NFL draft betting: Will Alabama's Najee Harris be the first RB off the board?

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Sam Cooper
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NFL draft props: How many QBs will go in Round 1?

The way NFL franchises approach the running back position in the draft has changed pretty drastically in the last 10 years.

In the 10 drafts from 2000-09, 32 running backs were selected in the first round. That includes five first-rounders in both the 2000 and 2008 drafts. By comparison, the number of first-round running backs dropped down to just 14 total in the last 10 drafts. In four of those drafts, including last year, there was just one running back chosen in the first round. Twice, in 2013 and 2014, there were no RBs selected in the first round.

Unless there is a marquee name at the top of the board like Ezekiel Elliott or Saquon Barkley, most franchises wait until the middle or later rounds to snag a running back. Others with a more pressing need at the position (and depth elsewhere) might look to shore up the position late in the first or early in the second.

Though there are no surefire first-rounders this year, at least one running back has gone in the first round in the last six drafts. Even if he doesn’t land in the first round, one back is a fairly significant betting favorite at BetMGM to be the first running back taken: Najee Harris.

The Alabama product currently has -160 odds to be the first RB off the board with Clemson’s Travis Etienne (+225) and North Carolina’s Javonte Williams (+450) also in the mix to be the top back selected.

“The past 10 drafts, we've had 14 first-round running backs. And in each of the past six drafts, we've had at least one RB sneak into Round 1. This year it's unclear if we get one or not, but there are some RB-needy teams (Arizona, Miami, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville and Buffalo) sitting in the second half of the round,” said Yahoo Sports NFL draft expert Eric Edholm.

“For a while now, it's felt as if Najee Harris would be RB1 and for good reason — he has the bulk, athleticism and vastly improved pass-catching ability to warrant a first-round selection. But keep an eye on Travis Etienne and Javonte Williams, too. Etienne's electric playmaking could bump him up, and Williams might be this year's Clyde Edwards-Helaire — the first-round surprise few saw coming.”

National Team running back Najee Harris of Alabama (22) walks to the sideline during the National team practice for the NCAA college Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Rusty Costanza)
Najee Harris of Alabama walks to the sideline during practice for the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Alabama, on Jan. 27, 2021. (AP Photo/Rusty Costanza)

The 2021 NFL draft’s top RB prospects

It was a surprise to some when Harris elected to return to Alabama for his senior season, but it paid off in a big way. Harris put up 1,224 yards and 13 touchdowns as a junior, but boosted his draft stock while also playing a huge role in a national championship run for the Crimson Tide in 2020.

Harris rushed for 1,466 yards and a whopping 26 touchdowns in 2020 while also adding 43 receptions for 425 yards. Harris had a monster performance in Alabama’s SEC title game victory over Florida with 178 rushing yards, 67 receiving yards and five total touchdowns.

Harris is the No. 1 running back in Edholm’s Top 100 draft prospects and is the betting favorite at BetMGM with -160 odds to be the first RB off the board.

Williams, a junior out of North Carolina who split snaps with Michael Carter, is the No. 2 running back in the draft, according to Edholm, but has the third-best odds at +450. In 2020, Williams had 157 carries for 1,140 yards and 19 TDs while catching 25 passes for 305 yards and three scores.

Here’s a brief excerpt from Edholm’s scouting report on Williams, which you can read in full here. Edholm has Williams as the No. 27 overall prospect in the 2021 draft.

Absurd contact balance as a runner and receiver — one of the best tackle-breakers in college football last season. Consistently makes the first man miss and can create yards beyond what the play is blocked for. Will drive through ankle-tackle attempts or simply plow through defenders.

The running back with the second-best odds is Etienne at +225. Etienne’s name should be a familiar one as he was a four-year contributor at Clemson, a perennial national championship contender.

By the time Etienne left Clemson, he was a two-time All-American, a two-time ACC Player of the Year, a national champion and the ACC’s all-time leader in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, total touchdowns and yards from scrimmage.

Etienne is RB No. 3 on Edholm’s Top 100 (No. 34 overall). Here’s more from Etienne’s scouting report:

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.

How about some long shots?

The NFL draft always has a few surprises. Maybe this year it will be the first running back selected.

Beyond Harris, Etienne and Williams, there is a significant drop in the odds at BetMGM. Michael Carter (Williams’ backfield mate at UNC), Kenneth Gainwell of Memphis and Ohio State’s Trey Sermon are next with +4000 odds apiece.

Of that group, Sermon has the highest placing in Edholm’s Top 100, coming in at No. 60. Carter is No. 79 and Gainwell is No. 84. The only other running back in Edholm’s Top 100 is Oregon State product Jermar Jefferson (at No. 100), who has +10000 odds.

Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard, Mississippi State’s Kylin Hill and Oklahoma’s Rhamondre Stevenson all have better odds than Jefferson. That trio is listed at +6600.

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