One of the more surprising developments of the 2021 NFL Draft process is how quiet the national media has been with regards to the running back class.
With few mentions of any of the players at the national level, it would be easy to assume that this is a weak group of runners, overshadowed by talent at other positions. But that isn’t really the case, and this draft has some excellent runners at the top of the draft and good depth later on.
In the case of Clemson running back Travis Etienne, some of the quiet might be due to his long-standing presence on the national stage. First bursting onto the scene as a true freshman back in 2017, it feels as though Etienne is already an old pro, and perhaps his ability is being taken for granted. But with 6,117 total yards and 78 total touchdowns over the last four years, he’s one of the most productive players to come out in recent memory.
Games Played: 55
Yards (YPC): 4,962 (7.2 per carry)
Yards (YPC): 1,155 (11.3 per catch)
Total Touchdowns (rushing/receiving): 78 (70 rushing, 8 receiving)
Games Played: 12
Yards (YPC): 914 (5.4 per carry)
Yards (YPC): 588 (12.3 per catch)
Total Touchdowns (rushing/receiving): 16 (14 rushing, 2 receiving)
Best: Athleticism, versatility, vision, pass protection, contact balance, physicality
Worst: Size, wear and tear
Projection: A starting running back with Pro Bowl upside in a West Coast or Spread based offense.
Clemson running back Travis Etienne is an experienced, athletic, productive, and tough runner with significant upside at the NFL level.
Etienne has been Clemson’s starting running back for the last three seasons, and spent the vast majority of his snaps lining up beside the quarterback in the shotgun set or behind the QB in the pistol. There were occasions in which Etienne would align — or motion — to the slot or wide receiver position and he appeared comfortable in those alignments.
Etienne runs with good tempo behind the line of scrimmage, giving his linemen time to establish their blocks. He does a good job of pressing behind his linemen before cutting and exploding through the hole. Etienne primarily ran out of zone blocking schemes, both inside and outside zone, and he ran equally well out of both schemes. He has excellent vision and is both able to anticipate defenders coming up to fill gaps as well as tracking defenders at the second level. He is a savvy runner, consistently using fakes and changes in tempo to force defenders to break down or change their angles before he cuts or accelerates.
Etienne is an excellent athlete with elite speed, both to the edge in outside zone plays and in open space, as well as explosive acceleration, great quickness, and lateral agility. He has the ability to cut at speed and accelerate sharply after changing direction.
He is a very physical player, showing no hesitation when he needs to take on contact as a runner or a blocker. Etienne is willing to run up the middle, run behind his pads and pick up tough yards. Likewise, he has great contact balance to run through arm tackles or shoulder checks — defenders generally need to truly wrap up his legs to reliably bring him down.
Etienne is also an asset in the passing game as a dangerous receiver and a good blocker. He has soft hands and solid ball skills as a receiver, presenting a good target for his quarterback, framing the ball and looking it into his hands. He wasn’t asked to run a particularly diverse route tree — usually wheel, flat, and stick routes — but he is precise in the routes he does run. As a blocker, he aggressively steps up in pass protection with a good understanding of his assignment and technique. Etienne is fearless in taking on defenders and will often step up shoulder-to-shoulder with offensive linemen.
Etienne is a well-rounded runner and there are few real flaws in his game. Despite weighing in at 215 at his Pro Day, he likely played around 205 pounds and his relatively modest stature does show up at times. Etienne is an aggressive and capable pass blocker, but he could be overwhelmed by bigger defenders such as defensive linemen or inside linebackers. Likewise he doesn’t quite have the mass or strength to run through tackles from bigger defenders.
Teams might have concerns about the sheer volume of work Etienne has seen before even entering the NFL. After playing in 55 games and touching the ball a combined 821 times over four years, there could be some questions about the wear and tear on his body and longevity in the NFL.
Overall Grade: 9.3 - This prospect has first round physical and mental traits, with the potential to be a Pro Bowl player at the next level.
Clemson running back Travis Etienne projects as a starting running back in a modern NFL offense with the potential to be a Pro Bowl player in the right situation.
Etienne has an uncommon blend of athleticism, instincts, vision, contact balance, competitive toughness, versatility and production. That athleticism is perfectly visible on tape, and has produced plenty of highlight reel plays, but that production is eye-popping all on its own. Between rushing, receiving, and returns, Etienne averaged just about 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns per season over the course of his four years at Clemson.
And while just watching a random Clemson game since 2017 would be enough to let you know that Etienne is an explosive athlete, a closer look reveals some traits not often seen from players typically labeled “explosive offensive weapons”. Etienne is a nuanced runner who sets up his blockers, makes quick adjustments on the fly, and tracks defenders at multiple levels to give himself the best chance to gain yardage. But he is also remarkably physical, showing no hesitation to run behind his pads, between the tackles. He isn’t likely to run over many defenders, but his contact balance and low center of gravity allow him to run through arm tackles and glance off shoulder checks for yards after contact. Etienne’s explosiveness and willingness to fight through contact and fall forward make him a surprisingly good option inn short-yardage or red zone situations.
Etienne is also a very capable receiver who can make plays out of the backfield or motion to the slot or out wide. Combined with his pass blocking skills, Etienne is the kind of runner with whom offensive coordinators will be comfortable with on any down and distance.
The biggest concerns with Etienne will likely come from teams who either simply prefer their runners to be bigger, or those concerned about his longevity at the NFL level. There isn’t much Etienne can do about the former — he isn’t going to get taller and adding size would likely compromise his athleticism. Etienne has played a lot of games for Clemson and has had a steady workload. Broken down over four years, he has averaged roughly 205 touches per year and his junior year was the high water mark with 244 total touches. Teams will have to decide for themselves if that is too much.