Analysis

2021 NFL Draft: Best team fits for top running backs? Five analytics-based pairings

With the 2021 NFL Draft just around the corner, I'm putting my context-based data models to work in search of identifying the best team fit for some of the top players in this year's class.

Leading up to Round 1, I'm looking to find ideal NFL homes for my top five wide receivers, running backs and quarterbacks. The goal for each pairing: maximizing the draftee's 2021 win share, factoring in what we know about each team's personnel, coaches and strategy right now. And of course, I'm aiming to present realistic matches, ones that could actually come to fruition on draft day.

Without further ado, let's dig in on my running back fits ...

Najee Harris
Alabama · Age 23
Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh Steelers

Projected 2021 win share: 0.52


Harris is a triple threat: rushing, pass catching and blocking. Pro Football Focus calculates that he led the FBS last season in total forced missed tackles (93 total, as a rusher and receiver). His 71 forced missed tackles on rushes and 821 rushing yards after contact both ranked No. 2. He also had just three drops on 83 catchable passes over his last three seasons at Alabama. His total of 2,080 yards after contact ranks as the fifth-most since 2018. His blocking and route-concept growth project to fit best under the tutelage of Mike Tomlin and Co. My models show some similarities between Harris and former Steelers star Le'Veon Bell. They both have a higher center of gravity than the average back and they share an accelerating running style (both get faster as they run at similar rates). In Pittsburgh's offense -- and with Ben Roethlisberger's recent style of play -- Harris's potential production is supercharged.

Travis Etienne
Clemson · Age 22
Atlanta Falcons
Atlanta Falcons

Projected 2021 win share: 0.49


Over the past three seasons, per PFF, Etienne had the most rushing yards after contact in the FBS (2,571). The guy is a true home run hitter, having racked up 85 rushes of 15-plus yards during his Clemson career. Of the 25 running backs invited to this year's abbreviated NFL Scouting Combine, Etienne reached the fastest speed in a game over the past two seasons. He also led all FBS backs with 588 receiving yards in 2020. Now, my models don't have a first-round projection for any running back. In fact, Etienne in the mid-second is about the highest my models would suggest. But the strategy here could for the Falcons to trade down a few slots (from Pick No. 4 to, say, No. 8 or 9) and add another second-round pick. Picking at 8/9, 35, and 45ish could mean snagging Etienne, along with an edge (likely at 35) and a top O-lineman.


Side note: Etienne forecasts at a 0.46 win share as a Jet ...

Javonte Williams
North Carolina · Age 20
Miami Dolphins
Miami Dolphins

Projected 2021 win share: 0.48


Williams led the FBS with 76 missed tackles forced on rushes last season, according to Pro Football Focus. His mark of 0.48 missed tackles per rush set a new PFF record. My computer vision shows that over the past two seasons, his speed after first contact slowed down the least among any of the 25 running backs invited to the combine. Miami has four picks in the top 50, and the O-line figures to be an area to address with at least one of those selections. But Williams' ability to earn yards despite contact would be a huge asset to the Dolphins' potential to earn first downs and touchdowns, as well as boon to Tua Tagovailoa's development.

Michael Carter
North Carolina · Age 21
Arizona Cardinals
Arizona Cardinals

Projected 2021 win share: 0.44


PFF shows that Carter posted the fifth-highest average in yards after contact per rush at 4.5 -- one slot below his teammate, Javonte Williams, at 4.6. Fun fact that doesn't get brought up enough: As a senior in high school, he scored 45(!) total touchdowns. OK, back to things that are a bit more predictive. Carter forecasts to be most productive in a situation like the current one in Arizona -- meaning an offense that features a mobile QB capable of misdirection, as well as pre-snap looks that take defenses longer to diagnose, thus helping the RB get to full speed and encounter contact when the defender is more likely to be off-balance.

Kenneth Gainwell
Memphis · Age 22
New York Jets
New York Jets

Projected 2021 win share: 0.41


Gainwell opted out of the 2020 season. But in 2019, according to PFF, the Memphis back posted the second-highest mark in yards per attempt on outside-the-tackles rushes (7.4) and forced the second-most missed tackles on receptions (20). Two things that stand out in Gainwell's game: how quickly he reaches his top rushing speed (second-fastest in this class) and how his hips stay even with his engaged defender when he's blocking. Despite having just 18 total games of college data, his pass pro and pass-catching potential is high. PFF shows he had just three drops on 60 catchable career targets.

Follow Cynthia Frelund on Twitter.

Want to create your own mock for the 2021 NFL Draft? Check out PFF's draft simulator to play out countless scenarios for every team spanning all seven rounds.

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