There seem to be three reasonable candidates to be the first running back drafted -- maybe only two. Alabama's Najee Harris, Clemson's Travis Etienne and perhaps North Carolina's Javonte Williams; those are the players most frequently mentioned. In rookie drafts, you'll most likely be weighing Harris or Etienne.
All three can be considered at least potential three-down backs. Harris (6-2, 230) and Williams (5-10, 220) are bigger than Etienne, who showed up at 5-foot-10 and 215 pounds at his pro day, but is listed at 205 at the Clemson Tigers website and 210 elsewhere. Etienne has the best receiving stats (37 and 48 catches the last two seasons), but Harris also caught 43 balls last year, and Williams 25. How big a role each will have in the passing game might be greatly influenced by landing spot -- winding up with a team that prefers a full-time back or a specialist in passing situations.
Focusing too much on landing spot, however, can result in costly mistakes. Last year the Bucs drafted KeShawn Vaughn in the third round, and he drew a lot of interest in early drafts on the idea he'd fill a James White-type role in Tom Brady's offense. Not that anyone knew Leonard Fournette would become available, but I think you need to evaluate players first, then consider how landing spot might affect usage.
In any case, Etienne has the best timed speed of the three, running a 4.40 40 at his pro day. Harris didn't run, and finding a trustworthy 40 time is elusive. Probably 4.50 is reasonable (I'm not putting any stock in an Alabama publication saying he runs a 4.45). Williams ran a 4.55 at North Carolina's pro day.
Etienne's 48 receptions went for 588 yards, which is 12.3 per reception. That's a decent amount better than Harris (9.9), although only slightly better than Williams (12.2) -- albeit on twice as many receptions. I pulled the final year of college numbers for all running backs drafted in the first two rounds over the last 10 years, who caught at least 20 balls in their final year of college. Only five averaged more yards per reception than Etienne, and all have been credible receivers in the NFL (Jacobs probably would be, if the Raiders gave him the opportunity). Granted, the guy just behind him hasn't amounted to anything in the pros.
|RB YARDS PER RECEPTION, FINAL YEAR OF COLLEGE (DRAFTED RDS 1-2)|
|2017||2||Dalvin Cook||Florida State||1765||33||488||14.8||2253||20|
|2021||?||Javonte Williams||North Carolina||1140||25||305||12.2||1445||22|
|2018||1||Saquon Barkley||Penn State||1271||54||632||11.7||1903||21|
|2020||2||J.K. Dobbins||Ohio State||2003||23||247||10.7||2250||23|
|2013||2||Giovani Bernard||North Carolina||1228||47||490||10.4||1718||17|
|2012||1||Doug Martin||Boise State||1299||28||255||9.1||1554||18|
|2020||1||Clyde Edwards-Helaire||Louisiana State||1414||55||453||8.2||1867||17|
|2016||1||Ezekiel Elliott||Ohio State||1821||27||206||7.6||2027||23|
|2020||2||Cam Akers||Florida State||1144||30||225||7.5||1369||18|
|2011||2||Daniel Thomas||Kansas State||1585||27||171||6.3||1756||19|
|2012||1||David Wilson||Virginia Tech||1709||22||129||5.9||1838||10|
|2019||2||Miles Sanders||Penn State||1274||24||139||5.8||1413||9|
|2013||2||LeVeon Bell||Michigan State||1793||32||167||5.2||1960||13|
I don't know which of these three running backs will be selected first next week. Landing spot will certainly be a factor in outlook (if the Steelers take one, for example, that will be very intriguing). But I'll be interested in Etienne regardless, for his potential to make plays in the passing game wherever he winds up.