A lot of work goes into my dynasty rankings.
I’ll say this to my editor, as he anxiously awaits an article to be filed, and he’ll just nod his head and then walk away.
No really, a lot of work goes into my dynasty rankings.
Phase I of my rankings process starts with Phase I of my model —which has three phases in all. Phase I focuses on college production. Phase II focuses on height, weight, and athletic measurables. Phase III focuses entirely on draft capital.
Early on, I try not to be influenced by subjective factors – industry mock drafts, rumors regarding 40-yard-dash times, and the like. Instead, I focus solely on the objective – a player’s cold, hard, brutally honest numbers. I’ll run each player’s college statistics through my model (which focuses only on the most predictive metrics for each position) for an initial ranking. Who leads this class? How does that player compare to the leaders of previous classes? Consider this ‘Phase I’ of my model, which you can take as something akin to a production (plus efficiency) score.
Then, these rankings get updated again following the Combine (or, for 2021, after every player’s Pro Day). Each participant’s numbers (e.g. height, weight, 40-time, broad jump, etc.) get parsed through a second version of my model that focuses only on the most predictive measurables and events for each position. This has a small (probably much smaller than imagined) but real impact on the first model. We’ll call this Phase II.
The actual NFL Draft then has the biggest impact on these rankings, as draft position is the variable with the single most predictive power at any position. That alone comprises Phase III and the completion of my model.
Once my model is concluded I’ll welcome in the subjective factors, and small tinkerings will be made to my rankings. What did Greg Cosell think of this player? How enticing is this landing spot for this player’s fantasy potential? How accurate is his quarterback? How run-heavy (historically) is the offensive play-caller? Countless hours will be spent watching Post-Draft Press Conferences with a team’s head coach, offensive coordinator, and/or general manager. Why did they draft this player? Do they like this tight end more as a receiver or a blocker? Do they think they can contribute immediately in Year 1? Etc.
In this week’s series, I’ll be walking you through the first step in this process. I’ll be breaking down my top tight ends, running backs, and wide receivers according to my pre-Combine (pre-Pro Day) prospect model. With tight ends already concluded (here), today we’ll be focusing on the top running backs of the 2021 Draft class.
Notes: You can read last year’s articles here (running backs), here (wide receivers), and here (tight ends).
1. Najee Harris, Alabama Crimson Tide (Age: 23.0)
Where he ranks: Harris ranks as the top RB in this class, and the 4th-best RB prospect to come out since 2015. He ranks behind Christian McCaffrey, Melvin Gordon, and Jonathan Taylor, and just ahead of Derrick Henry.
Why he ranks here:
Harris was a 5-star recruit and the top RB in his class coming out of high school. He only touched the ball 67 and then 121 times in his freshman (2017) and sophomore (2018) seasons, but he also out-gained Alabama RB — and later first-round draft pick — Josh Jacobs in both seasons. He broke out in 2019 as Alabama’s featured back, totaling 20 touchdowns and 1,528 yards from scrimmage. But his 2020 was more impressive, bumping those numbers up to 30 and 1,891 respectively. In 2020, he led all Power-5 RBs in: yards from scrimmage (1,889), rushing touchdowns (26), total touchdowns (30), total first downs (107), routes run (296), and total missed tackles forced (93). He ranked top-3 in: touches (295), rushing attempts (252), targets (53), receptions (43), receiving yards (425), rushing yards (1,464), rushing yards after contact (821), receiving yards after contact (222), and receiving touchdowns (4).
Harris was compared favorably to Steven Jackson by Lance Zierlein – certainly a lofty comparison (Jackson scored 415.4 fantasy points in 2006, which ranks eighth-most by any RB all-time) – but it’s not hard to see why. Both are between 6’2” and 6’3” and between 230 and 240 lbs. And both are phenomenal receivers, and especially so at their size.
In Jackson’s final season at Oregon State, he totaled 1,545 rushing yards and 470 receiving yards. In Harris’ final season at Alabama, he totaled 1,466 rushing yards and 425 receiving yards. Besides Harris, the only other Power-5 RBs to post a 1,400/400 season since 2015 are: McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Dalvin Cook, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and Travis Etienne.
Harris has phenomenal hands. On 718 career touches, he’s fumbled only once. On 100 career targets, he’s dropped the ball only three times. And Harris is deadly once the ball is actually in his hands. He led all Power-5 RBs in yards after contact per reception in 2020 (5.2), after ranking top-10 in 2019 (3.9). He ranks seventh-best (of 120-plus qualifiers) in career missed tackles forced per reception (0.43), on a top-10 list that includes McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, David Montgomery, Kareem Hunt, Sony Michel, and Zack Moss. His 2020 season ranks fifth-best by the same stat (0.51), behind only seasons from McCaffrey (2016), Kamara (2016), Montgomery (2017), and Hunt (2016).
Harris is no slouch as a runner either. He’s Alabama’s all-time leading rusher (over names like Henry, Shaun Alexander, Jacobs, Mark Ingram, Eddie Lacy, T.J. Yeldon, Damien Harris, Kenyan Drake, etc.), and he’s ranked top-5 among all Power-5 RBs in PFF rushing grade in each of his last three seasons.
Hopefully by now you know where I stand when it comes to RBs. I’m firmly on team #BellCowOrBust. No asset is more valuable in fantasy than an every-down RB who is featured in the offense as both a runner and a receiver. That’s ultimately what set Harris apart from every other running back in this class – the unreal levels of volume he handled over the past two seasons, implying massive bell cow potential. In 2020, he averaged 22.6 touches per game and a class-high 91% of his team’s backfield touches when the game was within 7 points. As a pass-catcher, he posted elite efficiency numbers comparable only to some of the NFL’s best RBs. And he has the ideal size and resume (he scored an SEC-record 30 touchdowns in 2020) to be an elite goal line back in the NFL.
2. Travis Etienne, Clemson Tigers (Age: 22.2)
Where he ranks: Etienne ranks as the second-best RB in this class, and the 13th-best RB prospect to come out over the past seven draft classes (since 2015), ranking directly in between J.K. Dobbins and Clyde Edwards-Helaire. That’s certainly a respectable ranking, but I think I like Etienne quite a bit more than my model does (though I do still have him slightly behind Harris).
Why he ranks here:
Harris has the statistical profile of a high-end bell cow RB and all talent evaluators are in firm agreement on that point. While those same talent evaluators are far more divided on Etienne’s probability of becoming an every-down workhorse at the next level, my model is far more optimistic.
Like Harris, Etienne is one of only a handful of Power-5 RBs to post a 1,400/400 season. He accomplished this feat in 2019, and could have declared for the draft, likely to be taken in Round 2 – at least that was the draft grade given to him by NFL teams. His reason for staying an extra year? “I wasn’t leaving for no second-round draft grade.” Etienne was told he needed to work on improving as a receiver. The result? Etienne led all RBs in receiving yards (588), almost doubling his receiving YPG average from 28.8 to 49.0.
Maybe at one point this was a legitimate concern for NFL teams, but it shouldn’t be any longer. Among all Power-5 RBs since 2014 (with at least 55 targets), Etienne ranks fourth-best in career YPT average (9.48), behind only Joe Mixon, Josh Jacobs, and Christian McCaffrey. He ranks best over this span in depth-adjusted YPT over expectation (+74%), directly above McCaffrey. He ranks second-best, directly in between Mixon and Jacobs in career yards after the catch per reception (13.0). And second-best, between Ke’Shawn Vaughn and Zack Moss, in career yards after contact per reception (5.2). Within this class, Demetric Felton (a borderline slot WR) is the only Power-5 RB to rank ahead of him in career yards-per-route-run average (1.66).
Clearly, Etienne is a more-than-capable receiver. But he’s known for his rushing ability more than anything, and specifically his speed, explosiveness, and breakaway ability. He leads all RBs in catches (20, by 3) and runs (50, by 13) of 20-plus yards over the past three seasons. His 7.25 career YPC average also ranks best in this class. And among all Power-5 RBs with at least 400 career carries, third-best since at least 2000, behind only Melvin Gordon (7.8) and Reggie Bush (7.3). His career 4.51 yards after contact per attempt average ranks best since at least 2014. And among high-volume runners, only Jonathan Taylor came close (4.24).
Clemson lost four starting linemen after the 2019 season, and, understandably, Etienne’s numbers dipped in 2020. But he went from a “generationally great” 2019 season, to a merely “excellent” 2020 season. Etienne averaged 5.07 yards after contact per attempt in 2019, which ranks best of 300-plus qualifying seasons since at least 2014. He averaged 0.42 missed tackles forced per touch in 2019, which ranks second-best since 2014, behind only Javonte Williams’ 2020 season. In 2020, Etienne ranked top-10 in both stats, and for the third time in three seasons.
Although Etienne never scored 30 touchdowns in a season like Harris, he did score in 45 of 55 career games, which is an FBS record (78 total touchdowns). So, again, though talent evaluators may be divided on Etienne’s workhorse-potential, my model firmly disagrees. He’s a record-breaking touchdown scorer, and not at all bad in short yardage situations, converting on 70% of his short yardage runs. Although not quite on Najee Harris’ (78%) or Javonte Williams’ (77%) level, that’s impressive enough. He’s also a hyper-efficient and hyper-productive runner, and he posted some of the best receiving stats in my database in addition to leading the position in receiving yards last year.
From an efficiency standpoint, Etienne appears the superior prospect to Harris and to any other RB in this class. What hurts Etienne in comparison to Harris is volume, and a low concentration of his team’s backfield workload. However, this might be a mistake. Clemson routinely benched their starters in the second-half when fielding multi-score leads. If adjusting for that, it’s clear Etienne’s workload was a good deal better than his numbers might imply – over the past three seasons, Etienne has handled 76% of Clemson’s backfield touches when the score was within 7 points.
Etienne is already showing out as a historically great prospect, but I also like him quite a bit more than my model does. And after an impressive showing at his Pro Day (4.41 forty-yard-dash at 215 lbs.), he should get a significant boost after Phase II of my model is released.
3. Javonte Williams, North Carolina Tar Heels (Age: 20.9)
Where he ranks: Williams ranks third in this class, but just barely behind Etienne. Etienne ranks 13th- and Williams ranks 15th-best since 2015, with only Clyde Edwards-Helaire in between them.
Why he ranks here:
Harris and Etienne were elite at a number of different things, but Williams was more elite at the thing that matters most to my model – the ability to force missed tackles and gain hard yards after contact. Since at least 2014, he ranks best in career missed tackles forced per touch (0.39). He ranked sixth-best in missed tackles forced per touch in 2019 (0.34), and then greatly improved upon that mark in 2020, posting the best season by any RB since at least 2014 (0.47). Williams also ranks second-best since 2014 in career yards after contact per attempt (4.26), sandwiched in between Etienne and Jonathan Taylor. And his 2020 season ranks fifth-best since 2014 (4.59), slightly ahead of Jonathan Taylor’s best season (4.53).
Williams earned a 94.7 PFF grade in 2020, which ranks as the highest grade they’ve ever awarded to a RB. 17 of the other 19 highest-graded seasons went to names like: Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Ezekiel Elliott, Jonathan Taylor, Nick Chubb, David Montgomery, James Conner, Leonard Fournette, Ronald Jones, A.J. Dillon, Myles Gaskin, Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, and Michael Carter. Clearly, there are a whole lot of hits and few misses within that sample, and again, Williams’ 2020 season stands well ahead of the rest of the pack.
My model likes Williams’ potential as a pass-catcher, though that potential went largely untapped while at North Carolina. Among 94 qualifying 50-catch Power-5 RBs since 2014, he ranks between the top 8% and 13% of RBs in career YPT, career yards after the catch per reception, and career missed tackles forced per reception.
Unlike Harris and Etienne, Williams also gets a slight boost up my model for being an early declare. And for being so young – Etienne is a full year younger than Harris, and Williams is a full year younger than Etienne. That matters from a dynasty perspective (theoretically you should get two more NFL seasons of productivity from Williams in comparison to Harris) but also for his prospects at the NFL level. Simply speaking, breakout age matters; 1,500 YFS at age 20 should be viewed as more impressive than a 1,700 YFS season at age 22. North Carolina’s backfield was split almost perfectly evenly between Williams and Michael Carter. But, seeing as how Carter also profiles as a Day 2 prospect, this shouldn’t be as serious of a concern as it would be for most other RBs.
4. Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis Tigers (Age: 22.0)
Where he ranks: Gainwell ranks fourth in this class, but a solid tier behind Williams. He ranks 23rd-best overall since 2015.
Why he ranks here:
Gainwell is a tricky prospect to evaluate. After losing four relatives to COVID-19, Gainwell decided to opt out of the 2020 season. So, since he touched the ball only 10 times during his true freshman season in 2018, we really only have a one-season sample size to work with. But what a season it was!
In 2019, Gainwell totaled 1,459 rushing yards on 231 carries (6.3 YPC) and 610 receiving yards on 59 targets. No other Memphis RB reached 80 carries or 15 targets. He averaged 104.2 rushing YPG and 43.6 receiving YPG, becoming one of just 15 RBs since 2006 to reach 95.0 rushing YPG and 40.0 receiving YPG in a single season. On that list, you’ll find names like Christian McCaffrey, Saquon Barkley, Matt Forte, Todd Gurley, Chris Johnson, and Joe Mixon, but Gainwell is the only player to have accomplished this feat as a freshman.
Arguably, Gainwell was so impressive that Memphis kept Antonio Gibson at WR, rather than take more backfield snaps away from Gainwell — yes, the very same Antonio Gibson who scored 11 rushing touchdowns in his rookie season last year. And what happened to Memphis in 2020 without him? In 2020, Memphis’ leading rusher was Rodrigues Clark, with only 561 yards (4.1 YPC). And their leading receiver out of the backfield was Kylan Watkins, who totaled just 154 yards on 27 targets.
Outside of raw production and YPC average (which is far less important than the advanced efficiency metrics in my model), Gainwell was solid but unexceptional as a runner in 2019. But his true allure to NFL teams is going to come as a receiver. At 5’11” and 201 lbs., he has a slot WR build, and he put up the type of numbers that make you think he might be able to play slot WR in the NFL if he wanted. Before Gainwell, the last RB to exceed 600 receiving yards in a single season was Saquon Barkley in 2017. And 48% of Gainwell’s 610 receiving yards came when lined up in the slot or out wide. On a small sample, Gainwell ranks fifth in career YPT since 2014 (10.0) and fourth in career YPRR (2.46). Only Christian McCaffrey, Curtis Samuel, and Alvin Kamara rank above him in the latter stat. And his 2019 season also ranks third-best in YPRR since 2014 (among all RBs with at least 215 touches in a single season), behind only McCaffrey and Joe Mixon.
Ultimately, Gainwell feels like this year’s version of Gibson – essentially, the ideal #UpsideWinsChampionships pick in rookie drafts. Of course, Gibson was eventually a massive hit, but things were far more murky prior to the Combine last year. What I mean by this, mostly, is Gainwell’s bust potential is likely much higher than the next RB on this list, but his upside is much higher as well. And in fantasy football, upside is far more valuable than downside is detrimental.
Gainwell is risky because we only have a one-season sample to work with. But speaking to his upside – he was phenomenal in that lone season, his redshirt freshman year, after playing an entirely different position (QB) during his last three years of high school. The biggest concern with Gainwell, for me, is that he didn’t play in the Power-5. My model severely dings non-Power-5 RBs, and the hit rate isn’t great overall. Still, although 2,076 YFS at Memphis might not be as impressive as 2,047 YFS at Clemson, Memphis has churned out a high number of NFL RBs over the past few seasons – Gibson, Tony Pollard, and Darrell Henderson. And Gainwell was far more productive than both Gibson and Pollard.
I’ve seen the following comps to Gainwell from a various number of talent evaluators: poor man’s Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara-lite, Devin Singletary, Theo Riddick, and Jeremy McNichols. And that seems to be a fair range of outcomes for Gainwell. He was productive as a runner, but not exceptional. We have a small sample size to work with, but it was an elite showing from an inexperienced RB with plenty of room to grow. His receiving potential is off the charts – and that’s massively valuable in PPR leagues. That might mean low-end Kamara-type usage, but it might also mean he’s going to be pigeonholed into a scatback-only type role, which isn’t at all valuable outside of best ball leagues.
I’m eager to see how he fares in Phase II of my model. Specifically, whether his electric 40-yard-dash time (4.42) helps to outweigh any size concerns.
5. Michael Carter, North Carolina Tar Heels (Age: 21.9)
Where he ranks: Carter ranks fifth in this class, but a solid tier behind Gainwell. And then, all other RBs in this class are an even larger tier behind Carter. Carter ranks 45th-best since 2015. The next-closest RB (Jermar Jefferson) ranks 76th-best.
Why he ranks here:
At first glance, Carter’s numbers hold up surprisingly well against Williams’. Carter actually out-gained Williams, and at a higher YPC average, in each of the past two seasons. He averaged an absurd 8.0 YPC in 2020. Among all Power-5 RBs with at least 150 carries in a season, that’s only been done three other times since 2000: Reggie Bush in 2005 (8.7), Jahvid Best in 2008 (8.1), and Travis Etienne in 2018 (8.1).
All this is well and true, but not very meaningful. Carter is a full year older with an extra season of experience in comparison to Williams. Carter averaged more YPC than Williams, but they served different roles. Williams was asked to gain the tough yards for North Carolina, handling 3.3X as many short-yardage carries as Carter, and scoring 2.0X as many rushing touchdowns. That’s one reason (of many) why YPC isn’t a very meaningful stat, and why it doesn’t play a prominent role in my model. By the efficiency stats that matter most, Williams was elite, while Carter was “merely” good-to-great.
But Carter was good-to-great in a number of important metrics. He’s reached at least 100 receiving yards in each of his four seasons at North Carolina. He earned a 89.6 receiving grade from PFF in 2020, which ranks top-12 since 2014, behind Christian McCaffrey, Alvin Kamara, Joe Mixon, Travis Etienne, and only four other names. In 2020, he ranked third-best in yards after contact per attempt (4.47), third-best in yards after the catch per reception (11.4), and fifth-best in rushing missed tackles forced per attempt (0.30).
In terms of style, he profiles similarly to Etienne, which is to say he’s a phenomenal home-run hitter. He leads all Power-5 RBs in percentage of carries to exceed 20-yards over the past three seasons (8.8%), just ahead of Etienne (8.1%). But again, this isn’t something my model finds very meaningful.
Carter’s closest comparisons from NFL talent evaluators are all over the place – Bilal Powell, Andre Ellington, and maybe Austin Ekeler-lite or Clyde Edwards-Helaire-lite at the high-end of the spectrum. Fairly unanimously, Carter is being heralded as a high-end receiving prospect but a lower-end rushing prospect, at least in terms of how he’ll translate to the NFL level. My model, however, was not quite as bullish, as he failed to post any exceptional numbers as a receiver (outside of PFF receiving grade in 2020). Ultimately, Carter feels like an unsexy prospect, but still one with decent potential to be drafted late on Day 2.
Other / Notes:
Next Tier (Jermar Jefferson, Javian Hawkins, Khalil Herbert)
After Carter, but a solid tier behind Carter, we’ll find Jermar Jefferson (Age: 20.9), Javian Hawkins (Age: 21.4), and Khalil Herbert (Age: 22.9) ranking sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-best, respectively. All are in a fairly tight tier, but the 20-year-old Jefferson is by far the most intriguing prospect for me. And the other two are far less intriguing to me than some of the other names we’ll discuss later on.
Jefferson was hurt in my model due to a lack of raw volume and raw production in his final two seasons, but my model might have gone too far in that regard. Oregon State played only 7 games in 2020, and Jefferson only started 6 games in 2019 due to an ankle injury. As an 18-year-old true freshman in 2018, Jefferson totaled 1,380 rushing yards and 147 receiving yards on 239 carries and 25 catches. This represented 31% of his team’s total YFS, an elite number for any RB, let alone an 18-year-old true freshman. Adjusting for games missed, that number jumped to 38% in 2020, when he averaged 154.2 YFS per game, which ranked best in the class among the Power-5 RBs.
Notes: I’ll go more in-depth on these and any other RBs if they impress in Phase II of my model.
Here are a few other names who, although my model didn’t particularly like, I think are fairly enticing:
Jaret Patterson, Buffalo Bulls (Age: 21.3)
My model isn’t great with small school prospects, but Patterson is looking potentially like the best small-school prospect since Rashaad Penny. At least, that’s what my model says, after I adjusted for the fact that Buffalo played only seven games in 2020.
And Patterson only played in six of those games, but still put up numbers rivaling some of the best RBs who played in 11 or more games. In 2020, he totaled 1,072 yards (7.6 YPC) and 19 touchdowns on 141 carries (no receptions), including a two-game stretch where he totaled 710 yards and 12 touchdowns on 67 carries. His 178.7 rushing YPG average in 2020 ranks sixth-best since 2000, on a top-10 list that includes LaDainian Tomlinson, Melvin Gordon, DeAngelo Williams, and Matt Forte. And he wasn’t just a one-hit wonder – in 2019, he totaled 20 touchdowns, 1,799 rushing yards, and 209 receiving yards on 325 touches. He was strong by a number of advanced stats that are important to me, like missed tackles forced and yards after contact, but, again, he’s just a small school prospect, and was severely punished for that fact. And at 5’9” and 195 lbs., I don't expect Phase II of my model to be very generous to him either.
Rhamondre Stevenson, Oklahoma Sooners (Age: 23.1)
I like Rhamondre Stevenson. I like the way he runs. Every guy has a type – some like them short, some like them tall, or skinny, or thick. Stevenson is exactly my “type,” and as such, I was quietly rooting for him as I ran the numbers in my model. Like Patterson, my model punished Stevenson for only playing in six games in 2020. If adjusted for that fact, Patterson looks like the best small school prospect since Penny. For Stevenson, he jumps a few tiers, but still doesn’t rank very high overall. But if being as heavy-handed as possible (in prorating his 2020 season due to injury), he could rank as high as RB4 in this class.
Stevenson was a JUCO-transfer who matched Trey Sermon’s production in games both played in 2019 (but on 14 fewer carries), and I think was a likely factor in Sermon’s decision to flee the Oklahoma program. In 2020, Stevenson became one of only four Power-5 RBs since 2015 to average at least 100.0 rushing and 35.0 receiving YPG in a single season – the others being Dalvin Cook (2016), Joe Mixon (2016), and Christian McCaffrey (2015). He led all Power-5 RBs in yards after contact per attempt in 2020 (4.65), and he ranks right behind Etienne (7.22) in career YPC average (7.15).
All of this being said, after a lackluster Pro Day, I worry my model originally had it right – RB4 is probably far too lofty a projection and he’s unlikely to be drafted before Day 3.
Trey Sermon, Ohio State Buckeyes (Age: 22.1)
Talent evaluators are equally torn but far more optimistic on Trey Sermon than my model. Sermon was dinged for injury issues and inconsistent play among talent evaluators, while my model mostly penalized him for low levels of raw production – he failed to reach 1,000 rushing yards in each of his four seasons.
Sermon was a highly regarded 4-star recruit coming out of high school. His best season came in 2018, when he totaled 947 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns on 164 carries, though Kennedy Brooks actually led the team in rushing (1,056) and scored only one fewer touchdown on 45 fewer carries. Brooks again out-gained Sermon in 2019 (1,090 to 456), and Stevenson out-gained him by 146 yards on only 12 additional touches. All of this hurt him in my model. And though my model didn’t ding Sermon for fleeing the program (leaving for Ohio State as a senior), maybe it should have.
Sermon was again stuck in a committee at Ohio State (alongside Master Teague), but eventually broke free, earning a bell cow workload across his final two healthy games, in which he totaled a whopping 589 YFS on 67 touches. The production issues – namely, being stuck in a committee alongside less-heralded RBs – are a legitimate concern, but from an efficiency standpoint, Sermon’s upside is fully evident. Since 2014, he ranks 4th-best in career rushing missed tackles forced per attempt (0.32), behind only Javonte Williams, Pooka Williams, and David Montgomery, and just ahead of Etienne. Though underutilized as a pass-catcher, he also ranks fifth-best in the class in yards after contact per reception (5.2).
Wes Huber thinks he’s easily one of the four best RBs in the class. You can read his full breakdown here.
Chuba Hubbard, Oklahoma State Cowboys (Age: 21.8)
Although Hubbard ranks fairly low in my model overall, I still think he’s one of the more intriguing prospects in this class, and likely another ideal #UpsideWinsChampionships pick in rookie drafts. Hubbard was popping in my model last year as a very high-level prospect, but plummeted multiple tiers after an underwhelming 2020 campaign. In fact, no prospect was hurt more by deciding to play (rather than opting out) in 2020. If adjusting my model to exclude Hubbard’s 2020 season, he’d jump all the way to RB3 in this class.
Hubbard – a 4-star recruit out of high school – was an immediate contributor for Oklahoma State as a true freshman. He shared the backfield with Justice Hill, but equaled him in touchdowns (9) and nearly equaled him in YFS (969 to 998) on 25 fewer touches. After Hill left for the NFL, Hubbard was gifted a true bell-cow workload and put together an all-time great season, totaling 21 touchdowns and 2,292 YFS on 351 touches. His 2,094 rushing yards in 2019 ranks as the seventh-best season (among all Power-5 RBs) since 2000. Of the 15 Power-5 RBs to eclipse 2,000 rushing yards in a single season over this span, you’ll find names like: LaDainian Tomlinson, Derrick Henry, Jonathan Taylor, Melvin Gordon, Larry Johnson, Christian McCaffrey, Ray Rice, and J.K. Dobbins. And only Hubbard, Taylor, and McCaffrey accomplished this feat as underclassmen.
It was an all-time great season in terms of volume and raw production, but it wasn’t very impressive in terms of efficiency, and, specifically, by the efficiency metrics that matter most to my model. Hubbard might have some pass-catching potential, catching 20-plus passes in each of his first two seasons, but didn’t necessarily pop by any important efficiency metrics there either.
So, what happened in 2020? Things started off well, with Hubbard averaging 110.0 rushing yards and 1.0 touchdowns on 23.8 touches per game across his first five games, but saw just 15 total touches across his next two, before opting out for the remainder of the season. Still, by every efficiency metric my model values, Hubbard ranked well below average in 2020. And, interestingly, Oklahoma State was more productive on the ground without him (208.9 rushing YPG) than in games he played (175.6). Perhaps his poor performance was due to injury – either his injury (he was seen in a walking boot following an undisclosed injury suffered in his fifth game of the season) or his starting QB’s injury (Spencer Sanders attempted just two passes across the team's first three games). But I worry 2020 simply painted a more complete picture of who Hubbard is as a prospect – he can be productive enough on elite levels of volume, but isn’t exactly a spectacular or enticing prospect. Even so, I think if the price is right (and it currently is), he can be an extremely worthwhile swing-for-the-fences pick late in rookie drafts.
Notes: Like Hubbard, Pooka Williams also would have improved had he not played in 2020, bumping up to RB6 in this class. That said, at 5’10” and 170 lbs., with significant off-the-field concerns (a domestic battery arrest in 2018), I’m not anywhere near as optimistic on him as I am with Hubbard.