Najee Harris and Travis Etienne highlight the 2021 NFL Draft running back class. After that, however, there is a serious lack of consensus regarding which running backs to slot next. Kenneth Gainwell is the no-doubt number three for me, but after that, the waters get murky, with subjective opinions, style, and fit preferences often dictating which backs rank next on big boards.
In discussing overvalued running backs, the qualification criteria requires the prospect in question to be ranked in the top six on one or more big boards. There must also be at least one name who NFL teams likely have higher on their boards behind them. This was a hard list to come up with, as most running backs that fall in a top-six have the production, big school, or conference to justify any arguments made on their behalf. I did manage to pinpoint two running backs who are often overvalued, but that does not mean I am not big fans of their tape. It just means their draft stock may not match up with where analysts and prognosticators have them pegged. Let’s dig in.
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Kylin Hill (RB – Mississippi State)
Tape watched: Louisiana, Texas A&M, Southern Miss, LSU, LSU (2020)
Kylin Hill is a talented running back who flashed his wares against the SEC. He played just three games as a senior but was on the Day 2 watch list for the 2020 NFL Draft before deciding to go back to school. His best season came in 2019 as a junior when he posted 1,350 rushing yards and 10 rushing touchdowns on 5.6 yards per carry. He added 18 receptions for 180 receiving yards and one touchdown. He managed just 15 carries for 58 rushing yards in 2020, seeing an average of only five carries per game. However, he was able to surpass his career-high in receptions with 23 for 237 receiving yards and one touchdown.
Kylin Hill has some impressive tape; his burst and athleticism are routinely put on display. His highlight reel is probably quite fantastic as the hurdle is one of his go-to moves. He has proven to be a slippery back with great burst and good acceleration. He does, however, lack top end game speed. Hill will probably time well in his 10-yard split but may fall off as far as his overall 40 time is concerned. Hill is a powerful runner who runs with good pad level. He can rip off chunk yardage when he beats the first defender. He has excellent vision and knows how to press the line and change direction for positive yardage. Hill has good contact balance and is an exciting open-field runner. He proved to be a high-level receiving option this past season and has starter level upside.
As good as Hill is, there are still some questions about what type of role he may fill at the next level. Unless he is drafted to start by a team devoid of running back talent (like the New York Jets), Hill is likely to find himself mired in a committee for most, if not all, of his career. He has the talent to start; it just that there are more talented starters on just about every NFL roster. He did help answer any concerns teams may have had about his hands in his brief 2020 spell. In fact, he might have been so impressive that he is drafted to be a third-down back in the Giovani Bernard role. Like Bernard, Hill could start multiple games if called upon and could carve out a consistent weekly role, even if he lands behind an elite back.
While Hill does have plus vision, he often does not get much more than what is blocked. He struggled against ranked opponents in 2019, managing just 2.38 yards per carry. His success as a runner could turn out to be very landing spot and O-Line dependent. As a receiver, he can flourish in space. He needs some work in pass protection, but willingness is not the issue. He needs to clean up his technique as far as being to sustain blocks.
Overall, there is a lot to like about Kylin Hill. However, his best-case scenario is likely forming a 1-2 punch. He may start for a season or two if drafted by the Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, Atlanta Falcons, or New York Jets. Still, his replaceability of talent will keep him on the hot-seat in perpetuity. Hill is a talent; he may not have the NFL upside of some of the running backs who are sometimes ranked behind him.
Trey Sermon (RB – Ohio State)
Tape watched: Texas Tech (2019), Kansas (2019), Clemson (2020), Northwestern (2020), Penn State (2020)
Trey Sermon is an intriguing prospect. He has impressed throughout his college career but was never a true starter. Sermon made a name for himself in his final two (healthy) college contests and may be able to ride that momentum to becoming a Day 2 pick. His best season came this past season at Ohio State, where he put up 870 rushing yards and four touchdowns on an exciting 7.5 yards per carry. While he looked good as a freshman, he really started turning heads as a sophomore when he posted 947 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns on 5.8 yards per carry, chipping in 12 receptions for 181 receiving yards.
Trey Sermon is a powerful, between-the-tackles runner with enough burst to carve out an NFL career. He is likely ticketed for a power complement role in a committee but has more than enough upside to be a spot starter. Sermon has good contact balance and good cutting ability but is more of a ‘gets what is blocked’ runner than someone who creates for himself.
He has displayed adequate hands but has limited production and upside as a receiver. His lack of receiving chops will likely limit him primarily to early downs. Sermon is a mixed bag as far as vision is concerned, as he can hit the hole hard but showed success rate issues that could be problematic at the next level. He is excellent when he finds daylight and can rip off enough chunk plays to boast a solid yards per carry.
Sermon does have starter-level talent but is less talented than just about every other starter in the NFL. Some point to his low college career carry total as a plus, but there are two sides to that coin. Yes, he should have more life on his legs than backs who piled up college touches. However, it is concerning that Sermon was never a starter in his entire college career. Being a career committee member doesn’t mean much if you have the talent of Josh Jacobs or Antonio Gibson, but sadly, Sermon does not.
He was stuck behind the more talented but brittle Rodney Anderson for one season but failed to grab hold of the starters role when Anderson missed his final college season, instead seeing an inferior talent in Kennedy Brooks lead the backfield in carries. Sermon failed once again to grab the reins in 2019 with Anderson in the NFL, playing second fiddle to Rhamondre Stevenson. He transferred to Ohio State as a grad transfer, likely because he thought he could finally get starters touches, but misjudged the opportunity that J.K. Dobbins‘ departure created. Sermon would share touches with Master Teague for the bulk of the season. Even more concerning is that more than half of his 2020 production came in the two games Teague missed.
There is a lot to like about Sermon. Throw on a highlight mix, and you would likely think you are looking at a no-doubt starter. However, there is a reason you have to evaluate full games when evaluating prospects. Sermon projects as a career backup or committee member, but that has more to do with the talent currently in the NFL (and also on the way) than it does a lack of starters talent. He could post 1,000 yard rushing seasons if given the opportunity; unfortunately, he will likely only see that type of workload if there is an injury in front of him. Sermon is ranked much too high on many big boards.
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Raju Byfield is a featured writer for FantasyPros. For more from Raju, check out his profile and follow him @FantasyContext.