The NFL Draft 2021 is just around the corner, here we look at some Sleeper RB landing spots. It’s common knowledge that the consensus of NFL experts has the same talent at the top of the board. Najee Harris, Travis Etienne, and Javonte Williams will likely be the top-3 running backs off NFL draft boards at the end of April, and rightly so in my opinion. However, I want to dig deeper here. Players like Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, Chris Carson, and Aaron Jones have risen to fantasy relevance over the last few seasons. Yet none of them were drafted earlier than the 3rd round! Those are the kind of players I’m looking for in this article.
Obviously landing spot is key when trying to pick out a future fantasy HOF’er. But I have dug deep into college tape to try and get ahead of the curve so if these players land in a desired spot, it’ll be full steam ahead for rookie drafts when they roll round soon after the real draft.
Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis Tigers
Archetype: Balanced ⚇ Projected Draft Round: 4th ⚇ Perfect Fit: Buffalo Bills (Falcons, Patriots) ⚇ Rookie ADP: RB6 (24th Overall)
Gainwell had a great 2019 as part of Mike Norvell’s spread offense in Memphis. Here he was used in all kinds of different roles. Including playing as a goal-line back, lining up as a receiver out wide, and being utilized in an effective screen game. Gainwell is a true balanced back who could adapt in to any offense at the NFL level. That versatility could end up with Gainwell being the sleeper RB from this 2021 NFL Draft class.
His draft stock took a hit after opting out of the 2020 College season. Something that leaves him with just one full year as a starter in College Football. He’s a shifty runner that explodes through the line of scrimmage and has an excellent ability to change direction quickly.
The Bills’ run game was pretty non-existent during their 2020 playoff campaign. Gainwell could be the piece on offense they are missing. He’d also fit in Atlanta who will be in the market for a do-it-all back. The Patriots would also be a good landing spot for Gainwell too. Running a similar offensive scheme to what Norvell ran pre-2020 in Memphis. Where he produced 2,069 yards from scrimmage and 16 TDs.
Kylin Hill, Mississippi State Bulldogs
Archetype: Power ⚇ Projected Draft Round: 4th/5th ⚇ Perfect Fit: Arizona Cardinals ⚇ Rookie ADP: RB17 (53rd Overall)
Kylin Hill is a player that plays bigger than his 5’11” build. He’s tough to tackle and possesses great vision and athleticism. Despite being a power runner, Hill is also productive as a pass-catcher. Meaning he could capably transition into the NFL as a 3-down, all-purpose back.
Despite only playing in three games in 2020 after deciding to opt-out part-way through the season. Hill clocked up 3,166 yards from scrimmage with a solid 5.6 yards per carry on the ground throughout his college career.
Mississippi State’s Head Coach Mike Leach is famed for his Air Raid offensive scheme. So it’s only natural to see the link to Kliff Klingsbury’s identical system in Arizona. The Cardinals would be an excellent fit for Hill. Certainly would have fantasy owners excited, should he end up alongside the likes of Kyler Murray and DeAndre Hopkins.
Jermar Jefferson, Oregon State Beavers
Archetype: Power ⚇ Projected Draft Round: 5th/6th ⚇ Perfect Fit: Pittsburgh Steelers (Chargers, Patriots) ⚇ Rookie ADP: RB8 (28th Overall)
One of the biggest sleepers in this draft is Jermar Jefferson. Despite being a power back, he’s surprisingly nimble of his feet considering he’s 215lbs at just 5’9″. He’s got an excellent turn of foot and regularly wins against linebackers in the open field. He’s versatile and can be used in a variety of packages and after working on improving his blocking ability looks as if he could be one of these day 3 type players that are more than capable of making it in the pros.
Jefferson finished his CFB career with 3,222 yards from scrimmage (2,923 rushing) and 29 total touchdowns. He had a standout performance in the Beavers rivalry game during this season against Oregon in November. A game in which he posted 226 rush yards and 2 TD’s against one of the better defenses in College Football.
Neither James Conner or Benny Snell really capitalized on their chances when given to them. Merely only flashing on the odd occasion over the last few seasons. That puts the Steelers into contention to find someone through the draft with Conner (likely) leaving through free agency, and limited cap space. Pittsburgh would be a great spot for Jefferson to land, albeit if it’s a frustrating timeshare in the first few weeks of next season for fantasy managers. I have confidence that Jefferson will be an emerging back in 2021 and will be a waiver wire winner early doors in fantasy football.
Jaret Patterson, Buffalo Bulls
Archetype: One-Cut ⚇ Projected Draft Round: 5th/6th ⚇ Perfect Fit: New York Jets (Bills, Dolphins) ⚇ Rookie ADP: RB12 (40th Overall)
I try not to get sucked in by the career stat-line of Buffalo’s Jaret Patterson. But it’s incredibly hard not to though. 3,884 rushing yards in just 32 games (121 rush yards per game average) is some feat and puts him firmly in the upper echelon of productiveness from a College back. The biggest flag on his report card however, will be the ‘small school’ tag that comes with that elusive production. The Bulls play in the MAC, one of the smaller conferences within Div I College Football, therefore don’t come up against pro-ready defenses all that often.
I’m hoping Patterson lands somewhere where he can see game time immediately. I want him to be able to carry over his red-hot form of 2020. Where he had 301 rushing yards and 409 rushing yards in back-to-back performances midway through the season. The Jets would be a nice spot for him as they will surely look to continue rebuilding their offense during this off-season. With the likes of Tevin Coleman, Lamical Perine and Ty Johnson currently occupying the RB room, there’s definitely a spot there for an electric, ‘blow the doors off’ RB like Patterson.
Khalil Herbert, Virginia Tech Hokies
Archetype: One-Cut ⚇ Projected Draft Round: 7th ⚇ Perfect Fit: Cincinnati Bengals (Steelers) ⚇ Rookie ADP: Undrafted
One player flying completely off fantasy scouts’ radars this off-season in the Hokies’ Khalil Herbert. This is probably down to a lack of productive tape as he only really had one top-notch season out of the 5 he spent in CFB. Unfortunately for him, he was apart of a very poor Kansas Jayhawks offense for the first 4 years of his College career and didn’t break out until he transferred to Virginia Tech in the 2020 off-season.
2020 was a great season for him though, and he proved that when in a more capable offense he can shine. He finished the season with 155 carries for 1,183 rushing yards (with 179 yards off 10 receptions through the air) and 9 total TDs. He was second only behind North Carolina’s Michael Carter in leading the ACC in rush yards on the season and has surely etched himself on to NFL teams’ draft boards as a day 3 prospect.
Herbert has elite speed and can turn the afterburners on in an instant. He will need to work on his creativeness as he struggles to make yards unless gaps are presented to him. However, he’s proved himself as a good blocker with an excellent ability to identify the blitz. Something which undoubtedly stands out for NFL scouts. The Bengals would be a great landing spot despite the presence of hot and cold RB Joe Mixon. I can see Herbert having the ability to push out one of the aforementioned Steelers’ backs too if given the opportunity. He’s certainly one for your taxi squads post-fantasy drafts later this spring.
So who is your favorite sleeper RB from this 2021 NFL Draft Class? Let us know, and track the major offseason moves with our 2021 Offseason Tracker. Remember you can find us on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram if you want to connect with us. Feel free to slide into those DMs if you need help!
Image Credit: Tim Heitman – USA TODAY Sports