Every draftnik knows Travis Etienne and Najee Harris. And, yes, they are incredible prospects destined to be taken in the first round come April. But terrific, impactful late-round running backs can be found in (and even outside of) the draft.
Think about Priest Holmes (undrafted), Arian Foster (undrafted), Willie Parker (undrafted), and Terrell Davis (sixth round), just to name a few. Just this past season, James Robinson (undrafted out of Illinois State) rushed for over 1,000 yards for the Jacksonville Jaguars.
2021 NFL Draft: Three Late-Round Running Backs to Watch
Here are a few late-round running backs to keep your eyes on (and post-draft UFA signing frenzy) this coming April. These are players who may not be taken in the first several rounds of the draft but have the potential to be a breakout, late-round star (or at least solid contributors) in the NFL.
Pooka Williams – 5’10”, 170 lbs. – Kansas (Junior)
While Pooka Williams doesn’t have the size to make scouts swoon, he is elusive when he breaks free and he ran for over 1,000 yards in both of his first two seasons with the Jayhawks. He played just four games in the 2020 season before choosing to opt-out in order to spend more time with his mother, who was dealing with health issues.
For a player of his size, he is surprisingly adept at pass blocking. However, that probably isn’t a role he’ll be able to take on often at the pro level. Odds are that his best NFL fit will be as part of a running back rotation, as opposed to being a featured back.
Williams was named to the First Team All-Big 12 following the 2019 season and his performance against Texas that season (190 rushing yards and 2 TDs) served as a great example of what he is capable of.
NFL teams will likely want to know more about the December 2018 incident that led to a domestic violence charge against Williams before considering him as a draft pick.
Prediction: 7th Round to Undrafted
Elijah Mitchell – 5’11”, 218 lbs. – Louisiana (Senior)
As a senior, Mitchell didn’t have his most impressive season. However, scouts will be very impressed with what they see in his tape vs. Georgia State (164 yards, two touchdowns) and vs. UTSA (127 yards, one touchdown).
Mitchell’s junior season is probably a better representation of what he is capable of. That year, he rushed for 1,147 yards and 16 touchdowns. One area of noteworthy consistency is his yards per carry averages of 6.7, 5.8, and 6.2 for his sophomore, junior, and senior seasons, respectively.
During his sophomore year, Mitchell had 349 yards receiving (and three receiving touchdowns), but he didn’t get close to those numbers in any other season. One thing scouts will probably be interested in is how comfortable he is catching the ball on short routes and whether or not that is a skill that the All-Sun Belt First Teamer can take to the NFL as one of the late-round running backs.
Prediction: 6th Round to 7th Round
Khalil Herbert – 5’9, 212 lbs. – Virginia Tech (redshirt Senior)
During his senior season at Kansas, Khalil Herbert decided to transfer after four games and ultimately moved on to Virginia Tech for a full senior season as a graduate student in 2020. Even though he was averaging nearly nine yards per carry, Herbert was losing carries to Pooka Williams (see above) and wanted an opportunity to better showcase his impressive running back skills.
Herbert made a big impact in Blacksburg, rushing for over 1,000 yards, which is something no Hokie had done since 2015. One of his standout games came early in the season against Duke when he ran for 207 yards and two touchdowns, which included a 60-yard run.
Herbert has also shown some aptitude for catching passes and returning kicks. Both of those skills could greatly increase his chances of getting drafted and eventually making an NFL roster.
Prediction: 6th Round to 7th Round