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
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.
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.