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The 2021 R1 RB Debate

Super Bowl LV Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

In recent years, many NFL pundits and fans have been insisting :

  • “Teams never should take a RB in round 1.”
  • “You can get very good RBs later on the draft.”
  • “The best RBs are usually taken in rounds 2-5.”
  • “Teams can win with serviceable RBs.” (thereby mitigating the importance of having a star RB).

My quick answers to these four statements are:

  1. Taking a RB in Round 1 depends on the top talents at the position and how deep the draft pool is at RB in a given year.
  2. Yes, teams can hit a home run with RB draft picks in rounds 2-5, that is, if they select the right one. Don’t forget, teams have to be lucky that the right one at the right time falls to them.
  3. Yes, because in recent years more good RBs have been taken in rounds 2-5, where because they're are more RB picks, the odds are greater. But, this trend as been slowly changing as teams have been fostering a growing appreciation for how important the RB is to the team’s success.
  4. Some teams have won with serviceable QBs too. But, the odds of winning increase when teams have star power at the positions who touch the ball and impact the game the most.

2020 NFL Top 10 Rushing Leaders (players with over 800 yards):

  1. Derrick Henry (TEN) —- 2,007 yards —- 17 TDs —- R2 2016
  2. Dalvin Cook (MIN) —- 1,557 —- 16 —- R2 2017
  3. Jonathan Taylor (IND) —- 1,169 —- 11 —- R2 2020
  4. Aaron Jones (GB) —- 1,104 —- 9 —- R5 2017
  5. James Robinson (JAC) —- 1,070 —- 7 —- UFA 2020
  6. David Montgomery (CHI) —- 1,070 —- 8 —- R3 2019
  7. Nick Chubb (CLE) —- 1,067 —- 12 —- R2 2018
  8. Josh Jacobs (LV) —- 1,065 —- 12 —- R1 2019
  9. Lamar Jackson (BAL) —-1,005 —- 7 —- R1 2018
  10. Melvin Gordon (DEN) —- 986 —- 5 —- R1 2015

2019 NFL Top 10 Rushing Leaders (who were R1 picks):

3. Christian McCaffrey (CAR) —- 1,387 —- 15 (1st team All-Pro RB & Flex)

4. Ezekiel Elliott (DAL) —- 1,357 —- 12

6. Lamar Jackson (BAL) —- 1,206 —- 7

7. Leonard Fournette (JAC) —- 1, 1152 —- 3

8. Josh Jacobs (LV) —- 1,150 —- 7

2018 NFL Top 10 Rushing Leaders (who were R! picks):

  1. Ezekiel Elliott (DAL) —- 1,434 —- 6
  2. Saquon Barkley (NYG) —- 1,307 —- 11
  3. Todd Gurley (LAR) —- 1,251 —- 17

6. Christian McCaffrey (CAR)—- 1,088 —- 7

8. Adrian Peterson (WAS) —- 1,042 —- 7

Conclusion: of the Top 26 NFL Rushers between 2018-2020, 13 (50%) were R1 picks, if you include Lamar Jackson, who at times is used in many designed running plays in the Ravens’ offense.

Notable Head Coaches who have drafted R1 RBs in recent years:

  • Bill Belichick (6 Super Bowl rings)
  • Pete Carroll (1 Super Bowl ring)
  • Andy Reid (1 Super Bowl ring)
  • Jon Gruden (1 Super Bowl ring)
  • Ron Rivera (1 NFC Championship)
  • Pat Shurmur (2017 AP Assistant Coach of the Year)

The point is that if these top coaches place a premium value on the RB position, then that should tell us something significant.

Recent R1 RBs with recent Super Bowl experience:

  • Todd Gurley (runner-up 2018)
  • Sony Michel (ring 2018)
  • Clyde Edwards-Helaire (runner-up 2020)
  • Leonard Fournette (ring 2020)

Note: one could argue the Super Bowl success of lesser known RBs such as Damien Williams (UFA, Chiefs), Raheem Mostert (UFA, 49ers), James White (R4 2014, Patriots) and Devonta Freeman (R4, 2014, Falcons), but only Freeman for a brief period could be considered a bell cow type RB1 who can carry the offense for a good stretch of time.

The 2021 NFL Draft Potential R1 Prospects:

Najee Harris

Travis Etienne

Javonte Williams

  • AP Second team All-American (2020)
  • PFF First-Team All-America (2020)
  • PFF ACC Player of the Year (2020)
  • Second team All-ACC (2020)
  • 95.9 PFF rushing grade, the highest rushing grade in a single season since the site began covering college players.

Daniel Jeremiah’s Top 50:

  • 20. Travis Etienne
  • 21. Najee Harris
  • 26. Javonte Williams

No other RBs in his Top 50, which strongly suggests that the Cardinals will not be able to draft one of the top 3 at pick #49.

There appears to be a significant drop-off in pedigree and overall talent beyond Harris, Etienne and Williams.

Lindy’s 2021 NFL Draft Guide Player Comps at RB:

  1. Najee Harris (ALA)—- Todd Gurley
  2. Travis Etienne (CLM) —- Clinton Portis
  3. Javonte Williams (UNC)—- Jay Ajai
  4. Chuba Hubbard (OKS)—- Tevin Coleman
  5. Michael Carter (UNC) —- Giovanni Bernard
  6. Kenneth Gainwell (MEM)—- Ronald Jones
  7. Trey Sermon (OSU) —- Kareem Hunt
  8. Khalil Herbert (VAT)—- Cameron Artis-Payne
  9. Elijah Mitchell (LA-LAF)—- Damien Harris
  10. Rhamondre Stephenson (OK) —- Elijah Hood

Their sleeper is Jermar Jefferson (ORS) whom they comp to Alex Collins of the Seahawks.

Their Small School Stud is Trey Ragas (LA-Lafayette) whom they comp to Samaje Perine.

Conclusion: While a strong argument can be made for teams finding star RBs on Days 2 and 3 of the draft, there is ample evidence to suggest that R1 RBs can be very much worthy of the pick if they have the talent and are drafted by the right team.

Predictions: Najee Harris and Travis Etienne will be drafted in R1. Javonte Williams will be drafted in late R1 or early R2. Another RB won’t be drafted until R3 and perhaps only Michael Carter will be selected in R3.

Should the Cardinals draft Najee Harris or Travis Etienne? I think there is a very strong argument that they should, but the question is whether the need at CB, LB and WR should take precedence. Much could depend on which free agents the Cardinals are able to add between now and the draft.

Telling sign: If the Cardinals do not sign a RB1 type RB like James Connor or Todd Gurley between now and the draft, then it would seem very likely that they are planning to take Najee Harris or Travis Etienne in Round 1, either at #16 or with a trade down into the 20s. If the Cardinals’ pick winds up in the 20s, then Javonte Williams could very much be in play there, as well.

If there was another RB in this draft whom I believe could be the team’s bell cow RB1, then I would be very much in favor of drafting a CB, LB or WR in R1. I just don’t see a durable RB1 type beyond Harris, Etienne and Williams. Do you? I think that Chase Edmonds is superb in his current role as RB2. Don’t you?

What is your solution?

I believe that a star RB would make defending Kyler Murray even more difficult for opposing defenses, both in the passing and running games. This is why I feel very strongly about making RB1 a priority, especially now that the Cardinals’ offensive line stands to be the strongest and most cohesive it has been since the 1970s.

The other reason why I very much approve of taking a stud RB in Round 1 of this draft is that i am very high on the R2 CB prospects, some of whom I like just as much as Patrick Surtain II, Jaycee Horn and Caleb Farley. The drop-off at CB is not anything like it is at RB.

Quite frequently, it’s the depth of the current draft at certain positions that steers the direction of a team’s draft plans, particularly with their 1st and 2nd picks.