Could three running backs go in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft?
The top three RBs heading into Thursday night's opening round in Cleveland are Alabama's Najee Harris, Clemson's Travis Etienne and North Carolina's Javonte Williams. How each stacks on teams' draft boards depends on preference.
Harris was prolific at Bama, owning the ability to blast through arm tackles. He's projected as the top between-the-tackles runner who can carry a heavy workload and has excellent hands out of the backfield as a pass-catcher. Harris should be a three-down back in the NFL.
NFL Network Insider Ian Rapoport reported that most teams believe that Harris will be drafted by No. 24 overall where the Pittsburgh Steelers sit. Harris would fit the profile of a Steelers RB and would immediately upgrade a position of need.
Steelers coach Mike Tomlin said Monday that "improvements in the running game go beyond just the acquisition of additional players," but adding a back of Harris' caliber would immediately boost one of the worst rushing attacks in the league.
Etienne is the most dynamic of the three backs in the draft, particularly in the passing game. His explosiveness from the first step is game-breaking, allowing him to get into open space where he can burn by players. When Buffalo Bills GM Brandon Beane discussed potentially adding a home-run hitter to his backfield, Etienne immediately came to mind.
Williams might be the most complete back of the three. He's not as big as Harris but packs a punch and owns excellent vision to hit creases. He can make defenders miss in a phone booth with elite lateral quickness. Williams might not own home-run talents like Etienne, but he's prolific in the passing game. A well-rounded player, it wouldn't be stunning if, three years from now, Williams was viewed as the best back from the class.
NFL Network's Tom Pelissero named Williams as one of six potential sleepers heading into Thursday who could slide into the first round.
Several clubs could be looking at running backs in the first round, with the Dolphins, Jets and Bills joining the Steelers as teams possibly in range to snag an RB early. In which order the backs come off the board seems to be a matter of preference.
Here's what else we're monitoring Tuesday ahead of the 2021 NFL Draft, which kicks off Thursday night:
- Kyle Pitts is expected to be the top skill position player taken in the draft. But where will he go? According to the Florida TE, not before at least four quarterbacks. "It would surprise me (to go at No. 3)," Pitts told NFL Network's Andrew Siciliano. "It's a lot of great quarterbacks in the draft. I think the first four picks will be quarterbacks. If I do get a chance to be drafted at third, that would be… I don't even know. That would be too crazy. That would be really exciting. I don't know what'll happen. I think my heart'll just fall out of my chest." The 49ers pick at No. 3, while the Falcons, who still have Matt Ryan under contract, pick at No. 4.
- With unproven QB Drew Lock entering his third season under center in Denver, the Broncos are a candidate to add another signal-caller this offseason. They might not do so in the draft. NFL Network's James Palmer reported Tuesday that Denver feels it has options at quarterback outside of picking one with the ninth overall selection. If Denver doesn't select a QB in the first round, Palmer reports Denver will make a move at the position.
- The Jacksonville Jaguars are expected to take Trevor Lawrence at No. 1 come Thursday night, but they didn't arrive that decision without putting in the work of evaluating this class's top QB talent. "When we first started and we got our staff together in late January, with (Brian) Schottenheimer and Darrell Bevell, it was all hands on deck to make sure Trevor is the one," Jags coach Urban Meyer told Rapoport. Meyer added that they narrowed their options to Lawrence, Zach Wilson and Justin Fields, the top three QBs on their board. The Jags then put each player through two Zoom calls, one in which they recalled and worked through plays from Jacksonville's and their school's playbooks and one during which they got to know the QB as a person. Meyer said all three QBs got "really high marks," and Lawrence stood out. The coach added that he found Lawrence's response to celebrity "wholesome" and not "polluted," like other highly touted prospects. Meyer compared Lawrence to Joey and Nick Bosa, whom he coached at Ohio State: "Hard work, selflessness, taking care of their body, the desire to be the best."
- Who will be calling plays for Lawrence (likely) in Jacksonville? Thanks to a certain NFC West quarterback, it'll be Darrell Bevell. According to NFL Network's James Palmer, Meyer had a lengthy conversation with Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson regarding Bevell this offseason, and the talk had a huge impact on the first-year Jags coach's decision to hire the former Seahawks and Lions offensive coordinator. Wilson told Meyer about Bevell's ability to get him ready to perform at a high level very quickly during his rookie season, per Palmer. The Seahawks QB completed 64.1 percent of his passes for 3,118 yards, 26 TDs and just 10 INTs in his 2012 rookie campaign under Bevell en route to a Pro Bowl bid.
- At No. 14, the Vikings have a lot of options, and GM Rick Spielman is considering all of them. "To have the draft capital that we have," Spielman said Tuesday, "it gives us a lot of flexibility, hopefully, to move up in the draft if we want to go do that." Spielman added that Minnesota feels confident that, if it doesn't move, it is going to get a "very good football player" at No. 14. As to whether the Vikings could draft a QB to potentially back up Kirk Cousins, Spielman responded, "I will just say this, that there's no position that is off limits.''
- A piece of recent draft history is making its way to Cleveland. The chair from which Commissioner Roger Goodell conducted the 2020 virtual draft is heading to the shores of Lake Erie, Rapoport reported. How it will be utilized remains to be seen. Rapoport suggested it could be backstage and show up elsewhere throughout the week.