2021 NFL Draft: Late-Round Running Backs Whose Workloads Point to Fantasy Football Success
When looking at the narratives around any big game in the NFL -- be it a “revenge game," a rivalry matchup, or a contest with postseason implications -- it seems that both sides believe they are the underdogs, the ones who were counted out, the ones who the media never gave a chance. I’ve always wondered how it happens that every player goes out onto the field with a chip on their shoulder, a grudge in their heart, and some sort of perceived slight as their “bulletin board material.”
I mention this because we are going to examine the college receiving production of the 2021 NFL Draft running back class and explain what it means for their potential as three-down NFL backs.
I’ve found in studies this offseason that the backs who weren’t given chances often in college before probably won’t be given as many chances in the pros, either. There are always exceptions to the rule, but their circumstances tend to be, well, exceptional. That said, if anyone who doesn’t make this list goes off someday and becomes a superstar, let’s just pretend this was the “bulletin-board material” that got their motivation up.
Which late-round rookie running backs could earn fantasy football and NFL-relevant workloads?
Many people in the fantasy industry are already talking about the star potential of guys like Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, and other likely early-round running backs. I want to look at guys projected to go in Round 4 or later of the NFL Draft (Day 3), so that we can find those diamonds in the rough who “put a chip on their shoulder” and leap up into higher value down the line. I used Kevin Hanson’s three-round mock draft on EatDrinkandSleepFootball.com and Chad Reuter’s four-round mock on NFL.com as the basis for weeding out the "stars."
As mentioned previously, I spent some time this offseason researching how closely college receiving indicates future NFL receiving production for running backs, and how well college rushing workload predicts NFL rushing attempts. In short, the relationship for both is fairly strong. While it’s a bit of a self-fulfilling prophecy, NFL coaches tend to like to use players who have proven to be able to handle a larger workload in college -- if they’ve seen a player do it, they know the player can do it again.
With that in mind, I ranked the running backs in this class by college rushing attempts per game, percentage of team rushing attempts (rushing share), receptions per game, and percentage of team receptions (receiving share). All have fairly strong relationships with NFL usage, but I weighted rushes per game and receiving share a bit higher since they are the stickiest rushing and receiving components, respectively.
The running backs below are the ones who have put together NFL-caliber workloads in college and deserve an extra-long look as fliers in the late rounds of your fantasy drafts going forward.
Pooka Williams Jr., Kansas
Our own JJ Zachariason talked about Kansas Jayhawks running back Pooka Williams Jr. on the Late-Round Podcast recently, addressing why the former four-star prospect isn’t projected higher in the NFL Draft. Williams, who contributed 2,916 yards from scrimmage over his Kansas career as one of the team’s sole offensive engines, weighed in at his pro day at a bantam 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds. For an NFL running back, that’s really small. In fact, only two running backs with a Body Mass Index (BMI) of less than 26.0 have been both invited to the NFL Combine and drafted over the last 20 years -- De'Anthony Thomas and Trenton Cannon -- neither of whom were household fantasy names.
That’s the downside for Williams. His upshot is that neither Thomas nor Cannon earned the kind of workload that he did at a Power 5 college program. Williams saw 16.0 rushes per game (35.9% team rush share) throughout his college career and picked up 2.5 receptions per game (10.6% team receiving share). All of these numbers are in the top 10 within the 2021 running back class, with Williams arguably the top pass-catching back in the group. With Williams' boasting outstanding production but a questionable physical profile, one of those elements has got to give; still, he’s worth a late flier in rookie drafts just in case.
Stevie Scott III, Indiana
Stevie Scott III hasn’t gotten much buzz, but the Indiana Hoosiers' ground-pounder put together a strong rushing profile during his college career. His 4.5 yards per rushing attempt leave something to be desired, but the 6-foot-2, 230-pound power back saw 18.1 rushing attempts per game (fifth in the class) and gobbled up 48.3% of Indiana’s rushing attempts (most).
It’s not like he was one-dimensional, either; Scott earned 6.8% of Indiana’s receptions in college, which was the 12th-most among the 40 running backs on my scouting list. This is largely the same workload as the much more heralded Javonte Williams, albeit with lower yards per reception and touchdown rate efficiency. Still, with a physical profile similar to David Johnson and Jay Ajayi and a proven rushing resumé to back him up, Scott could function as the short-yardage/goal-line half of an NFL committee if given the chance, with just enough receiving value to stick.
C.J. Marable, Coastal Carolina
The Coastal Carolina Chanticleers seemingly came out of nowhere in 2020, largely on the back of senior running back C.J. Marable. Marable racked up 3,394 yards from scrimmage and 41 touchdowns in three seasons as the starter at Coastal Carolina, remaining solidly efficient with 5.5 yards per carry and 8.4 yards per reception. While not a rushing phenom, Marable’s 13.3 rushes per game come in at 13th in the class.
His smaller size likely relegates him to a third-down/special teams role, but at about 5-foot-9 and 195 pounds, he fits nicely on the T.J. Logan-to-Theo Riddick spectrum. Just like them, Marable’s receiving profile is really where he shines. Marable soaked up 2.3 catches per game and a 10.5% team receiving share -- both top-four marks in the class of 2021. If Marable can latch on at the back end of a roster, he could work his way into long-term fantasy relevance as a pass-catcher.
Rakeem Boyd, Arkansas Razorbacks -- 13.0 rushes per game (15th in the class), 8.9% team receiving share (5th)
Kylin Hill, Mississippi State Bulldogs -- 11.3 rushes per game (23rd), 7.3% team receiving share (9th)
Brenden Knox, Marshall Thundering Herd -- 19.0 rushes per game (3rd), 4.4% team receiving share (28th)
Jaret Patterson, Buffalo Bulls -- 19.3 rushes per game (1st), 4.2% team receiving share (30th)
Spencer Brown, Alabama-Birmingham Blazers -- 18.3 rushes per game (4th), 2.8% team receiving share (36th)