2021 Fantasy Football Dynasty Rookie Rankings: Najee Harris, Travis Etienne Lead the Running Backs - Roto Street Journal
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2021 Fantasy Football Dynasty Rookie Rankings: Najee Harris, Travis Etienne Lead the Running Backs

The 2021 NFL rookie running back class may not be as deep as recent years, but several should make an immediate and long-term fantasy impact. Our 2021 fantasy football dynasty rookie rankings are led by Alabama’s Najee Harris, UNC’s two-headed monster in Javonte Williams and Michael Carter, Clemson’s Travis Etienne, and many others.

See which running backs lead our 2021 fantasy football dynasty rookie rankings and be sure to keep an eye out for our wide receiver, and tight end dynasty rookie rankings, both of which will be unveiled before the 2021 NFL Draft.

Quarterbacks | Running Backs | Wide Receivers | Tight Ends

(H/T to The Athletic’s Dane Brugler and his 2021 NFL Draft Guide: The Beast for in-depth scouting reports of 415 players)

1. NAJEE HARRIS, ALABAMA

Najee Harris might be the most complete running back that Nick Saban has put into the league over the past few years — and that’s saying a lot. He’s a true three-down horse who can break ankles, make defenders miss, catch the ball out of the backfield, and even block in pass protection.

Since Harris took over the Tide backfield in 2019, he had PFF’s third-highest rushing grade (93.3), the fourth-most forced missed tackles (128), and the most rushing touchdowns (39) in college football.

Harris also possesses consistent hands and runs crisp routes for a running back, which translated to 729 receiving yards and 11 receiving touchdown on 70 receptions as a two-year starter.

All in all, Harris is a future three-down fantasy workhorse who will be a day one starter in the league. Expect The Wolf to salivate over him and rank him highly on his 2020 Fantasy Football Big Board & Rankings after the draft.

“Overall, Harris is not a proven big-play threat, but he skillfully toggles between patience and power to press holes and maximize each run. He projects as an NFL starter due to his reliable skill set as a rusher, receiver and upside as a blocker.” – Brugler

2. TRAVIS ETIENNE, CLEMSON

After spending roughly 15 years at Clemson, Travis Etienne finally put college in his rearview and decided to enter the NFL Draft… and fantasy owners should be ecstatic.

Etienne, who is in the mold of D’Andre Swift, is a home run waiting to happen and is also a weapon in the passing game. At Clemson, he had 22 plays of 40-plus yards and 12 plays that exceeded 50 yards. He also snagged 48 balls for 588 yards and two scores as a senior.

Although he isn’t built like an action figure and amassed a crazy 788 career touches, he never missed a game throughout his four-year career. His slender frame (5-foot-10, 215 lbs) might not allow him to be 20-plus touch, three-down workhorse in the league, but he has an Alvin Kamaraesque skill-set that will make him a weekly starter in fantasy lineups.

“Overall, Etienne has room to develop his feel between the tackles, but he is an assertive ball carrier who creates chunk plays due to his immediate acceleration, explosive strides and contact balance. He projects as a home run hitter in an NFL backfield with the upside to be more.” – Brugler

3. JAVONTE WILLIAMS, NORTH CAROLINA

Javonte Williams and Michael Carter were thunder and lightning disguised in Carolina blue in 2020, with both amassing over 1,000 yards on the ground.

But Williams proved he’s more than just a bruising back. He can make a defender miss (PFF’s second-highest elusive rating) and make plays in the second level (27 rushing attempts of 15-plus yards). He also led the nation with 75 missed tackles on a whopping 48 percent rate, a PFF record.

Williams also showed he could catch the ball adequately for a physical back when he caught 50 balls for 539 yards and four scores during his time at Chapel Hill.

With Carter no longer in the picture to split carries, Williams will hopefully get a chance to shine as a true workhorse back in the league.

“Overall, Williams can be an inconsistent decision-maker at the line of scrimmage, but he creates for himself through balance and power at contact and forces defenders to be near perfect with their technique to get him on the ground, similar to a more compact version of Leonard Fournette.” – Brugler

4. KENNETH GAINWELL, MEMPHIS

Memphis has had a knack for sending dynamic running backs and dual threats into the league in recent years. Kenneth Gainwell will soon join former Tiger ball carriers Antonio Gibson, Tony Pollard, and Darrell Henderson in the NFL.

Much like Gibson, Gainwell is a true dual-threat who actually transitioned to running back to allow Gibson to remain at receiver in 2019. In his lone year as a starter, he became the only player in FBS to exceed 1,000 yards rushing and 500 yards receiving, finishing with 1,459 yards on the ground and 662 receiving yards on 51 receptions. He also found the end zone 16 times.

The Swiss Army Knife opted out of 2020, so he has very limited tread on his tires compared to the rest of the class (292 career touches).

 

Gainwell is electric with the ball in his hands and can lineup in the backfield, in the slot, or out wide at the next level, making him a legitimate fantasy weapon in half or full PPR leagues. Gainwell could also follow a similar fantasy path as his former collegiate teammate if he lands in a situation that will use him effectively.

“Overall, Gainwell lacks ideal size and body power which leads to durability and usage concerns, but he is a versatile rushing/receiving threat with instinctive playmaking skills and projects as a scheme-versatile offensive weapon.” – Brugler

5. TREY SERMON, OHIO STATE

One could make a case for Trey Sermon challenging for the RB3 spot if Ohio State was able to play a full season in 2020 and if they took their head out of their ass and played him over the plodder, Master Teague.

After compiling over 2,000 rushing yards in 2.5 years as an Oklahoma Sooner, he tore his LCL in his left knee. From there, he transferred to Ohio State. Still recovering and without much practice time due to COVID-19 restrictions, Sermon’s Buckeye career got off to a slow start. However, he exploded down the stretch run during the team’s most significant games.

Over his final three games, Sermon utilized his elite cutback vision and quickness to terrorize defenders in Ryan Day’s zone run scheme. Sermon totaled 636 rushing yards, 9.1 yards per carry, and found paydirt four times during that stretch. Not to mention he broke Eddie George’s single-game school record with 331 rushing yards against a tough Northwestern defense.

With a full offseason under his belt and his knee back to 100 percent, Sermon should flourish if he lands in a zone run scheme. If that happens, he could be a true fantasy stretch run hero in 2020 in the correct situation and a steal in dynasty leagues.

“Overall, Sermon is inconsistent as an inside power runner, but his combination of vision, balance and cutting skills are intriguing traits for an outside zone scheme. He projects as a quality rotational back with third-down value.” – Brugler

6. MICHAEL CARTER, NORTH CAROLINA

The lightning to Javonte Williams’ thunder, Michael Carter logged back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons in UNC’s zone and gap run schemes.

Carter has a unique blend of vision and quickness that allows him to cut on a dime before exploding onto the next level. He found the next level often and registered 23 total plays that exceeded 20 yards in only 11 games last season. You could also mistake Carter for prime Le’Veon Bell in the hole with his patience and cutting ability.

Carter is also an asset in the passing game. He caught 82 balls for 656 yards and six touchdowns during his Carolina career.

Like Williams, it will be fun to see Carter potentially flourish as a lead back in the NFL. His three-down skill-set should get him on the field relatively early and he will have tremendous dynasty upside.

“Overall, Carter doesn’t have the body type to run heavy between the tackles, but he is a skilled problem-solving back due to his combination of vision, feel and lateral agility. He projects as a lesser version of Dalvin Cook.” – Brugler

7. CHUBA HUBBARD, OKLAHOMA STATE

After eclipsing the 2,000 rushing yard mark in 2019, Chuba Hubbard underwhelmed in 2020. Hubbard, who only registered 625 rushing yards in 2020, missed the final four games due to injury and strangely looked like he was in slow motion during the COVID season.

But when he’s on, he’s on. Hubbard had seven 50-plus yard runs in 2019 and is a one-cut and explode-type runner. His track background shows when he’s galloping away from defenders at the second level.

However, he is a little too home-run reliant, which could stick him on the bench in the NFL. If he’s going to choose to bounce a play outside for a two-yard loss instead of taking a 2-yard gain, then he’ll be a frustrating player on your fantasy bench.

Hubbard has all the tools to be a legit play-maker in the league, but his lack of patience could limit his ceiling. The former Cowboy could be a best ball king, but his fantasy floor is extremely low.

“Overall, Hubbard has speed and vision, but he is too runway dependent with questionable creativity and third-down value. He projects as a rotational NFL back capable of hitting home run plays if the blocking scheme creates a track.” – Brugler

8. RHAMONDRE STEVENSON, OKLAHOMA

Rhamondre Stevenson is a big, physical back (5-foot-11, 231 lbs) who will likely be a team’s tone-setting, goal-line back. In the mold of Gus Edwards or a lesser version of Zack Moss, Stevenson is a solid north-south running back who should be a solid backup and potential future starter who could win some weeks.

He’s not fast (4.63 40-yard dash), but he has some wiggle for a bigger back and hit 1,180 rushing yards on only 165 collegiate carries. After Stevenson sat out a year, he spent another two years at the JUCO ranks before he flourished in Lincoln Riley’s zone run scheme.

Stevenson is surprisingly reliable in the passing game for his size.

As noted, Stevenson will be one of those running backs that’ll sit at the end of your fantasy bench, but could win you some weeks as a spot starter down the line.

“Overall, Stevenson has a track record of inconsistency, but he is built for the pro game with the smooth footwork to collect, cut and accelerate. He projects best as a one-cut runner with pass-catching promise.” – Brugler

9. KHALIL HERBERT, VIRGINIA TECH

Khalil Herbert had an up-and-down and bizarre four-year career at the dumpster that is Kansas football before transferring to Virginia Tech for his final season. Luckily, he exploded in Blacksburg when he exceeded 1,100 rushing yards and led the ACC in all-purpose yards with 1,791 yards.

When watching Herbert, it’s clear he’s electric and gets to the next level in a hurry. He even has that home-run potential on nearly every play. However, he has not proven he can catch the football (32 career catches in 44 games).

If Herbert can become serviceable on third down, then his dynasty upside will get a bump. However, until then, he’s just a solid two-down back who will make the occasional highlight.

Crazy fact: Herbert was born with 12 fingers and 11 toes.

“Overall, Herbert is unproven as a pass catcher and blocker, but he creates yards for himself with his ability to quickly connect his feet, eyes and decision-making. He projects best in a zone-oriented scheme.” – Brugler

10. JERMAR JEFFERSON, OREGON STATE

Jermar Jefferson will be a late-round pick but could make noise with his quick decision-making and one-cut ability. He was extremely productive at Oregon State as a three-year starter, totaling nearly 3,000 rushing yards, 43 receptions, and 29 touchdowns in only 21 games started.

Best of all, Jefferson is a true home run hitter even with a slower than expected 40-yard dash on his pro day (4.56). He had runs of 82, 75, and 65 yards in 2020.

Jefferson has a three-down skill-set, but there’s something lacking that would make him a future starter. Either way, the potential, and upside are there to take a late-round dynasty stab. PFF comp’d him to Myles Gaskin, which seems accurate.

“Overall, Jefferson has below-average drive through contact and needs to improve on third downs, but his vision and short-area quickness at the line of scrimmage are outstanding, projecting best in a one-cut zone scheme.” – Brugler

Others to keep an eye on: Jaret Patterson (Buffalo), Larry Rountree III (Missouri), Chris Evans (Michigan), Demetric Felton (RB/WR, UCLA), Elijah Mitchell (Louisianna), Gerrid Doaks (Cincinnati), Pooka Williams (Kansas), Kylin Hill (Mississippi State), Rakeem Boyd (Arkansas)

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