The 2021 NFL Draft is fast approaching, which means it’s time to discuss some priority targets for the Falcons. Atlanta has been carefully adding veterans in free agency to bolster several major roster holes, but the team still has significant gaps in the roster. Up until the draft, I’ll be detailing some of my top prospects for the Falcons at several positions of need. If you missed any of the previous entries in the series, you can find them below:
Next up is running back, where the Falcons have almost entirely reshaped the depth chart. Gone are 2020 starters Todd Gurley and Ito Smith, replaced by former Panthers RB Mike Davis and former Bears RB/WR/KR Cordarrelle Patterson. The only holdover from last season is Qadree Ollison—and his place on the roster isn’t exactly secure either. Atlanta is expected to add a prospect in the draft, the only question is when.
Athletic testing numbers are taken from Kent Le Platte’s Relative Athletic Scores. Be sure to check out his site and follow him on Twitter (@Mathbomb) for updates on athletic testing!
Najee Harris, Alabama
Projection: Late 1st-Early 2nd Round
2020 Stats: 13 games played | 251 carries, 1466 yards, 5.8 YPC, 26 TD | 43 receptions, 425 yards, 9.9 YPR, 4 TD
If the Falcons are looking to make a major investment at running back, Alabama’s Najee Harris is the top option in the draft. Harris is a complete back capable of filling just about any role, from power to zone concepts, third down work, and pass protection. He’s a rare talent and the closest thing to Derrick Henry in this class. While RB isn’t the biggest need on the roster with Mike Davis in the building, it’d be mighty hard to pass up Harris if he’s still on the board at 35.
Harris is an absolute monster at 6’1, 230. He’s the most physical back in the class, just ahead of Javonte Williams. 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 can be almost impossible to tackle 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 tends to run very upright and seems to invite unnecessary hits.
Travis Etienne, Clemson
Projection: Late 1st-Early 2nd Round
2020 Stats: 12 games played | 168 carries, 914 yards, 5.4 YPC, 14 TD | 48 receptions, 588 yards, 12.3 YPR, 2 TD
If the Falcons are looking to go in a different direction than Harris with their running back selection—or he’s simply not available at 35—Travis Etienne offers another intriguing target at the top of the second round. Etienne is an elite athlete for the position with truly dangerous speed and explosiveness—I personally think he runs faster than 4.45—but he’s not just a one-trick pony. He’s capable of handling short-yardage work due to his exceptional contact balance, and is surprisingly smart with the football to avoid losing yardage.
As a wide zone back, Etienne is deadly. He’s good at reading his blocks and taking the right angle to break off big runs. One of the biggest weaknesses of Etienne’s game was his ability as a receiver, but he improved markedly in this area this season with nearly 50 receptions and over 500 yards. He’s a potential feature back in the NFL that would complement the more physical style of Mike Davis extremely well in 2021.
Javonte Williams, North Carolina
Projection: 2nd Round
2020 Stats: 11 games played | 157 carries, 1140 yards, 7.3 YPC, 19 TD | 25 receptions, 305 yards, 12.2 YPR, 3 TD
A third option for the Falcons early on Day 2 in the fairly likely event that both Najee Harris and Travis Etienne are off the board at 35, UNC’s Javonte Williams is an impressive back in his own right. A riser over the course of the 2020 season, Williams is a physical presence with quality size and athletic ability. There are those that like Williams more than Harris and/or Etienne, as he’s also got tremendous upside as a feature back in the NFL.
Williams is big, bruising, and powerful, but pairs that with surprising agility and an ability to make easy open-field cuts. I love his vision and decisiveness with the ball—he’s a blast to watch and rarely gets stuck behind the line of scrimmage. He’s also shown talent as both a pass protector and receiver out of the backfield, making him the complete package for an NFL team looking for a versatile RB1. Williams played as part of a tandem with Michael Carter over the course of his career, but actually overtook Carter this year and put up his most impressive season yet: 157 carries for 1140 yards (7.3 YPC) and 19 (!!) TDs to go along with 25 receptions for 305 yards (12.2 YPR) and 3 TDs.
Michael Carter, North Carolina
Projection: 2nd-3rd Round
2020 Stats: 11 games played | 156 carries, 1245 yards, 8.0 YPC, 9 TD | 25 receptions, 267 yards, 10.7 YPR, 2 TD
If the Falcons elect to wait until later on Day 2 to address RB, the addition of the other half of UNC’s two-headed rushing attack in Michael Carter could make a lot of sense. Carter was the focal point of North Carolina’s offense up until this season, where Javonte Williams overtook him in terms of production. However, Carter is still very good and has the upside of an NFL starter, although he lacks the elite size and traits of the RBs higher on this list.
Carter has excellent vision and elusiveness to go along with quality size for the position (5’8, 202). While he’s nothing more than an average athlete in terms of long speed and explosiveness, Carter is exceptionally agile and slippery with the ball in his hands. He’s also an accomplished receiver with plenty of third down pass blocking experience. Carter may not have the sky-high upside of Najee Harris or Travis Etienne, but he’s a perfectly good NFL starter who can be the engine of an offense if needed. He actually reminds me quite a bit of Devonta Freeman, and I think he could have a similar impact in Atlanta.
Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis
Projection: 3rd Round
2019* Stats: 14 games played | 231 carries, 1459 yards, 6.3 YPC, 13 TD | 51 receptions, 610 yards, 12.0 YPR, 3 TD
If I had to put money on one prospect ending up in Atlanta, it would be Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell. He’s been linked to the Falcons through multiple sources and makes a ton of sense for how the team is building their RB corps. Gainwell is a former WR and plays like it: he’s a natural pass catcher with superb route running ability. As a dynamic, home-run hitter, Gainwell is a good complement to the physicality of Mike Davis. I wouldn’t put too much stock into his average athletic testing: Gainwell gained almost 20 pounds to bulk up to 200 for his Pro Day and looked like he was still getting used to carrying the extra weight.
What Gainwell lacks in ideal size (5’11, 181) he makes up for in athleticism. He’s a dynamic presence in both the rushing and passing game with RB1 potential in the NFL. Gainwell needs to add weight onto a lean frame—10 or so pounds to get to 200 would be huge—but he’s an electric playmaker and arguably the best receiving back in the class. He was so good in this area that he routinely lined up in the slot at Memphis, where he demonstrated advanced route running skills for the position. Gainwell would be a perfect fit in Atlanta, where he could begin his career as part of a committee with Davis and Patterson before taking on a more prominent role in 2022.
Trey Sermon, Ohio State
Projection: 3rd-4th Round
2020 Stats: 8 games played | 116 carries, 870 yards, 7.5 YPC, 4 TD | 12 receptions, 95 yards, 7.9 YPR
One of the biggest risers from the 2020 season, Ohio State’s Trey Sermon burst onto the scene partway through the year after a slow, injury-marred start. Sermon put together a dominant 3-game stretch with 112 yards (11.2 YPC), 331 yards (11.4 YPC), and 193 yards (6.2 YPC) before getting injured early in the National Championship game. He’s got a ton of untapped potential and would be a perfect target early on Day 3 for Atlanta.
At 6’0, 213, Sermon has the build of a bigger back that fans have been clamoring for. He’s clearly hit his stride as a runner and excels in zone concepts, both inside and outside. Sermon has physicality in spades and pairs it with good vision, footwork, and contact balance to find additional yards after contact. He’s probably best as the 1A in a committee, as Sermon hasn’t shown much as a receiver thus far. Still, for a 4th-round pick, you’d be hard pressed to find a better value. Sermon would enter 2021 as the clear favorite to start and could form a quality tandem with Ito Smith serving as the change-of-pace and third down option.
Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State
Projection: 4th-5th Round
2020 Stats: 7 games played | 133 carries, 625 yards, 4.7 YPC, 5 TD | 8 receptions, 52 yards, 6.5 YPR, 1 TD
One of the most puzzling evaluations of this draft season, Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard went from a 2000-yard rusher who dominated the competition in 2019 to a timid, underwhelming starter in a shortened 2020. His athletic testing reveals that the potential is still there, but why did Hubbard have such a disappointing season? I’m not entirely sure, but I’m willing to bet Arthur Smith can get him back on the right track in Atlanta. For the price of just a 4th round pick—or perhaps even later—Hubbard could wind up being an absolute steal for the Falcons.
Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard was the most electric RB in college football in the 2019 season, but had a down year in 2020. That has caused his stock to fall, but Hubbard’s talent remains unchanged. At 6’0, 210, Hubbard has good size and showed off excellent speed and explosiveness. He’s showcased solid vision and patience as a runner, and is a threat to break off a big play at any time. However, Hubbard has never developed as a receiver and lacks physicality. He’s best served as part of a committee at the NFL level, but could be a dynamic option to pair with Davis and Patterson in 2021.
Jermar Jefferson, Oregon State
Projection: 5th-6th Round
2020 Stats: 6 games played | 133 attempts, 858 yards, 6.5 YPC, 7 TD | 9 receptions, 67 yards, 7.4 YPR
If the Falcons choose to wait until later on Day 3 to add a RB to complement their current rotation, Oregon State’s Jermar Jefferson could be the perfect fit. Jefferson tested out poorly at his Pro Day, but he’s dealt with ankle injuries over the past year and I believe it’s still affecting his athleticism. In a shortened 2020 season, Jefferson demonstrated dominant ability on the ground in a zone blocking scheme and flashes of quality receiving talent.
Jefferson’s best trait is his vision, and he’s incredibly savvy with the ball in his hands. He’s a player who will maximize his touches and blocking on every snap. While he’s not a high-end athlete, he’s good enough to create on his own and has the speed and elusiveness to break off chunk gains in the open field. Jefferson also has good contact balance and toughness to run between the tackles if needed. He’s not the type of RB you feature, but he can be a quality RB2 at worst who could start in a pinch and play a variety of roles.