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Travis Etienne surprised many by returning for his senior season at Clemson. He was coming off back-to-back electric collegiate seasons with seemingly little left to prove at Clemson. His senior season answered some questions while also spawning others.
Roger Goodell is likely reading his name off a card inside the NFL draft's top two rounds. So let’s find out what type of prospect your favorite NFL team is adding to the backfield.
Etienne has been the topic of conversation since arriving on campus at Clemson. Etienne was a four-star prospect per 247 sports. In 2016 at the New Orleans Nike camp, he blazed a 4.43 40-yard dash, so the speed was real even back then. Over the last three seasons, Etienne has compiled an impressive resume. Since 2018, Etienne ranks second in rushing yards (4,186), behind only Jonathan Taylor, and first in rushing touchdowns (57). Etienne proved this past season that he could hold up with an increased overall workload. In 2019 he logged only two games with 20 or more touches, but he handled 20-plus touches in four of his 12 games played last year.
From 2019 to 2020, Clemson lost four starters along the offensive line to the NFL, and the difference in the blocking was palpable. In 2019, Clemson’s line ranked first in line yards, 41st in power success rate and fourth in stuff rate, per Football Outsiders. All three of those metrics declined this past season sharply as Dabo Swinney’s line ranked 51st in line yards, 25th in power success rate and 36th in stuff rate. With this drastic change upfront, Etienne saw his efficiency drop in the rushing department. In 2019 among 198 running backs with 75 or more rushing attempts, Etienne ranked first (5.07) in yards after contact per attempt and first in avoided tackles. Last season, Etienne fell to 31st (among 150 backs with 75 or more rushing attempts) in yards after contact per attempt (3.84) and tenth in avoided tackles.
Etienne might have had more struggles on the ground in 2020, but he found even more success in the passing game. Etienne led all college running back with 588 receiving yards this past season. In 2020, Etienne ranked eighth (among 98 backs with 15 or more targets) in yards per route run with 2.26. This was a noticeable increase compared to 2019, where Etienne found himself 16th (among 166 running backs with 15 or more targets) with 2.03.
- Home run ability
- Gets north/south in a hurry
- One cut decisiveness
- Pass catching
The one thing that continually jumps out when watching Etienne is his game-breaking speed. He has the afterburners to pull away from defensive backs in the open field with ease and can take any screen or carry 80 yards to the house. These electric wheels have served him well as a one-cut runner that handled 70.3% of his rushing attempts on zone rushing plays in 2020. This combination of burst and decisiveness has allowed him to rank sixth and 11th over the last two seasons in carries of 15+-plus yards. Airdrop Etienne into an offense with an above-average offensive line that heavily incorporates zone runs, and he’s going to win people weeks in fantasy in 2021.
With Tee Higgins out the door and Justyn Ross sidelined this past season, Etienne assumed a larger role in the passing game. Etienne’s target share jumped from 7.5% to 12.2%. The variety of Etienne’s usage as a pass-catcher was also expanded in 2020, running more routes and not simply operating as a dump-off option. In 2020 Etienne’s snaps outside or in the slot nudged up from 3.8% (2019) to 4.8%.
- Lateral agility
- Yards after contact near or behind line of scrimmage
Etienne’s per-carry efficiency dropped in 2020 with the accompanying dip in his offensive line’s play. Etienne averaged a collegiate low 5.4 yards per carry. A contributing factor outside of line play deals with his inability to make defenders miss when he’s caught in the backfield. Etienne is deadly in the open field, but when he’s met with a tackler at or behind the line of scrimmage, he can struggle. His lateral agility and ability to create for himself with a jump cut, stiff arm, etc., is lacking for all of Etienne's pluses.
Etienne could be selected as early as the back end of the first round of the NFL draft, but more likely, he’s picked somewhere in the second round. The three teams that jump off the page as possible fits for Etienne schematically or with a possible need at running back are the New York Jets, Arizona Cardinals or Jacksonville Jaguars.
The Jets pick at 33 to begin the second round and are immediately followed by the Jaguars. New York has an obvious need and could look to team an early selection of a signal-caller with an explosive weapon in Etienne. I know James Robinson truthers don’t want to see Jacksonville listed here, but the fact is Robinson is a former UDFA with a new coaching staff — his reprisal as the workhorse in 2021 isn’t written in stone. Reuniting their new franchise quarterback in Trevor Lawrence with his college running mate makes a ton of sense. Etienne’s versatility and coming from a RPO-heavy system in Clemson would ease his transition to the NFL. Robinson could also take some of the early-down lifting off Etienne’s shoulders and allow him to split a weekly 15 touch workload between rushing and receiving. Finally, if Arizona doesn’t re-sign Kenyan Drake, Etienne would be a fantastic fit in Arizona as Kliff Kingsbury’s rocket-fueled rushing chess piece.
If you haven’t already noticed, all of these teams currently have a mobile quarterback (Kyler Murray) or have been rumored to be in the market to draft one (Trevor Lawrence, Justin Fields or Zach Wilson). Adding Etienne’s wheels to the threat of a mobile quarterback will keep opposing defensive coordinators up at night. Any of these three landing spots give Etienne the upside to pay off on the rookie hype with volume and big plays as a top-15 or top-20 running back in fantasy football.