Detroit Free Press sports reporter Dave Birkett takes a position-by-position look at the top prospects and biggest Detroit Lions needs in the 2021 NFL draft. This is the first in an eight-part series.
The Lions’ backfield appears to be largely spoken for this fall as D’Andre Swift and Jamaal Williams should share the bulk of the playing time with Kerryon Johnson as a more-than-serviceable third option. Swift missed time with migraine issues as a rookie, but he is the most dynamic of the Lions’ backs. If he stays healthy for 17 games, he could be the team’s first 1,000-yard rusher since Reggie Bush. The Lions thought enough of Williams to give him the only multiyear deal they handed out in free agency. Williams is an elite pass protector (like Johnson) who will not be limited to playing on third downs, and Jason Cabinda is the favorite to return at fullback.
The Lions do need a young back or two to take training camp reps and compete for a spot on the practice squad or back end of the 53-man roster. Given their limited draft capital — they have just six picks, all in the first five rounds — their best option might be to wait on the position until undrafted free agency. If the Lions do spend a pick on the position, you can bet it won’t be a second-rounder for the third time in four years, and you can bet whoever they draft will have some special teams value. Running back is a demanding position that the Lions are not done addressing it, but it’s far down on their list of priorities.
On the roster: RB — D’Andre Swift, Kerryon Johnson, Jamaal Williams. FB — Jason Cabinda, Nick Bawden.
Top 3 RB prospects: 1. Najee Harris, Alabama; 2. Travis Etienne, Clemson; 3. Javonte Williams, North Carolina.
Other players with Michigan ties: RB — Chris Evans, Michigan; Nathan McCrary, Saginaw Valley State. FB — Ben Mason, Michigan.
Day 3 sleeper: Kylin Hill, Mississippi State.
Recent Lions draft picks at RB: 2020, D’Andre Swift (second round), Jason Huntley (fifth round); 2019, Ty Johnson (sixth round); 2018, Kerryon Johnson (second round), Nick Bawden (seventh round); 2017, none; 2016, Dwayne Washington (seventh round).
Draft dish: Just one running back has gone in the first round of each of the past two NFL drafts, and that seems to be the best-case scenario this year. Harris helped his draft stock significantly by returning to school and leading Alabama to a national championship. He is a powerful runner at 232 pounds who showed great ball security throughout his career, but he is not a Saquon Barkley- or Christian McCaffrey-level prospect who will crack the top 10.
Harris should go in the back half of the first round, while Etienne and Williams are potential top-50 picks. Williams emerged as one of the best tackle-breakers in college football while sharing carries with another potential Day 2 pick, Michael Carter, at North Carolina. Etienne had a star-studded career at Clemson with 78 touchdowns in four seasons, but a bit of a down year in 2020, when he averaged a career-low 5.4 yards rushing. Still, as ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. noted, Etienne could go higher in this year’s draft than he would have last year based on the sheer number of good backs available.
Beyond that top group of backs, Ohio State’s Trey Sermon and Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard are accomplished college runners who should find a home in the middle rounds. Memphis’ Kenneth Gainwell is one of the best receiving backs in the draft; he played quarterback in high school and can play out of the slot at receiver. And Michigan’s Evans, who ran in the 4.45-second range at pro day, could be a late-round pick after spending a season away from the program and returning in a part-time role last fall. Mason shined at the Senior Bowl and is one of the few rookie fullbacks who has a chance to make an NFL roster.