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Falcons draft prospect watch: RB

The Falcons are now sitting at 4-8 after another loss to the Saints. More draft takes are in order, and today we take a look at some of the top RB prospects for Atlanta in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Clemson v Notre Dame Photo by Matt Cashore-Pool/Getty Images

The Falcons are back to their losing ways after faltering on offense once again against the New Orleans Saints in Week 13. Now At 4-8, the Falcons are currently sitting at 8th in the projected 2021 NFL Draft order—though this could be subject to change depending on the outcome of Monday’s games. I still expect the team to finish around 6-10 when it’s all said and done. That should put the team...right around where they are now, although it’s hard to say exactly where as much depends on the play of the teams around them, how Strength of Schedule changes, and the like.

We’ve already covered some top prospects for the Falcons at EDGE, CB, safety, and QB. Let’s continue our look at the offense with RB, where Atlanta is likely to be looking for a new starter in 2021. The depth will likely be solid with Ito Smith and Qadree Ollison still under contract, but Todd Gurley and Brian Hill are unlikely to return unless they’re willing to take very small deals.

Here are some of the top RB prospects to keep an eye on for the Falcons in the 2021 NFL Draft.

Travis Etienne, Clemson

The consensus RB1 in the 2021 NFL Draft, Clemson’s Travis Etienne is a truly special RB prospect. Atlanta would likely need to spend a mid-to-late 1st rounder on him—which is unlikely, to say the least—but it’s fun to imagine him in this offense. Etienne pairs his stout build (5’10, 210) with rare, world-class athleticism—and the results are truly something to behold. Etienne is one of the fastest, most explosive players in all of college football and he’s a home run threat every single time he touches the ball.

His speed and explosiveness are his elite traits, but Etienne is surprisingly physical and is more than capable of taking tough carries through contact. He’s got excellent contact balance and is very adept at slipping tackles, either through agility or physicality. Etienne also improved a lot in both pass protection and as a receiver this season. Like many backs with incredible athletic gifts, Etienne doesn’t have exceptional vision and his decision-making can be suspect—he’s so naturally talented he hasn’t really developed those characteristics at this point. Etienne will have his early struggles in the NFL, but that athletic talent will make up for most of it.

Najee Harris, Alabama

Right on Etienne’s heels is Alabama RB Najee Harris, who has really elevated his stock over the course of 2019 and 2020. While Etienne is a world-class athlete with a small, stout build, Harris is an absolute monster at 6’2, 230. He’s the most physical back in the class and it’s not particularly close. Harris is very difficult to bring down and he runs with frenetic energy, always moving his feet and pushing for more yardage.

Harris has solid long speed for his size and stature and can be very difficult to bring down once he gets a full head of steam. He’s also a very natural receiver, with soft hands and the ability to make difficult catches in traffic. Harris, however, is not particularly agile or shifty and struggles to change direction quickly. As you might expect, he runs very upright and constantly takes unnecessary hits. Harris is a good fit for a power scheme, where he can make one quick cut and go, so his fit in Atlanta probably depends on the new coaching staff.

Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis

I recently drafted Gainwell in the first edition of my Falcons 2021 Mock Draft, and here’s how I described his skillset:

Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell has got the potential to be a quality starter in the NFL. Gainwell has a bit of a light build at 5’11, 191, but pairs it with very good athleticism. He’s quick and explosive as a ballcarrier, with the ability to succeed in both inside and outside running.

Gainwell also has a physical style to his game, making him a well-rounded runner who can thrive in just about any scheme. He’s a very natural receiver who was even used in the slot at times for Memphis. Gainwell opted out of the 2020 season due to COVID, so he has just one season of standout production: 231 carries for 1459 yards (6.3 YPC) and 13 TD along with 51 receptions for 610 yards (12.0 YPR) and 3 TDs in the passing game. If he’s still available this late, the Falcons should pounce on him—and I wouldn’t mind a small trade-up into late Day 2 to secure him if necessary.

Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State

One of the top RB prospects from the 2019 class, Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard put together an incredible 2094-yard season (at 6.4 YPC) with 21 TDs last year. He elected to return to school, in part due to the incredible number of talented RBs coming out in that class, but it seems like that may have been a poor decision. Hubbard has been having a down year in 2020, in part due to injury, and that has hurt his draft stock.

That could be a good thing for the Falcons, however, who likely need to wait until Day 2 or early Day 3 to select a RB. Hubbard’s film reminds me a bit of a bigger, more athletic Devonta Freeman. His vision, patience, and elusiveness are easily his best traits, and he excels in a zone scheme attack. Hubbard does have good size at 6’0, 207 and pairs it with quality athleticism, including the long speed to break off big gains. His notable weaknesses are pass protection—where he needs more development—and his receiving ability. Hubbard simply isn’t a natural pass catcher and will need to work to improve in this area to be a true 3-down back in the NFL.

What are your thoughts on the Falcons targeting an RB in the 2021 NFL Draft? Would you prioritize the position on early Day 2 or even late in Round 1 through a trade down, or is late Day 2/early Day 3 a better value proposition?