As we continue to lay the groundwork for 2021 fantasy rankings that will be updated throughout the offseason, we are digging into this incoming rookie class for dynasty rookie drafts, startups, and even the potential these young players can have on the 2021 seasonal formats. Even prior to the actual NFL Draft in April, rookies are available in Best Ball formats across all platforms.
2021 is a unique offseason for scouting rookies, no matter what approach you take. With the ongoing fight against COVID, the NFL combine, which would have been two weekends ago, was canceled. That event would have provided a plethora of official athletic data and access to prospects through interviews.
In place of the official combine, we are getting that data through supplemental events such as the EXOS combines and Pro Day events from each school. Pro Days are not a new development, but there is a grain of salt to be applied to treating those results as equal to what we would have gotten in Indianapolis. Still, that information can be applied to athletic models and used to shape out the full portfolio for prospects to go along with production profiles, which is a general overlay of what these players put on tape for NFL teams.
As we get more athletic testing data coming in, we will add notes in here to those prospects. However, overall, athletic testing has a low correlation to actual fantasy output and when it does, it is typically counted twice from a productive player in the first place. But when a prospect has subpar athletic testing paired with a limited or nonexistent production resume, then we are playing with fire when attempting to elevate or count on that player for NFL production.
For running backs, nothing matters more to the position than invested draft capital. Over the past decade, draft capital among drafted running backs has an r^2 of .3105 to fantasy points scored years 1-3. While that correlation is also leaving a lot of room on the table for variance, it is by far and away the most predictive measure for backs and early career fantasy output. Post-draft we’ll have the added influence of draft investment and landing spot to add to the layout.
Even from a film watching and production stance, this past college season provided some unique challenges. Some players chose to opt-out of the 2020 season altogether, giving us no new data points or game play, while the players that did play have a scattershot sample of games that range all the way as low as 1-2 games played all the way up to 10-plus games based on scheduling conflicts surrounding the season.
Alas, we press on with everything we have available. Here, we are laying out the positional rankings for each position pre-NFL Draft from a fantasy stance. For purposes of having the most information, these early ranks will cover only the players invited to the combine at each position.
Setting up some more of the process here, although I do prospect models for each of the skill positions and will share the ranks for the players in those models, my personal ranks do not strictly follow those models linearly. I use the prospect models in a similar fashion as I do projection models for the NFL season. We are looking for immediate market inefficiencies in leagues where we are drafting rookies prior to the actual NFL draft. Last season, the RB model objectively liked James Robinson as a top-six back (and even more than Clyde Edwards-Helaire), which led to me taking him with on several dynasty teams with late-round dart throws.
- Najee Harris, Alabama, Final Year age: 22.8 (Model Rank RB1)
Harris is coming off 1,528- and 1,891-yard seasons at Alabama with 50 total touchdowns the past two seasons. His 30 touchdowns in 2020 were an SEC record.
A true workhorse in every sense, Harris accounted for 66.0% of the Alabama touches in 2020, the highest share of team touches for any running back in this class. Harris checked in at 6’3” and 230 pounds at the Senior Bowl. While that is still not quite as much of a monster as Derrick Henry was leaving Alabama, one thing Harris has coming into the NFL is that offers legitimate receiving chops for his frame as opposed to typical bully-backs of his size.
Harris caught 43 passes (9.9 Y/R) in his final season, a mark bested by only Saquon Barkley and Steven Jackson for backs over 225 pounds in their final college season since 2000. Of course, those two backs were also early-declares and younger prospects. That is not a killer by any means, as non-early declare backs with high draft capital have found much more success than their wide receiver counterparts, but it is the one thorn in an otherwise clean profile for what you would want from a three-down back entering the league. Harris is not as explosive as the next two backs in terms of long gains on the ground, but offers plenty of athleticism for his size.
- Travis Etienne, Clemson, FY Age: 21.9 (MR: RB2)
Etienne took a small step “back” in production in his senior season, but exits Clemson coming off three-straight 1,500 yards seasons while scoring 13 or more touchdowns all four seasons. Clemson also lost four starting offensive lineman from 2019 to the NFL, which played a role in Etienne’s reduced efficiency on the ground as his yards prior to contact dropped (1.8) dropped a full yard from 2019 per Pro Football Focus. But on the other side of the coin, Etienne improved as a pass-catcher every season at Clemson and led all running backs last season with 588 receiving yards on 48 receptions.
Etienne is also the most explosive playmaker in this class with a nose for the end zone. He scored at least one touchdown in 46 of his 55 career games while 24 of his touchdowns came from outside of the red zone and 17 from 40 yards or longer.
Etienne has been listed below 210 pounds and was kept at 244 touches or fewer in every season in college, but checking in at 215 pounds at his Pro Day alleviates early concerns that he may be a back that lighter than listed at.
Etienne has an Alvin Kamara-esque ceiling, but also a stable floor due his receiving ability and explosive playmaking even if he cannot meet that high of a comparison.
- Javonte Williams, North Carolina, FY Age: 20.7 (MR: RB3)
No back has surged more this offseason than Williams. It is relatively easy to make the case for Williams as the RB1 in this class as well and he closes down this top, three-man tier of top backs that should be a part of the top-four rookie selections in leagues that start just one quarterback.
Williams (5’9″ and 212 pounds) showed plenty of acumen as a receiver (50-539-4 over his three seasons), is two years younger (the second-youngest back in this class) than Harris and over a year younger than Etienne, and as a byproduct, the lone early declare prospect among this top trio.
After 1,391 yards and 11 touchdowns over his first two seasons at North Carolina, Williams exploded for 1,445 yards and 22 scores last year while catching 25 passes for 305 yards and three scores as part of the production. A tackle-breaking machine in 2020, Pro Football Focus credited Williams with 0.48 broken tackles per attempt, the most by a back since they have been charting.
The main knock on Williams is that he has never been a workhorse, with 183 and 182 touches over those past two seasons, playing alongside Michael Carter, who is a favorite of many among the second tier of backs in this class. We were in a similar position two years with Josh Jacobs, who had even fewer collegiate touches than Williams has had, while Jacobs was playing next to Damien Harris, who was selected in the same class in the third round.
Williams came out of his Pro Day in the 65th percentile in athletic score in the prospect model and posted an 84th percentile agility score, but checking in at 212 pounds after being listed at 227 pounds and lighter than Etienne was a surprise.
4. Trey Sermon, Ohio State, FY Age: 21.9 (MR: RB16)
Sermon was a major recruit out of high school, receiving offers from Alabama and Auburn among others before heading to Oklahoma. His best season at Oklahoma was as a sophomore with 1,128 yards and 13 touchdowns and then transferred to Ohio State for his final season after just 62 touches in 10 games as a Junior. At Ohio State, Sermon rushed for 68 yards or fewer in each of his first four games and was stuck in another timeshare with Master Teague, but then turned it on for 112, 331, and 193 yards over his final three full games with four touchdowns against top-level opponents when he was finally given the keys as the feature back. The model obviously dings Sermon for his lack of overall production and shared time with multiple backs, but his pedigree as a recruit, production when showcased and his size (6’0” and 215 pounds) will have him selected highly among the second tier of backs. At his Pro Day, Sermon came out with just a 36th percentile speed score, but had high marks in explosion (86th percentile) and agility (83rd).
5. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis, FY Age: 21.8 (MR: RB5)
The secondary group of running backs in this draft class have varying degrees of anticipated draft capital. We could see any of these plays go as early as the second or third round, or in the fifth round or later. Gainwell opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID concerns, but the last time we saw him on the field in 2019, he amassed 2,069 yards and 16 touchdowns, rushing for 1,459 yards, and grabbing 51 passes. Recruited as a wide receiver, Gainwell has true receiving pedigree, securing 3.2 receptions per game over his collegiate career, the second-highest rate for a back in this class.
Like a number of Memphis players we have seen enter the league such as Tony Pollard and Antonio Gibson the past two seasons, Gainwell offers dynamic all-purpose usage. The difference for Gainwell here is that he is a 201- pound back while Pollard was 210 pounds at the combine and Gibson was 228 pounds, which secured their station in the NFL carrying the football. Gainwell was listed at 190 pounds, so hitting 200 was a positive signal, but Gainwell has a lot of variance in projecting his NFL usage and may inevitably do more receiving work at the next level.