The New York Jets’ running back room is lacking a clear leader. Can they find that go-to guy in the 2021 NFL draft?
During Mike LaFleur’s time in San Francisco, the 49ers offense was well-known for its usage of a “running back by committee” approach. In 2020, for example, San Francisco had three different running backs carry the ball at least 80 times. As things stand now, the New York Jets have a running back room that is well-constructed to mirror that mentality, headlined by the quartet of Josh Adams, Tevin Coleman, Ty Johnson, and La’Mical Perine.
Nevertheless, with no running back on the roster who has averaged even just 40.0 rushing yards per game in either of the last two seasons, the Jets should still be on the lookout for running back talent. Can they find value at the position in the draft? Let’s compare the advanced stats of some of the top names in the 2021 running back class.
Here are the prospects we will be comparing today:
- Travis Etienne, Clemson
- Najee Harris, Alabama
- Javonte Williams, North Carolina
- Michael Carter, North Carolina
- Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis (2020 opt-out, stats will be from 2019)
- Trey Sermon, Ohio St.
- Jermar Jefferson, Oregon St.
- Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma
- Khalil Herbert, Virginia Tech
- Kylin Hill, Mississippi St. (sparse playing time in 2020, stats will be from 2019)
- Chris Evans, Michigan (sparse playing time in 2019-20, stats will be from 2018)
- Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma St.
- Pooka Williams, Kansas
- Jaret Patterson, Buffalo
- Javian Hawkins, Louisville
If there are any other prospects you’d like to learn about, let me know in the comments.
2021 NFL Draft Advanced Stats:
- Wide receivers (Part 2)
- Wide receivers (Part 1)
- Offensive linemen
- Edge rushers
Yards after contact
Evaluating a running back’s performance as a rusher is all about figuring out how much value he adds beyond what is created for him. Any guy off the street can run through a well-blocked hole, but not everyone can truck the linebacker and then juke out the safety to turn a free 10 yards into a 50-yard touchdown. This is where running backs separate themselves from one another – what do they create themselves?
Taking a look at yardage after contact is a solid method of deducing the amount of extra production that a running back creates. Here is how everyone in our 15-player group fared in yards after contact per carry in 2020, and their percentile rank among qualified FBS running backs.
- Khalil Herbert: 4.74 (98th percentile)
- Jaret Patterson: 4.74 (98th)
- Javonte Williams: 4.59 (96th)
- Michael Carter: 4.47 (95th)
- Javian Hawkins: 4.09 (89th)
- Trey Sermon: 4.04 (87th)
- Rhamondre Stevenson: 3.89 (83rd)
- Chris Evans: 3.85 (84th – 2018)
- Travis Etienne: 3.84 (81st)
- Jermar Jefferson: 3.67 (77th)
- Kenneth Gainwell: 3.45 (68th – 2019)
- Najee Harris: 3.26 (60th)
- Kylin Hill: 3.05 (45th – 2019)
- Pooka Williams: 2.52 (13th)
- Chuba Hubbard: 2.50 (12th)
We have some very interesting results in our first category! Superstar prospects Travis Etienne and Najee Harris check in on the lower half of our 14-player group with solid-but-unspectacular marks. Harris ranked second in the nation and first among Power-5 running backs with 821 total yards after contact, but on a per-carry basis, he wasn’t amazing in this particular category.
Buffalo’s Jaret Patterson and Virginia Tech’s Khalil Herbert tied for the lead among our bunch, knotting up at sixth-best in the nation with 4.74 yards after contact per carry apiece. With Herbert doing it in the ACC, he comes out as the biggest winner on this list.
Get ready to see Javonte Williams near the top of almost every list in this article. The North Carolina stud does not get as much attention as Etienne or Harris due to the fact that he was never a bell-cow and split carries with fellow dynamo Michael Carter over the past two seasons, but in terms of per-play production, Williams may have had the best 2020 season of any running back in this class. Carter is a beast, too.
Missed tackles forced
One of the flaws of the yards-after-contact stat is that it can be inflated by enormous runs, placing more value on explosiveness and less value on consistency. A better way to evaluate a running back’s elusiveness is to take a look at how many tacklers he evades, regardless of how many yards come after those evasions. This way, you are getting a strong feel for how consistently he makes defenders miss.
Here is how the group compares when it comes to missed tackles forced per carry.
- Javonte Williams: 0.484 (100th percentile) – 76 missed tackles forced over 157 carries
- Rhamondre Stevenson: 0.356 (98th) – 36 over 101
- Jaret Patterson: 0.336 (95th) – 47 over 140
- Pooka Williams: 0.320 (92nd) – 16 over 50
- Michael Carter: 0.299 (89th) – 47 over 157
- Trey Sermon: 0.284 (83rd) – 33 over 116
- Najee Harris: 0.282 (81st) – 71 over 252
- Khalil Herbert: 0.271 (75th) – 42 over 155
- Travis Etienne: 0.265 (73rd) – 44 over 166
- Javian Hawkins: 0.252 (68th) – 33 over 131
- Kylin Hill: 0.251 (75th – 2019) – 61 over 243
- Kenneth Gainwell: 0.245 (71st – 2019) – 56 over 229
- Jermar Jefferson: 0.203 (46th) – 27 over 133
- Chris Evans: 0.185 (37th – 2018) – 15 over 81
- Chuba Hubbard: 0.165 (24th) – 22 over 133
Kansas’ Pooka Williams checked in with a very interesting result here. Williams was poor at creating yardage after contact, ranking at the 13th percentile with a mark of 2.52, but he broke a ton of tackles, ranking at the 92nd percentile with 0.32 per carry. This tells us that his broken tackles were rarely converted in much extra yardage. That could mean one of two things: either he was simply unlucky and is due to pick up far more yardage after contact in the future if he keeps breaking tackles at the same level, or that he does not have the explosive ability to quickly hit top speed after beating a defender.
Javonte Williams is a monster. He led the nation with 76 missed tackles forced in 2020 even though he only ranked 19th in rush attempts. His average of 0.484 missed tackles forced per carry was the best among Power-5 running backs and second-best in the nation behind only Tyler Nevens of San Jose State. Most impressively, it wasn’t as if his 2020 breakout came out of nowhere. Even in 2019, Williams ranked fifth-best among Power-5 running backs with 0.334 missed tackles forced per carry.
Harris and Etienne once again were relatively pedestrian compared to their peers. For Etienne, his elite reputation can still be supported by a magnificent 2019 season. In 2019, Etienne led the nation with 91 missed tackles forced and led Power-5 running backs with 0.440 missed tackles forced per carry. The same can’t be said for Harris, who posted the exact same average in 2019 as he did in 2020 (0.282). That’s a fantastic number, especially over a huge workload against SEC competition, but as seen above, it’s merely par for the course when stacked up against other NFL-caliber backs.
Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard fell off a cliff in 2020. Over 13 games in his 2019 redshirt sophomore season, Hubbard ran for 2,094 yards and 21 touchdowns with 3.96 yards after contact per carry and 0.235 missed tackles per carry, but over seven games in 2020, he ran for 625 yards and five touchdowns with 2.50 yards after contact per carry and 0.165 missed tackles forced per carry. What makes the decline even more worrisome is the fact that Oklahoma State had a strong offensive line in 2020. The Cowboys had the 18th-best run blocking grade at PFF among 130 teams.
Pro Football Focus rushing grade
After-contact production is extremely important, but it is certainly not the only aspect of running the football that matters.
Breakaway speed is an example of one trait where a running back can add a lot of value without putting any numbers into the after-contact or broken-tackle columns. Some guys take the ball up the gut and zip 80 yards to the end zone without being touched, while some simply don’t have the speed to make it past the second level without being caught.
Another crucial trait is the ability to maximize good blocking through sound decision-making and vision. This is certainly a skill – some running backs will almost never let a well-blocked play go to waste, while others let a lot of well-blocked plays go to waste (Frank Gore and La’Mical Perine did this often for the Jets in 2020).
Those are just two examples, but the bottom line is that there is a lot more to evaluating a rusher’s performance than simply what he does when he comes face-to-face with a defender. That’s why Pro Football Focus’ rushing grade is a great metric for evaluating rushers. It takes everything into account in an attempt to give us a consummate rating for the quality of a player’s rushing performance.
Here is how the class stacks up when it comes to PFF’s rushing grade.
- Javonte Williams: 95.9 (100th percentile)
- Khalil Herbert: 91.3 (98th)
- Michael Carter: 91.1 (97th)
- Rhamondre Stevenson: 90.5 (97th)
- Najee Harris: 90.1 (96th)
- Jaret Patterson: 88.5 (94th)
- Trey Sermon: 88.0 (93rd)
- Kenneth Gainwell: 85.3 (91st – 2019)
- Kylin Hill: 85.1 (91st – 2019)
- Javian Hawkins: 82.0 (82nd)
- Travis Etienne: 81.1 (76th)
- Jermar Jefferson: 79.4 (68th)
- Chuba Hubbard: 71.4 (24th)
- Chris Evans: 70.4 (41st – 2018)
Finally, Harris lands in the upper echelon. His 90.1 rushing grade was the best in the SEC, sixth-best in the Power-5, and 10th-best in the country. Harris also had an 89.8 grade in 2019, seventh-best in the nation (98th percentile). His two-year excellence in this category is a testament to the greatness of his all-around game in spite of his less-than-stellar efficiency in some specific metrics.
Etienne simply did not have an amazing season as a rusher in 2020, failing to surpass the 81st percentile in any of these three categories. However, he had the nation’s best rushing grade in both 2019 and 2018 (92.4 in both seasons).
Javonte Williams’ 95.9 rushing grade was not only the best among all qualified FBS running backs in 2020, but it was the best single-season mark ever posted (minimum 50 carries) by a running back since PFF began tracking it in 2014.
Khalil Herbert is ranked only No. 170 at NFL Mock Draft Database and No. 138 at The Draft Network, which seems to be a major undersell. Herbert is a graduate transfer from Kansas who did not have much success over his four years with the Jayhawks, but he was outstanding for Virginia Tech in 2020, ranking sixth-best in both PFF’s rushing grade and yards after contact per carry. It was a continuation of the upside he showed over a small sample of 42 carries with Kansas in 2019. That year, Herbert had a 90.0 rushing grade and averaged 5.21 yards after contact.
Yards per route run
Time to switch gears and take a look at the passing game. We’ll start with yards per route run, which divides a player’s receiving yardage by the number of plays in which he ran out to catch a pass. It gives us a great idea of how involved each player was as a receiver on a per-opportunity basis.
Here is how the group fared in yards per route run.
- Kenneth Gainwell: 2.39 (98th percentile – 2019) – 610 receiving yards over 255 snaps
- Rhamondre Stevenson: 2.32 (98th) – 211 over 91
- Travis Etienne: 2.26 (97th) – 588 over 260
- Michael Carter: 1.93 (95th) – 267 over 138
- Khalil Herbert: 1.85 (92nd) – 179 over 97
- Javonte Williams: 1.64 (89th) – 276 over 168
- Najee Harris: 1.44 (84th) – 425 over 296
- Chris Evans: 1.35 (81st – 2018) – 148 over 110
- Kylin Hill: 1.10 (74th – 2018) – 180 over 164
- Javian Hawkins: 1.09 (71st) – 127 over 117
- Trey Sermon: 0.99 (65th) – 98 over 99
- Jermar Jefferson: 0.60 (40th) – 67 over 111
- Pooka Williams: 0.52 (35th) – 31 over 60
- Chuba Hubbard: 0.50 (32nd) – 52 over 104
- Jaret Patterson: 0.00 (1st) – 0 over 66
This is where Etienne establishes himself as an elite prospect. He led running backs with 588 receiving yards in 2020 after ranking sixth with 432 in 2019.
From a volume perspective, Harris was also an excellent receiver in 2020, ranking fourth among running backs in receiving yards (425) and second in receiving first downs/touchdowns (26 – Etienne led with 29).
Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell, widely considered the fifth-best running back in this class after Etienne, Harris, and the Tar Heel duo, is another back whose primary appeal comes as a receiver. Gainwell led running backs with 610 receiving yards in 2019. The only running back to post a better total in a single season over the past four seasons: Saquon Barkley with 625 in 2017.
Rhamondre Stevenson did not get many opportunities to catch the ball in 2020, playing just six games with only 15.2 routes run per game, but he made the absolute most of them. Stevenson caught 18 of 23 targets for 211 yards and 11 first downs. That’s 9.2 yards per target and a 47.8% conversion rate, clobbering the 2020 NFL averages for running backs (5.7 and 24.9%).
Pro Football Focus pass blocking grade
One of the most overlooked aspects of the running back position is pass protection. It’s essential for a running back to be capable of providing quality protection if he is going to survive on third downs.
Here is how the group fared in PFF’s pass blocking grade, an estimate of effectiveness in pass protection.
- Kenneth Gainwell: 84.6 (97th percentile – 2019)
- Javonte Williams: 81.6 (94th)
- Rhamondre Stevenson: 80.9 (92nd)
- Jermar Jefferson: 80.8 (91st)
- Javian Hawkins: 74.8 (82nd)
- Chuba Hubbard: 72.1 (77th)
- Kylin Hill: 62.6 (52nd – 2019)
- Jaret Patterson: 60.6 (57th)
- Michael Carter: 58.0 (51st)
- Trey Sermon: 57.9 (50th)
- Najee Harris: 54.2 (41st)
- Pooka Williams: 53.3 (39th)
- Chris Evans: 44.6 (15th – 2018)
- Travis Etienne: 42.8 (22nd)
- Khalil Herbert: 41.0 (20th)
Javonte Williams, man. Somebody is going to get a steal with this kid.
Gainwell offers excellent pass protection to go along with his superb pass-catching ability, while Etienne does not. The Memphis product gave up zero pressures over 79 snaps in protection throughout the 2019 season. Etienne allowed five pressures over 66 snaps in 2020.
How have these numbers altered your perspective on some of the draft’s top running back prospects?
As always, if you have any other players you’d like to see the numbers of or any different numbers you’d like to see, let me know in the comments.
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