Najee Harris vs Travis Etienne: Who’s 2021 NFL Draft’s Top Running Back?
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.
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.
"I'm tired of getting hit in my legs… I'm just gonna start jumping"
Najee Harris turned every hurdle into a masterpiece 🔥
— 247Sports (@247Sports) February 25, 2021
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).
Almost forgot about this gem from Najee Harris 👀
100 Career Targets
9.8 YAC per Catch pic.twitter.com/44MiqdH7zX
— Ben Fennell (@BenFennell_NFL) February 26, 2021
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.
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!
Travis Etienne Is A Better NFL Prospect Than Najee Harris
To some, Najee Harris is the best running back in the 2021 NFL Draft class. However, I hang my hat on Travis Etienne to ultimately emerge as 2021’s top dog at running back when it is all said and done. A senior out of Clemson, Etienne will enter the NFL following an illustrious collegiate career.
Not only does he hold several ACC records that include rushing yards (4,952), rushing touchdowns (70), total touchdowns (78), and points (468), but Etienne also owns the FBS record for most career games with a score, finding the end zone in 46-of-55 career outings.
Although he is only 5-foot-10, 205 pounds, Etienne has a powerful physique despite his compact stature. While he is decisive and fast to the hole, Etienne is at his best in the open field. Once he gets there, his acceleration, speed, and elusiveness make Etienne a three to score at any time. In spite of his compact frame, Etienne is a physical runner who does not veer from contact and when hit, consumes it with balance.
However, that doesn’t mean that Etienne’s style of play doesn’t come with its issues, especially in the ball security department. In four seasons, Etienne is credited with eight fumbles, losing seven of them. What’s more, six of those fumbles have come in 2019 and in 2020, losing five.
On top of his abilities as a rusher, Etienne is also an excellent receiver. Deemed an improved route runner with above-average hands and enough versatility to line up all over the formation, Etienne can do damage at the next level in the passing game. And although he can improve in pass protection, he is not a liability in that department and doesn’t have to come off the field.
For Harris, he’s a completely different back than Etienne. At 6-foot-2 and 230 pounds, Harris is more of your NFL power back who is a fantastic rusher in between the tackles. While Harris and Etienne can both maintain their balance after contact, the former is night and day superior gaining those extra yards following the initial hit. Harris is also an excellent short-yardage rusher, where Etienne could struggle.
What separates the two backs, for me, is Etienne’s speed and pass-catching ability. Sure, Harris is a three-down back, who excels in pass-protection. However, he is not the receiver that Etienne is despite the fact that he can hold his own when called upon.
On the pro stage, I believe both Etienne and Harris will have terrific NFL careers. But when it comes to the top back, Etienne fits the bill for the current NFL product a bit more than Harris. While Harris brings it all — size, power, above-average speed, can get by as a receiver, pass-protection, will wear a defense down, and is a clock-killer — Etienne has the edge where it matters most in 2021, speed and home-run hitting ability.
When it comes to draft comps, I have seen Harris compared to two NFL backs. One good, one great. The good, Mark Ingram. The great, Derrick Henry.
On the other side, I have seen Etienne compared to Alvin Kamara.
Henry does not grow on trees and the fact that he also played at Alabama while donning a bigger frame could be the reason why. Henry out-weighs Harris by roughly 15 pounds. And although Ingram also played his college ball at Bama, he is about 15 pounds lighter and a few inches smaller than Harris. So what, or who, is Harris?
Henry is a legit big and powerful back with great speed. Harris may not be as fast and surely does not bring Henry’s size. Therefore, Harris is closer to Ingram to me than Henry. Harris also benefitted from a terrific offensive line at Alabama and may need one to play at a top-end level in the NFL.
I’m not saying all backs wouldn’t benefit from a great front five, but Etienne is the type of rusher who can overcome a poor one, importantly, in the passing game. If Etienne struggles as a rusher, he can also be used all over the formation to be put in situations to exploit his strengths, which is in space. He is also fast and elusive enough to overcome hols being plugged up and can get to the outside with ease.
The Kamara comp makes sense. While he’s never rushed for more than 932 yards in a single year, nor has he handled north of 194 carries, Kamara has caught 81+ passes for 533+ yards in each of his first four seasons in the NFL. That 533-yard number was a career-low back in 2019. Kamara has gone for 704+ receiving yards in his other three years in the NFL. He’s also managed 13+ total touchdowns in three of his four seasons in the NFL as well, showcasing his home-run hitting characteristics. You can employ Etienne in a similar fashion.
You hear the narrative all the time in sports — “you can’t teach speed.” As much as Harris can develop into a top-end caliber back, he lacks the game-breaking traits that Etienne brings to the table. Both are NFL weapons in their own right, but Etienne is a special player when the ball is in his hands, which is why I give him the slight edge in this debate.
Who’s the better 2021 NFL Draft Prospect? Choose the 2021 NFL Draft top RB for yourself.
- Najee Harris NFL Draft Prospect Profile & Scouting Report
- Travis Etienne NFL Draft Prospect Profile & Scouting Report