With many teams going the value route at the running back position, there's more willingness than ever before to give late-round selections at the position legitimate opportunities in the regular season. And that shift in thinking for the ground game has led to some recent sixth and seventh-round picks emerging as viable ball-carrying options early in their careers -- think Ty Johnson, Myles Gaskin, Justin Jackson, and, most notably, Chris Carson.
In the 2021 draft, there were 10 running backs picked in the sixth-round or later. I've ranked the top 5 based on how likely they are to produce as rookies. Talent matters. So does the depth chart and offensive philosophy.
With Felton, you have to trust your eyes because his pro day workout was stunningly bad. He embodies the new-age running back/receiver hybrid, having spent his first three seasons at UCLA as a wideout before carrying the ball 132 times at 5.1 yards per with five rushing scores in his senior season for the Bruins.
I genuinely believe Felton is more athletic on the field than his workout numbers indicate, and his 99 career collegiate receptions will be a welcomed addition to the Browns offense that doesn't have an overloaded group of depth at the skill positions. But there's elite runner Nick Chubb as the lead back and the now underrated Kareem Hunt as Cleveland's versatile No. 2. Touches will be hard to come by. Yet the Browns aren't going to shy away from the ground game.
For as one-two punch heavy as the Browns backfield is, there's room for a gadget type in this Baker Mayfield-led attack. And Felton can be that low-volume, high-efficiency type toting the rock behind Cleveland's phenomenal offensive line. He's a tick hesitant on classic inside run plays -- due to his rawness as a ball carrier -- but the slippery runner can sneak in an efficient rookie campaign behind Chubb and Hunt with the Browns.
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4. Kylin Hill, Packers
The Packers have a head honcho at running back -- Aaron Jones. He's carried it over 200 times the past two seasons, earned a new four-year contract in Green Bay this March, and has established himself as one of the game's elite backs.
And we know the Packers are a pass-first team with reigning MVP Aaron Rodgers in the shotgun. But we aren't totally positive Rodgers will be throwing passes inside Lambeau Field this season -- at least early on -- and last year Dillon received the third-most carries on the team (43) and averaged 5.3 yards per rush. His 21-carry, 154-yard, two-touchdown rumbling while Jones was injured was integral to the Packers destroying a good Titans team 40-14 in December.
Hill has the suddenness, surprising power, and soft hands to be the efficient No. 3 in the Packers backfield this season. His vision needs work -- he's often all gas, no brakes behind the line. Hill does have high-caliber tackling-breaking abilities too.
Jefferson was one of the more fun finesse backs in the 2021 class. Not a supreme athlete. No particularly fast. Exceptionally methodical locating lanes and setting up blocks. On film it looked like defenders always felt they had him in their grasp, then Jefferson would make a subtle, almost slow cut that'd perfectly place a blocker in front of him to take out that would-be tackler before he could wrap up.
As a freshman at Oregon State, Jefferson ran for over 1,300 yards at 5.8 yards per pop. In 2020, he averaged 6.5 yards per carry. Those are insane statistics for a runner with 4.60 speed who tested like a below-average athlete at his pro day.
And we know the Lions, with Dan Campbell, are turning back the clock. They going to run it. Send in more blockers. And run it some more. Of course, D'Andre Swift is in line for No. 1 duties in Detroit's backfield. And Jamaal Williams was signed to be the clear backup. Jefferson has the advanced running style to compete for touches as a rookie on what will likely be one of the most run-heavy teams in football.
2. Elijah Mitchell, 49ers
Kyle Shanahan Running Backs Produce. Someone make that a T-shirt. Doesn't matter who it is, his college background or his skill set. Shanahan's wide-zone system has withstood the test of time and a large sample size of ball carriers.
Heck, last year, rookie undrafted free agent JaMychal Hasty averaged 5.2 yards per on 18 carries over two games as an injury fill-in. The hurdle for Mitchell is fellow rookie and third-round pick Trey Sermon who toted the rock at Oklahoma and Ohio State before getting drafted by the 49ers.
Raheem Mostert is the No. 1 runner in the San Francisco offense. As for the third running back -- who will get the football with Shanahan running the show -- Mitchell is in the running as Jeff Wilson sits on PUP for the first six weeks of the season recovering from recent knee surgery.
Mitchell is a one-cut slasher with a game designed to run in a zone-blocking scheme, and his 4.35 speed pops on film -- although I don't think he's quite a mid 4.3 type on the field.
1. Khalil Herbert, Bears
This selection is almost purely based on talent. Herbert is magnificently difficult to tackle. At Virginia Tech last season, the super-shifty Herbert averaged 4.74 yards after contact per rush, which tied with Buffalo's Jaret Patterson for the highest figure in the nation among backs with at least 100 carries.
He's a stocky 5-foot-9 and 210 pounds with decent measured athleticism and appeared to be one of the most light-footed, loose-hipped backs in the entire 2021 class.
David Montgomery experienced a career year in 2020, and Tarik Cohen is the lightning bug in Chicago's backfield. However I feel like there's room for another talented ball carrier, and Herbert absolutely has the on-field quicks and serious balance through contact to make noise as a third option or injury stand-in during his rookie campaign with a Bears offense that will be better with Justin Fields under center than it's been in a very long time.