Another year, another feather in the cap for frugal executives who are shy to spend a day-one asset on ball-carriers. A position that has decreased in value over the last few years as franchises around the league opt to use lower leverage, day-two or day-three picks on said talent, a look back to last April’s crop of running backs has once again proven the naysayers correct. While the first back off the board in Alabama alum Najee Harris (24th overall) has proven to be the cream of the crop, leading all first-year rushers in yards (984) and touchdowns (6), it’s been the players from day three who’ve highlighted a rather impressive group of rookie ball-carriers. With just one week remaining in the regular season, we’ve been provided more than enough tape on this year’s class to get a gist on just how impactful, or not, each back could be moving into year two. While Jacksonville’s Travis Etienne will surely have something to say with the following re-rank, he’s been given immunity after suffering a season-ending foot injury before he ever received his first career carry. Here is a look at how the class of running back talent from the 2021 draft cycle slots as they head into their first offseason.
1. Najee Harris, Pittsburgh SteelersThe de facto do-it-all talent for Mike Tomlin’s unit, Harris has been everything and more for a lackluster Steelers offense this fall. While his totals on the ground have been impressive in and of itself behind a patchwork offensive line, his totals as a receiver slot him top five amongst all first-year pass-catchers as well. The stud of the class before round one kicked off, he’s proven to be everything general manager Kevin Colbert thought he would be as Pittsburgh’s RB1 of both the present and future.
2. Elijah Mitchell, San Francisco 49ersThe 10th back off the board, despite missing a slew of games this fall, Mitchell has the second-most rushing yards of any rookie in just 11 appearances. The far and away YPG leader (79.8), Mitchell has revitalized the 49ers’ ground game following the loss of Raheem Mostert. Although GM John Lynch took Trey Sermon in the third round, Mitchell has trumped the former Ohio State back and then some. He, Trey Lance, and Deebo Samuel have presented Kyle Shanahan with a heck of an offensive arsenal for future campaigns.
3. Javonte Williams, Denver BroncosWhen George Paton took Williams early in the second round, it was only a matter of time before the former North Carolina standout trumped incumbent starter Melvin Gordon as the lead back for a youth-infused Broncos offense. While the two backs have evenly split carries through 17 weeks at 191 apiece, Williams has provided a glimpse into the future for Broncos fans as a versatile talent whose ability to transfer his success as a pass-catcher in Chapel Hill has provided an extra dynamic within a Denver offense with looming questions under center.
4. Michael Carter, New York JetsA fourth-rounder who’s finally provided a sense of stability in the backfield for New York, Carter needs more touches. With more than 100 carries split between Ty Johnson and Tevin Coleman, moving forward, there should be zero hesitancy from offensive coordinator Mike LaFleur to hand the reins of his ground game over to Zach Wilson’s backfield counterpart when healthy. With Coleman expected to enter free agency this spring, I expect a massive workload for Carter next fall as an intriguing building block for an improving Jets offense.
5. Chuba Hubbard, RB, Carolina PanthersWho knows if Christian McCaffrey will ever be able to stay healthy for a full 17-game season, but if not, Hubbard is a nice option to have if needed to step in and fill McCaffrey’s large shoes. While the addition of Cam Newton has taken away touches for him in the run game over the last month, he presents an awfully intriguing skill set that, when provided the necessary allotment of touches, can provide a nice bit of pop. He will maintain a limited workload if McCaffrey stays in uniform moving through next season, but if Carolina opts to lessen the load on their RB1’s shoulders, Hubbard is a nice player to have in your back pocket.
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