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The Brandt Report

2021 NFL Draft: Prospect-pro comparisons for top running backs

The 2021 NFL Draft is just a day away -- and I'm wrapping my examination of prospect-pro comparisons with some pairings for the top running back prospects below:

Najee Harris
Alabama · RB

Pro comparison: Matt Forte (10 NFL seasons, 235.6 rushing attempts per year, 979.6 rushing yards per year, 5.4 rushing TDs per year, 4.2 yards per attempt, 55.4 receptions per year, 467.2 receiving yards per year)

Watching film of these two players, they look very similar, from the plays they run to the way they catch the ball. Height-wise, they're identical (both measure 6-foot-1 3/8), though Harris does have a weight advantage (235 pounds to 217). Harris hasn't tested, but I would guess his numbers would be similar to Forte's (4.44-second 40-yard dash, 33-inch vertical jump, 9-foot-10 broad jump, 4.23-second short shuttle, 6.84 three-cone). 

Forte was probably underrated entering the NFL -- Chicago chose him in Round 2 of the 2008 NFL Draft -- but I think the lack of production at a lesser program (Tulane) obscured his capability. After all, he sure produced at the NFL level, racking up the second-most rushing yards (8,602) at the second-highest clip (4.2 yards per carry, minimum of 2,000 rushing attempts) in Bears history. He's also second in the franchise record books in receptions (487) and third in receiving yards (4,116) among running backs. Whether Harris, who can also function as a potent receiving weapon (he logged 70 catches for 729 yards and 11 scores over the past two seasons) can reach the same heights in the NFL depends a lot on whether he ends up with a team -- like, say, Tampa -- that is positioned to make the most of his potential, but I do ultimately think he can be a starting back on a playoff team.

Travis Etienne
Clemson · RB

Pro comparison: Jamaal Charles (11 NFL seasons, 127.9 rushing attempts per year, 687.5 rushing yards per year, 4 rushing TDs per year, 5.4 yards per attempt, 28.2 receptions per year, 235.7 receiving yards per year)

Injuries and a relatively fallow stretch to close out his career brought down Charles' averages, but at his peak, he was an elite backfield force, as good at running the draw play or catching screen passes as anyone I've seen. He also excelled at making defenders miss. Etienne shares these traits, possessing excellent hands, speed and the ability to line up as either a back or a receiver outside. I know comparing Etienne to Charles -- who, incidentally, drove late Raiders owner Al Davis crazy, because the Raiders didn't draft him, and he proceeded to tear them up every time they played each other -- sets a lofty standard here. And Charles was a bit quicker, logging a 4.38 40, compared to Etienne's 4.44. But I think Etienne, who recorded 460 touches for 3,548 scrimmage yards and 39 rushing and receiving scores over 2019 and '20, has the chance to bring Charles-esque versatility wherever he ends up.

Javonte Williams
North Carolina · RB

Pro comparison: Nick Chubb, Cleveland Browns (3 NFL seasons, 226.7 rushing attempts per year, 1,185.7 rushing yards per year, 9.3 rushing TDs per year, 5.2 yards per attempt, 24 receptions per year, 192.3 receiving yards per year)

The Browns snagged Chubb near the top of the second round (35th overall) in 2018, and he has since become one of the main engines of their offense, rushing for more yards (3,557) than all but two other NFL players (Derrick Henry and Ezekiel Elliott) over the past three seasons. One of the hallmarks of Chubb's game is the difficulty with which he yields to tacklers, who tend to bounce off him almost as frequently as they're able to bring him down; he ranked third in the NFL in yards after contact and missed tackles forced, per Pro Football Focus, in 2020. Williams is a similarly tough runner who ranked fifth in the FBS in yards after contact, per PFF, and first in forced missed tackles in 2020. And his measurables make him look like a near-carbon copy of Chubb:

  • Williams: 5-9 5/8, 212 pounds, 4.55 40, 36-inch vertical, 10-3 broad jump, 4.09 short shuttle, 6.93 three-cone
  • Chubb: 5-10 7/8, 227 pounds, 4.52 40, 38.5-inch vertical, 10-8 broad jump, 4.25 short shuttle, 7.09 three-cone.

If anything, Williams has slight superiority in short-area quickness. Though Chubb seems like the slightly better overall football player at this point, Williams' future looks quite bright.

Michael Carter
North Carolina · RB

Pro comparison: D'Andre Swift, Detroit Lions (1 NFL season, 114 rushing attempts, 521 rushing yards, 8 rushing TDs, 4.6 yards per attempt, 46 receptions, 357 receiving yards, 2 receiving TDs)

Swift's rookie season was uneven, with the 2020 second-rounder missing three games with injury and logging four other appearances with less than 10 touches. But he also showed flashes, hitting 70-plus scrimmage yards in seven games and averaging 86.3 yards from scrimmage over his final six games of the season. Carter (who clocked a 4.5 40, 34-inch vertical jump, 9-11 broad jump, 3.98 short shuttle and 6.83 three-cone) boasts similar quickness and explosion to Swift (4.48 40, 35.5-inch vertical, 10-1 broad jump). In fact, I think Carter will, in totality, be the better back at the NFL level -- to me, he catches the ball better and projects as more of a three-down player than Swift.

Trey Sermon
Ohio State · RB

Pro comparison: David Johnson, Houston Texans (6 NFL seasons, 154.7 rushing attempts per year, 636.5 rushing yards per year, 6.5 rushing TDs per year, 4.1 yards per attempt, 40.2 receptions per year, 422.2 receiving yards per year)

Johnson's star burned bright in 2016, when he earned Pro Bowl and All-Pro nods after leading the NFL in yards from scrimmage (2,118), touches (373) and receiving and rushing TDs (20), but he's struggled to get close to those highs again, thanks to a combination of injury issues and offensive usage. Still, he's an excellent receiver. And while Sermon might not be one of the more buzzed-about prospects, his measurables (6-0 3/8, 225 pounds, 4.59 40, 37-inch vertical, 10-5 broad jump, 4.30 short shuttle, 6.84 three-cone) are a strong match for Johnson's (6-0, 224 pounds, 4.5 40, 41.5-inch vertical, 10-7 broad jump, 4.27 short shuttle, 6.82 three-cone). Sermon didn't collect a ton of catches over his three years at Oklahoma and one at Ohio State, but he showed promising receiving ability. Ultimately, I think Sermon could potentially end up having the better overall NFL career, even if he never quite hits the peak that Johnson reached.

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