Last week James Conner—the former No. 1 running back of the Pittsburgh Steelers—signed a one-year contract with the Arizona Cardinals, ensuring that the Steelers will have a new feature back in 2021. According to Gerry Dulac of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the team plans to address that need early in the draft, “most likely in the first round, no later than the second.”
That would be something of a departure for an organization that hasn’t selected a running back in the first round since 2008, when it added Rashard Mendenhall (Illinois) with the No. 23 overall selection. Moreover, the Steelers haven’t used a second-rounder on a tailback since 2013, when Le’Veon Bell (Michigan State) was the choice.
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The Top Backs Available in the 2021 NFL Draft
But if the Steelers do use the No. 24 overall selection on a running back, they might be the first team to select one. In that case they would have the pick of the top backs available, a list that includes Travis Etienne (Clemson), Javonte Williams (North Carolina) and Najee Harris (Alabama).
For its part, Pro Football Focus has Etienne (5-foot-10, 215 pounds, 22 years old) as the best running back available, noting that he has “home run speed” (4.43 in the 40) and that “[h]is 55 career runs of 20-plus yards are the most of any Power 5 running back since we started grading.” Never mind that he also produced 588 receiving yards last season.
Then there’s Javonte Williams, whose “76 broken tackles on 157 attempts this past season set the PFF record for broken tackles per attempt. He has an ideal build at 5-foot-10, 220 pounds, with short-area explosiveness that makes you think those broken tackles will continue in gobs at the NFL level,” notes Michael Renner of PFF.
✅ Truck Stick
✅ Spin Move
— ACC Network (@accnetwork) December 13, 2020
Last but not least, there’s Najee Harris—6-foot-2 and 230 pounds—who excels in the passing game and also excels at breaking tackles.
NAJEE HARRIS, YOU CAN'T BE SERIOUS!
• Run someone over
• Hurdle someone
• Drag someone into the end zone pic.twitter.com/pFnPok0HU3
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) September 14, 2019
Most Similar Prospects to Najee Harris, Et Al.?
For what it’s worth, PFF has identified the “most similar prospects” (2006-2020) to each of the above backs, citing Cam Akers (Los Angeles Rams, No. 52 overall in 2020) as the best comparison to Etienne, “though there should be even more upside to Etienne,” says Renner, who also likens him to Marshawn Lynch (2007), among many others.
Meanwhile, PFF has Kerryon Johnson and Mark Ingram II on its list of prospects who were similar to Javonte Williams, identifying Knowshon Moreno (selected No. 12 overall by the Denver Broncos in 2009) as “probably the most similar historical comp.”
Williams “posted the top PFF grade of any running back drafted since 2015 in his final season and is right near the top in forced missed tackles and yards after contact,” notes Renner. “According to our grades, North Carolina’s offensive line blocked poorly for Williams, so he created much of his production independent of the other pieces in his offense.”
Williams will be just 21 when the 2021 NFL season gets underway, and it’s worth noting that Pittsburgh prefers its high draft choices to be younger rather than older, which is a strike against Harris, who is already 23 years old.
The list of “most similar prospects” to Harris is especially interesting, as it includes former Top 5 selections like Trent Richardson (No. 3 overall in 2012) and Leonard Fournette (No. 4 overall in 2017), not to mention Todd Gurley II (No. 10 overall in 2015).
“The troubling aspect of Harris’ comps is how nearly all who were highly successful early in their career flamed out shortly thereafter,” advises Renner.
It’s also worth noting that the Steelers had a chance to draft one of the players on Harris’ comp list (Eddie Lacy), but passed on him and selected Le’Veon Bell instead.
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