking two or three years down the road. A key question must be answered; Is there any talent in the RB class deep into the draft?

Historically, it is not uncommon for running backs that are drafted after the third round to have outstanding careers. Wilbert Montgomery led the Eagles in rushing for six years and was a sixth round pick. He led the NFL in rushing in 1979 and was a two time All Pro. The best late round running back picked in the draft may technically be Bo Jackson, a 7th round pick. Ok, Jackson had been the number one pick in the NFL draft the year before but refused to sign with Tampa Bay. Still, give Al Davis some props for that pick. The Packers have relied on late round RB picks like James Starks, Ryan Grant, Edgar Bennett III, and fifth round pick Dorsey Levens. Jones and Williams are proof late round backs can emerge as difference makers in today’s NFL. So do the Packers stick with A.J Dillon and Dexter Williams, try to resign one or both free agents, or spend a draft pick in 2021 improving their depth?

ESPN lists 19 running backs in the top 235 best players available in the draft. Two are round one picks. Most draft sites list three backs as the top picks, although their rank is debated:

Najee Harris (6’2”/232) Alabama
Travis Etienne (5’10”/210) Clemson
Javonte Williams (5’10”/220) North Carolina

Jan 11, 2021; Miami Gardens, Florida, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide running back Najee Harris (22) runs for a touchdown during the first quarter against the Ohio State Buckeyes in the 2021 College Football Playoff National Championship Game. Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Harris is a power runner with special skills. Think Derrick Henry but with the ability to catch the ball like Jamaal Williams. Against Florida in the SEC championship he caught 6 passes for 67 yards and three touchdowns. His yardage total for that game was 245 yards and five touchdowns. He tore apart Georgia’s defense for 152 yards and a touchdown, a 4.9 yard average. While ESPN lists him as a top 20 pick, Pro Football Focus lists him as the number three back behind Travis Etienne and Javonte Williams. PFF lists Harris as pick 67. A third round pick.

Etienne is a speedster, something close to Aaron Jones. He may be a better receiver, he led running backs with 588 receiving yards.

ESPN lists Javonte Williams as the third best running back in the draft. Williams averaged 7.9 yards a carry for North Carolina. He scored 19 TD’s and ran for almost 1200 yards. In 157 carries he had one fumble. He added 25 receptions for 305 yards. He was a track star in high school. Pundits estimate he could run under 4.5 in the forty at 220 pounds. Other sites list him as the second back behind Etienne. He could easily be the first back picked in 2021, and it could be round one.

Between the first round and pick 100 are four potential running back selections:

Michael Carter (5’8”/200) North Carolina
Rhamondre Stevenson (6’-/229) Oklahoma
Chuba Hubbard (6’1”/205) Oklahoma State
Kenneth Gainwell (5’11”/191) Memphis

Carter split time with Javonte Williams in the Tar Heels backfield. Williams being the power bruiser and Carter the speed option. Since the Packers already have A.J. Dillon, Cater would make sense if Jones’ price is too steep for the Packer’s salary cap restrictions. Despite splitting time, he put up some impressive numbers in 2020. Against Miami he scored three touchdowns, ran for 236 yards averaging just over ten yards a carry. For the season Carter topped 1200 yards and he did that even though he shut down his season early. He also had 25 catches for 267 yards. He has 85 career catches at North Carolina. Pundits use terms like “lightning quick feet” to describe his running style. Carter would seem like a good fit with the Packers needs and scheme. Carter’s only Achilles’ heel is pass protection. It is a real issue that he must improve.

Sep 7, 2019; Norman, OK, USA; Oklahoma Sooners running back Rhamondre Stevenson (29) dives for a touchdown during the second half against the South Dakota Coyotes at Gaylord Family – Oklahoma Memorial Stadium. Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

Stevenson has been listed from 229 to 246 pounds on different sites. In six games in 2020 he ran for 661 yards on 101 carries and 18 catches for 211 yards. The bad news is he only played in six games because of a suspension from 2019 where he tested positive for marijuana before their bowl game. He thrives on screen plays in the passing game. Stevenson had a broken foot in high school that led to a lack of recruitment. He took a year off and then went the JUCO route to Oklahoma. He can break tackles and is best in a power game. He tore Florida apart in his 2020 Bowl game, to the tune of 186 yards and a touchdown. His speed is the question with Stevenson. Sites claim he ran a 4.65 forty in high school. If he runs mid 4.5’s his stock will rise. If he runs 4.65 or slower, his draft status could end up being a third day pundit conversation piece.

Hubbard has the skills to help in the run, passing, and return game. In 2018 he compiled over 500 return yards. He has 53 catches in his Oklahoma State career. Combine that with 3459 yards rushing in 33 games and you have a multiple threat offensive weapon. Hubbard had a very public feud with his head coach after coach Grundy was seen wearing a jacket with the logo of a conservative news organization during a fishing trip around the time of George Floyd’s murder. The two publicly reconciled but Hubbard opted out of the 2020 season after seven games. Will the public nature of that dispute hurt his draft stock, or will his seven fumbles over two seasons make GM’s pass on his potential? His draft position will be watched by many.

Gainwell has more going for him than just his great last name for a running back. His key asset is speed. His next best tool is balance. Third tool is pass catching. In 2019, Gainwell topped two thousand combined yards; 1459 rushing and 610 passing. He averaged 6.3 yards per rush. Gainwell has experience as a slot receiver and might fit well as the Packer motion/gadget player in LaFleur’s offense. In his big season he fumbled three times, losing one.

In the fourth round ESPN lists 3 players within 11 selections:

Chris Evans (5’10”/215) Michigan
Larry Rountree III (5’09”/220) Missouri
Trey Sermon (6’0”/224) Ohio State

Evans looked to be a break out star after his freshman 2016 season where he rushed for 616 yards in 88 carries six receptions for 87 yards. In his sophomore year Evans doubled his catches but he did not increase his rushing yards. 2019 was to be his big year but academic trouble found him barred from the team. In 2020 Evans was a non factor for the Wolverines but his pass catching skill got him invited to the Senior Bowl. Pundits say he impressed at Senior Bowl practices. Evans has boom or bust potential. Will his academic issues impact his ability to absorb an NFL playbook?

Rountree is a powerful runner for his size. Not extremely quick but hard to get on the ground. He is said to “run angry” with good vision. He has limits in the passing game and needs to improve his blocking in pass protection.

Sermon waited until the end of the 2020 season to show his talents. In the Big 10 championship he rushed for 331 yards on 29 carries. In the college playoffs against Clemson he ran for 193 more on 31 carries. Sermon does not have the resume of some backs in the draft but his potential is undeniable.

In 30 selections, starting at pick 137 thru 166, ESPN lists seven more running backs:

Elijah Mitchell (5’10”/215) Louisiana
Demetric Felton (5’10”/194) UCLA
Khalil Herbert (5’9”/206) Virginia Tech
Rakeem Boyd (6’1”/209) Arkansas
Deon Jackson (6’/219) Duke
Trey Ragas (5’10”/222) Louisiana
Brian Robinson Jr. (6’2”/222) Alabama

Mitchell is a tough runner who breaks tackles. He works better on the inside, sometimes seeming to get beaten to the corner on outside run plays. NFL speed is a question. Mitchell can catch the football, making him a dual threat. He finished his career with 3267 yards rushing while sharing the backfield.

Felton has versatility, playing slot receiver in 2019 and being the main running back in 2020. In six games in 2020 Felton rushed for 668 yards and five TD’s while also catching 22 passes for 159 yards. He impressed teams with a good week at the Senior Bowl displaying his versatility.

Herbert did it all for the Hokies after being limited to second string in three years at Kansas. For the Hokies he ended the season with a 7.7 yard per carry average, gained a total of 1182 yards and returned 16 kicks for 430 yards. If the Packers truly want to improve special teams they should draft a player with return experience.

Boyd should be familiar to Arkansas fans and viewers of Netflix’s, “Last Chance U.” Boyd ran for 1200+ in ten games for Independence Community College. He came back to Arkansas and totaled 1162 yards and a 6.3 yard per carry average in 2019. In 2020 Boyd only played in 6 games, had 82 carries for 309 yards. Even more concerning, his per carry average dipped to 3.8 yards. He suffered through an unspecified lower leg injury. The 2020 season saw Boyd “opt out” with two games remaining after junior Trelon Smith emerged as a better runner. Boyd was called out for, “disrespecting his captaincy” by quitting on his team. Boyd does not impress analysts as being an elite speed or size runner but if you watched, “Last Chance U” he flashed good burst and long speed. Some will argue that fewer carries in 2020 left more tread on the tires, but scouts will want to know how Boyd handled the 2020 adversity with his team and coaches.

Jackson was a dual threat for the Blue Devils rushing for 2,267 yards and catching 61 passes for 534 yards. Jackson is a willing pass blocker, runs good routes and runs with power. There are questions concerning dropped passes and average athletic gifts. He has no special teams experience which is a shame as that may be where he needs to prove himself to make his first NFL roster.

Ragas is a powerful runner who averaged four yards a carry, AFTER contact. He had 45 broken tackles in 2020 alone. His yards per carry was 5.8. He does not win with burst or speed, but with patience and vision. If his 40 time is NFL caliber, his draft stock may soar.

Robinson was the other Alabama back on the 2020 Crimson Tide. On January 15, there was a story by Joe Gather of Tide100.9 radio that Robinson was returning to Alabama. If he had stayed in, he would have been drafted. Tough power runner.

Two other running backs make the ESPN draft board as late sixth or seventh round picks. Kylin Hill (5’10”/215) out of Mississippi State. The Packers scout Mississippi State, Elgton Jenkins turned out to be a draft steal. Hill had impressive numbers on the ground in 2019. (1350 rushing yards, 3rd in the SEC) Hill ran for over 150 yards in four different games. In 2020 he had a new coach, pass happy Mike Leach. Hill ended the season with 23 receptions in 3 games. Hill opted out of the season after 3 games with only 14 carries. He had an injury that took him out of a game before he shut it down. His coach commented that if players didn’t like his system, he didn’t care if they left. It will be interesting what the coaching staff has to say about Hill.

Last and allegedly least is Florida Atlantic’s B.J. Emmons (5’11”/226) who’s biggest battle has been tough luck. In 2016 at Alabama he broke his foot, then took a year off in 2017. In his first game for FAU he broke his ankle. He returned in 2019, played 5 games and totaled 237 yards. His 2020 season ended with 4 games and 116 yards. He has a few games where he flashed potential, but between multiple ankle and foot injuries, he may be lucky to get drafted.

Packer fans just hope that they can get as lucky with their RB draft picks in 2021 as they did in 2017.

Paul Edwards

Paul Edwards is a lawyer, victim advocate, writer, and long term Packer fan and Packer history enthusiast.

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24 Comments

  1. Mick March 8, 2021

    Good article Paul! Quite a hodge-podge of backs available, but since they drafted a tough runner in Dillon; I don’t see them taking another big power runner. An all purpose back is what they’ll need in LaFleurs system, if Jones isn’t retained.

    Reply
  2. Howard March 9, 2021

    Very detailed article Paul. It is hard to get interested in RBs at this point, but you give very good information on the RB prospects. I think the Packers take a RB in the draft (day 3) even if they retain Jones or J. Williams. I don’t think the Packers are sold on D. Williams, at least as it relates to the mental part of the game.

    Reply
  3. Savage57 March 9, 2021

    “Smart money would bet Gutekunst will tag Williams or Jones…”

    Williams won’t get a franchise tag as a #2 running back.

    And I hope they don’t tag Jones. Nothing against Jones, it’s just a luxury the Packers can’t afford at present.

    Reply
    1. Mick March 10, 2021

      Yea, I agree! His agent (Rosenhaus); knows all the tricks and is a shrewd agent that will get the most for his clients. I think Jones is a class act, a hell of a good RB, and well liked in the locker room. I can’t blame him for wanting to get the money he deserves, when he can; considering the short careers they have playing the game. It’s gonna suck if they lose him but, I wish him the best of luck. His versatility will be hard to replace.

      Reply
      1. PF4L March 10, 2021

        They could afford to franchise Jones with a couple strokes of a pen with Rodgers contract.
        They can also cut Preston Smith to easily sign their draft picks.
        Those two moves easily puts them under the cap.

        Reply
        1. PF4L March 10, 2021

          NOTE: Preston Smith will have to be cut soon, before March 19th, or pay him 4.5 million roster bonus.
          Preston Smith had one season with double digit sacks in his career. A team trading for him, would be just as stupid as a team giving a player like Nick Perry a winning lottery ticket for having 11 sacks….one season.
          UPDATE: Nick Perry is currently enjoying his retirement he began at age 28.
          “Thank you Green Bay Packers” – Nick Perry

          Reply
  4. Ferris March 10, 2021

    Jones must want to be a Jaguar or a Jet. They are the only team with both the money and the RB need.

    Reply
    1. Howard March 10, 2021

      The Patriots have the money. The Patriots may have the need. I don’t recall the Patriots ever paying big money on long term contracts for RBs. I’m sure Belichick has a legitimate reason for that philosophy.

      Reply
      1. PF4L March 10, 2021

        I agree, and i don’t think it’s just a Belichick philosophy, but a league wide philosophy.

        .
        That isn’t to mean no team will pay up for running backs, but it’s rare and the teams that do, usually aren’t SB winning teams.

        Reply
        1. Mick March 11, 2021

          i remember a commentary a few years back where Belichick and Parcells sat down with a narrator. They were discussing team building and what it takes to sustain a winning tradition and keep their teams competitive. Their foundation for team building is a solid defense and offensive line. They said with those two things, they can be competitive in any game, win or lose. From there, you acquire a smart QB and fill in your needs at the skill positions. Their reasoning is, you can win without the all-star QB; and without the best RB in the game. Belichick also commented; rarely does he give a 3rd contract to any position on his teams; because of salary cap reasons, and players beginning to decline. With Brady being the exception, you see it year after year, he moves on no matter who the player is; pro-bowler, or not. I can’t even remember when the Pats have had a star RB. They’ve had some good backs, but not stars. On another note, I wonder how Jerry Jones is digesting that insane contract they gave to Elliott a few years back?

          Reply
  5. Stickman March 11, 2021

    How about the insane money they gave “DAK”. I would like to thank Jerry Jones because he is way over rated and now we don`t have to worry about the cowgirls.

    Reply
    1. Mick March 11, 2021

      For sure,,,,,,, over the last 25 years, with all the talent Big “D” has had; Jones should look in the mirror and find the solution to most of their woes. The results don’t even come close to the ego this man has. In the media department, he is entertaining , to say the least; in the football department——WAY OVER RATED.

      Reply
  6. PF4L March 11, 2021

    PF4L

    March 11, 2021 at 06:13 pm

    Absa freaking lutly Jeremy.

    All Jones has done is score 30 TD’s the last 2 seasons. How many NFL players can say that.

    8 million was a steal!!

    That makes about as much sense as cutting a receiver who caught 21 passes in his last 22 games with Rodgers………and still….needing a receiver to this day.

    In simple speak: If you are going to get rid of Nelson, Cobb, and Cook….
    You might want to come up with something better than J’mon Moore, ESB, MVS, Funchess Martellus Bennett, and Jimmy Graham.

    Reply
    1. PF4L March 11, 2021

      It’s a 99% probability that i will be shunned by the sheep down the hall for that comment…lol
      .
      But hey…it’s all for charity…who cares :)

      Reply
    2. Mick March 12, 2021

      It’s almost like they treat the WR position the same way they value the DL and ILB positions. They must believe they can get a starting caliber player at those positions in the latter part of draft day, or squeeze in a low cost veteran FA and hope to fill voids. Sometimes you get lucky, most of the time it’s just a patch covering a larger wound. There are reasons those low round draft picks and low cost FAs’ were in that position; they usually are not starting caliber talent. It’s smarter to take those players for depth purposes. Of course, the cap has a lot to say about a lot of moves, but, picking up quality players, earlier in the draft; to fill those needs is probably less expensive than doling out money to some of the low priced FA players they sign. At least, if you target needs with earlier round picks, you don’t have to worry about re-signing or re-structuring those picks for 3 or more years. The biggest concern for filling the needs on your team with earlier draft picks should be hoping you don’t pick players that end up being busts. The way they have tried to replace Nelson Cobb and Cook; without having a solid backup plan is irresponsible; with Adams as the only exception. We all know that the draft is a crap shoot for every team but; if your not trying to improve your team by addressing needs with better athletes at the weak positions;;;;;;;;;; DAMN! The biggest snafu in the last 4 or so years is not paying Cook, then turn around and sign Graham to a contract 3 years- 30 million. UUUGGGHHH!

      Reply
  7. Mick March 12, 2021

    Other news; Adam Schefter reports the Texans and Kirksey have agreed to a 1 year deal worth up to 4.5 mil. This might be a good sign that P. Smith has market value; if the Pack decides to move on from him.

    Reply
  8. KILLER March 12, 2021

    Will the Packers take a RB high in the draft?

    A: I sure hope so! They already burned a 2nd round pick last year on lesser importance spot like that. By all means, burn another high pick, Gute the Bad! Do it. Doooooooooo it….!

    Reply
  9. PF4L March 13, 2021

    What happens if you can’t find a trade partner for Preston Smith?
    .
    In Green Bay, you keep the 12th pick of the 2019 draft on the bench 3 years in a row,

    Reply
    1. Mick March 13, 2021

      Right On!———– Update, they restructured P. Smith with a salary reduction, and incentives. So, he is here for at least one more year! It’s the Packers way——???????????

      Reply
  10. PF4L March 13, 2021

    Last month, Packers general manager Brian Gutekunst pointed to the need for internal improvement at cornerback but also acknowledged it will be a position of priority this offseason.
    .
    “We are looking for some of those young players to take a jump. We’re going to need them to,” Gutekunst said, via the team’s official site. “But at the same time, I do think that’s an area that’s important for us to address moving forward.”
    .
    I think it was important to address a year or two ago. But then again, i’m not as smart as Brian Gutenkunst
    .
    It wasn’t important enough to address instead of taking a project edge rusher? A rb? A tight end? A QB? Maybe even using….. a 4th round pick?
    .
    Gutenkunst strategy appears to change with the wind.
    Or….when a weak player exposes Gutenkunst in a NFCCG.
    .
    Lets all applaud Gute….a month ago he made the discovery a weak cornerback position needs to be addressed

    Executive of the Year?

    Reply
    1. KILLER March 13, 2021

      giggle

      Reply
  11. Mick March 13, 2021

    Gute? Being named executive of the year? After last years inexcusable draft? We have a better chance at spotting Elvis riding the Lochness monster across the midnight sky!!!!!! —– Okay, Okay; I apologize!

    Reply
    1. KILLER March 13, 2021

      Hey. You’re right.

      Reply
      1. PF4L March 13, 2021

        Hey. You’re strange.

        Reply

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