In 2021, NFL running backs are as young as ever. Running backs have a short shelf life and are productive earlier than any other position. Owners should be buying players before they are forced to pay a premium for their past production. We want to select running backs before their breakout season.

This article contains our thoughts about rookie players and was originally provided in our draft guide. You can download the draft guide for free!

Below are the top five rookie running backs in order of Apex ADP.

Najee Harris – Pittsburgh Steelers

With 1,466 rushing yards and 30 total touchdowns, Najee Harris dominated as a senior. At 6’1” 232 lbs., Harris is built like a truck. In terms of production, it’s concerning that Harris only began dominating his team’s rushing production as a 21-year-old junior, which can be partially excused by the talent he was competing with (Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs).

Another perhaps more significant concern is explosive speed and breakaway ability – or lack thereof. Despite running behind an elite offensive line featuring elite receivers on an excellent offense, Harris only ran for more than 20 yards on 25 of 638 collegiate carries (3.9%). For a player that is currently being selected in the middle of the second round of one-year leagues, we would like to see more explosiveness.

Regardless, Harris looks like a do-it-all back who comes with soft hands in the passing game, evidenced by a 90th percentile college target share as a senior. His price is high, but Harris should be a nearly every-down player for the Steelers. The question is will he catch enough passes and score enough touchdowns to pay off his expensive cost?

Travis Etienne – Jacksonville Jaguars

At Clemson, Travis Etienne broke out early as a true freshman. Amazingly, he scored at least 13 total touchdowns in each of his four collegiate seasons. He scored at least one touchdown in a stunning 46 of 55 career college games, and 17 of the touchdowns were 40 yards or longer.

At 215 lbs., his 40-time and broad jump popped, showing above-average athleticism. Etienne’s receiving prowess is key, averaging 49 receiving yards per game as a senior. We would’ve preferred him to leave as an early declare last offseason, but his combination of athleticism and age-adjusted production make him this class’s best prospect.

The big concern for Travis Etienne, at least this year, is the landing spot. While he’ll have to compete with James Robinson, Etienne likely won’t have as many rookie touches as Najee Harris. However, Harris is currently being selected almost 40 picks higher.

Etienne’s receiving workload has been mentioned frequently by the Jaguars. Sports Illustrated’s John Shipley said he has been “uncoverable” in training camp. We know that targets are more valuable than carries and Etienne could be a chain-mover in the role of Alvin Kamara/Reggie Bush.

While Robinson was fun last season, he was undrafted. It’s clear the Jaguars identified running back as a positional need and were enamored enough with Etienne to select him 25th overall. On a team that could be playing from behind frequently, Etienne could rack up lots of receptions. An excellent prospect, Etienne could immediately be a superstar.

Javonte Williams – Denver Broncos

Javonte Williams was part of a dynamic duo with Michael Carter at the University of North Carolina. During his final year, Williams ran for 7.3 yards per carry (94th percentile) on 157 attempts. He led the nation with 75 missed tackles forced – a number made even more remarkable when you consider he was only tied for 20th in the nation in rushing attempts. Doing so, Williams set Pro Football Focus’s all-time missed tackles forced per carry record (0.48). He also averaged a ridiculous 4.59 yards after contact according to Pro Football Focus.

Williams showed ability as a pass-catcher, averaging over 10 yards per target on his 30 targets. Checking in at 212 lbs., Williams lacks above-average speed but makes up for it with 89th percentile agility and above-average jumping ability.

At 28 years old, Melvin Gordon’s fantasy value is crushed by Williams. Beat writer Ryan O’Halloran noted, “The Broncos traded up in the second round for Williams and they weren’t high-fiving and fist-pumping in the draft room because he will watch this year.” O’Halloran predicts “Williams leads the team in rushing attempts and yards this year.”

O’Halloran doesn’t think fantasy owners will have to wait either. He expects Williams to be the Week 1 starter.

Trey Sermon – San Francisco 49ers

Trey Sermon doesn’t have the sustained production that we like to see out of our prospects. He never had more than 55 percent of his team’s running back production in a season. In 2021, Sermon was splitting with Master Teague before Teague went down. Then Sermon started getting hot, rushing for 112, 331, and 193 yards in consecutive games against impressive competition. As a pass-catcher, Sermon maxed out at an 8.4 percent target share in college.

While sustained production isn’t his strength, Sermon has the size that many in this class do not. Sermon checked in at 6’0” 215 lbs. with impressive leaping (81st percentile) and agility skills (79th percentile). Unfortunately, Sermon has just a 31st percentile Pro Day speed score. Sermon has the prototypical size to receive a lot of touches but if he couldn’t earn them consistently in college, should we expect him to do so in the NFL?

Of all the players benefiting from their draft day destinations, Sermon may be at the top of the list. Sermon consistently played for good college programs but didn’t truly dominate until a three-game stretch at the end of his senior season. Kyle Shanahan took notice, and the 49ers selected Sermon in the third round.

On the 49ers, he’ll compete with Raheem Mostert and Wayne Gallman. Jeff Wilson is currently injured but will likely be in the mix when he returns.

Beat writer David Lombardi theorized Sermon would be used in a similar fashion to Tevin Coleman in 2019. He continued, “Therefore, it won’t be surprising if Sermon racks up the majority of starts while Mostert leads the team in rushing yardage… Keeping Mostert consistently healthy will likely be reliant on easing his workload with other running backs, and the first staple of that effort might be Sermon.”

Michael Carter – New York Jets

Splitting with Javonte Williams wasn’t ideal for Michael Carter, but there are elements of his profile that are impressive. As an 18-year-old true freshman, Carter led the Tar Heels with eight rushing touchdowns while accounting for an impressive 62 percent of the running back production.

Unfortunately, when Williams joined the team, Carter’s dominator rating dropped but he still received more touches than Williams as a sophomore and a junior. He also edged Williams in yards per carry in each of those two seasons.

In 2020, Carter received one fewer carry but ran for 105 more yards than Williams. His senior efficiency of 8 yards per carry is 98th percentile. Carter was also consistently involved in the passing game, finishing with a 64th percentile college target share – the same as Williams.

Carter is just 201 lbs. and isn’t the fastest (29th percentile Pro Day speed score). However, like Williams, he makes up for his lack of athleticism with 97th percentile agility. His size and athletic profile look very similar to James White. It’s reasonable to expect Carter to be used as a pass-game back in the NFL.

Carter enters one of the league’s worst depth charts, including Tevin Coleman, Ty Johnson, and Lamical Perine. His biggest competition is likely the 28-year-old Coleman, who rushed for 1.9 yards per carry and caught four passes in eight games with the 49ers last season.