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.
#9 Travis Etienne/RB Clemson – 5’10 205
– Explosive runner, great burst and acceleration, home-run hitter when he gets into space
– Gets up to top gear in a hurry
– Speed to win the edge, asset on outside zones, able to beat DBs to the corner even when they have the angle
– Skinny through the hole to get into the second level
– Excellent body control and contact balance, able to stay on his feet and get YAC
– Shows good hands as a receiver, plucks away from frame and quick to the tuck post-catch
– Utilized quite a bit as a receiver, especially his final two seasons
– Willing pass protector who shows effort and willingness to sacrifice himself to make the block
– Extremely productive sophomore and junior seasons
– Tons of starting experience, was all-situations/three-down player
– Experience in kick return game
– Looks smaller than listed frame, not tiny but slighter build
– Doesn’t play with much power, able to step out of low arm tackles but doesn’t create much of a push on higher-aimed tackles, leg drive is there but doesn’t push pile forward
– Often relied on/benefited from having huge runways in his offense, letting him work to 2nd level untouched
– Notably struggled more as a runner in 2020 games without Trevor Lawrence (2.9 YPC in two games without him)
– Ball control/fumble concerns, had ugly streak of them in 2020
– Inconsistent recognizing LB blitzes, misses too many
– Down senior season
– 42 career starts for the Tigers
– Career: 686 carries 4952 yards (7.2 YPC) 70 TDs, 102 receptions for 1155 yards and eight TDs
– 2020: 168 carries 914 yards (5.4 YPC) 14 TDs, 48 receptions for 588 yards and two TDs
– Rushed for over 1600 yards in 2018 and 2019, averaged 8.1 YPC in 2018
– Ends career as ACC’s All-Time leading rusher and TDs, most games in FBS history with a TD (46)
– One of 12 players in FBS history with 4000+ yards rushing and 1000+ receiving
– 22.1 yards per kick return (32 attempts), one PR for 44 yards
– Decided to return for senior season when many expected him to opt out
– Three-time 1st Team AP All-American
– Three-star recruit out of HS, had 26 offers, chose Clemson over LSU, Texas A&M, and Tennessee among others
– Rushed for nearly 2500 yards his senior year of HS, averaged over 11 YPC, over 7500 career rushing yards
– Also played basketball in high school
Etienne is regarded as one of the top running backs in this class, jockeying with Alabama’s Najee Harris to be the first off the board. They are two different styles of backs. Etienne is a home run hitter in every sense of the world. He’s explosive and dangerous in the open field with great contact balance and able to go the distance every time he touches the ball.
Couple examples of that. First shows his great contact balance and ability to stay on his feet. Second is all speed for this long, 2019 touchdown against Georgia Tech.
If the Steelers want to run more of a zone scheme, especially outside zone as the hiring of assistant o-line coach Chris Morgan may signal, Etienne would be the type of back they’re targeting. Watch him win the edge and turn the corner here. Second clip isn’t outside zone but shows his speed to win the corner.
Etienne’s usage as a receiver really ticked up the past two seasons. In his first two seasons, he caught 17 combined passes. In 2019 alone, he caught 37 and then followed it up with a career-high 48 this past year. It’s worth noting in the two games Trevor Lawrence missed in 2018, Etienne became a much larger focus of the passing game, catching 15 balls over that span. While he’ll occasionally drop a contested catch, he overall has good hands and is capable of making catches outside his frame. That 4000 rushing/1000 receiving club is a pretty rare one.
But those games without Lawrence cut both ways. Etienne got involved as a receiver but was totally bottled up as a runner, especially against Notre Dame. Defenses keyed in on him more and no longer did Etienne have big runways to break into the second level free and make plays in space. I’ve never seen a college offense run more sprint draws than Clemson did against Wake Forest, giving Etienne an open lane again and again. When he had to run through holes that looked more similar to the NFL, he struggled. He can get skinny through the hole but he struggles more between the tackles and doesn’t create much power. Too often, he got stopped in short-yardage situations.
And he’s run into a nasty fumble streak over the past two seasons. At one point in 2020, he fumbled four times in four games. One of them was this ugly turnover against Notre Dame, unable to secure this pitch that landed in the hands of this Fighting Irish defender for a TD.
Etienne surprised many by deciding to return for 2020. And while you can never be too critical of a player deciding to go back to school, it probably wasn’t the best decision for his draft stock.
There’s no question he’s a big-play guy and the Steelers could use someone like that. And most top RBs benefit from their supporting casts. Najee Harris sure did. But Clemson’s offense really allowed Etienne to flourish and I don’t think an NFL offense will be able to structure things the same way with the same talent disparity at the NFL level. This comp won’t sit well with Tigers’ fans out there but I’m going Felix Jones. Etienne has value as a return man and space back but I don’t think he’s the every-down guy worth spending a top pick on.
Projection: Early Day Two
Games Watched: vs Florida State (2019), at Wake Forest, vs Virginia, vs Notre Dame