The Steelers finished dead last in the NFL in rushing in 2020, averaging just 84.4 yards per game. On top of that, the Steelers were last in the league in yards per carry at just 3.6 per attempt. The Steelers need to run the ball with more consistency, especially in short-yardage. Some of those struggles started up front with the line play, but they also lacked a home-run hitter that could take it to the house any time he touches the ball.
The 2021 NFL Draft will start on April 29. In the lead up to the draft, keep an eye on our Prospect Profiles and other Draft Previews.
Today, we continue our look at the 2021 running back class with Clemson’s Travis Etienne.
Weight: 205 lbs
Age: 22 years old
Travis Etienne was the first player from Louisiana to commit to Clemson since 2003 and his blazing running style meshed perfectly into the Tigers offensive attack. Etienne was the Louisiana Class AAA MVP as a junior and was first-team all-state as a junior and senior. At Clemson, his decorated career continued. Etienne graduates with four ACC titles and four trips to the College Football playoff as well as the ACC career record-holder for rushing yards (4,952), total touchdowns (78), rushing touchdowns (70) and points (468).
Rushing: 168 att, 914 yards, 14 TDs, 5.4 yds/att
Receiving: 48 rec, 588 yards, 2 TDs
Kick Returns: 9 returns, 189 yards
Punt Returns: 1 return, 44 yards
Rushing: 686 att, 4952 yards, 70 TDs, 7.2 yds/att
Receiving: 102 rec, 1155 yards, 8 TDs
Kick Returns: 33 returns, 706 yards
Punt Returns: 1 return, 44 yards
Throughout his entire football career, Travis Etienne has been a touchdown machine. At Jennings High School in Louisiana he scored 39 total TDs as a senior (after a junior year where he scored 42 times). For his high school career he tallied 115 total touchdowns. Then in four years at Clemson he found the end zone 78 times, including 26 total TDs his sophomore year when he was a first-team All-American and Doak Walker Award Finalist. He won the ACC Player of the Year award as both a sophomore and junior. Many thought he would enter the draft after his junior year but somewhat surprisingly decided to return to school. As a senior, Etienne was a consensus All-American as an all-purpose player and once again a Doak Walker Award finalist.
Travis Etienne is a talented all-around back that has the breakaway speed to hit the home run any time he touches the ball. He has tremendous burst and can accelerate to full speed in just a few steps, giving him the appearance of being shot out of a cannon. While Etienne is at his best running in a straight line, he has an explosive first step that can separate in tight spaces. Clemson’s offense was heavy on RPO concepts and typically had QB Trevor Lawrence in the shotgun and Etienne was adept at working through traffic to find the hole, displaying good vision and patience. Etienne was also heavily used as a receiver, breaking CJ Spiller’s team records for receiving yards by a running back. One of the things Etinne does best is to present himself as a target out of the backfield. Whether it is in running routes or just as a check-down, Etienne gets his shoulders squared to the quarterback to provide an easy target. In addition to breakaway speed and good vision, the other strength of Etienne’s game is in his balance. His tape is filled with instances of guys diving at his legs and ankles and him staying up for extra yardage. Etienne punishes defenders for not wrapping up and his ability to stay on his feet and keep grinding leads to a lot of extra yardage.
While Etienne might have some of the best straight line speed in this running back class, there is not a ton of wiggle in his game. He has great burst out of cuts but doesn’t have the lateral agility or display the ability to make cuts at top speed. Despite playing in an RPO offense, Etienne did not display a great blocking abilities. Some of this may have been a schematic choice – that Etienne’s role was to sell the run potential then to slip out of the backfield as a checkdown rather than staying in to block. But the times he was called upon to make blocks it was not the strong suit of his game. One other note of concern is that Etienne did battle through a knee injury this past season. Team doctors in the NFL will need to get a clean report on his health moving forward in order to see the same explosive back we saw as a junior, as he clearly looked slowed through the later games of the 2020 season.
If Etienne had come out last year, he might have been the top running back taken. He is certainly in that conversation once again this season. It will be between Etienne and Alabama’s Najee Harris for being the top back off the board. Etienne is a well-rounded prospect for today’s NFL who is both a talented runner with breakaway speed and is a good receiver out of the backfield. He has the makeup of being a 3-down back in the NFL. The question of his draft position is more a reflection on the NFL’s view of the running back position as a whole than Etienne’s talent. He is a first round talent but given the devaluing of the running back position may fall into the early 2nd.
Final Grade: Late 1st / Early 2nd round
References: ESPN.com & ClemsonTigers.com