The 2021 running back class is deep with talent. There is debate over who is the top back available. Some believe that Alabama RB Najee Harris is the best back, while others argue that Clemson RB Travis Etienne should be the first off the board. I believe that Harris is the clear-cut top back in the class. I believe that Etienne is not only below Harris, but UNC RB Javonte WIlliams as well.
At the line of scrimmage, Etienne struggles to create space for himself. If the offensive line does not create a hole, Etienne cannot create one for himself. At the NFL level, he may not have the luxury of a productive offensive line like Clemson traditionally has. Creating space is what separates the elite backs at the NFL level. This is a major downfall of Etienne’s game.
Some claim that Travis Etienne is similar to Saints RB Alvin Kamara. This is a wildly inaccurate comparison. Kamara’s best skill is his downfield catching ability, while Etienne is only effective on screens and swing passes. Kamara is also a shifty back that is best at creating space and finding holes. Etienne is a downhill runner that needs his holes created for him.
However, Etienne still has valuable skills. He ran a 4.4 second 40 yard dash at the Clemson Pro Day today, likely to be one of the fastest in the class. This speed is likely why analysts are high on him. It is easy to see why he appears to be an attractive prospect. Etienne cannot create his own running lanes, but he is effective once the lanes are opened for him. His speed allows him to build up momentum quickly, making him extremely difficult to tackle once he hits the second level. Defensive backs cannot tackle Etienne 1-on-1 on the perimeter.
Etienne is especially effective on handoffs from the pistol formation. This allows him to build up speed downhill and time for the blocks to develop in front of him. When a lane is created, Etienne can find it and gets to it quickly. Once he is in open space, it is extremely difficult to stop him.
Etienne’s most underrated skill is his pass blocking ability. Some of the best backs in the league, like New York Giants RB Saquon Barkley, are highly ineffective blockers, so this skill is very important to NFL teams. Etienne weighed in at 215 pounds today, approximately 10 pounds heavier than expected, which will help him to further improve his blocking.
While I am lower on Travis Etienne than most, I still believe that he can be an effective back in the NFL. He will have some issues if he is selected by a team with a sub-par offensive line, but he can be effective if the offensive scheme is fitted to his strengths. Etienne will likely be selected in the second round. If he is on the board in the third round, the team that ultimately drafts Etienne will be getting great value for their pick.