2021 NFL Draft prospects to know for the Cardinals: Running back

Apr 26, 2021, 7:25 AM

The Arizona Cardinals appeared to be in the need of another running back this offseason after starter Kenyan Drake signed with Las Vegas.

But on April 13, that all changed when Arizona signed former Pittsburgh Steelers running back James Conner to a one-year deal.

Conner now joins Chase Edmonds as the team’s projected one-two punch. Edmond brings the versatility, Conner brings the bigger body to the table.

Behind those two, however, the Cardinals’ running back options remain largely unproven.

Jonathan Ward saw just four offensive snaps last season, scoring on an 11-yard touchdown reception, his only offensive touch of 2020. The running back, who signed with the Cardinals as an undrafted rookie free agent last year, was utilized more as a special teamer, adding seven tackles.

Fellow rusher and 2020 seventh-round pick Eno Benjamin has yet to see any live game action, having redshirted his rookie season.

It’s highly unlikely the Cardinals use their 16th overall pick on a running back in 2021, with trading down a much more realistic scenario if they feel the need to add another rusher to the mix.

Here’s a look at some of the standouts from this year’s running back class:

Najee Harris, Alabama

(Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Harris is arguably the hottest name among the running back prospects and has actually been mocked to the Cardinals a dozen of times this offseason.

At 6-foot-1, 232 pounds, Harris brings a bruising running style that would certainly mesh with Edmonds’ quickness and pass catching abilities.

Harris saw steady growth over this four seasons at Alabama, setting career marks across the board in 2020. He ran for 1,466 yards and 26 touchdowns on 251 carries, while also taking a step forward as a pass-catcher with 43 catches for 425 yards and four scores.

Harris was tops in FBS in yards from scrimmage (1,891) and touchdowns from scrimmage (30). He was honored with the Doak Walker Award as the most outstanding running back in 2020.

NFL Network’s Lance Zierlein writes:

Plus-sized runner who elevated his game and draft stock with a well-rounded performance in 2020. Harris showed improved short-area creativity and elusiveness to go with his trademark physicality. Creates additional yardage with both wiggle and power, but he lacks desired top gear to change games in a flash. … Harris’ value as a third-down option out of the backfield and as a personal protector should not be underestimated after his performance in his senior year. His running style could shorten his career, but he’s a tough, three-down runner who can immediately upgrade a running game.

Travis Etienne, Clemson

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

While not as heavily mocked to the Cardinals as Harris, Etienne could be a late first- or early second-round pick if Arizona moves down from No. 16.

With less games played than any other season in his college career (12), Etienne’s numbers fell a bit in 2020 but were still impressive. He ran for 914 yards and 14 touchdowns on 168 carries. In the passing game, the RB caught 48 balls for 588 yards and two scores.

The 5-foot-10, 215-pounder was also used as a return man, fielding eight kicks for 189 yards (23.6 yards per return).

The Draft Network’s Joe Marino writes:

Clemson running back Travis Etienne enters the NFL after a productive college career that resulted in him being the ACC’s all-time leading rusher. His burst and contact balance make him a big-play back that is capable of taking it the distance from any part of the field. … He’s grown wonderfully as a receiver and is a nightmare matchup for linebackers in coverage. The primary area of concern for Etienne is inconsistent results in pass protection. His tape reveals too many instances where he is tardy to diagnose pressure schemes and lacks the technique needed to consistently execute blocks in pass protection.

Javonte Williams, North Carolina

(Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images)

Williams makes the list as a likely trade-down option for the Cardinals, as he is projected more as an early to mid-second-rounder.

In 11 games with the Tar Heels last season, Williams recorded 1,140 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground to go along with 25 receptions for 305 yard and three scores.

The 5-foot-10, 212-pound back finished first in the ACC for rushing touchdowns and was third in rushing yards.

Zierlein writes:

Big, broad bully back who runs with an exciting blend of animosity and feel as a future every-down starter in the league. With just 366 carries under his collegiate belt, Williams hasn’t seen much tread come off the tires, but teams might speculate that his running style could lead to some in-season wear and tear. He’s a terror behind his pads, creating yardage by battering and discarding tackle attempts. He sees the front fairly well and has above-average hips and the creativity to add to his rush total with more than just power. He lacks run-away speed for the long touchdowns but runs with above-average vision and contact balance to succeed at a high rate near the goal line.

Zierlein compares Williams to Cleveland Browns RB Kareem Hunt.

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2021 NFL Draft prospects to know for the Cardinals: Running back