There's minimal disagreement over the top 3 running back prospects. Najee Harris, Travis Etienne and Javonte Williams, in some order, should be the first ones selected at the end of the week. Looks like a drop to No. 4, with various candidates. Including Memphis' Kenneth Gainwell.
Gainwell was a one-year starter at Memphis, opting out of the 2020 season due to COVID concerns. His one year was a big one: over 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 16 touchdowns in 2019. He has excellent speed (a 4.42 40 at his pro day).
The question will be about his size; whether he's big enough to be a lead back in the NFL. He weighed in at 201 pounds at his pro day, and even that's 10 pounds heavier than what he was listed as at Memphis (5-11, 191). He ain't big, so it's fair to question whether teams will view him as a feature back or more of a complementary piece in a running game. We can find examples of both at his size.
Table shows all running backs drafted in the first three rounds over the last 20 years who tipped the scale at under 205 pounds (most measurements are from the combine). Numbers shown are from their career-best seasons (PPR rankings).
|SUB-205 POUND RUNNING BACKS, DRAFTED ROUNDS 1-3 (2000-2020)|
|2002||3||Brian Westbrook, Phil.||5.08||200||4.57||2007||1333||771||12||1|
|2008||1||Chris Johnson, Ten.||5.11||203||4.24||2009||2006||503||16||1|
|2017||1||Christian McCaffrey, Car.||5.11||202||4.48||2019||1387||1005||19||1|
|2008||3||Jamaal Charles, K.C.||5.11||200||4.38||2013||1287||693||19||1|
|2008||2||Ray Rice, Balt.||5.08||199||4.42||2011||1364||704||15||1|
|2009||2||LeSean McCoy, Phil.||5.10||198||4.50||2013||1607||539||11||3|
|2010||1||C.J. Spiller, Buff.||5.11||196||4.37||2012||1244||459||8||6|
|2002||2||Clinton Portis, Den.||5.11||204||4.26||2002||1508||364||17||7|
|2008||3||Steve Slaton, Hou.||5.09||197||4.45||2008||1282||377||10||7|
|2006||1||Reggie Bush, N.O.||5.11||201||4.37||2006||565||742||8||9|
|2018||2||Ronald Jones, T.B.||6.00||200||4.66||2020||978||165||8||19|
|2010||1||Jahvid Best, Det.||5.10||199||4.35||2010||555||487||6||20|
|2012||3||Ronnie Hillman, Den.||5.09||200||4.42||2015||863||111||7||25|
|2019||3||Devin Singletary, Buff.||5.07||203||4.66||2019||775||194||4||33|
|2000||1||Trung Canidate, St.L.||5.11||193||4.41||2001||441||154||6||39|
|2001||3||Travis Minor, Mia.||5.10||197||4.44||2001||281||263||3||42|
|2007||3||Lorenzo Booker, Mia.||5.10||191||4.46||2007||125||237||0||65|
|2007||3||Garrett Wolfe, Chi.||5.07||186||4.40||2007||85||117||0||92|
|2012||2||Isaiah Pead, St.L.||5.10||197||4.39||2013||21||78||0||108|
|2012||2||LaMichael James, S.F.||5.08||194||4.35||2012||125||29||0||116|
|2020||3||Darrynton Evans, Ten.||5.10||203||4.41||2020||54||27||1||119|
|2006||3||Brian Calhoun, Det.||5.09||201||4.58||2007||35||35||0||125|
|2014||3||Dri Archer, Pitt.||5.08||173||4.26||2014||40||23||0||155|
|2007||2||Kenny Irons, Cin.||5.11||203||4.45||2007||0||0||0||--|
What's interesting to me with these players is that by and large they either hit it really big, or did nothing at all. Five of the 24 had at least one season where they were the No. 1 PPR back; five more had at least one top-10 season. But nearly as many (7) never did anything at all, quickly washing out of the league (not even a top-90 season among them). Only a handful (Jones, Best, Hillman, Singletary) were neither stars nor total busts, just slightly disappointing or serviceable while they were in the league.
Some of the bigger hits had difference-making speed: Jamaal Charles, Chris Johnson. Perhaps Gainwell will bring that to the table, and in the right system that will be more important than how big he is. If you're going to be undersized, at least be fast. (Though Brian Westbrook wasn't a burner and he turned out OK.)
Bottom line, while Gainwell lacks ideal size, no reason to think he can't be a lead back, if given the opportunity. If so it looks like he'll either hit it big, or quickly disappear from relevance.