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NFL Draft: Talent at running back is there, but teams are in no rush to grab it

Clemson's Travis Etienne set the ACC career record for rushing yards with 4,952.Kevin C. Cox/Getty

The résumés for Travis Etienne and Najee Harris are impressive.

In four seasons with Clemson, Etienne set an ACC record for rushing yards with 4,952, with the Tigers reaching the playoffs all four years. He showed some versatility in his senior year by hauling in 48 receptions for 588 yards, good for a 12.3-yard average.

After sharing time with Patriots running back Damien Harris (no relation) in his first two seasons with Alabama, Najee Harris rushed for 2,690 yards in his final two seasons with the Crimson Tide, and won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s top running back.


In the college football playoffs, Harris’s athleticism was on full display when he hurdled a Notre Dame defensive back and regained his stride for a 40-yard run. It was a play reminiscent of former USC running back Reggie Bush, who would go on to be selected by the New Orleans Saints with the second pick of the 2006 draft.

Yet neither Etienne nor Harris is a lock to be picked in the first round of the NFL Draft on Thursday night, despite being considered the top two running backs available. Both probably will be available when the Patriots are on the clock at No. 15, and if either of their names is called, it would likely be in the latter half of the round.

It’s not an indictment of either player’s potential, but rather a shift in philosophy in the league. Since 2010, only 17 running backs have been selected in the first round, including the Patriots grabbing Sony Michel with the 31st pick in 2018.

Running back would not appear to be a high priority early on for the Patriots, who will return Harris, Michel, James White, J.J. Taylor, and Branden Bolden, along with fullbacks Jakob Johnson and Dan Vitale. However, Harris and Michel have struggled to stay healthy, and Rex Burkhead, who is a free agent, continues to work his way back from a knee injury that ended his 2020 season.


With that in mind, the Patriots may look to bolster their backfield either later in the draft, or possibly by signing an undrafted free agent, as they did last year with Taylor. The Globe’s Jim McBride thinks the Patriots could make a move as soon as Friday night at the end of the third round by grabbing Michael Carter from North Carolina with the 96th pick.

Could North Carolina running back Michael Carter fit in Foxborough?Rusty Costanza/Associated Press

Other intriguing options down the list include Kenneth Gainwell of Memphis and Demetric Felton of UCLA. Gainwell played just one season as a redshirt freshman in 2019 before opting out ahead of the 2020 season. He rushed for 1,459 yards and 13 touchdowns, but also showed versatility out of the backfield, finishing with 51 receptions for 610 yards and three touchdowns.

Felton also brings versatility, rushing for 668 yards on 132 carries in UCLA’s abbreviated seven-game season in 2020. The previous year, he had 55 receptions and 594 yards and four touchdowns.

Regardless of what the Patriots decide to do, with teams putting less of an emphasis on the running back position early on, there is plenty of value to be had later.

Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney.