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2021 NFL Draft Scouting Spotlight: Clemson RB Travis Etienne

A strong track record as well enticing speed and agility.

Yep, we’re really going to have this conversation. With the 2020 NFL Draft nearly upon us, one of the leading candidates for the Buffalo Bills’ first-round pick is a running back. Even though the Bills used two third-round picks on RBs in the last two years, they didn’t get enough from the group, and a more athletic playmaker may be what the doctor ordered. Call him an “offensive weapon” if that makes you feel better. Enter: Clemson’s Travis Etienne.


Travis Etienne (Clemson) Scouting Report

  • Measurables: 5’10” 215 lbs
  • 2020 stats: 168 carries, 914 yards (5.44 Y/A), 14 TDs, 48 catches, 588 yards, 2 TDs, 1 punt return, 44 yards, 8 kick returns, 189 yards (23.6 Y/R)
  • 2019 stats: 207 carries, 1,614 yards (7.80 Y/A), 19 TDs, 37 catches, 432 yards, 4 TDs, five kick returns, 128 yards (25.6 Y/R)
  • Year: Senior
  • Pro day testing: 4.45 40-yard dash, 33.5” vertical, 128” broad jump, 18 bench press reps

Summary

Travis Etienne is likely the greatest running back in Clemson history, and an all-purpose scoring threat. A former four-star recruit, he burst onto the scene in 2017 to lead Clemson’s rushing attack as a true freshman. In 2018, he was the MVP of their national championship win, and won the first of two ACC Player of the Year awards. 2019 was another remarkable season, setting school records for single-season rushing yards and career rushing yards, but Etienne surprisingly returned for his senior year instead of declaring for the draft. His 2020 was maybe less productive, but still reinforced his bona fide talent as one of the top runners in college football.

Etienne has excellent acceleration and top speed. He can outrun defenders to the sidelines or get skinny and work through a hole before it closes. If he can reach the third level of the defense, he’s a touchdown threat. He also has remarkable leg drive and balance, keeping him upright against initial contact more than you’d expect. A reliable receiving back, he can be used in all ways in the passing game. He’s also a talented kick returner, and should start his career in that role.

The biggest knock on Etienne’s game is his average vision and decision making, especially within the pocket. He’s decisive following his blockers to a hole, but hasn’t shown he can reliably read a zone play and bait defenses into opening a hole for him. As a pass protector, too, he has room for improvement before teams can trust him in all game situations.

Still, his track record of success and the positive traits add up to a player who should be one of the first three running backs selected in the draft.

Strengths

  • Elusive big-play back whose speed and acceleration will outrun many NFL-caliber players
  • Shows a lot of natural intuition in his game, from the way he reads tight creases in the line to the way he determines what he’ll do when a pass is thrown his way given the down-distance-score-time and the on-field situation
  • Uses leg drive, stiff-arms, and spin moves to break out of arm tackles and fight for extra yards
  • Comfortable running a variety of routes from the backfield
  • Reliable hands for receiving passes
  • Very durable—four-year starter who rarely missed a play

Weaknesses

  • Needs to be more consistent with slow-playing runs to guide the defense into mistakes
  • Ability to read zone blocking and make the right decision is still in development
  • Struggles to identify and square up against complex blitz schemes in pass protection
  • Moderate concern about fumbling tendencies—four fumbles in 2020, or one every 54 touches

Draft projection: mid first round to second round


Why he fits the Bills

The Buffalo Bills’ 2020 passing offense was reliable, explosive, and dangerous. The rushing attack? Not even close. The Bills had exactly five carries go for more than 25 yards last year. Devin Singletary led all Bills running backs with 687 yards and 4.4 yards per carry—numbers which ranked 25th and 28th among runners with at least 100 carries.

Etienne may not be a certifiable freak like Saquon Barkley, and that’s why he’s considered a borderline round-one talent instead of a top-five target. But this is a 215-lb runner with 4.4 speed who was the bell cow of the ACC’s best team for four years. Though speed is his calling card, he’s demonstrated enough power that he could become the primary runner for a team in the NFL. He gives the Bills a runner who can stretch a five-yard gain to ten yards, a ten to 20 and a 20-yard gain into a touchdown. As a rookie, he can be the team’s return man and a change-up back. The RB room would be crowded at the start of Etienne’s career, but unlike the Marshawn Lynch / Fred Jackson pairing that C.J. Spiller joined, Singletary and Zack Moss aren’t so potent, and there’s more room for Etienne to claim carries.