MIAMI — Since the moment Alabama running back Najee Harris leaped over a Notre Dame defender en route to a 53-yard run during January’s Rose Bowl, Miami Dolphins fans have been dreaming of the 6-foot-2, 232-pound playmaker wearing aqua on Sundays.
There has been plenty of debate about the Dolphins’ No. 6 pick in the 2021 NFL draft, which is expected to be a pass-catcher with LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase, Alabama’s DeVonta Smith and Florida’s Kyle Pitts as Miami’s most likely options.
But let’s focus on running backs, which could be a target for the Dolphins’ other top picks at No. 18 as well as two second-round picks (Nos. 36 and 50).
The Dolphins are interested in drafting a feature running back, sources told ESPN, with added intrigue in bigger, complete backs.
Harris, who is listed by ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr., Todd McShay and Matt Miller as this draft’s top-rated running back, was connected to Miami when he was a late add to the Dolphins’ Senior Bowl roster. Harris seems likely to be available at No. 18, but much less likely to be there at No. 36. The dilemma is whether the Dolphins should take the plunge at No. 18, or see if there is better value in drafting a more premium position such as pass-rusher with Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari, Miami’s Jaelan Phillips and Michigan’s Kwity Paye among the top options.
We start by taking a deeper look at the draft’s top options. ESPN asked nine football analysts who their top-three prospects are in order, and the panel includes Kiper, McShay, Miller, three NFL scouts or personnel executives, a NFL running back and Running Back Academy draft prep coaches Jerry Seymour Jr. and Torri Harmon.
All nine listed the same three names, but in different orders — Harris, Clemson’s Travis Etienne, and North Carolina’s Javonte Williams. Beyond that, there was little consensus on order (see chart for full breakdown).
The results illustrate it is a pick-your-flavor type of running back class, so is Harris, Etienne or Williams worth the Dolphins’ mid-first round pick?
“I don’t think any of these backs are worth a first-round pick,” said the AFC scout, who listed Etienne as the top-rated running back. He had higher grades on Wisconsin’s Jonathan Taylor and LSU’s Clyde Edwards-Helaire last year than the 2021 class.
Our ESPN draft analysts all selected Harris as the top running back, with Kiper noting, “he’s a complete running back. He’s good at everything — run, catch, block and he doesn’t fumble.”
Miller said Harris’ “ability to run with power is exceptional at 230 pounds, but the agility, ability to create laterally and make people miss inside the tackle box stands out more.” Miller also mentioned Williams “runs more violently than any back in this class.”
Etienne received the highest vote total among our panel, and those who favored him pointed to his superior speed and explosiveness. The NFC personnel executive worried how Harris’ lack of long runs would translate to the modern NFL, and noted Etienne could be effective in an Alvin Kamara-type of role.
Miami has done its homework. Dolphins co-offensive coordinator Eric Studesville led Etienne through drills at Clemson’s pro day. Etienne said he would love to be coached by Studesville. Dolphins general manager Chris Grier and Studesville watched Williams at North Carolina’s pro day. The Dolphins’ staff spent a week with Harris at the Senior Bowl.
If Miami misses out on one of the top three rushers, a couple of our evaluators mentioned North Carolina’s Michael Carter and Ohio State’s Trey Sermon as leading the next tier of running back prospects. Both have limitations, though Sermon is the better fit when paired in a two-headed backfield with promising receiving back Myles Gaskin. Sermon is likely a third- or fourth-round pick.
The Dolphins did significant evaluation last year with the idea of potentially selecting a feature back, sources said, but with Taylor, Ohio State’s J.K. Dobbins (Ravens) and Florida State’s Cam Akers (Rams) on the board, they drafted developmental cornerback Noah Igbinoghene at No. 30 and right tackle Robert Hunt at No. 39. All three backs went in Round 2.
Taylor went No. 41 to the Indianapolis Colts, then finished third in the NFL in rushing with 1,169 yards and 11 touchdowns. Akers and Dobbins went No. 52 and No. 55, respectively, and both had successful rookie seasons. Igbinoghene struggled significantly as a backup outside cornerback and did not play much after September.
It’s too early to give a final evaluation, but the decision to bypass Taylor appears like an early mistake. The Dolphins cannot afford to make the same mistake again.
Last season Miami attempted to build up its backfield piecemeal by signing Jordan Howard to what amounted to a five-game, five-million deal and trading a fifth-round pick for Matt Breida. Both moves failed, though Gaskin, a 2019 seventh-round pick, had a surprisingly strong season (584 yards and three touchdowns).
The Dolphins should use one of their four top-50 picks on Harris, Williams or Etienne to help second-year quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and complete the offense. Harris might be a bit of a reach at No. 18, but he’s worth the chance if the Dolphins love the player.
In our poll, there wasn’t a huge gap separating the players, so I’d opine that depending on how the draft board falls there might be better talent and positional value at No. 18 for the Dolphins to draft rather than use it on Harris there. Miami selecting Williams at No. 36 seems more like the ideal solution. Though if Miami is eyeing Williams or any running back early in Round 2, it needs to possibly trade ahead of the running back-needy New York Jets (No. 34) and Atlanta Falcons (No. 35).