After Returning for Senior Season, Travis Etienne Could be a Rare First Round Running Back

The 2021 NFL Draft in Cleveland begins on April 29th where the Jacksonville Jaguars are expected to kick off the proceedings by taking Clemson’s standout quarterback Trevor Lawrence. He isn’t the only Clemson Tiger projected to be drafted though. The Tigers are expected to have four players taken, which is actually their fewest since 2018 when only LB Dorian O’Daniel, and WRs Ray-Ray McCloud and Deon Cain were picked (six and seven Clemson players were taken in the 2019 and 2020 drafts, respectively). After Trevor Lawrence, running back Travis Etienne, offensive tackle Jackson Carman, and wide receivers Amari Rodgers and Cornell Powell are projected to be picked (roughly in that order).

Travis Etienne may be the most interesting of the bunch to watch. He surprised many (and was criticized as foolish by some) when he announced he would return for his senior season last year. After 2019, Etienne was projected as a likely second round pick. He didn’t feel “complete” leaving early without a degree to be a second round pick so he returned. In August, when the Big Ten and PAC-12 canceled their football seasons and hoped the other conferences would follow, it looked like Etienne made a blunder. Fortunately, Clemson managed to play 12 games.

Clemson’s offensive line was replacing four starters, so perhaps we shouldn’t have been so surprised, but Clemson’s run blocking took a major step back last year. As a direct result, Travis Etienne posted a career-low in yards per carry. Fortunately, Clemson’s offensive brain trust kept him heavily involved in the offense by targeting him more in the passing game. He reeled in 48 catches for 588 yards, both career-highs (in three fewer games than the year prior). His improvement as a pass catcher will give him a chance to become a first round draft pick. In 2020, only one running back was taken in the first round, Clyde Edwards-Helaire (Chiefs), who was an excellent pass catcher at LSU.

Etienne is now being projected as one of two running backs (the other being Alabama’s Najee Harris) that could go in the first round. In the modern NFL, the position is seldom selected that early.

With Travis Etienne projecting as a either a late-first or early-second-round pick, there’s almost an equal chance he winds up on a Super Bowl contender – like the running back-needy Buccaneers – or a rebuilding squad – like the Jets. With the value of RBs still relatively low, it’s slightly more likely that an established team with fewer needs elsewhere on its roster takes a running back early on. That makes the Bucs, Steelers, and Dolphins the best bets for Etienne’s landing spot according to Sascha Paruk from SportsBettingDime.com.

If Etienne gets taken at the end of the first round and can join a quality team where he can really thrive, his oft-criticized decision to return will have clearly paid off. He cemented himself in Clemson lore by returning, smashing school and ACC rushing records, and continuing to show toughness on the field and humility off the field. Tiger fans will be watching closely to see if he can become one of the rare running backs taken in the first round, and hopefully head to a strong team like Tom Brady’s Buccaneers, where he can start his career continuing the winning ways he established at Clemson.

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