This is the second in a series of position previews for the 2021 NFL draft, which runs April 29-May 1. Today, we take a look at the running back class.
THREE NAMES TO KNOW
Najee Harris, Alabama: A big back with a natural skill set in the passing game makes the 6-2, 230-pound Doak Walker Award winner the most coveted running back in the draft. A unanimous first-team All-America selection, Harris can zip through a hole or create a hole. Last season he averaged 5.8 yards per carry while posting 1,466 rushing yards and 26 touchdowns. And, according to Pro Football Focus, his 962 yards after contact led college football. Considering the position he plays, the one drawback would be his 530 touches in 26 games the last two years. The 23-year-old should be taken in the second half of the first round.
Travis Etienne, Clemson: Some draft experts disagree that Harris is the No. 1 back in the draft. They rank the faster, more explosive Etienne and his marvelously soft hands as the more attractive dual threat in today's game. Etienne is smaller at 5-10, 205, but durable. He racked up 6,107 yards from scrimmage and 78 touchdowns in 55 games at Clemson. He also wowed scouts at his pro day with a 4.46 40-yard dash and all the versatile skills that a modern running back must have to be considered a possible Day 1 pick. Ball security could be an issue.
Javonte Williams, North Carolina: He and teammate Michael Carter formed the best running back duo in college football in 2020. Some draft experts have Carter ahead of Williams. Some have Williams ranked up near Harris and Etienne. The 5-10, 212-pounder was second-team All-American despite starting only one of 11 games in 2020. He finished with 22 total touchdowns, 1,140 rushing yards and a 7.3-yard average per carry. He's a strong, physical running who critics say needs to do a better job of eluding tacklers. Like the other top backs, Williams is a complete player who can catch the ball.
Javian Hawkins, Louisville: Undersized to say the least at 5-8, 183 pounds, Hawkins could carve out one of those home-run-hitting jitterbug pro careers that create mismatches for creative offensive play-callers. And he's already got the nickname – "Playstation" – going for him. Hawkins isn't going to overpower anyone, but his quickness buys him space to get going. He had touchdown runs of 90, 75 and 70 yards last year before taking the COVID-19 opt-out after seven games. He averaged 6.2 yards per carry with eight total touchdowns in 2020.
The Vikings are good to go here. Barring injury, of course. Dalvin Cook is one of the league's best, most versatile and more supremely-compensated running backs. He's also just 26 years old. Meanwhile, Alexander Mattison is one of the NFL's best backup running backs. He's also just 23 years old and under contract through 2022. He also handles his limited role with patience and a professional drive that allows him to seize on every opportunity given to him. Veteran Ameer Abdullah returns as mainly an occasional third-down receiving threat. His role could increase slightly with Mike Boone moving on to Denver via free agency.
VIKINGS' LEVEL OF NEED
Low: The Vikings made a weighty investment in Cook before last season. And Mattison is more than a capable backup, not to mention a guy who could start for some teams. The Vikings don't need to spend a draft pick on a running back. Given the plentiful supply of NFL-caliber depth at the position, the Vikings can turn to college free agency as a way to add another running back to fill Boone's spot for training camp. The overachieving Boone was himself an undrafted gem in 2018. Hemade the team as a backup and quality special teamer.