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Under the Radar NFL Draft Targets: Running Back (2021 NFL Draft)

The 2021 NFL Draft is full of intriguing talents at the running back position. Najee Harris and Travis Etienne, of course, top that list, but there are more than a few others who could push to start for their NFL clubs. For the purposes of this discourse, the criteria to qualify for this list is that the prospect in question is not regularly highlighted as one of the top five running back prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft. 

Harris and Etienne are one and two on most boards, with Kenneth Gainwell and Javonte Williams following them in some order. However, the fifth spot is in flux with Michael Carter, Kylin Hill, and Trey Sermon most frequently in the discussion. We could expand the conversation to the top-10, but things get a little too subjective after the top eight. To qualify for this list, the prospect in question must have top-five talent but regularly appear below some if not all of the names mentioned above. 

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Chuba Hubbard (RB – Oklahoma State)

Tape watched: Iowa State (2020), Texas (2020), Oklahoma (2020), Texas (2019), TCU (2019), Kansas State (2019), Tulsa (2019)

How can a running back who led the FBS with 2,094 rushing yards be flying under the radar? That is a good question with a very simple answer: inconsistency. Hubbard has flashed Day 2 brilliance but may still be too one dimensional at this point of his development to warrant a top 100 selection. However, his physical gifts are tantalizing, and for any team that is targeting upside as opposed to someone who is starter ready, Hubbard may be near the top of their board. 

Hubbard had a solid 2020, rushing for 89.29 rushing yards per game and five touchdowns on 4.7 yards per carry. However, his drop off from his historic 2019 in which he scored 21 touchdowns and outpaced fellow 2,000 yard rushers Jonathan Taylor and J.K. Dobbins to lead the FBS in rushing yards has raised some well-founded concerns. He did see six fewer carries a game, but the efficiency was not there. However, his offensive line play saw a dramatic dropoff. According to Football Outsiders, the Oklahoma State offensive line was ranked 44th in the nation in 2019. They crashed to 103rd in 2020. 

Hubbard’s offensive line is not totally to blame for his drop in production. Hubbard has displayed poor vision at times, even during his scintillating 2019 season, which is one of the things he returned to school to work on this past season. He rushed for over 2,000 yards based primarily on raw talent, as it is evident that he is still learning the position. Hubbard is a football player, so there is no need to worry about him being a sprinter playing football. He is a football player with sprinter speed. 

Hubbard has great burst to go along with his top-end speed. He remains raw even after returning to school for 2020, so his floor is lower than most prospects discussed in the top five. He has success rate issues due to his vision issues but is enough of a game-breaker to make up for it with chunk plays a la Miles Sanders. Like Marlon Mack, Hubbard can thrive as a starter behind a dominant offensive line. He projects as a committee member due to his lack of passing game polish, but if he can put it all together, he can be a top back from this class.

Hubbard needs to improve his reads to be anything more than a change of pace back that is schemed to the edge and to space. He routinely runs into walls when the blocking is not there and looked like a CoP back against Texas in 2019. However, he looked like a completely different back against TCU that same season, showing good vision and putting his home run, breakaway speed on full display. Consistency and receiving production issues will plague his draft stock, but his 23-198 line in 2019 should ease some of those concerns. Team, scheme, and offensive line could dictate his success in the league, but what is certain is that any team taking a chance on him on Day 3 (or perhaps as a UDFA) will get one of the steals of the 2021 NFL Draft. Hubbard has Pro Bowl upside if he can put it all together. 

Jaret Patterson (RB – Buffalo)

Tape watched: Bowling Green, Kent State, Miami (OH), 

Jarrett Patterson had an electric, truly sensational 2020 that saw him rush for 1,072 yards despite playing just six games for Buffalo. He racked up 7.6 yards per carry and an even more impressive 19 scores on the ground. His 19 touchdowns tied his career-high set in 2019 when he rushed for 1,799 yards on 5.8 yards per carry. He has the looks of a Day 2 pick, but size, competition, and top-end speed concerns may see him be a Day 3 steal. 

Patterson has been on the NFL’s radar since his terrific sophomore season but really turned some heads this past season against Bowling Green and Kent State. He had a two-game stretch for the history books in which he rushed for 710 yards and 12 touchdowns. His level of competition in the MAC will likely be held against him, but when evaluating running backs, it is just as important to look at translatable traits and skills as it is to judge prospects based on their level of competition. 

Patterson’s standout trait is definitely his elite cutting ability. While he may not be a low 4.4 runner, his ability to maintain acceleration in and out of his cuts can help him become one of the most electric starters in the league. Patterson is able to make cuts in a phone booth and can string them together seamlessly. For teams looking for a cutback runner, Patterson may be viewed as a late Day 2 pick. Straight-line speed is great if you are running go routes, short-area quickness and maximum ankle flexion are what is needed to create for yourself as a runner.  

Patterson does have good game speed, but part of that is because he does not slow down when defenders are forced to adjust to his cuts. He has game-breaking ability and can rip off big plays with regularity given a strong offensive line. Patterson benefitted from one of the top offensive lines in the country (especially relative to competition) and could truly reach his NFL ceiling if he lands somewhere with strong run blocking. He can create for himself, but if he is to be more than a committee member who relies on his strong cutting and contact balance, he will need to be put in a position to succeed. 

The size knock is inescapable. This is especially true for players who don’t play for Power 5 schools. However, that often leads to these players slipping in the draft like Aaron Jones did in 2017. Jones had incredible tape that many found it harder to trust because he went to UTEP and because he looked like a man among boys. Patterson’s tape may not be as dominant, but he has the blatantly obvious physical gifts to potentially start in the NFL. Furthermore, Patterson saw 325 touches as a sophomore, which should help ease concerns about his ability to handle a large workload. 

On tape and production, Patterson should be an NFL starter. He has elite traits that cannot be taught, and if this were five years ago, teams would be clamoring to draft him early on Day 2. There is an overabundance of starter talent in (or on the way to) the NFL, and when size and competition issues are factored into the equation, some teams may not be willing to pull the trigger until Day 3. He may initially be ticketed for a committee, but he has more than proven that he can lead a committee and be a starter when he gains his coaching staff’s trust. His NFL future will likely be scheme and depth chart dependent but make no mistake, Patterson is a gamer. If Patterson appears as high as number three on any big boards you read this draft season, don’t bat an eye. He is that good. 

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Raju Byfield is a featured writer for FantasyPros. For more from Raju, check out his profile and follow him @FantasyContext.

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