Najee Harris vs Travis Etienne: Who’s 2021 NFL Draft’s Top Running Back?

Posted: Mar 5, 2021Last updated: Mar 5, 2021

Here’s the second installment of The Game Day’s 2021 NFL Draft Debate series: Najee Harris vs Travis Etienne. The running backs (Harris from Alabama, Etienne from Clemson) are widely accepted and predicted to be the first two at their position selected in the 2021 NFL Draft, but who’s 2021’s top NFL Draft RB? Well, the Najee Harris-Travis Etienne question is one of the most difficult to answer in this year’s NFL Draft.

Two of our intrepid 2021 NFL Draft writers have taken one side of this brain-wracking debate over the 2021 NFL Draft’s top receiver.

  • Anthony Cervino favors Travis Etienne for the 2021 NFL Draft’s best running back prospect.
  • Kev Mahserejian plants his flag with Najee Harris for the best running back of the 2021 NFL Draft.


Najee Harris vs Travis Etienne: 2021 NFL Draft Debate

Why Najee Harris Is A Better NFL Prospect Than Travis Etienne

Najee Harris is a phenomenal running back who may look the part of a big-bodied bruiser but is extremely fluid in space.

He’s much more than a north-south runner. Harris’s appeal is in the versatile skill set he possesses. Teams can feature him lined up in the backfield or out wide as a receiver. Harris is a mismatch no matter where he plays and comes with minimal durability concerns.

Not that it means much, but Harris was one of the most highly recruited players in recent history. Since 247Sports.com began their national recruiting rankings in 1999, Harris ranks as the 60th-best player, not just running back, on their database. Travis Etienne was the 213th-ranked player coming out of high school in 2017 while Harris was 2nd overall and 1st among RBs.

Najee Harris vs Travis Etienne: Najee Harris' combo of size and mobility gives him a sound argument for 2021 NFL Draft's top RB.

Najee Harris vs Travis Etienne: Najee Harris’ combo of size and mobility gives him a sound argument for 2021 NFL Draft’s top RB. (Image: USA TODAY Sports)

You can look back and find all of the busts with high-school rankings, but a lot of the time, those players weren’t very good college players anyway. Harris was great in college and even found himself as high as a fifth in the Heisman Trophy race this past season. Etienne, to his own credit, was great in college as well and has found himself on similar ground as Harris after their respective four years in college.

Pedigree aside, Harris’s style of play is extremely translatable to any offense. Whether he be asked to run power, zone, counter, etc., it does not really matter given his level of talent. Harris can be patient in finding the gap or strong enough to put his head down and burst forward.

A knock you may place on Harris is his age relative to Etienne. Harris is nearly a year older despite coming out of high school at the same time. However, running back is not THAT important for prospects compared to other positions as long as it is not Brandon Weeden-esque.

Harris did have a later start to his career as a bell-cow for the offense but he was playing alongside future first-round pick Josh Jacobs and third-round pick Damien Harris during his first two seasons. Clemson’s RB room was nowhere close to that throughout Etienne’s college career.

Etienne did have better efficiency statistics as a rusher and receiver, but he did have the benefit of playing in the ACC while Harris was in the more daunting SEC. This doesn’t negate Etienne’s marks by any means; he was not playing chumps, just slightly lighter defenses.

Most impressively, Harris is an incredible receiver with hands that do not resemble that of a running back. He only dropped 3 of 100 targets throughout his career with an 80% catch rate and a 13.4% offensive target share in his senior season (an 89th percentile mark via PlayerProfiler.com).

Speed is the biggest flaw in Harris’s game and typically, it is not possible to get much faster. He already plays at a relatively low weight for his height and any cutting that occurs would make him more vulnerable when hit.

Unfortunately, without a combine, there will be flawed 40-time numbers released that will not satisfy the necessary thresholds for Harris to pass.

If he were to time anywhere below 4.65, then we have a reasonable situation in which his speed can easily be overcome as there have been plenty of runners in the range throughout the past decade. However, if he were to clock-in at 4.70 or above, then things get more complicated.

Watching Etienne play is fun, but as you watch, it starts to materialize that he is more of a straight-line runner who can hit a hole and go rather than create in space/traffic. Etienne’s biggest flaw is his lack of creativity as a runner, his style is very limited and one-dimensional to a degree.

Both Harris and Etienne break tackles well but Harris is more capable of avoiding the tacklers altogether while Etienne relies on running past them and creating leverage with angles/timing. Etienne, like Harris, is a fantastic pass-catcher but Harris runs better routes, has the size to match-up outside versus DBs, and possesses softer hands. Etienne is better after the catch but teams have to try harder to get him open in space.

Etienne’s limitations relative to Harris as a receiver and pure runner are why he is not the RB1 in this class.


Travis Etienne and Najee Harris will be hotly contested to be the first running back selected in the 2021 NFL Draft class.

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In fact, PointsBet has a 2021 NFL Draft top RB bet: Etienne (-150) is the favorite, with Harris (+120) close behind.

Heck — you don’t even have to take a side in the Najee Harris-Travis Etienne debate. Place a bet on both Harris and Etienne to see if one lands!

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Author

Kev Mahserejian

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