The 2021 NFL Draft is a little more than one month away and teams are sorting through situations that could arise. A team that operates a wide-zone-blocking scheme might prefer Alabama's Najee Harris over Clemson's Travis Etienne. If the team does not want to take a running back early or Harris is off the board, who is another option to select? 

The job of an NFL Draft analyst is often just grading the talent to determine if a prospect translates to the next level. Team boards are more specific to skill sets the organization covets and roles prospects would fill on the roster. It does not make sense for a team that operates a scheme that values quick decision-making and burst to select a player that struggles making decisions at the line of scrimmage. In an effort to shed some light on the running back class, I broke down CBS Sports' five highest-graded running backs, plus one other that exemplifies each trait, into five categories.

Contact balance

  1. Javonte Williams, North Carolina
  2. Travis Etienne, Clemson
  3. Najee Harris, Alabama
  4. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis
  5. Michael Carter, North Carolina

Sleeper: Elijah Mitchell, Louisiana

Overall, the group does not stand out as much as the 2020 draft class. Zach Moss looked like an air-filled children's toy that had sand at the base; he never fell down. Williams is at the head of the class because he uses his balance and strength to create opportunities for himself at the line of scrimmage. Mitchell -- a member of an underrated Louisiana rushing attack -- is another noteworthy player in this category. 


  1. Carter
  2. Harris
  3. Gainwell
  4. Etienne
  5. Williams

Sleeper: Jaret Patterson, Buffalo

Carter and Harris are in a league of their own in this category. Whether a lack of size or burst, they make up for it in their ability to identify cutback lanes. Williams has to work quicker in his reads because there are multiple examples of him dancing at the line of scrimmage only to get bottled up. Patterson is a wide-zone-scheme master that found cutback lanes to produce some insane performances in 2020.

Pass-catching ability

  1. Gainwell
  2. Carter
  3. Harris
  4. Etienne
  5. Williams

Sleeper: Demetric Felton, UCLA

The margin is slim in this category. In the profile of the lowest-ranked player, Williams, I wrote "looks like a wide receiver." Catching passes out of the backfield is a prerequisite for elite running backs in today's NFL so it stands to reason all of these players would grade highly. Felton has cross-trained at wide receiver, so few can compete with his natural catching ability and polished route-running.

Pass protection

  1. Williams
  2. Gainwell
  3. Carter
  4. Harris
  5. Etienne

Sleeper: Chris Evans, Michigan

Williams has shown a higher volume of quality pass-protection reps than any other player on this list. He needs to be more consistent in this area but his past as a linebacker shines through. The rest of the list is pretty unimpressive. I applied a pound-for-pound approach, because Harris and Etienne should have an advantage with their size, but there is significant room for improvement. Although he split carries this season, Evans put some quality pass-protection repetitions on tape. 


  1. Etienne
  2. Gainwell
  3. Carter
  4. Williams
  5. Harris

Sleeper: Javian Hawkins, Louisville

Etienne was the obvious choice at the top for the way that he attacks gaps. Gainwell is a versatile talent that is difficult to defend in open space. Hawkins is lightning in a bottle and, despite a smaller frame, is capable of finding the end zone on any given play. 

The 2021 NFL Draft begins April 29 in Cleveland. For a full list of prospect rankings, visit