With Broncos rookies reporting Saturday, they will have their entire draft class ready for training camp. Second-round pick Javonte Williams signed his four-year rookie deal Friday, becoming the last of Denver’s 10 2021 draftees to sign.
New Broncos GM George Paton traded up in front of the Dolphins at No. 35 to draft Williams, who teamed with Jets fourth-rounder Michael Carterto form one of the nation’s top backfields. Williams entered the draft as Pro Football Focus’ No. 1-rated back; he went off the board third at the position, behind first-rounders Najee Harris and Travis Etienne. Williams doubles as the Broncos’ highest-drafted back since Knowshon Moreno in the 2009 first round.
Williams, who averaged 7.3 yards per carry in his third and final North Carolina season, scored 22 touchdowns in 2020. He amassed 1,445 scrimmage yards despite the COVID-19 pandemic capping the Tar Heels’ season at 11 games. His Denver arrival figures to signal Melvin Gordon will be a two-and-done back with the team — at best.
The Broncos, despite Phillip Lindsay‘s back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, gave Gordon a two-year deal worth $16MM in March 2020. Gordon played well in spurts but also fumbled four times and was arrested for DUI last year. That charge ultimately being dismissed kept Gordon’s guarantees intact, but his 2021 roster spot may not be locked in. Though Lindsay is now in Houston, the Broncos signed ex-Vikings backup Mike Boone this offseason. It would cost the Broncos $6.5MM in dead money to cut Gordon.
Quarterbacks, per usual, dominated this year’s pre-draft coverage. The Falcons made Kyle Pitts the highest-drafted tight end in NFL history, and four wide receivers then went off the board in the top 20. Running backs, as they have done in a few drafts over the past decade, waited.
While two went in Round 1, the Jaguars’ Travis Etienne pick preceded a 60-pick stretch during which just one running back — the Broncos’ Javonte Williamschoice — went off the board. The 2021 draft matches 2016 and 2003 for the fewest backs chosen in the top 80 (three) in the common draft era (1967-present), continuing a grim era for this once-storied position. But several of this year’s draftees have quick paths to key roles.
Linked toNajee Harrisahead of the draft, the Steelers took the Alabama standout at No. 24. Harris will join a Steelers team that ranked last in rushing in 2020. Although the Alabama product scored 30 touchdowns in his senior season and topped 1,200 rushing yards in two straight years, he will now play behind an offensive line that went through considerable turnover this offseason. The Steelers lost 17 Pro Bowls on their offensive line this year. They will replace Maurkice Pouncey and Alejandro Villanueva with far less experienced players, and David DeCastro‘s replacement (Trai Turner) struggled in 2020. Will Harris’ talent be enough to overcome significant O-line concerns in Pittsburgh?
Etienne joins a Jags team that just saw James Robinson set the rookie UDFA record for scrimmage yards (1,414) despite missing two games in 2020. Jacksonville also signed Carlos Hyde, who played for Urban Meyer at Ohio State. Etienne spent time at receiver during the Jags’ offseason program but should be expected to contribute heavily in the backfield. Like Harris, Etienne stayed in college for four years. He twice surpassed 1,600 rushing yards and totaled 78 college TDs — most of which coming alongside No. 1 overall pick Trevor Lawrence— but will this unusual setup (for a first-round back, that is) translate to rookie-year production?
The Broncos traded up four spots for Williams in Round 2, Pro Football Focus’ top-rated back in this class, and chose the North Carolina product 36th overall. Williams teamed with Jets draftee Michael Carterto form one of the nation’s top backfield tandems. Williams compiled just one 1,000-yard season with the Tar Heels but led Division I-FBS with 75 broken tackles in 2020. The Broncos have Melvin Gordon signed through 2021, but the John Elway-era addition does not appear to be a lock to hold off Williams for the starting role.
The rest of the rookie field includes third-rounder Trey Sermon(49ers), Carter (fourth round, Jets) and a host of backs ticketed for early-career backup roles. While injuries certainly will hit the running back position, potentially forcing some of the later-round picks into the fray, Sermon and Carter have the best bets of seeing steady action among the mid- and late-round selections.
An Oklahoma and Ohio State product, Sermon also played four years. He averaged more than seven yards per carry in each of his past two, though he never topped 1,000 on the ground. Lead 49ers back Raheem Mostert is coming off an injury-marred season. The Jets added Tevin Coleman, who joined Mostert in missing most of last season, but do not have another back with much experience. This could allow Carter (two 1,000-yard years at North Carolina) early upward mobility, despite his 5-foot-8 frame.
Which rookie back will rush for the most yards in 2021? Who are the later-round candidates or UDFAs who can join these players as early contributors? Vote in PFR’s latest poll and weigh in with your thoughts in the comments section.
The Falcons have traded their early second-round choice to the Broncos. With the No. 35 overall pick, the Broncos have selected UNC running back Javonte Williams.
Here’s the breakdown of the trade:
The Broncos needed backfield help after letting Phillip Lindsay walk in free agency, and Williams was widely considered the top running back left. Williams, Najee Harris, and Travis Etienne were universally regarded as the top three backs, with many teams having them ranked in different orders.
As Mike Garafolo of NFL Network tweets, there were strong rumors that the Dolphins wanted Williams at 36, so Denver wanted to leapfrog them to get their guy. Williams broke out as a sophomore in 2019 with 933 yards and five scores, but took his game to a new level this past season.
He was electric for UNC in 2020, rushing for 1,140 yards (7.3 YPC) and 19 touchdowns. He added 25 catches for 305 yards and another three touchdowns. He’ll immediately start pushing Melvin Gordon for touches.
While Alabama’s Najee Harris and Clemson’s Travis Etienne have continually been mentioned as potential first-round picks, another running back could hear his name called during the first day of the draft. NFL.com’s Tom Pelissero writes that North Carolina’s Javonte Williams could end up sneaking into the first round of the upcoming draft.
“I love Javonte Williams,” an AFC executive told Pelissero. “I think he’s the best back in the draft.”
In an era where teams seem to reset their running back depth chart every few years, it’d be a bit of a surprise if three running backs end up getting selected in the first round; we’ve only seen two first-round running backs over the past two years (Josh Jacobs (No. 24, 2019) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (No. 32, 2020)). Still, Williams has the talent to warrant that lofty draft stock.
As Pelissero notes, Williams’ strength should be an asset in the NFL (with the reporter citing this giant run against Miami). The running back is more than a bruiser, however; his pro day numbers (including a 4.55-second 40 and a 36-inch vertical jump) showcase his athleticism. Williams also showed improved pass-catching ability throughout his collegiate career, culminating in a 2020 campaign where he hauled in 25 receptions.
So where could the running back land? Pelissero points to the Steelers are a potential landing spot. Pittsburgh has continually been mentioned as a suitor for Harris, but it’s uncertain if the running back will fall all the way to No. 24. If the top running back is off the board, the team could end up favoring Williams over someone like Etienne.
In addition to virtual meetings with Harris, Jackson adds the Dolphins spent extensive time with the former Crimson Tide starter at the Senior Bowl. The prep the Dolphins are doing at this position has reached the point where it would surprise if they do not exit the second round with a starter-caliber back, Jackson adds.
The Dolphins hold the Nos. 36 and 50 picks in Round 2. NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah does not expect a running back to go in the first round this year, but it would certainly be possible all three are gone by No. 50. Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay’s latest ESPN mock draft has all three gone by No. 36, potentially putting the Dolphins on the trade-up radar.
Miami was connected to running backs last year but elected to fill the position with veterans. Neither the Jordan Howard nor Matt Breida additions moved the needle much, with former seventh-round pick Myles Gaskin operating as the Fins’ top back for most of 2020. Gaskin and longtime Rams backup Malcolm Brown are now Miami’s top two backs. They figure to be joined by a rookie, perhaps a high-end talent, after the draft.
Etienne was considered perhaps last year’s top prospect, but the Clemson back made the rare (for running backs) decision to return for his senior season. His yards-per-carry figure dropped from 7.8 to 5.4 last year. Etienne, however, has two 1,600-yard seasons and 70 career rushing TDs on his resume. Harris dominated in the COVID-19-altered 2020 season, totaling 1,891 scrimmage yards and 30 TDs last season to help the Crimson Tide win another national title. One of two Tar Heels backs who will be drafted, Williams forced 76 missed tackles on just 127 carries. Dolphins backs’ 19 broken tackles ranked 30th in the NFL last season, per Pro Football Focus.
The Dolphins have not used a first- or second-round pick on a running back in 10 years (Daniel Thomas, Round 2), and teams like the Steelers and Bills are on the radar to draft a top back in the first round. GM Chris Grier has not been shy about trading or acquiring picks, so it will be interesting to see if the Dolphins move into better position to acquire one of the top backs next week.