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NFL Draft Order

NFL Draft Running Back Sleepers

by Eric Froton
Updated On: March 5, 2021, 1:49 am ET

When sifting through late-round/UDFA running back values such as James Robinson of the Jacksonville Jaguars last season, I like to target players that fit the NFL RB standard measurements of 5’10+/215+ that accounted for a large portion of their collegiate team’s production. With late-round running backs, if you didn’t dominate your team’s backfield touches, you usually aren’t going to suddenly do so at the NFL level. So while Dominator rating isn’t a end-all be-all for scouting NFL RBs, most of the productive late round running backs from the past few seasons were the designated bell cows of their respective offensive attacks. 

With that in mind, here are my favorite undervalued running backs in the 2021 NFL Draft based on the current consensus expert rankings:

 

Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma - 5’11/227

Stevenson is a 5’11, 227 pound brawler who broke out with a productive junior season in high school, earning the Las Vegas Sun’s high school player of the year honors in 2015. Fate intervened the following year when a broken foot cost the Centennial High product his entire senior season and dimmed his prospect spotlight. Eligibility and injury concerns hurt Stevenson’s recruiting stature which kept him from enrolling in an FBS program, so he took a year off from football before choosing to attend Cerritos JC in CA. He played a rotational role in his first year on campus before rattling off 2,111 yards, 9.5 YPC and 16 touchdowns in his 2nd season, vaulting onto national scouting radars. Reputable scouting outlets such as 247Sports considered him to be the best JUCO running back prospect since New Orleans Saints superstar Alvin Kamara transferred to Tennessee back in 2015. Overall, the Las Vegas tailback finished as the 12th overall JUCO recruit nationally by ESPN and the best running back recruit from the 2018 JUCO class according to 247Sports. 

Oklahoma had a well stocked running backs room that included Kennedy Brooks and Trey Sermon upon Stevenson’s arrival. However the blue-chip transfer established himself in fall camp, earning six carries for 41 yards and a touchdown in OU’s 2019 season opener against Houston. He went on to score a touchdown in each of his first five games, capping the impressive streak off with a five carry, 109-yard, one touchdown showing in a 45-20 blowout of Kansas. On the year, the bruising tailback tallied 64 carries for 515 yards, an eye-popping 8.0 YPC and six touchdowns. Unfortunately, he would end up failing a drug test for marijuana and was suspended for Oklahoma’s playoff game against LSU in addition to missing the first five games of the 2020 season. His emergence pushed Trey Sermon out the door to Ohio State and set off a chain of events that would help guide Ohio State to the CFP Championship Game. 

With Stevenson unavailable and Kennedy Brooks opting out, Oklahoma was forced to utilize a timeshare between true freshman Seth McGowan and T.J. Pledger for the first five games of 2020. To compound the backfield uncertainty, OU was also breaking in a new quarterback in Spencer Rattler. The lack of run game continuity contributed to early season losses against Kansas State and Iowa State, as the Sooners managed just 3.6 YPC in those two contests. In fact despite playing Montana State in their first game, Oklahoma didn’t have a rusher eclipse the 75-yard barrier until their fourth game when T.J. Pledger finally rushed for 131 yards in a quadruple-overtime, 53-45 marathon against Texas.

Upon Stevenson’s return in week six against Texas Tech, both Pledger and McGowan dropped back into secondary roles as no other rusher would lead OU in rushing for the remainder of the season. He ripped off four games with at least 97 yards while saving his best performances for Oklahoma's toughest opponents, rushing for 141 yards against Oklahoma State, 97 yards against Iowa State in the Big 12 Championship game and 186 yards versus number seven ranked Florida in the Cotton Bowl. He finished with 101 carries, 665 yards, a 6.6 YPC and seven touchdowns while also improving his receiving output by securing 18 receptions for 211 yards, and an 11.7 yards per catch average. Having shined in six contests, the talented tailback earned an excellent 90.5 PFF rushing grade this season and his overall 83.8 receiving grade is the third best in the 2021 draft class behind only Kenneth Gainwell - 86.3 and Javonte Williams - 83.9. 

Stevenson’s advanced stats further bolster his claim as one of this year’s top backs, as he posted a superb 4.65 yards after contact over his two seasons at OU while ranking 12th in the country in PFF’s elusiveness rating with a 140.6 mark (for comparison's sake, Michael Carter ranked 13th with a 135.1 rating). He ranks second in the draft class in forced miss tackles per attempt by breaking a tackle in 36% of his rushing attempts, trailing only Javonte Williams who averaged .48 broken tackles per attempt, which is the most since PFF’s inception in 2014. A 26% Dominator rating shows that Stevenson garnered a large portion of his team’s production when in the lineup, while brandishing impressive explosiveness by rolling up 12 rushes of 15+ yards, eighth most among draft eligibles, on just 101 carries.

The well-built rusher has an NFL ready body with relatively few miles on it for a 23 year old thanks to the missed time in high school and only 165 total attempts over the last two seasons. Stevenson displays an advanced feel for pace when sifting through the line and lets his blocks develop before bursting through the hole. He is crafty enough to keep defenders off balance with a variety of shoulder fakes and jab steps before breaking out a punishing stiff arm that can drive opponents into the turf.  With a powerful frame with exceptional play strength, he can lower the shoulder or choose to deploy a Ricky Waters-esque spin move to squeeze out a few extra yards. Runs with a fluid style and has good burst while not possessing high-end breakaway speed.

The Sooner bruiser posted 4.64 40-yard dash and 29-inch vertical at 235 pounds in high school, if he improves on that time and can get in the 4.5-4.59 range that would be a considerable boost to his draft stock. One would think the state-of-the-art training facilities at Oklahoma could help shave some time off the old 40 time, especially with Stevenson trimming down to 227 from 235. Senior Bowl practice reports revealed potential issues with pass protection as he failed to separate himself from the rest of the running backs in attendance. 

A quick industry consensus shows most analysts have Stevenson on the fringes of the top-10 of draft eligible running back rankings, with ESPN’s Todd McShay being the most bullish national pundit by ranking him as the fifth best RB in this class. His prototype size and physicality, along with an impressive array of moves has me agreeing with McShay in considering Stevenson a bona fide upper-tier running back talent worthy of a top-five ranking.

 

Elijah Mitchell, Louisiana - 5’11/221

Four years ago Mitchell arrived on campus as a nondescript two-star recruit and immediately carved out a prominent role in HC Billy Napier’s high octane offense. He registered 140 yards and three total touchdowns in the first two games of his collegiate career before rushing 13 times for 107 yards and two touchdowns in a 56-50 victory over ULM in his fourth contest. Unfortunately he suffered a broken foot in the fifth game that prematurely ended his freshman season. 

His 2018 started out fairly innocuously, rushing 18 times for 77 yards, a 4.3 YPC over the first three games. Mitchell really distinguished himself in a Week 4 56-14 loss to Alabama when he rushed 12 times for 93 yards, 7.7 YPC and one catch for 13 yards. He then proceeded to post five 100-yard games in his next six games, scoring an eye-popping 13 touchdowns in that span. The ULL star would go on to have his best receiving season, catching 20-of-21 passes for 349 yards and three touchdowns while averaging a gaudy 17.4 yards per catch and earning a solid 85.0 PFF receiving grade. The Erath, LA native averaged the third most yards after catch in the country with a sterling 16.1 YAC mark, while his 3.53 yards per route run was the second highest running back YPRR in the country behind only Adrian Killins’ 3.93 YPRR. No other RB eclipsed the 3.00 YPRR threshold as the Ragin’ Cajun ball carrier rolled up 1,334 yards from scrimmage.

Mitchell developed his running acumen in 2019, rushing for 1,147 yards, 5.8 YPC, a career high 16 touchdowns while catching 10-of-13 targets for 70 yards and a touchdown through the air. Though he split time with Trey Ragas and third-down specialist Raymond Calais, his explosiveness was evident, recording 39 rushes of 10+ yards, 15 rushes of 15+ yards and 56 missed tackles forced. His 87.7 PFF rushing grade was a career best while his five 100-yard games tied his 2018 mark. 

This year Mitchell shared the workload with fellow 2021 draftee Trey Ragas and 2021 lead back Chris Smith, leading to the lowest Dominator rating on this sleeper list. However despite the crowded backfield, the two-time Second Team All-Sun Belt Conference honoree still averaged 14 carries, 6.2 YPC and 88 rushing yards per game while cashing in eight scores in 10 games. He acquitted himself well against a top notch Iowa State defense, making a highlight-reel worthy catch and averaging 5.8 YPC rushing in the 31-14 upset victory. A two-touchdown day against Coastal Carolina and a 112 total yard, 7.9 YPC showing at Appalachian State assuage any concerns that he only performs well against lower level competition. His 120.7 elusiveness rating was right in line with a 118.2 career average, which ranks as the sixth best mark among draft eligible backs. A yards after contact average of 4.04 tied him with Trey Sermon for eighth best in the 2021 class, aided by his rock solid 29% broken tackle percentage.

Mitchell is densely built (5’11/221) with a prototypical RB frame and a compact running style that reminds me of Samaje Perine. He runs with a decisive, one cut downhill style and above average burst when he identifies a running lane. Flashes quick feet and above average contact balance and finishes his runs with authority. Extremely productive despite limited carries, ranking first in this year’s draft class in career Yards Per Snap with 3.58 and second in single-season YPS with a mark of 4.50 (Chuba’s 2019 YPS of 5.51 ranks first). Possesses a low center of gravity and enough speed to outrun trailing defenders despite hefty 220 pound stature. Tough inside runner with impressive vision that drew praise from Senior Bowl attendees for his quickness and power. Underrated receiver who has three-down upside thanks to pro-caliber receiving skills. 

Mitchell is being ranked in the RB15 range by the majority of draft experts, however I feel like he possesses the physical skills and traits of a top-10 worthy running back provided he shows out at the UL pro day.

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Spencer Brown, UAB - 6’2/230

An unheralded two-star recruit out of high school who was a converted high school linebacker, Brown didn’t waste any time getting acclimated to the collegiate play speed, recording his first career 100-yard rushing performance in just the second game of his career, registering 151 yards in 17 carries against Ball State back in 2017. The well built tailback needed just 8 games to break Jordan Howard’s school freshman touchdown record en route to Second Team All-Conference USA FWAA Freshman All-American accolades. The bell-cow freshman finished his first season with 250 carries, 1,329 yards rushing, 5.3 YPC and ten touchdowns.

As a sophomore he increased his workload, reaching the 20+ carry plateau nine times, carrying 272 times for 1,227 yard, a 4.5 YPC and 17 total touchdowns. Named First-Team All C-USA and Conference USA Championship Game MVP when he rushed for 156 yards and a touchdown in UAB’s 27-25 victory over Middle Tennessee.

However in 2019 Brown experienced the first injury setback of his career, suffering a high ankle sprain on his first carry against Rice on October 5, costing him the next four games while hampering his explosiveness for the remainder of the season. To put the injury into perspective, the Blazers’ workhorse logged 78 carries in the four games prior to his injury while only recording 72 carries over the following 9 contests. Brown’s production plummeted, averaging only 3.8 YPC while rushing for 556 yards and five touchdowns in 2019. 

As such, Brown’s prospect status took a hit entering 2020 as pundits wondered if he may have hit a wall and if it might be time for youngsters Jermaine Brown and Dewayne McBride to take the UAB rushing reins. However with a full offseason to let his ankle ailment heal, the Warrior, AL product (yes he really is from a town named “Warrior”, kid was clearly born to be a stud RB) proceeded to ring up 20+ carries in six of eight contests while piling up six 100-yard games and 10 touchdowns in just eight games. He ran well against the more stout defenses on the Blazers’ schedule, rushing 16 times for 74 yards and a touchdown against a top-notch Miami defense while posting 140 yards and two touchdowns against Louisiana and 149 yards in the C-USA Championship Game against another quality defensive team in Marshall. The 230-pound bruiser finished strong as well, recording a staggering 87 carries over the last three games of the season.

Brown finished his very productive collegiate tenure with 4,011 rushing yards, 19 100-yard games and 42 touchdowns. Though not particularly elusive he runs with impressive power, breaking arm tackles with ease and serving as a battering ram on short yardage downs, breaking 36 tackles in 190 touches. He is a patient runner who allows his blocks to develop and can bounce outside when necessary, though his money is made lowering his helmet and puncturing the interior of the line. His 32% Dominator in 2020 is tied for the fourth highest Dominator rating in the 2021 RB class, as UAB leaned on him heavily due to uncertainty at the QB position.

He's very reliable when it comes to ball security, fumbling only three times in the last three years spanning 603 carries. Posted 20 receptions on 25 targets for 111 yards and one touchdown over his collegiate career, with a career game-high of just 40 receiving yards despite logging 1,074 snaps over four seasons. Averaged an acceptable 3.02 yards after contact in 2020, up from a sub-par 2.67 YAC mark in 2019. Average speed and burst suppresses his ability to capitalize with chunk plays when he is able to power through initial tackle attempts. Above average pass blocker who does a good job of squaring up with opposing blitzers. Solid 77.9 rushing and 79.0 overall offensive grades from PFF lend credibility to his NFL potential and early down skill set. 

PFF rates Brown as the eighth best RB prospect in this year’s draft group, but he is ranked outside the top-20 on just about every other draft board in the draftsphere. His NFL ready size and power, proven bell cow ability to log 20+ carries per game, and four years as the main offensive weapon for a successful Group of Five program lend credibility to the belief that Brown could carve out a niche at the next level as an early down/goal-line smash-mouth RB who cedes third-down work to a more dynamic pass-catching option. A strong set of pro-day testing would go a long way towards pushing Brown into the late rounds of the 2021 Draft, as the main questions circulating around the physical tailback center on his straight line speed and burst.

 

Stevie Scott, Indiana - 6’2/231

The Syracuse, NY native had originally committed to Rutgers before flipping his commitment to Indiana during the 2018 class’ early signing period. Rated as a three-star recruit and 80th best running back prospect from the 2018 prep cycle, Scott immediately took control of the IU running backs room, rushing 69 times for 388 yards and three touchdowns in his first three collegiate games. The 18-year-old neophyte put forth a legitimate freshman breakout season, rushing 228 times for 1,137 yards, 5.0 YPC, six 100-yard games and 11 total touchdowns. Finished with the second-most yards and 100-yard games among 2018 true freshman rushers. Earned honorable-mention All-Big Ten status by both coaches and media while being named Indiana’s Offensive Newcomer of the Year.

In 2019 Scott shared some of the rushing load with incoming freshman Sampson James, logging over 20 carries just twice in 11 appearances, but still retained the lead back role as he recorded at least 16 carries in eight games. Somewhat concerning is the fact that Scott produced his best performances of the season against the least talented teams on the schedule. His top four rushing games came against a two-win Northwestern team, UConn, Rutgers and Maryland. His season-high rushing total in the other seven games was just 68 yards against Nebraska.

Though Scott took a step back in terms of rushing production, he greatly increased his impact in the passing game, catching 26-of-29 passes for a 90 percent catch rate, 211 yards, a TD and a 78.4 hands grade in 2019 after catching 89 percent of his targets in 2018. Despite missing the last two games with an undisclosed injury, he was named Second-Team All-Big Ten by coaches and media while being named to the Doak Walker and Maxwell Award watch lists. He finished the season with 178 carries, 845 rushing yards, a 4.7 YPC and ten touchdowns along with 1,056 yards from scrimmage. 

Much was expected from Scott in 2020, as the Hoosiers had one of their most talented teams in recent memory. He carried at least 18 times in seven of Indiana’s eight games while averaging 20 carries, 70 yards and 1.2 touchdowns per game this year, earning second-team All-Big Ten status in back-to-back seasons. His ten total touchdowns ranked second in the Big Ten and marks the third straight season in which the stocky runner reached double figures in touchdowns. Registered 13 catches on 19 targets for 86 yards, 6.6 YPC and an unsightly five drops, regressing in the passing game despite displaying remarkable competence catching the ball in the years prior. His yards after contact average ticked down from 3.01 to 2.45, though he increased his broken tackle percentage for the third straight season. 

Scott is certainly the lowest rated rusher listed in this column, falling outside of the top-20 in almost every draft prognosticator’s current rankings. He has an extremely muscular frame with the strength to punish converging second level tacklers and push the pile in short yardage situations. The versatile plodder flashed three-down credentials before taking a step back in the passing game in 2020. His 27% Dominator ranks sixth in the 2021 class, which is impressive considering he cornered the rushing load at a top-20 caliber Big Ten program.

Scott likes to utilize a nifty jump cut to slide into openings in the line or bounce runs outside. Excelled when rushing off the right edge, gaining 160 yards and a 6.4 YPC on 25 carries off the right side in 2020, showing enough juice to be productive when moving laterally. Had breakdowns in pass protection this year against Ole Miss and Wisconsin, that simply cannot happen at the NFL level, especially at 231 pounds. 35.0 career elusiveness rating is indicative of the stiff hips he shows on tape when trying to make defenders miss in space. Lacks long speed and might be best served by trimming down to 225 pounds or so to increase his burst and agility. 

Stevie Scott put himself on the NFL radar with an outstanding true freshman season, however he hasn’t built on that promising season in the way you would like to see from a back with his impressive physical stature. There is potential for Scott to carve out a niche for himself at the next level, but he would have to dedicate himself in the offseason to improving his testing marks in an effort to quell concerns about his speed and acceleration. If he can run well and show enough agility in the shuttle and 3-cone drill, I think Scott could provide a decent ROI for a seventh-round or UDFA flier.