NFL Draft Betting: Who Will Be the First Running Back Selected?
There are a number of fascinating markets worthy of your attention in the buildup to the 2021 NFL Draft. We've already given you some pointers toward who will be the first offensive lineman selected as well as the first wide receiver taken. We've also broken down the odds for who will be the second overall pick.
Now, using odds from FanDuel Sportsbook, let's have a look at who you should bet on to be the first running back off the board come draft day.
Najee Harris, Alabama
FanDuel Sportsbook Odds: -105
There were some who feared that Alabama running back Najee Harris missed a trick by not coming out for the 2020 NFL Draft. There were fears an unproductive final year could torpedo his draft prospects. These fears were unfounded, as Harris finished the 2020 season with 1,466 yards on the ground and a whopping 26 touchdowns.
Just for good measure, he added another 425 yards and four touchdowns on 43 receptions. His 57 targets a year ago earned him an 89th-percentile target share of 13.4%, per PlayerProfiler.
Harris should be the first back taken by NFL teams, and if you want my opinion, he will more likely than not be the first player taken in dynasty rookie drafts, too. The fact he spent four years in college and the questions surrounding the wear and tear that caused are issues for the future. Right now, this is an exciting rookie of whom prominent prognosticators are expecting to go in the first round of the draft.
Travis Etienne, Clemson
Like Harris, some people thought that Clemson back Travis Etienne should have spent the 2020 season on an NFL roster. Like Harris, he chose to return to school. Unlike Harris, this was probably a mistake. After back-to-back seasons of 1,600-plus yards in 2018 and 2019, Etienne rushed for only 914 in 12 games last fall. His yards per attempt fell from 7.8 to 5.4, which is still the 10th best among this draft class. Etienne also flashed his tackle-breaking ability, breaking 4.6 per game in 2020.
The biggest plus for Etienne was that this past season gave him a chance to showcase his receiving chops. After 37 receptions in 2019, Etienne hauled in another 48 for 588 yards. He'll go into the NFL the proud owner of an 86th-percentile target share of 12.2%. He leads this class with an average of four receptions and 49 yards per game this past season.
While Harris is a worthy favorite, Etienne's skills as a pass-catcher might persuade an NFL team to take a chance on him ahead of his Bama rival.
Javonte Williams, North Carolina
What if the four years both Harris and Etienne spent in college really scares off NFL evaluators? If it does and a team feels like they really need to draft a running back early, to whom could they turn?
Well, there is Javonte Williams of North Carolina.
He amassed a more-than-presentable 1,140 yards in 11 games for the Tar Heels in 2020, averaging 7.3 yards per attempt along the way. His production might have been even better if he wasn't sharing a backfield with Michael Carter -- who himself is available at odds of +1900 to be drafted first and rushed for 1,245 yards in 2020.
Williams may attract the attention of NFL scouts for his ability to create yards on his own. He averaged 103.6 rushing yards per game, with an average of 65.7 of these yards coming after contact. He amassed 7.2 broken tackles per game, a mark exceeded by only two players in this class. Williams was also no mug as a pass-catcher, totaling 25 receptions for 305 yards at averages of 2.3 grabs and 27.7 yards per game. He'll be just 21 when the season starts, and his all-around game might cause some team take him atop the position.
Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State
Another player who, if we were writing this a year ago, would have been among the favorites to hear his name called first among this position group is Chuba Hubbard. At this time a year ago, Hubbard had just rushed for 2,094 yards at a clip 6.4 yards per carry, scoring 21 touchdowns for Oklahoma State.
He chose to return to school in 2020, and in seven games, he gained 625 yards at 4.7 yards per attempt. He also caught just eight passes.
Hubbard will be hoping that teams focus more on his 2019 production than what he achieved last year. But it would be a major shock if multiple running backs didn't hear their name called before him on draft weekend.
Jaret Patterson, Buffalo
If straight-up rushing production is your thing, then you should love Jaret Patterson.
In 32 career games for Buffalo, he gained the small matter of 3,884 yards and 52 touchdowns, averaging 6.1 yards per attempt. In 2020, he rushed for 1,072 yards in just six -- yes, six -- games, with his 178.7 yards per game leading this class. Against Bowling Green in November, he rushed 31 times for 301 yards and four touchdowns. A week later, he took 409 yards and eight touchdowns from Kent State.
Patterson was able to create some plays for himself, with 4.9 yards after contact per attempt and 6.5 broken tackles per game. He posted elite numbers in terms of college dominance, according to PlayerProfiler, with a 97th-percentile college dominator rating and 95th-percentile mark in yards per attempt (7.6) this past season.
So why is he so far back in the betting market? Well, his receiving profile could be a concern ... in that, he doesn't really have one. Patterson caught 20 total passes in college, with zero (!!!) coming in 2020. That's why he is a long shot in this market.
I think Harris will be the first back taken. It's not an open-and-shut case by any stretch, but I think he has shown enough of an all-around skill-set to convince whatever team wants to be the first to draft a back in 2021 to place their trust in him.
The more intriguing market may be who will be the second back taken. I don't believe every team has Etienne the next name on their board after Harris. It would not shock me if Williams was the next cab off the rank.
As a lover of the underdog, I would dearly love it if Patterson were the winner in this particular race. But while his production last season was insane, teams are not going to go too early on backs who they don't think can contribute in the passing game. The days of Andre Williams types being valued in the NFL are over.