It’s hard to find a running back prospect with the necessary skill set to crack the first round of the NFL Draft, but in the case of Clemson running back Travis Etienne, he’ll provide NFL teams with a legitimate first-round option at the position.
Etienne shocked the 2020 draft landscape when he decided to return to Clemson for his senior season. He would’ve challenged to be the first running back picked in the 2020 NFL draft, but instead prioritized his education and another year of college ball.
“I have long dreamed of competing at the highest level and getting the chance to compete in the NFL,” Etienne said in January. “But I’m not done dreaming here at Clemson either, which is why I’m announcing that I’ll be returning for my senior season.
“I look forward to earning my degree from this great university and continuing to fight with my brothers on the team to make you proud during the 2020 season.”
Few running backs have enjoyed the kind of back-to-back seasons of production that Etienne’s had in 2018 and 19. He carried the ball 207 times for 1,614 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2019. In 2018, he had 204 carries for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns. His career yards-per-carry at Clemson is a remarkable 7.8.
Etienne broke out as a receiver in 2019, too. He had 37 catches for 432 yards and four touchdowns, nearly three times the amount of receptions he registered in 2018.
Standing 5-10 and 210 pounds, Etienne has a solid-enough frame to profile as a three-down back in the NFL. By comparison, Christian McCaffrey is 5-11, 205 pounds, and Dalvin Cook is the exact same size (5-10, 210 pounds).
There’s no reason to be concerned about Etienne’s physical makeup.
Athletically, Etienne will be at the top of the 2021 NFL draft running back class. He has elite field speed; he routinely splits defenders — who have an advantageous angle — for long gains. He’s rarely caught from behind, too. It’s important to note that his speed is ‘field speed.’ Even if he clocks a 4.45 40-yard dash next winter, which is a good but not elite time, it won’t change his profile. He’ll be a home-run hitter in the NFL because he’s a legit 4.4 guy, not just a workout warrior.
Etienne has very good flexibility, too. He changes directions well and can navigate the sideline because of his loose hips and ankles. There are a lot of hidden yards that he gains because of his ability to make subtle and flexible cuts. He’s twitchy; Etienne has a good spin move and first-step explosion that allows him to blow by would-be defenders.
Etienne is a capable inside runner as well. His legs are powerful and always moving. He can lower his shoulders and pick up the hard yards more consistently than running backs that are 210 pounds or lighter. He’s a universal scheme fit moving forward.
It’s hard to find a concern in Etienne’s game. His pass protection can use some improvement, but he isn’t a lost cause in that department. There are plenty of reps that prove he’s capable of standing strong as his quarterback’s last line of protection.
There’s a lot of Alvin Kamara in Etienne’s game, and if there was a redo of the 2017 NFL Draft, Kamara would be a first-round pick. Etienne should find himself in the first 32 picks by the time Round 1 of the 2021 NFL draft concludes.
Preseason grade: 1st round