Diamonds In The Rough: Late-Round Rookie Running Backs To Know

by Alex Johnson · Sleepers

It has already been well-established that the 2021 running back class is one of the weakest we have seen in a few years. It certainly can’t compete with the phenomenal group of Jonathan Taylor, D’Andre Swift, J.K. Dobbins, Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and Cam Akers, among others, that we saw debut in 2020. It’s top heavy with a massive drop in talent after Travis Etienne, Najee Harris, and Javonte Williams. But every class has its diamond in the rough. That late-round or undrafted afterthought that comes out of nowhere to make a fantasy impact. We’ve seen that in recent years with guys like Phillip Lindsay, Chris Carson and, of course, James Robinson.

We’re not going to get a repeat of what Robinson did last year, but there’s bound to be someone that’s not currently in the forefront that will be fantasy relevant in 2021. Finding that guy will give us an upper hand on our competition. PlayerProfiler’s advanced stats and metrics identify three backs that, in the right situation, can start on our fantasy teams as soon as this season.


Elijah Mitchell, Louisiana-Lafayette

Elijah Mitchell finished his career at Erath High School in Louisiana as the school’s all-time leading rusher with 4,045 yards and 50 touchdowns on 457 carries. He was a two-star recruit and received just one Division I-A offer – from Louisiana-Lafayette. In 2017, Mitchell ran behind fellow freshman running back Trey Ragas. He took 42 carries for 257 yards and four touchdowns. Still sharing the backfield with Ragas, Mitchell nearly reached 1,000 rushing yards in his sophomore campaign. He added 349 yards on 20 receptions with 16 total touchdowns.

Mitchell continued his ascension, leading the team in rush attempts (198), rushing yards (1,147), and total touchdowns (17) in 2019. In his senior season, he continued to operate as the lead back, though not by much. His 141 carries went for 878 yards and eight touchdowns. He added 16 receptions for 153 yards. Mitchell leaves school having amassed 3,864 scrimmage yards and 46 total touchdowns over four seasons. 

Mitchell weighed in a bit lighter than expected at his pro day, but he tested extremely well. His 4.40 (97th-percentile among qualified running backs) 40-yard Dash resulted in a 107.3 (86th-percentile) Speed Score at 5-10, 201-pounds. He also checked in as super explosive and agile with a 127.8 (88th-percentile) Burst Score and 11.14 (79th-percentile) Agility Score. Mitchell showcased that explosion with 12 Breakaway Runs of 15 yards or more in 2020. While his 6.1-percent College Target Share is only in the 35th-percentile, he showed he’s a capable pass-catcher with a 20-reception season back in 2018.

Fantasy Outlook:

Elijah Mitchell is a good all-around back. He’s fast with elite explosiveness and he’s elusive enough to make the first tackler miss. He profiles as a committee back who can emerge as a playmaker in the passing game. Draft capital will likely come mid-to-late day three. He’s certainly a top candidate to be this year’s late-round diamond. He can fall into a lead job on a weak depth chart that sees its top back go down early.

Because of this, he will make for a solid late-second or third round pick in dynasty rookie drafts and a good late-round flier in seasonal leagues.

Best Comparable Player: Jerick McKinnon

Kylin Hill, Mississippi State 

Kylin Hill’s career at Mississippi State almost didn’t happen. He actually quit his high school football team following his sophomore season. Luckily, he rejoined the team and went on to rush for over 3,500 yards and 45 touchdowns in his last two seasons. He ranked as the No. 2 player in the state and received 10 offers as a four-star recruit. Hill wasn’t utilized much as a freshman, carrying 78 times for 393 yards (5.0 YPC) and two touchdowns. He saw greater opportunity in 2018, though quarterback Nick Fitzgerald led the team in rush attempts, yards, and touchdowns.

With Fitzgerald out of the picture in 2019, Hill saw a big jump in volume and production. He became the first running back in school history to top 150 rushing yards four times in a single season and his 1,350 rushing yards was the third-most in the SEC. He added 18 receptions for 180 yards and a score. Returning for his senior season, he came out hot, particularly as a receiver. He set the Mississippi State record for most receiving yards by a running back with 158 against LSU, and tied another school record with 15 receptions against Kentucky before choosing to opt out for the rest of the season. He finished with 58 rushing yards on 15 carries and 23 receptions for 237 yards and one touchdown as a receiver.

Fantasy Outlook:

Kylin Hill is likely to be a running back without a starting chair when the music stops. But that’s okay, he’s more of an RB2 or 1B in a committee anyway. He’s explosive with the requisite size to be a workhorse, given the opportunity. His skills as a receiver will help him be fantasy relevant as a team’s primary pass-catcher out of the backfield. Hill will likely find draft capital in the middle rounds of the NFL Draft.

He’s a decent flier in the third round of rookie drafts for dynasty gamers eyeing up a solid depth piece.

Best Comparable Player: Alexander Mattison

Chris Evans, Michigan 

Chris Evans was a multi-sport athlete at Ben Davis High School in Indianapolis, Indiana. On the football field, he played running back, slot receiver, and cornerback. Evans committed to Michigan as a four-star recruit in the 2016 class. He became the third player in school history to top 100 rushing yards in their first game, with 112 yards and two touchdowns against Hawaii. He finished the season with 614 rushing yards on 88 carries (7.0 YPC) and four touchdowns. Playing behind Karan Higdon in 2017, Evans rushed 135 times for 685 yards (5.1 YPC) and six touchdowns. He added 16 receptions for 157 yards and a score. Still playing behind Higdon in his junior season, Evans was held to just 423 yards on 81 carries and five total touchdowns.

Evans was projected to be the lead back in 2019 with Higdon departing for the NFL, but an academic suspension knocked him out for the entire season. He returned to a limited role in 2020 behind Hassan Haskins and Zach Charbonne, being limited to just 25 touches and 160 yards from scrimmage. It was a disappointing end to what started off as a promising career. In 37 games, Evans totaled 2,155 yards and 16 touchdowns. At his pro day, he proved ultra-athletic with a 132.4 (94th-percentile) Burst Score and 10.99 (92nd-percentile) Agility Score.

Fantasy Outlook:

Chris Evans’ career never lived up to its potential. He’ll look to change that at the NFL level. He’s a good athlete with the size and contact balance to be a productive runner in the league. He possesses the skills to be a reliable contributor on passing downs as well, whether it be as a receiver out of the backfield or in the slot, or in pass protection. With his collegiate career seemingly peaking in 2017, he will need an NFL team to take a chance on his physical toolset.

Given the opportunity to finally put it all together, Evans can wind up as the ultimate diamond in the rough out of the 2021 class.

Best Comparable Player: Damien Harris