It has long seemed like a foregone conlusion that Clemson's Travis Etienne would be both the consensus top running back prospect and first player off the board at his position in the 2021 NFL Draft, but I'm summoning my inner Lee Corso for a message. Not so fast, my friend.
Alabama's Najee Harris has emphatically stated his RB1 case early in his senior season with the Crimson Tide. The boulder of a back has 347 yards on 52 attempts (6.67 yards per) with 10 rushing touchdowns in three games. Because he currently carries the fifth-highest yards before contact per rush figure (among backs with 40 or more rushes) in college football at 3.60, it'd be easy to assume Harris has been running through a parted crimson sea on every play. But there's plenty of wiggle to his game at a strapping 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds.
Harris forced 59 missed tackles as a rusher and a receiver last season, the second-highest total of any back who returned to the SEC for the 2020 campaign, per Pro Football Focus. And he's demonstrated the same kind of freaky wiggle for a runner his size to start the season. Look at this comparison of elusiveness between Harris and Etienne, the latter being a back known for his ability to make defenders miss.
All advanced stats courtesy of TruMedia unless otherwise stated.
|Touches / Tackles Avoided||Touches Per Tackles Avoided|
73 / 30
59 / 21
Also, Harris' comfort as a pass catcher makes him a captivating running back prospect for the passing-addicted NFL. Since the start of 2019, he's caught 34 passes on 43 targets for 380 yards (11.18 yards per) with just one drop. Harris had a whopping seven receiving scores last season.
One of those receiving touchdowns was this Olympic-type demonstration of athleticism against South Carolina that would've been nirvana for NFL Network's Kyle Brandt during an Angry Runs segment if it included collegiate players.
As you may have guessed, Harris didn't arrive out of nowhere. After all, he is playing at Nick Saban's first-round pick factory dripping with five-star recruits. Harris was the top running back and No. 2 overall recruit in the nation in the class of 2017, per 247 Sports.
While not as Marshawn Lynch-y, he reminded everyone that catch-and-rumble against South Carolina wasn't a fluke on a swing pass against Ole Miss last weekend.
His supreme athletic gifts as a runner and vision have been on full display every week to start the year. First, let's showcase a play against Missouri a few weeks ago. Classic outside zone. Harris saw the frontside clogged, so he chopped his feet to look for a backside lane. Nothing there. And that's when his rare gifts appeared. He was able to subtly jump cut back to the frontside of the play, squeezed through a small crack and some arm tackle attempts before accelerating through the second level. Somehow he had the juice in his lower half to cut again, absorb contact from another defender to gain extra yards. Watch it multiple times.
Remember, you're seeing a 6-2, 230-pound back do this. And for context on his size, Le'Veon Bell was 6-1 and 230 pounds at the combine in 2013.
Less explanation from me on this similar run against Ole Miss on Saturday. Just watch in awe as a man as large as Harris cut as sharply and as frequently as he did on this play.
He frequently notices holes as they're materializing too. Good sign.
I'll finish with two displays of Harris' seemingly natural receiving ability. It's not crazy to visualize him as a H-back because of his frame and how impressive he is running routes and tracking the football.
This is from 2019, in the epic outing against LSU, Harris ran a wheel route then contorted his body to high-point the football before falling into the end zone -- with first-round pick Patrick Queen in coverage.
And like he did with the stiff arm and hurdle catch-and-run above, Harris basically recreated the wheel-route wizardry from 2019 earlier this season against Texas A&M.
Same route. Same elite body control demonstration. Same rebound to grab the football. Just landed short of the end zone.
This is not normal stuff to be witnessing on a football field, people. Not normal. Especially not from a colossal running back.
Etienne is still the consensus RB1 in the class, and he's dazzled plenty to start the season at Clemson. He's twitchy, hyper-explosive, and is an electric pass-catching back. But Harris has proven he can provide much of the same dynamic running and receiving capabilities at a much more intimidating, bulldozing size.
The race for RB1 is not over yet.