Why Buffalo Bills should consider drafting RB Travis Etienne in first round

BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Mel Kiper Jr. hasn't simply heard the arguments against taking a running back in the first round of the NFL draft. The ESPN senior draft analyst might have helped to spearhead the movement.

But that didn't stop him from projecting the Buffalo Bills to select Alabama running back Najee Harris with pick No. 30 in the first round of the 2021 NFL draft (April 29-May 1 in Cleveland, on ESPN and ESPN the App) in one of his several mock drafts this offseason.

"Buffalo could do that and get a guy who's a complete back, whether it's Najee Harris, Travis Etienne or Javonte Williams," Kiper said. "They're in a position to take a running back. I'm not big on first-round running backs, I don't think they're necessary. But this team needs that type of player."

The lesson to be learned here -- context matters -- could lead Buffalo to draft the speedy Etienne.

It doesn't take much digging to find plenty of evidence against taking running backs in the first round. Of the NFL's top 20 rushers last season, only two -- Josh Jacobs (Raiders) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (Chiefs) -- were drafted in the first round. Of the 17 running backs selected in the first round since 2010, only four have had an All-Pro season. Meanwhile, stars such as Derrick Henry (Titans), Alvin Kamara (Saints) and Aaron Jones (Packers) -- drafted in the second, third and fifth round, respectively -- are proof teams can find starting-caliber backs later in the draft.

It's not that first-round backs aren't good; it's that the pounding starters take often limits their longevity. Especially when drafted by a team that isn't in position to compete for a Super Bowl, a running back's best years could be behind him by the time his team is ready to make a championship run.

But the AFC runner-up Bills are ready to compete right now. So if Clemson's Etienne is on the board when Buffalo picks at No. 30, the Bills should give him serious consideration.

One argument against the Bills taking a running back in the first round is that they used third-round picks on the position -- Devin Singletary (2019) and Zack Moss (2020) -- in the past two drafts.

Bills general manager Brandon Beane has expressed confidence in Singletary and Moss this offseason, but admits the Bills, who ranked 20th in rushing in 2020, need to run the ball better next season. And he didn't dismiss the idea of drafting another back -- especially if that player offers something Moss and Singletary do not.

"We feel very comfortable with the guys we have, so I'm not going into this draft going, 'Man we got to find some back here in the top few rounds,' or anything like that," Beane said. "But there are some good players in here and if he's the best guy on our board we wouldn't hesitate to take them. What does his skill set have in comparison to what we have on the roster?"

The Bills ranked second in yards per game last season on the strength of their third-ranked passing offense -- in spite of a rushing game that featured zero 100-yard rushers.

Some of the blame lies with an offensive line that ranked 29th in run block win rate according to NFL Next Gen Stats, but Buffalo played zero snaps with its top five offensive linemen on the field together. That meant fewer holes to run through, and Singletary and Moss didn't make much of an impact outside of productive games against the New England Patriots (190 yards in Week 8), Los Angeles Chargers (172 yards in Week 12) and Denver Broncos (182 yards in Week 15).

Singletary had a 51-yard TD run against Denver, but it's clear Buffalo's backfield could use a big-play threat.

"I don't think either one of our backs are home-run hitters, so is there an elite trait that [a prospect] has and says, 'Man, he's got something we don't have?'" Beane said. "Those are the conversations you have ... [where] you're going, 'Man, if we add that to the group that's going to help our overall offense.'"

Etienne, who at 5-foot-10, 215 pounds ran a 4.41 40-yard dash at Clemson's pro day last month, was arguably college football's biggest home run hitter over the past three seasons. The ACC's all-time leading rusher (4,952 yards) was also the conference's all-time leader in touchdowns (78) scored when he took his final snap in the College Football Playoff last season.

He's not just a big-play threat as a runner, either. After catching 17 passes over his first two seasons at Clemson, Etienne totaled 85 receptions for 1,020 yards and six touchdowns during his junior and senior seasons, silencing any doubt he can make an impact as a receiver.

When Buffalo puts four wide receivers on the field, which it did on a league-leading 20.3% of its offensive plays last season, Etienne's speed and skill as a receiver poses a nightmarish matchup for opposing defenses.

"I just possess a lot of things that are God-given that most guys don't possess," Etienne said. "Just being able to impact the team every single down makes me different and makes me worthy of the first round."

Etienne is a perfect fit for the Bills' offense and he who wouldn't necessarily render Moss and Singletary obsolete. Though it's difficult to argue the value of a running back versus a cornerback or defensive end at pick No. 30, a back could provide a more immediate impact for a team ready to win now.

Teams picking at No. 30 tend to have a more complete roster, and in the Bills' case, no glaring weaknesses. Buffalo would be getting Etienne's prime years in the midst of its championship window; teams who couldn't make their conference championship game are generally not a running back away from Super Bowl contention and have more obvious needs.

Beane insists the Bills will take the best player available when the time comes to turn in their card.

Don't be shocked if that player is a running back.