PewterReport.com analyzes the top players in the 2021 NFL Draft with its’ position previews. Matt Matera previews the running back position with a comprehensive look at what the Bucs have and what they need at running back, while also providing a detailed list of this year’s top running backs. In addition, Scott Reynolds offers up the team needs and the annual PewterReport.com Bucs’ Best Bets – the most likely running back for the Bucs to select in Rounds 1-3, and in Rounds 4-7.
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What The Bucs Have At Running Back
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Tampa Bay has five running backs on the roster after re-signing Leonard Fournette and adding Giovanni Bernard. Fournette signed a one-year deal and will look to keep the starting job he had during the Bucs’ Super Bowl run. Ronald Jones II led the team in rushing last year with 978 yards and a 5.1 avg. in a breakthrough year. He’s looking to regain the starting role and top 1,000 yards in 2021.
LeSean McCoy has been replaced by the 29-year old Bernard, who spent his entire career in Cincinnati. Bernard will take over as the team’s third-down back due to his elite ability to catch passes and pass protect. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, last year’s third-round pick, had an inconsistent rookie season. His role on the team is unclear given his limited opportunities in 2020. Vaughn will battle C.J. Prosise for a reserve role and special teams duty. Prosise offers some ability as a kick returner.
What The Bucs Need At Running Back
The Bucs could enter the 2021 campaign today without adding another running back due to the acquisition of Bernard and the re-signing of Fournette. But Fournette, Jones and Bernard are only under contract for this year. That could lead Tampa Bay to draft another running back to be more of a long-term starter, especially with the Bucs not having a firm read on whether Vaughn is good enough to carry some of the workload or be a factor on third downs.
Because it’s wise to draft backs rather than commit to them long-term with expensive extensions, don’t rule out Tampa Bay drafting one at No. 32. Having an elite runner that can also catch the ball like Clemson’s Travis Etienne or Alabama’s Najee Harris might be too good to pass up. The Bucs could also consider North Carolina’s Javonte Williams at the end of the first round, or another runner that can catch the ball like North Carolina’s Michael Carter, Virginia Tech’s Khalil Herbert or Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard later in the draft.
Etienne has the speed that leaves defenders stuck in their tracks when he’s making moves. As quick as he is, especially with his footwork, Etienne still has that extra gear to turn it on and break away from the field for the highlight reel-type of scores. The Clemson standout has the ability to make defenders miss in space, and he has an arsenal of moves to make opponents look lost. He’s a very good a receiver, which makes him a threat on every down and a perfect fit for the Bucs. He’ll have to work on running between the tackles at the next level, but prospects don’t get much better than him. Etienne ran for 4,952 yards and 70 rushing touchdowns for the Tigers while also recording 1,155 receiving yards and eight touchdown receptions.
A running back that doesn’t ever shy away from initiating contact, Harris has a wealth of experience, playing all four years at Alabama. He’s a powerful, physical runner that pushes ahead for extra yardage and barrels over defenders in the process. Harris rushed for 1,224 and 1, 466 yards, respectively, in his last two seasons, showing he’s versatile in making defenders miss with his quickness. Harris has improved each season as a receiving back too, racking up 43 receptions for 425 yards in his senior year. Both Harris and Etienne are considered the top two backs in this draft class.
3. North Carolina RB Javonte Williams – Junior – 5-10, 212, 4.55
A personal favorite of Pewter Report’s Scott Reynolds, Williams could very much find himself coming to the Bucs – perhaps at the end of the first round. Williams is an every down back that may not look like a physical runner, but he was the best tackle-breaker in college football last year, according to Pro Football Focus. He’s an elusive back that can cut at full speed and put on a number of moves that opens things up for the big play. Williams is an excellent receiving back that averaged over 10 yards per reception over his last three seasons. As a runner, Williams improved each season, rushing for 1,140 rushing yards as a junior and an astounding 19 touchdowns.
4. North Carolina RB Michael Carter – Senior – 5-8, 201, 4.50
Not only does Carter have a tough running style for a small back, he’s also excellent in the open field with quickness and the ability to make defenders miss as he makes his initial cut. Carter is used to playing in a two-running back system, so he’ll fit in well with the Bucs’ committee approach should Tampa Bay select him. Carter rushed for 3,404 yards and 22 touchdowns in his Tar Heels career and posted 656 receiving yards and six touchdowns while splitting time with Javonte Williams.
Sermon was able to separate himself from the pack of running backs at Ohio State due to his combination of explosive running, good balance after contact, and physicality. He’s a running back with good vision, although injuries have been a concern both at Ohio State and Oklahoma. Sermon showed he was a big-game player as well, breaking the school’s single game rushing record with 331 yards in the Big Ten Championship Game.
Gainwell is another back that has been linked to the Bucs in several mock drafts, as he’s a huge threat out of the backfield as a receiver. The Memphis star opted out of the 2020 season, so he only has one year’s worth of college tape to evaluate. Yet his 2019 tape is impressive, as he had over 2,000 combined yards from scrimmage. He’s one of the faster backs in this class, and uses that speed to be a weapon running the ball or catching it out of the backfield. Gainwell rushed for 1,459 yards 13 touchdowns and had 51 receptions for 610 yards and three touchdowns in his lone season at Memphis.
Stevenson doesn’t have as much production as some of the other backs having only played two seasons for Oklahoma. He rushed for a career total of 1,180 yards and 13 touchdowns in just 19 games. Stevenson is a big back that is patient in finding the right hole and then getting a good first step to the next level. He’s a physical back that has good tackle-breaking ability. Stevenson played at close to 245 pounds but lost weight prior to the Senior Bowl to help him get faster.
Hubbard burst onto the college football scene in 2019 when he rushed for 2,094 and 21 touchdowns in 13 games as a sophomore. His junior season wasn’t the follow up act that he wanted, as injuries limited to just seven games last year. Hubbard’s speed is considered better than most, but it’s his acceleration at the second level that makes him a considerable draft option. As a receiver, Hubbard is a reliable pass-catching back.
9. Virginia Tech RB Khalil Herbert – Redshirt Senior – 5-9, 210, 4.49
Herbert has a great combination speed to break off huge runs for touchdowns, while also being a runner that can maintain his balance running through contact. He only had one season at Virginia Tech after transferring from Kansas, but made it count. Herbert used his good vision and creative running style to rush for 1,182 yards and eight touchdowns. He has starter potential, and could be an early Day 3 gem for the NFL team that drafts Herbert.
10. Oregon State RB Jermar Jefferson – Junior – 5-10, 2.06, 4.56
Jefferson can be a change of pace back at the next level and can excel in the passing game. He’s not going to break a ton of tackles, but he has such good footwork that he can create openings for himself and does his best work in space. Yet Jefferson will have to step up his pass protection if he wants to see the field. He finished his college career after three seasons and 2,923 rushing yards with 27 rushing touchdowns as well as 43 receptions, 299 receiving yards and two touchdowns.
Best Of The Rest In The 2021 Draft
11. Mississippi State RB Kylin Hill – Senior – 5-10, 214, 4.55
Hill was a very adaptable player at Mississippi State as he played for three different coaches with three separate offensive systems over his four years. Regardless, he was still able to get a good amount of playing time each season. Hill doesn’t panic when there’s no room to run as he constantly keeps the pile moving forward, though you’d like to see a little more power out of him. He rushed for 2,535 yards at school with 16 touchdowns and made his mark as well in the receiving game with 67 receptions for 631 yards and six touchdowns over his four years. Hill does have some character concerns.
Small school players never get the same looks as those from a power five conference, but it’s hard to ignore the monster numbers that Patterson was able to put up in three years at Buffalo. Each season he went for over 1,000 yards, finishing just 67 yards shy of 4,000 over three seasons. Though his size and lack of ideal speed may limit him to Day 3 in the draft, Patterson is a burst of energy that allows him to make cuts in any direction he’s going.
Mitchell started for three years at Louisiana but did share the backfield with other teammates. His best year came in 2019 when he rushed for 1,147 yards and 16 touchdowns, but his 2020 season is where he earned accolades, such as first team All-Sun Belt as he led his team with 878 yards. He’s an athletic player who can get to the outside or run north-south between the tackles.
14. Missouri RB Larry Rountree – Senior, 5-11, 211, 4.68
Rountree played all four years for the Tigers and was a team captain in his senior year, earning second-team all SEC with 972 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns. He’s a very strong player coming into this draft with good vision as well. He can be relied on in many situations.
A tough player to take down for his size, Hawkins is at his best when using his elusiveness to make plays. He’s a creative player that uses multiple cuts to get free of the defender, which is his main bread and butter since he won’t be able to physically overpower anyone. Hawkins rushed for 2,355 yards in his college career while reaching the end zone 16 times.
A former track star, Nwangwu blazes up the field with his threatening speed. He continued to get better each year, finishing off his last season with 339 rushing yards on 61 attempts and four touchdowns. Nwangwu was mostly a backup, but found a role on the team as a kick returner with a career and 2,470 total return yards and an average of 26.85 yards per return. That’ll likely be his role in the NFL if he makes a team this season.
We haven’t seen Evans too much over the last two seasons as he was suspended for all of the 2019 season for academic reasons and was used as a backup in 2020. What Evans has going for him as that he excels in the passing game with his precise route running and good speed. He’s a patient runner as well, waiting for the hole to open up so he can use that speed against the second and third levels of the defense. He had 73 rushing yards on 16 attempts with one touchdown and nine receptions for 87 yards last year with a limited number of reps in-game.
Bucs’ Best Bets: Running Back
Bucs’ Best Bet – Rounds 1-3: North Carolina RB Michael Carter
Tampa Bay might prefer North Carolina’s Javonte Williams over Carter, but might not want to spend its first-round pick on a running back. Carter would be a great draft pick in the second or third round because of his versatility. An accomplished runner, Carter had back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons and led the Tar Heels in rushing both years. Carter averaged 6.6 yards per carry in college, while averaging 8.0 yards per carry in 2020 while scoring nine TDs. The compact speedster posted nine 100-yard games with five more in which he rushed for over 90 yards.
Carter is also one of the best pass-catching running backs in this year’s draft class. He had 82 career catches for 656 yards and six touchdowns at North Carolina. As a senior, Carter had 25 receptions for 257 yards (10.7 avg.) and two scores. Carter is a dynamic player in the mold of Gionvani Bernard, who also went to North Carolina. He could spend a year learning from Bernard as a third-down back while playing special teams as a rookie. Carter returned kicks for the Tar Heels.
Bucs’ Best Bet – Rounds 4-7: Oklahoma State RB Chuba Hubbard