2021 NFL Draft Odds: Which RB Will Go First?

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The NFL draft, to commence April 29 in Cleveland, is rich with quarterback and receiver candidates.

But there also are some running backs who could give an immediate jolt to a team, or savvy sports betting enthusiasts. Are you listening Steelers draft czars?

Here’s an attempt to forecast the first RB to be selected. Included is a big long shot worthy of a fun bet.

Below are NFL Draft odds posted by DraftKings, FanDuel, and William Hill on top choices:

PlayerDraftKingsFanDuelWilliam Hill
Najee Harris, Alabama-140-170-145
Travis Etienne, Clemson +200+150+180
Javonte Williams, UNC+450+500+475
Michael Carter, UNC+3500+1900+4000
Kenneth Gainwell, Memphis+4000+1000+4000
Trey Sermon, Ohio State+4000+2500+4000
Chuba Hubbard, Okla. State+5000+3900+6000
Jaret Patterson, Buffalo +6000+21000+7500
Kylin Hill, Miss. State+7000+2900+7500

Some Background

Unlike 40 years ago, when six RBs were drafted in the first round, led by George Rogers to the Saints at No. 1, teams these days have avoided spending high picks on them. Over the past eight drafts 10 RBs were picked in Round 1, with none in 2013-14. And last year LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire didn’t go till the last pick of the opening round to KC.

Dating to the common draft instituted in 1967, only once were two running backs taken 1-2, when ex-USC coach John McKay went with ex-USC RB Ricky Bell at No. 1 and Dallas followed by taking future Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett.

Teams most likely be tempted to grab an RB in the first round are Pittsburgh,  currently picking at No. 24 (a league-low 3.6 carry in 2020), and Atlanta (3.7). But unless the Falcons trade down from the fourth slot, Atlanta probably would grab what’s available in Round 2.

Then there’s the Dolphins (3.9 last year)  with the sixth and 18th picks, and the Jets at No. 23.  Should be some interesting bobbing and weaving among them all.

The Favorite

The odds-on choice to be the first RB off the 2021 board is Alabama’s Harris, who bulldozed to 5.8 yards a carry and rushed for 26 TDs for the 2020 national champs. And he never fumbled in his four-year career. But should coach Nick Saban’s always-dominant offensive line warrant a large dose of credit?

History indicates that’s a tough call.

The last time an Alabama guy was the first RB selected was in 2012. Trent Richardson averaged 5.9 yards his senior year and was taken third overall by Cleveland.  He wound up a dud from the get-go.  A year earlier, the Tide’s Mark Ingram went 28th to New Orleans and has had a glistening pro career.

And don’t forget ex-Alabama star Derek Henry, the 45th overall pick in 2016. He’s done OK, too.

Close Behind

This is probably going to be a two-horse race between Harris and Clemson’s  Etienne, another guy who played for a champion.

Etienne has shown more breakaway ability with a sensational 7.2-yard norm on almost 700 career carries but is coming off his least-productive season with a 5.4 yard average (horrors!). But he did show up late in the season with a 124-yard playoff game against Notre Dame. He and Harris also are adept in the receiving game.

Considering the discrepancy in the odds, Etienne is the more attractive choice betting choice. Maybe he becomes the Steelers’ next Le’Veon Bell.

Best Of The Rest

The only other RB who isn’t a mega long shot is North Carolina’s Williams, who shared reps with Carter much of his career and had only 416 career touches.

Does that mean he has plenty of tread left or that he hasn’t shown he can carry a heavy workload?

Carter has much better odds than Williams despite having glossier stats (8.0 a carry last year) and reportedly being one of the top pass-blocking RBs. But like the others listed here almost surely will be on the board well into the second day.

Memphis’ Blackwell is an all-purpose back who opted out last season.

Bringing up the rear are Ohio State’s Sermon (injury prone), Buffalo’s Patterson (marginal competition), and Miss. State’s Hill (another opt-out).

Best Long Shot

How about Oklahoma State’s Hubbard? He has Olympic-quality speed but dealt with ankle issues last season that he tried to play through before sitting out the end of the season?

A year earlier he averaged 6.4 a carry on 328 rushes, which likely would have made him a popular choice to be taken high this year. In one game he rushed for 296 yards against then-24th-ranked Kansas State.

Such a heavy workload didn’t stop Indy from picking RB Jonathan Taylor last year at No. 41. He rushed for a rookie-high 1,169 yards on 232 carries coming off a pair of 300-plus carry seasons with the Badgers.

About the Author
Bob Christ

Bob Christ

Bob Christ, based in New Mexico, has been a gaming writer (primarily the NFL) for almost four decades, with his work appearing in publications/websites across North America. He's a big fan of the Arkansas Razorbacks, Philadelphia's Eagles and Phillies, and inexplicably the NHL's Winnipeg Jets.

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