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The Triple Take: RBs Take Two

The "Triple Take" team, the Steelers Radio Network trio of Matt Williamson, Dale Lolley and Mike Prisuta, provides updates on their breakdown of the top running back prospects in the 2021 NFL Draft. If you want to hear the audio version of "The Triple Take" click here.

The opinions of these Steelers Radio Network personalities do not reflect the views of the Steelers organization.

Matt's Second Take on the RB position ...

Who's stock has risen and why?
Chris Evans, Michigan (5-11, 216 lbs.) - Evans came to college with a big reputation and while that hype was never truly fulfilled, he did make a huge statement at Michigan's Pro Day. At 5' 11" and 211 pounds, Evans ran a 4.45 in the 40-yard dash with an excellent 1.51 10-yard split showing off his burst. Evans' 4.14 short shuttle time was even more impressive. In fact, only one running back from last year's Combine was better in the short shuttle. Even more impressive, Evans' 3 cone time of 6.56 was easily the best of any running back in Indianapolis last year. His jumps were also outstanding, especially his vertical of 40.5 inches. It is time to go back and take another look at what Evans might become in the NFL.

Who's emerged and why?
Kene Nwangwu, Iowa State (6-1, 210 lbs.) - Nwangwu isn't a big-name prospect, but he is really starting to put himself on the map. Productive at Iowa State as a runner but stuck behind some other top players at the position, Nwangwu really stood out as a kick returner. In fact, only two players in Big-12 history have more yardage returning kicks. Nwangwu checked in at his pro day at 210 pounds, but still ran a 4.31 40-yard dash and had an ungodly 1.45 10-yard split. His vertical, 3 cone and bench press performance also stood out and Nwangwu was an accomplished track and field athlete at high school. Someone with his physical traits that can contribute immediately on special teams is going to catch the eye of NFL talent evaluators.

Other Notes: As was the case with Evans and Nwangwu, Louisiana's Elijah Mitchell put on a show at his Pro Day that can't be overlooked. But he already had college production on his side. Mitchell's explosion and long speed often showed up on tape, but wow, did he ever affirm that those are traits he possesses with strong jump numbers and especially his 4.38/40-yard dash time at just over 200 pounds. He also posted an outstanding 10-yard split. Mitchell looks like he can carry more weight and he isn't a finesse runner. He has good feet and can be effective running on the inside or challenging a defense outside the tackles. Obviously, his Pro Day helped Mitchell's cause as well.

Matt's First Take on the RB position ...

#5 - Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State (6-0 1/2, 205 lbs.) - Hubbard had amazing production in 2019 and created an awful lot of yardage on his own and after contact as a runner. He isn't massive but has good contact balance and pad level. This is a decisive runner that can stick his foot in the ground and explode upfield. Hubbard's best attribute is probably his outstanding long speed. Fumbles have been a problem and to be kind, the 2020 season sure didn't help Hubbard's cause as a prospect. It was a very rough year and there are many reasons for that including injuries and Hubbard's supporting cast. It will be tough for talent evaluators to distinguish the 2019 version vs. the 2020 version of Hubbard. But if you get the 2019 version for the cost of the 2020 version, Hubbard's new team will be extremely happy.

#4 - Michael Carter, North Carolina (5-9 1/2, 199 lbs.) - There are not a lot of examples with Carter's size measurables that contribute on an every down basis and he will have to land in the right situation to get the most out of his abilities. But Carter can certainly create problems for a defense-even in a part time role. This past year, Carter averaged just under eight yards per touch and he caught 80 passes at North Carolina. What stands out about Carter is his versatility, shiftiness, stop/start abilities and elusiveness. And he does have power for a back his size. Pass protection will be a challenge for Carter at the NFL level.

#3 - Javonte Williams, North Carolina (5-10, 220 lbs.) - Williams had a massive 2020 breakout season. He averaged two touchdowns scored per game last year. Williams is powerful and very well built, but also has shown a lot of promise as a receiver and as a space player. He gets a lot of yardage on his own as an elite tackle breaker and has enough speed to run away from tacklers. Williams has great balance and is very tough to knock off his pegs. Williams is a young prospect and his best football is likely ahead of him. He could be set up to have a better pro career than the one he had in college.

#2 - Travis Etienne, Clemson (5-10 1/8, 212 lbs.) - Etienne is the ACC's all-time leading rusher…and it really isn't even close. He has been a huge contributor to Clemson's great success and has rare big play ability. Once Etienne gets a crack, he is gone and he often changes the game in a blink of the eye. Etienne doesn't have great power, but he often runs through arm tackles, displays good contact balance and can push a pile. He can run inside or out and has really developed as a receiver. Etienne has questionable vision and too often runs up the back of his blockers and will likely be the more utilized side of a rotation at the next level, but there is an awful lot to like here and he fits today's game very well.

#1 - Najee Harris, Alabama (6-1 3/4, 232 lbs.) - Harris was incredibly productive in Alabama's great offense and really took his game up another level in 2020. He was a massive recruit that took a little time to learn to take what is given and to not always try to hit the home run. Well, that lesson was learned in 2020 and Harris thrived. He has a great body for the position to handle a massive workload is has a great combination of power and athletic ability. He is very fluid, yet explosive in his movements. Harris has really come on as a receiver. He runs good route and provides his quarterback with a huge strike zone. He doesn't break off real long runs and Harris' age is a bit of a concern, but even if his NFL team only gets great production from his first contract, he will be worth a very high draft pick.

Dale's Second Take on the RB position ...

Who's stock has risen and why?
Jaquan Hardy, Tiffin (5-8, 211 lbs.) - After rushing for 1,000 yards in 2017, Hardy missed the 2018 season with a knee injury. But he rebounded by running for 1,554 yards with 15 touchdowns in 2019 before his school did not play in 2020 because of the pandemic. So he's a bit of an unknown, at least to many analysts. But scouts have heard of him. Hardy drew 18 teams for his pro day. He ran the 40 in the 4.5s, which is plenty fast enough and he's a hard-nosed runner who could hear his name called before a lot of the "big school" guys.

Who's emerged and why?
Deon Jackson, Duke (5-11, 218 lbs.) - Jackson has the size teams look for in a feature back and also catches the ball well. He had just over 2,200 rushing yards in the past three seasons for the Blue Devils and also caught 61 passes. He then ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at the Duke pro day. There are some tools here to work with and he could be a nice later-round pickup.

Other Notes: Iowa State's Kene Nwangwu might be the fastest back in this draft. He was timed at a reported 4.31 seconds in the 40 at his pro day. … Why does Alabama's Najee Harris catch the ball so well? His 10 ¼-inch hands are the largest of any of the running backs in this draft. Harris also has the longest wingspan of any running back at 80 7/8 inches.  

Dale's First Take on the RB position ...

#5 - Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis (5-11, 191 lbs.) - Gainwell rushed for over 1,400 yards and scored 13 touchdowns last season for the Tigers. He also aligned in a slot quite a bit and caught 51 passes for 610 yards and three more scores. He probably won't ever be an every-down back, but he's the kind of weapon every team could use in today's NFL because of the way he catches the ball. Think Giovanni Bernard. Turns 22 in March.

#4 - Michael Carter, North Carolina (5-9 1/2, 199 lbs.) - Carter was the lightning to Javonte Williams' thunder for the Tar Heels the past couple of seasons. Because of his lack of size, he struggles in pass protection, but he does run hard and has good contact balance. He doesn't go down with the first contact. Carter really helped himself at the Senior Bowl. He has nice burst and catches the ball well. And because he shared time with Williams, there wasn't a lot of wear and tear, despite both rushing for 1,000 yards in 2020. Turns 22 in May.

#3 - Travis Etienne, Clemson (5-10 1/8, 212 lbs.) - I know I'm in the minority overall, but I have Etienne as the third back in this draft, largely because of the heavy workload he had at Clemson. He had 686 carries and another 102 receptions in four seasons as a contributor for the Tigers. He's a willing blocker in pass protection but can struggle there because of his size, as well. But he's a dynamic runner. He also had some fumble issues, losing three in 2020. Just turned 22.

#2 - Javonte Williams, North Carolina (5-10, 220 lbs.) - Turn on the tape of Williams and you're immediately impressed with his ability to run through tackles. According to Pro Football Focus, he broke 76 tackles on his 157 rushing attempts last season. And it's not just strength with which he does that. He spins off would-be tackles, showing great contact balance. Williams also has speed to take it the distance. He was on a state championship 4X100 track relay team. Despite splitting time with Carter, he rushed for more than 2,000 yards and scored 24 touchdowns on the ground the past two seasons. He's not dynamic as a receiver, but he catches the ball well enough, as well. That part of his game is where he pales a little in comparison to top-rated Najee Harris. But he reminds me a lot of Green Bay's Aaron Jones. Had just 416 collegiate touches, sharing time. Williams also is just 20 years old, not turning 21 until just before the draft.

#1 - Najee Harris, Alabama (6-1 3/4, 232 lbs.) - Harris had been a part-time runner in Alabama's talented backfield in previous seasons, but still rushed for more than 2,000 yards and scored 20 touchdowns in his first three years. As the unquestioned starter this season, he had 251 carries for 1,466 yards and 26 touchdowns. He also caught 43 passes. His overall workload (over 700 collegiate touches) is a bit of a concern, especially for a player who runs a little high – as 6-2 running backs tend to do. But he's dynamic, and nearly half of that workload came last season. He plays like a little bigger version of Mark Ingram. But he'll also turn 23 in April.

Mike's Second Take on the RB position ...

Who's stock has risen and why?
Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis (5-8, 201 lbs.) - Gainwell may be poised to run it back again out of Memphis.

Gainwell didn't play in 2020, but in 2019 he lined up at running back and where you'd normally expect to find wide receivers and excelled at both running and catching the football. The numbers were attention-getting: 231 carries for 1,459 yards, a 6.3 average per carry and 13 touchdowns on the ground, and 51 catches for 610 receiving yards and three receiving TDs.

Gainwell played in 2019 at Memphis with another running back/wide receiver hybrid, Antonio Gibson.

Gibson had 1,104 yards from scrimmage and 12 touchdowns.

Gainwell had 2,069 yards from scrimmage and 16 TDs.

Gibson became an NFL running back last season as a third-round draft pick of the Washington Football team and produced on the ground (795 yards, a 4.7 average per carry and 11 rushing TDs) and through the air (36 receptions for 247 yards).

Is Gainwell next?

NFL Network analyst Charles Davis suggested Gainwell might be a running back that becomes slot receiver in the NFL, a reverse of the path that delivered Gibson.

"This guy's dynamic in the open field," Davis maintained of Gainwell.

Memphis has previously sent Darrell Henderson (third round, Rams, 2019), Tony Pollard (fourth round, Cowboys, 2019) and DeAngelo Williams (first round, Panthers, 2006), among others, to the NFL.

Other Notes: Buffalo's Jaret Patterson (5-6, 195 lbs.) has generated some attention among analysts as a "sleeper" at running back. If production means anything, he'll snooze his way into the late rounds. Patterson rushed for over 1,000 yards in three straight seasons at Buffalo, including 1,072 in six games in 2020 that included a 301-yard game against Bowling Green and a 409-yard effort against Kent State. Patterson scored 52 career rushing touchdowns (19 last season) … Oklahoma State's Chuba Hubbard (6-0, 210 lbs.) is another running back who was characterized as a "sleeper." "He's gonna be a really good pro," Jeremiah maintained. "His game translates well." Hubbard rushed for 2,094 yards and 21 touchdowns in 13 games in 2019 and 625 yards and five scores in seven games in 2020. His average per carry fell from 6.4 to 4.7.

Mike's First Take on the RB position ...

#5 - Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma (6-0, 229 lbs.) - What you see is what you get, "a traditional, between-the-tackles, downhill runner," according to ESPN analyst Mike Tannenbaum, a former general manager of the Jets and a former executive vice president of football operations for the Dolphins. "He has a really well-built lower body. From a build standpoint he's clearly the most physical running back (at the Senior Bowl)." Added ESPN's Louis Riddick: "He's shown that he can pass protect." Riddick also cited Stevenson's jump-cut and his "ability to get lateral and get vertical, hit the gaps quick." Stevenson rushed for 665 yards in 2020, including 186 against Florida in the Gator Bowl.

#4 - Javonte Williams, North Carolina (5-10, 220 lbs.) - Williams was recognized as the lead back in the opinion of some in what became UNC's "Dynamic Duo" at the position. His junior year saw Williams improve his sophomore totals in rushing yards (933 to 1,140), average per carry (5.6 to 7.3), rushing touchdowns (five to 19) receiving yards (176 to 305) and receiving TDs (one to three). He projects as a potential workhorse back who can break tackles. Consistency was a bit of an issue during his breakout 2020 season. Williams had 28 yards and averaged 2.5 per carry against Notre Dame but exploded for 236, a 10.3 average and three touchdowns against Miami. He skipped the Orange Bowl and the Senior Bowl.

#3 - Michael Carter, North Carolina (5-9 1/2, 199 lbs.) - The other half of the Tar Heels two-headed monster at running back. ESPN's Todd McShay could hardly have been more impressed watching Carter put on a show during Senior Bowl practices. "He runs low to the ground," McShay gushed. "He gets in and out of cuts. And you watch him in pass protection, he actually cares. He was so important in their catch game (at North Carolina), he averaged 8 yards per carry and I just think he's a special player. Military family, he is disciplined, loves the game. He's the highest-character player that you would ever want at the running back position." Tannenbaum isn't concerned about Carter's relative lack of size. "There's a difference between being short and small," Tannenbaum said. "He is not small. He has an NFL lower body."

#2 - Travis Etienne, Clemson (5-10 1/8, 212 lbs.) - Etienne rushed for over 1,600 yards in 2018 and again in 2019 and for 914 in the 2020 pandemic campaign. He registered career-high totals in receptions (48) and receiving yards (588) in 2020. And he rushed for at least 13 touchdowns in all four seasons at Clemson (70 total, 24 in 2018). His signatures are acceleration and big-play capability in space. Most evaluators have Etienne at least No. 2 at running back heading into the draft. The consistency and productivity he displayed at Clemson and the NFL-style he exhibits at running back have everything to do with that.

#1 - Najee Harris, Alabama (6-1 3/4, 232 lbs.) - Harris is McShay's No. 22 player available overall. Harris is a three-down back and was the second-best player in the CFP National Championship game after Alabama wide receiver DeVonta Smith, according to Tannenbaum. NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah, like seemingly everyone else, is also impressed. "He's a complete back," Jeremiah maintained. "The only question is just that pure top speed. But you don't have any questions about his competitiveness when you watch him on tape with how he finishes runs." Jeremiah's NFL comparison for Harris was Bears 2008 second-round pick Matt Forte (big, athletic frame and can catch).

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