The perceived value of individual running backs in the NFL appears to have diminished in the last 10 to 15 years. The reluctance of NFL teams to hand out long term contracts to rushers has been on full display in recent years. However, it does not mean that teams will shy away from adding talented players to their backfield. The 2021 NFL Draft will offer franchises another chance to bring in difference making running backs, and two of the best options are Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne.
Najee Harris vs Travis Etienne comparison
In the majority of mock drafts, Harris is being selected ahead of Etienne. The former Crimson Tide running back stands to be selected somewhere in the back half of the first round, while the former Tigers rusher figures to be taken towards the end of the first round or beginning of the second round.
Both had very accomplished careers in college football, and should be excellent in the NFL. Let’s take a closer look at what each player brings to the table, and decide which is the better prospect.
If there was ever someone who looked every bit the part of an intimidating football player, Najee Harris is right out of central casting. At 6’2” and 230 pounds, he could almost pass for a linebacker if fans didn’t know any better.
— The Checkdown (@thecheckdown) April 25, 2021
Harris uses every inch and every pound of his frame to impose his will on a defense. From Day 1 in the NFL, he will not be overmatched by the power of opposing defenders, and will likely create holes from scratch if they aren’t already there.
He also showed an improved appetite and skill set for pass protection with Alabama in the 2020 season.
Some of the positives about Harris’ game that make him mouthwatering as a prospect could also swing in a negative direction. Because Harris is such a physically gifted player, his inclination to run over everyone he sees might not be the best thing for his NFL career longevity.
Absorbing punishment is the exact thing that causes running backs to have shorter careers than other players in the league, so Harris may have to alter his style in order to extend his time in the NFL. Additionally, Harris does not have the breakaway speed that many featured runners have.
From the first day he stepped foot on the field at Clemson, it seemed pretty clear that Travis Etienne would be something special.
Most rushing yards after contact in college football since 2019
💥 Jaret Patterson – 1,789
💥 Travis Etienne – 1,687
💥 Chuba Hubbard – 1,632 pic.twitter.com/Ilrr2sGmYR
— PFF Fantasy Football (@PFF_Fantasy) April 20, 2021
In his freshman season with the Tigers, he scored 13 rushing touchdowns. That output would actually the lowest number of scores he’d have on the ground in a season, signifying just how impressive his college career was. He’s also been a dynamite pass catcher throughout his career, punctuated by the 48 balls he caught during the 2020 season.
While Etienne was a star immediately in college football, his workload has been consistently heavy since his freshman season.
He had 686 carriers throughout his college career, and another 102 touches on receptions. Since running back careers are already not the longest lasting, it might give some teams pause that the former Tiger star has already had so much work before his professional career. Etienne also needs to focus on holding on to the ball at the next level.
Harris vs Etienne Verdict: Travis Etienne
Most of the mock drafts online won’t support this conclusion, but Etienne seems to be more of a weapon at the running back position than Harris.
Etienne definitely has room for improvement in a few areas, but he’s the type of player that could take the ball the distance any time it is in his hands. Etienne even figures to be a factor when the ball isn’t in his hands, potentially on fake sweeps and motion, which bolsters his value as well.