NFL Draft 2021: Rough Diamonds Series: Running Backs

This is part two of the series where I take a quick look, position by position, at my favourite Day 3 and undrafted guys from the 2021 NFL Draft.

Today is the turn of the Running Backs, a position that can cause a lot of disagreements amongst draft fans. The belief these days is that you can find running backs later in the draft, who can make a significant contribution to your team. There are still teams though willing to take that chance, on what they would consider an elite running back, with a premium round one pick.

There were two selected in the first round this year, Najee Harris and Travis Etienne who went back to back in the first round, and typically, both have caused big debates in their new team’s fanbases. There is no argument about the talent of these guys being worthy of a first-round pick, it’s just the debate of positional value.

There were 19 running backs selected in the draft and 15 of them were on day 3! I’ve chosen a couple to take a look at, and one intriguing undrafted guy too.

Khalil Herbert, Virginia Tech (Chicago, round 6, pick 217)

Herbert spent four, pretty unproductive years at Kansas before grad transferring to Virginia Tech for the 2020 season. The Hokies are not known for producing top quality running backs, and even their two highest selected in the past ten years, Ryan Williams (38th overall in 2011) and David Wilson, (32nd overall in 2012), were both big time busts, rushing for just 668 yards combined for their NFL careers

Herbert certainly took advantage of the weak running back room he found in Blacksburg, starting ten games and rushing for 1182 yards at an eye catching 7.68 average per attempt. He has that bowling ball stature (5’9 210lbs), which makes him very difficult to bring down one-on-one, and his contact balance is certainly one of the best in this class. Consistent in gaining additional yardage that others wouldn’t, either through sheer power, or vision to see emerging run lanes, often breaking good chunk runs. More quick than fast, he can shift through the line with those nimble feet and then get to second gear quickly.

Inconsistent quarterback play at Virginia Tech meant that they relied heavily on Herbert to carry the load, and even though opponents knew this, and stacked the box to stop then run, he still kept putting up big numbers. He also only gave up one fumble in college, which is excellent considering his running style and the fact that he had over 500 career carries. 

However, there are some knocks to his game, which of course is why he was drafted where he was. For me he needs work in pass protection. Very willing to engage pass rushers, but he is inconsistent in the angles he takes, which was very evident from the Clemson tape this past year. He is a good enough athlete for the position, but not a great one, and when you’re a smaller back you probably need an athletic trump card, which he doesn’t have. He can also overdo his lateral movement, trying to constantly find that big play, instead of just getting upfield and grinding out the yards.

I watched five games of Herbert this year and he was consistently good in each one, including a blow-out loss to Clemson. He carried a fifth-round grade for me, so to be taken at the back end of round six is good value. He will have to battle to make this Chicago roster, what with David Montgomery entrenched as the starter, and Tarik Cohen on the team too, but the latter is coming off a torn ACL and has a very cuttable contract after this season, so I can see Herbert being able to take carries if Cohen isn’t healthy. 

Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis (Philadelphia, round 5 pick 150)

I’ll start by saying that I was never that high on Gainwell. Before the season started, we had draft analysts pushing him hard as RB3, and that was way too rich for me, but as happens a lot during a season, the needle got pushed too far the other way, and now I feel Gainwell is a steal.

The obvious knock on him is that we have just 1 year of tape to go over, and that’s from 2019 as he opted out of this past season. We all like running backs with less tread on their tyres, but Gainwell has just 235 college rushing attempts, which is a very small sample size indeed. What he did with those carries, and his 57 career catches, was special though. A classic gadget, twinkle toes runner, he’s best work is done on plays that get him in space, where his twitch and make you miss ability is elite. An elegant runner, his feet are always moving with no wasted movement at all. Showed versatility by lining up in the slot and as an outside receiver and showcased some excellent hands as well as finding the soft zones to work in too. 

His final college game was also against the toughest opponent he would face, Penn State in the prestigious Cotton Bowl. He may have produced his lowest rushing output of the season in this game (9 rushes for 34 yards and a TD), but he was effective as a receiver (7 catches for 77 yards), going against a top Big Ten defense. One play that stands out, and it’s easily viewed on every social media platform, is him totally annihilating star Penn State linebacker (and twelfth overall pick) Micah Parsons on a blitz pick up. It’s a play of beauty, technically flawless and one of my moments of the 2019 season.

Of course, we do have to address the problem that Memphis University seems to have with their inability to read a tape measure. Gainwell was listed by the University at 5’11 195lbs, decent not great size, but certainly workable. At his pro day he was measured at 5’8 201lbs, so somehow in a year he lost 3 inches. This didn’t overly affect his stock, as he was never going to be suited to an every down role in the NFL, but this does make you wonder why the universities lie like this about prospect’s measurables. 

Now Gainwell has landed in Philly, he has a chance to demand touches in this offense. Miles Sanders is the starter and Boston Scott is a nice change up guy, although he will be a restricted free agent at the end of this season, so if Gainwell impresses he may give the Eagles a decision to make heading into the 2022 season.

Photo Credit: UB Athletics

Jaret Patterson, Buffalo (Undrafted, Washington Football Team)

Jaret, has a twin brother James who also plays for the University of Buffalo, but as a Linebacker. The story goes that the twins wanted a package deal to play together, and it was James who was getting all the offers whilst Jaret was getting constantly overlooked. Buffalo took a chance on them both, and it’s Jaret who has repaid them greatly. In three seasons he has amassed 3884 yards, at a 6.1 average and a healthy 52 Touchdowns, and in a two-game span this past season, he rushed for 710 yards and 12 touchdowns, just ludicrous numbers. Now this is against MAC opponents, so not the top level of competition to say the least, but this is a case where the production warrants tape checking. 

I got five games in for this year, and one from the previous season in 2019, and what you see is just dominance at that level. A very quick decision maker, there’s very little hesitation in his game and he gets through the hole at speed and then onto the second level. Although he is small (5’7 195lbs), he is stacked, and that muscle allows him to run up the middle with no fear whatsoever. Patterson isn’t a massive tackle breaker as he does tend to go down on initial contact, but the holes the Buffalo Offensive Line were creating for him were so big that no one could get their hands on him in the first place. 

With Patterson, pass protection is inconsistent and they rarely threw the ball to him, so he’ll need to show improvement there to see the field at the next level. The biggest knock though probably was his athletic testing. You can afford to be one of small or slow, but you can’t afford to be both, and unfortunately he ran 4.59/40 at 195lbs and the agility drill numbers were below average too.

I still had him as RB 8 in my rankings with a fourth-round grade, so it’s pretty surprising that he fell out of the draft completely. He has signed on with the Washington Football Team, and there is a path to the 53-man roster if he has a good camp. In front of him are veterans JD McKissic, Peyton Barber and Lamar Miller, but they will all be unrestricted free agents after the 2021 season, and will be cuttable before the season starts if he impresses.

This is a guy you do not back against, and he will be one of those running backs that sticks around in the NFL, and is productive, even though the measurables would tell you he shouldn’t be.

If you enjoyed reading this one, here is the link to the article on rough diamonds at the quarterback position that hit Full 10 Yards last week.

Next in this series I’ll be looking at some day 3 Wide Receivers….

Give Keith a follow on twitter @LordLucken

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