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Like many other years before it, the 2021 draft is being analyzed as quarterback-first by just about everyone you talk to. And it’s easy to understand why: between Trevor Lawrence, Zach Wilson, Justin Fields, Mac Jones, and Trey Lance, it’s very likely that five quarterbacks will be off the board in the first 15 picks Thursday Night (maybe even sooner). Three of those quarterbacks played in the College Football Playoff (Fields, Jones, and Lawrence), while Fields also produced likely the most memorable performance of the group with his heroic effort against Clemson. Mac Jones? Well, his Crimson Tide ultimately won the title as well. But outside of all that, however, one play stuck out to me - and it wasn’t from a QB:
Late in the first quarter against Notre Dame, it was Alabama RB Najee Harris’ hurdle over defender Nick McCloud was one of the most impressive things I’ve ever seen athletically on a football field. Not only does Najee jump clearly over the defender as he attempts to hit him head on, but he landed so gracefully into his stride that it was as if his feet had never left the ground in the first place. At his massive size - 6’2”, 230 pounds - it cannot be overstated how absurd it is to see Harris leave the ground as often as he does.
Harris is a special talent, the likes of which would have garnered a guaranteed top five pick some years ago. Depending on who you talk to, however, he may not be the best running back available in 2021. Travis Etienne played a key role at running back for four years at Clemson, competing in the college football playoff every season. As a freshman he put up an impressive 13 touchdowns despite never starting, and from there he never looked back. By his senior year, Etienne was as much of a receiving threat as a running threat, which ought to bode well for him in the 2021 version of the NFL this fall. Etienne is an explosive runner - to say the least - one that's capable of forcing himself through tight spaces and breaking away with impressive speed. He’s also a fair amount smaller than Harris and plays a different style of game.
Between Harris and Etienne, it’s very likely that two NFL teams will indeed be picking their new starting running back early on in the 2021 draft. Having said that, let's take a look at some possible landing spots (and current available odds for RB draft props) for these two highly-heralded backs and examine some of the current odds as we are just 24 hours away from the announcement of the number one overall pick.
The Current Odds (DraftKings Sportsbook):
Harris to be first RB drafted
Harris to be drafted in the first round -305
Harris O/U 24.5 (Over -112, Under -112)
Etienne to be drafted in the first round -125
Etienne O/U 30.5 (Over -118, Under -106)
Total RB's drafted in the first round O/U 1.5 (Over +140, Under -177)
First RB drafted (Harris -225, Etienne +150)
The Pittsburgh Steelers were one of the least efficient rushing offenses of 2020, forcing "Big" Ben Roethlisberger to sling the ball all over the field in order to score. It worked at times, sure, but there’s no doubt Mike Tomlin could use a reliable running back like Harris or Etienne in 2021. The big question is whether they’d use their first round pick (#24) to grab Najee Harris or Travis Etienne. The Steelers organizationally tend to oppose drafting skill players early on and haven’t taken a running back in the first round since Rashard Mendenhall in 2008. With several other RB-needy teams ahead of them in the draft, there’s also of course the question of whether either would be available that late into the first round.
With both the 6th and 18th picks in the first round, the Dolphins will be looking all over the field for big-time talent come Thursday night. Having used a stable of backs in 2020 - led by former seventh round pick Myles Gaskin - the room for improvement at running back is easy to spot for the Fins. While Miami’s #6 overall pick is extremely unlikely to be used on a running back, #18 presents them with an interesting decision, and there’s a very good chance both Etienne and Harris will be available to pair with Tua then.
New York Jets
The Jets are expected by virtually everyone to take Zach Wilson with the #2 overall pick, but their 23rd overall selection could be an intriguing option for either Etienne or Harris to be paired with the rookie QB.
There have been rumors in recent days about the Bills potentially trading upward in the draft, having been impressed by Travis Etienne specifically. Todd McShay hinted as recently as yesterday to the Bills potentially moving ahead of the Jets at #23 and Steelers at #24 to get their guy. Peter King mocked Etienne to the Bills at pick #30 as well, while Evan Silva recently had him #25 and Peter Schrager #19.
The (Betting) Bottom Line
Between these two backs specifically, ESPN’s experts (Mel Kuiper and Todd McShay both currently project Harris to go a little higher than Etienne (ADP of 24 for Harris, 28.5 for Etienne). Both have now become favorites at DraftKings to be taken in the first round (Harris -305, Etienne -125), and I’m also inclined to agree. In Etienne’s case, -125 are too good of odds to pass up, especially given the Bills' obvious interest and consideration being given to trading up for him - because of those reasons, I believe there's added value on Etienne's Over/Under with the under 30.5 currently listed at -106 - this a bet I’ll be making.
At the moment, I’m inclined to agree with the 2021 Betting Predators Mock Draft 1.0’s projection of Harris to the Steelers - unlike the Dolphins and Jets, the Steelers don’t have nearly as many holes outside the running back position, and he makes sense to plug in. While I don’t believe the Bills will trade up for Etienne, I wouldn’t rule it out - a more likely scenario would be that Buffalo takes their chances that the Louisiana native and Clemson graduate falls to them at #30, where they’d be happy to add him into the backfield with Josh Allen. The sleeper for Etienne here could be Atlanta (#35 overall pick, third selection of the second round), and I believe the Falcons would be thrilled to add him to their backfield after having no semblance of a running game in '20 with the aging Todd Gurley and nothing worth nothing behind him.
Best Value Bet: Etienne Under 30.5 (-106)