2021 NFL draft prospects: Clemson RB Travis Etienne

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Eric Edholm
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Eric Edholm's criteria for grading NFL draft prospects. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)
Eric Edholm's criteria for grading NFL draft prospects. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

Clemson RB Travis Etienne

5-foot-10, 215 pounds

Yahoo Sports draft grade: 5.95 — potential starter

TL;DR scouting report: Explosive, home-run-hitting back with questions about vision, durability

Games watched: Ohio State (2019), Boston College (2020), Notre Dame regular season (2020), Miami (2020), Ohio State (2020)

The skinny: A 3-star Rivals recruit, Etienne left Louisiana to sign with Clemson and saw the field right away. As a true freshman in 2017, he ran 107 times for 766 yards with 13 TDs; caught five passes for 57 yards; and returned 19 kickoffs for 389 yards in 13 games (zero starts). Etienne ran 204 times for 1,658 yards and 24 touchdowns and caught 12 passes for 78 yards and two TDs for the national champs in 15 starts, earning ACC Player of the Year and named a finalist for the Doak Walker Award.

In 2019, he ran 207 times for 1,614 yards and 19 TDs; caught 37 passes for 432 yards and four TDs; 1 of 1 passing for 23 yards; and returned five kickoffs for 128 yards in 15 starts, earning ACC Player of the Year and second-team AP All-America. Head coach Dabo Swinney said Etienne received a second-round grade from the underclassman advisory board prior to the 2020 draft but returned to school for his final season. He ran 168 times for 913 yards and 14 TDs; caught 48 passes for 588 yards and two TDs; and returned eight kickoffs for 189 yards and one punt for 44 yards, earning first-team AP All-America and first-team All-ACC honors.

Upside: Extraordinary production — 78 career TDs ranks him tied for fourth all-time in college football. Career rushing average of 7.2 yards and career receiving average of 11.3 yards. Explosive return potential too.

Sprinter’s speed in well-built frame — 4.45-second 40-yard dash (with 2.5 second 20-yard split). Can eliminate pursuit angles with speed to the edge. Also turned in good result in the broad jump (128 inches) and a respectable bench press number (18 reps).

Explosive runner with sharp cutting ability. Accelerates quickly and doesn’t gear down much to make moves. Good open-field elusiveness to make defenders whiff. Home-run ability — 16 career touchdowns of 40-plus yards. Absolutely lethal in wide-open attacks — thrives in open spaces.

Underrated toughness. Determined runner who can power through tackle tries and drop his shoulder into an oncoming defender. Has some pop in his pads — not a finesse guy for how fast and elusive he is. Great contact balance. Unleashes a quality stiff arm when it’s called for. Runs north-south and gets downhill fast. Strong, forceful goal-line runner.

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JANUARY 01: Clemson Tigers running back Travis Etienne (9) finds open field during the Allstate Sugar Bowl College Football Playoff Semifinal between the Ohio State Buckeyes and Clemson Tigers at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome on January 1, 2021 in New Orleans, LA. (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Clemson RB Travis Etienne can rip off big runs in a jiffy. (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Expanded receiving role in 2020. Showed he could do more than just handle screens. Added more routes to his tree and made some impressive grabs (see the regular-season game against Notre Dame). Made major strides catching the ball over four years — looked allergic to it early in his career but led all running backs in receiving yards in the country in 2020.

Found ways to thrive in 2020 despite a drop in Clemson’s OL play. Battled through a few tough stretches and never tapped out despite ample opportunities to do so. Combination of traits, production and competitiveness give him a solid floor as a prospect. Not a one-trick pony back.

Downside: Smaller frame for a true lead back. Doesn’t profile as a workhorse — only one game with more than 18 carries since 2018. Will turn 23 following his rookie season and enters the NFL with more than 800 college touches but averaged fewer than 14 carries per game. Running style might not lend to long career by RB standards.

Carved up some light boxes — took advantage of some overmatched defenses geared up to stop Trevor Lawrence and a who’s who of gifted wide receivers. Put up biggest numbers when Clemson featured star-studded offensive lines in 2018 and 2019. Rushing average saw a major dip, from 7.8 yards per carry entering last season to 5.4 in 2020.

Vision and anticipation as a runner can be hit or miss — improved in these areas gradually over his career but has more room to develop. Inconsistent running between the tackles — can be seen running up his linemen’s backs and lacks patience at times to allow runs to develop. Can run out of control. Bit of a long strider at times.

Pass protection needs major work — willing to step up in the face of a rusher but lacks fundamental balance and impact to keep his QB clean. Struggles to ID free rushers — struggled mightily in this department against Ohio State in the 2020 playoff semifinals.

Receiving ability was expanded last season, but more arrows can be added to his quiver to earn a third-down role. Hands can be an issue — 10 drops on 122 career targets, per PFF. Not as reliable catching the ball the farther he is downfield.

Ball security a bit worrisome — eight career fumbles (four last season) on 788 offensive touches. Guilty of some mental and physical mistakes — some teams have questioned Etienne’s football intelligence to a degree. Could find himself in the doghouse early if not careful.

Best-suited destination: Etienne would be best-suited to end up in a spread-out system where he can operate more in space, and he ideally would be part of a tandem where his workload can be properly managed and his big-play ability harnessed.

We particularly like his fit with teams such as the Arizona Cardinals, Buffalo Bills, Denver Broncos, Atlanta Falcons, Jacksonville Jaguars and New York Jets.

Did you know: Etienne hails from Louisiana, and his family said they received death threats prior to the 2019 playoff championship between LSU and Clemson. LSU won the game, 42-25, with Etienne rushing 15 times for 78 yards and a TD.

Player comp: For a floor, Etienne reads similarly to Kenyan Drake, with a ceiling of Dalvin Cook.

Expected draft range: Top-40 pick