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NFL Draft

Ignore The Trend, Travis Etienne Deserves To Be 1st-Round Selection

  • The Draft Network
  • April 13, 2021
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The recurring draft cycle becomes overwhelming at times. With an increase in mock drafts and opinions in abundance, it’s difficult, from the outside, to stick with your guns; a drastic opinion on a prospect is often shot down, and God forbid you disagree with the top prospect at a certain position. It’s an ever-apparent reality as we near Draft Day, but I beg to change one of the long-argued narratives surrounding the evaluation process.

In a now devalued position, running backs have become increasingly popular on Day 2 and Day 3 of the NFL draft. Just 17 ball-carriers have been selected in the first round since 2010 with Saquon Barkley (second overall in 2018), Trent Richardson (third overall in 2012), Ezekiel Elliott (fourth overall in 2016), Leonard Fournette (fourth overall in 2017), and Christian McCaffrey (eighth overall in 2017) serving as the exception to a long exhaustive narrative that “running backs aren’t worth a first-round pick.” It’s a lazy take, and within today’s NFL with points in abundance, you need all the weapons you can holster. 

Selecting a running back in the first round is a viable strategy, and when it comes to evaluating ball carriers at the collegiate level, don’t buy into the lie when it comes to former Clemson rusher Travis Etienne.

Etienne didn’t take long to burst onto the collegiate scene, totaling 292 yards with four touchdowns in his first three games combined as a Tiger. Over the next four seasons, Etienne became a household name that has now placed himself in the argument to be the top back taken in late April.

While Trevor Lawrence garnering almost all of the attention, Etienne, as he always has, went about his game quietly in Death Valley to a simple tune of an ACC career record of 4,952 rushing yards, total touchdowns (78), and rushing touchdowns (70). He also became one of only 12 players in FBS history with 4,000 career rushing yards and 1,000 career receiving yards. For a program touting a daunting list of stars, Etienne could go down as its brightest alongside the names of Lawrence, quarterbacks Deshaun Watson and Tajh Boyd, wide receivers De’Andre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins, and running back C.J. Spiller. 

“I’m one of the best skill guys in the draft. I’m able to do it all,” Etienne said after Clemson’s Pro Day. “I feel like I add a component to [take] teams to the next tier. I just possess a lot of things that are God-given, that most guys don’t possess. I feel like it’s just in me. You see in the film, I’m able to be out there three downs. I’m able to play special teams; just being able to impact the team each and every down makes me different and makes me worthy of the first round.”

That multi-versatile skill set has scouts drooling over his potential with NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah labeling the Jennings, Louisiana, native as his “top running back in the class.”

“It’s really his ability to be elusive and take 4-6 yard gains and turn them into 40, 50, 60-yard gains,” Jeremiah said. “That’s how explosive he is.”

Etienne’s short-area burst and elite explosion couldn’t be highlighted better here: 

As both the center and guard engage at the point of attack, Etienne is left without a hole. In just a split second, Etienne offers a quick hesitation to the outside to shift the defensive tackle’s shoulders to the outside before quickly planting his right foot getting north-south in a blink of an eye. After that, it’s all Etienne as he hurdles the safety for a 20-yard gain.

It’s the type of talent that simply isn’t there as you move into the latter stages of the selection process. Would running backs Alvin Kamara, James Robinson, Aaron Jones, and Austin Ekeler disagree? Yes. But when diving into the gaudy trend of actual starters from 2020, late-round selections are few and far between. Among the 32 organizations, just eight head into 2021 with a presumed starter at running back selected in the fourth round or higher in their respective draft class. Of those eight, three teams finished in the bottom third for rushing yards in 2020. Value is value, but when it comes to a high usage position for an anchor on the offensive side of the ball, running back isn’t the spot to get cute. 

Etienne, who has a unique blend of size and strength, truly is a prospect in his own class. While it’s hard to compare him to a bigger, stronger Najee Harris, Etienne truly offers a skill set unlike any other in his class or any other of recent memory. If you want a player comparison, he’s best shaped in the mold of Dalvin Cook coming out of Florida State, or DeMarco Murray coming out of Oklahoma back in 2011. Although Murray was both taller and touted a higher ceiling of speed (with a 4.37-second 40-yard dash), none of the two possess his ability out the backfield, a must-have ability for any prospect looking to make the transition into the pro game.

Once thought as the top back of the 2020 class, Etienne returned to school for his senior season in an attempt to boost his draft stock. Under COVID-19 restrictions and limitations surrounding on-campus workouts and a season ultimately in doubt as fall arrived, Etienne took Clemson’s campaign by the horns, progressing into arguably the nation’s top weapon in a 1-2 conversation with Harris as one of a kind backfield chess pieces. 

“I feel like the best player should be picked where they are,” Etienne said when asked where he should fall on Draft Day.

For a prospect like Etienne, who checks every box attainable, it’s not hard to see why he warrants a first-round selection. To NFL teams and their ever-growing cast list of brain trust, this isn’t the spot to overthink. 

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