NFL Draft

2021 NFL Draft Player Profiles: Memphis RB Kenneth Gainwell

From now until the 2021 NFL Draft takes place, we hope to showcase as many prospects as possible and examine both their strengths and weaknesses. Most of these profiles will feature individuals that the Pittsburgh Steelers are likely to have an interest in, while a few others will be top-ranked players. If there is a player you would like us to analyze, let us know in the comments below.

#19 Kenneth Gainwell/RB Memphis – 5’11 190

The Good

– Open field threat with good burst, speed, and big-play ability
– Home run potential once he gets into the 2nd level/space, repeatedly ripped off big plays in school
– One-cut runner who doesn’t dance, squares shoulders and gets downhill, quick acceleration and reaches top speed in a hurry
– Changes directions well and able to shake defenders 1v1, though shows a bit of hip tightness
– Better than expected strength, ability to run through arm/low tackles, good balance through contact and works to finish runs
– Versatile, comfortable in space, asset in screen game and ran basic WR route tree, caught the ball a lot in their offense, also used on end arounds and used as WildCat QB
– Accomplished receiver who adjusts to the ball well, quick to the tuck and gets upfield immediately after the catch
– More success came on inside/outside zone runs but offense was varied and mixed in power/gap
– Gets square in pass pro and shows effort even though results are inconsistent, holds on against DBs blitzing off the edge (less success vs LBs in A/B gap)
– Shows good ball carriage, carries the ball high and tight
– Like his football IQ and overall vision as a runner
– Highly productive in one season as starter
– Offense/system has produced NFL talent (Pollard, Henderson, Gibson)

The Bad

– Average frame, some will question every-down role ability
– Has strength but doesn’t have much power, won’t run over/through and can get bounced around by LBs before he gets up to speed
– Tendency to overrun himself and stumble/trip, especially when trying to make cuts
– Will struggle taking on blitzing LBs up the middle, drops eyes on contact and lacks ideal frame/power to rebuff them
– Only one-year of production, sat out 2020, limited resume to go off of
– Good speed and burst but not an elite level athlete who runs a little stiffer than anticipated


– Career: 235 carries, 1550 yards (6.6 YPC) 14 TDs, 57 receptions 662 yards (11.6 YPC) 3 TDs
– 2019: 231 carries, 1459 yards (6.3 YPC) 13 TDs, 51 receptions 610 yards (12 YPC) 3 TDs
– Opted out of 2020 season due to COVID concerns; four family members died of the virus
– Underclassmen, technically leaving college as redshirt sophomore (played four games true freshman season before redshirting, carried ball four times for 91 yards and 1 TD)
– All-purpose player in HS, starting QB who recorded 108 career TDs
– Three-star recruit, chose Memphis over Arkansas State, Idaho, and Tulane among others
– Younger brother also plays football for the Tigers

Tape Breakdown

Gainwell was the running back I mocked to the Pittsburgh Steelers in my first version of the team’s 2020 draft. So he was someone I really wanted to take a deep dive into after the fact. And Gainwell is generally as advertised. A speedy, play maker who has the wheels to win the edge and an asset in the passing game.

Gainwell had some monster performances in 2019. A 209 yard, 2 touchdown performance against Louisiana-Monroe. 149 yard, three touchdown game against Tulsa. 9.1 yards per carry against South Alabama and South Florida. An insane 203 receiving yards (with two touchdowns) versus Tulane.

Let’s check out some of those big plays. First clip is him bending the run back on this inside zone. Decisive read – hats in front of him all go down so he bends/brings the run to the backside gap. Foot in the ground, downhill, and he dusts everyone. Second clip is a gap run with him stepping out of the tackle in the hole and getting a lot of YAC.


In that game I referenced vs Tulane, he caught two back shoulder fades. Check out the balance after the catch in the first clip. Don’t see that from too many RBs. And the second went for a TD.


And while he isn’t great in pass pro, the dude works hard and can flash power. Check out this nasty chip against Penn State. Sends the LDE flying to the ground.


But not every battle in pass pro looks like that. Watch here against SMU. Takes on the LB in the A gap, lined up as the sniffer, sticking only briefly before falling off and losing the rep. Tough assignment to take on but Gainwell struggles here.


And sometimes you’re reminded he isn’t the biggest back in this class. He shows lower body strength running through or stepping over tackles once he gets up to speed but hit him early and he’ll go flying. Like here against UL-Monroe.


Gainwell won’t be the top back fans will talk about the Steelers’ drafting. But I think he’ll fit Matt Canada’s system. Perimeter player who can win on jet sweeps, end arounds, maybe a little option offense. Someone who can flex out and catch swings/screens for the short pass game and finally a back who can win in space. Pass pro won’t be his strength but if you’re flexing him out and he’s catching five passes a game, LBs aren’t going to be able to blitz. They’re going to have to cover him. So there’s ways to mask his inefficiencies and Gainwell isn’t a bad blocker. Better than Jaylen Samuels or Anthony McFarland.

I know slotting him in the second round of my mock draft was a too high for some but I can see him being the pick at #55. I don’t love the odds of him making it to where they’ll choose in round three.

Having a little trouble finding a good NFL comp. Maybe a slightly slower version of CJ Spiller. Spiller ran 4.37 coming out. Gainwell is fast but I think he runs in the low 4.4’s.

Projection: Mid Day Two

Games Watched: vs Ole Miss (2019), at UL-Monroe (2019), vs Tulane (2019), vs USF (2019), vs Penn State (2019)

Previous 2021 NFL Draft Player Profiles
OC Drake Jackson OC Landon Dickerson TE Pat Freiermuth RB Javonte Williams
CB Patrick Surtain II OG Deonte Brown TE Kylen Granson TE Brevin Jordan
OL Trey Smith OT Adrian Ealy CB Jaycee Horn CB Kary Vincent Jr.
RB Elijah Mitchell OT Alex Leatherwood TE Hunter Long RB Najee Harris
CB Tyson Campbell LB Zaven Collins DB Greg Newsome TE Tony Poljan
DL Christian Barmore
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