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Who Is The Top Rookie Running Back? (2021 Fantasy Football)

Feb 17, 2021

Last week our writers discussed who the best rookie wide receiver is from this year’s draft class. This week we’re tackling the running back position. As expected, just two names were mentioned.

Q: Who is the top rookie running back of 2021?

Najee Harris (RB – Alabama)
As my colleagues below point out as well, Harris’ work in the receiving game is what elevates him to the No. 1 spot among rookie running backs. He wasn’t used much in the passing game early on in his college career, but that changed once he became “the guy” at Alabama. In 2020 he was able to total 43 receptions, which is a much needed element of workhorse backs when it comes to fake football. This usage complements Harris’ powerful, old-school running abilities. He can make defenders miss while also being able to use his legs to push the pile forward. The right landing spot could send his value through the roof come the NFL Draft.
– Brendan Tuma (@toomuchtuma)

Harris checks all the boxes for being a complete NFL running back. He has very good size at 6′ 2″ and 230 pounds. He should be able to take the pounding a NFL back takes and handle 18-20 touches per game with ease. He had a fantastic senior year with 251 rushing attempts for 1,466 yards and 26 touchdowns. He also added 43 receptions for 425 yards and four more touchdowns. Like most college running backs, he will need to adjust to the pass blocking duties that come with being a starting NFL running back. I think his ability to run and catch along with his size make him a player that can contribute immediately and develop into a a player that can be on the field in any situation. He is easily my top running back in the 2021 NFL Draft Class.
– Derek Lofland (@DerekLofland)

Not much needs to be said as to why Harris is the top rookie running back in the 2021 NFL Draft. In today’s NFL, teams are making a concerted effort to find running backs that can contribute on the ground and be a reliable receiving threat. After not making a blip on the receiving radar in his first two collegiate seasons at Alabama (10 receptions, 52 yards), Harris combined for 70 catches, 729 receiving yards, and 11 receiving touchdowns in his final two seasons with the Crimson Tide. Running backs that are the size of Harris shouldn’t be able to move the way he does on the football field. Regardless of where Harris lands in the draft, he can be a key contributor in the backfield, and he has the potential to evolve into one of the best running backs in the NFL rather quickly. Whoever is lucky enough to select Harris is getting the most complete running back in this year’s draft class.
– Skyler Carlin (@skyler_carlin)

Harris is the best combination of size, speed, and production of any running back in the draft. He can run between the tackles but it’s his work in the passing game should give him the chance to be a three-down back in the NFL. Harris accounted for over 3,400 total yards and 50 touchdowns his final two seasons in Tuscaloosa, adding 70 receptions to that as well. The athleticism for a guy his size to be able hurdle a defender mid-stride almost makes the fact he is 230 pounds unfair and is just another added bonus. While Travis Etienne gives me some Alvin Kamara vibes, I believe that is a top-3% outcome for him. Give me Harris and his safe floor to go with his sky-high upside.
– Jason Kamlowsky (@JasonKamlowsky)

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Travis Etienne (RB – Clemson)
Harris is most likely going to be the first RB drafted, and he’s built to handle a load. However, Travis Etienne was considered a top rusher even among last year’s stacked class had he come out, and the fact that he didn’t light up the scoreboard has led many to believe returning to school hurt his stock. Etienne won’t ever be a bell-cow, but he scored at least one touchdown in 46 games at Clemson, the most in college football history. Since 2018, Etienne has more forced tackles and yards after contact per attempt than Harris, and his combination of balance and speed makes him a threat to score from anywhere on the field. Routinely knocked for his lack of vision, Etienne’s decision to go back to school actually helped him improve in this area. Landing spot will be key, but if Etienne gets drafted by a team that will feature him in the receiving game rather than banging him through the tackles, then he has the highest upside of any back in this class.
-Paul Ghiglieri (@FantasyEvolves)

This was close between Etienne and Harris for me (shocking). In the current NFL, it’s hard to imagine a highly drafted RB who is unable to playing all three downs effectively (which makes the Sony Michel pick and Josh Jacobs utilization rather strange). Three-down ability is what I believe presents the best fantasy floor for RBs (Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb are seemingly outliers), and both of these guys present that skill set. Among RBs with at least 34 targets last season, Etienne possessed the highest PFF receiving grade (90.9) and Harris was fourth at 81.6. Beyond his receiving prowess, Etienne is also a great rusher, as exemplified by him ranking in the top-10 in yards after contact per attempt among eligible RBs in each of the past three seasons per PFF, including finishing number one in 2019. Harris, alternatively, has failed to break into the top 10 in this category, which may suggest he was a bit reliant on perennially great Alabama offensive line. He has shown the ability to run efficiently and break tackles, but he’s below Etienne in this regard. Etienne and Harris will probably be the first two rookie RBs selected in most drafts. They are arguably the two most well-rounded RBs in this class and should be bell-cows for their NFL teams next season. I’d hope so considering they’ll both be drafted in the second round at worst. When it comes down to it, fantasy managers drafting after the NFL draft may simply opt for the RB that lands in the better situation.
– Jared Lese (@JaredL_FF)

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