Second of an 11-part series. Coming Friday: wide receiver.
All the analytics and experts told Travis Etienne to make one decision.
His heart and mind said to go in a different direction.
Etienne returned for his senior season at Clemson rather than battling Clyde Edwards-Helaire, Jonathan Taylor and D’Andre Swift to become the first running back selected in the 2020 NFL Draft. One year later, did he make the right call?
“I still feel that way. I feel that way even more,” Etienne said. “I wanted to be a great role model to my little brother and the kids back in Louisiana. Not everyone has a shot at being in the NFL. I wanted to be a token to those kids who won’t have that shot. I still want them to go out, strive, get a college degree, graduate — because their careers are going to last them a lifetime.”
It’s a wise-beyond-his-years answer. The football cynic, however, might look at it this way: As Taylor (Colts) rushed for 1,169 yards, as Swift (Lions) scored 10 touchdowns, as Edwards-Helaire (Chiefs) played in the Super Bowl — and all signed for at least $4.2 million guaranteed — Etienne risked injury and added another 216 unpaid touches to his personal odometer.
New-age NFL logic dictates a running back only can withstand so many hits before his body breaks down. High draft picks like Saquon Barkley are hyper-scrutinized and large contract extensions like the one given to Todd Gurley often fail. Certain teams believe in a backfield-by-committee approach and cycling through options year-to-year to avoid high pitch counts.
“I do not buy into that lie,” Etienne said. “I feel like the best players should be picked where they are. At the end of the day, it is what it is. I can’t focus on that. I just have to go out there and prove myself worthy.”
Etienne, 22, is slotted in the late first- or early second-round of mock drafts, usually behind Alabama’s Najee Harris. Five running backs were taken between picks No. 31 and No. 62 last year. ESPN analysts Todd McShay and Mel Kiper Jr. both peg Etienne to the Jets, though they differ whether it will be at pick No. 23 or No. 34 overall.
“If he does go at that point, you are looking at a guy who moving forward has a great opportunity to build along with [projected Jets quarterback] Zach Wilson,” Kiper said.
“With his ability to catch the ball down the field … he’s explosive and he has versatility. At the end of the day, he probably goes higher this year: [Clemson] lost four starters on that offensive line and weren’t as dominant nearly as they were the previous year. That impacted Etienne.”
After running the 40-yard dash in 4.41 seconds at Clemson’s Pro Day, Etienne sometimes is compared to former second-round picks turned stars Alvin Kamara (Saints) and Dalvin Cook (Vikings). He says he became a more complete back and a better vocal leader by returning to Clemson.
“I feel like both of those guys are very dynamic,” Etienne said. “They’re able to change the game running the ball and catching the ball. Yes, it’s fair to compare me to those guys.”
Etienne set ACC career records for rushing yards (4,952), total touchdowns (78), rushing touchdowns (70) and points scored (468). He scored at least one touchdown in 46 of 55 career games, breaking the FBS record. If the production wasn’t convincing enough, he bulked up his 5-foot-10 frame to 215 pounds.
“It was a big deal, a big priority,” Etienne said. “[Weighing] 199 in the league, at the running back position, you really won’t be able to play that for long. I wanted to get my body right, but get it the right way.”
Clemson fell short of winning the national title last season, but quarterback Trevor Lawrence is expected to be the No. 1-overall pick by the Jaguars. A college teammate reunion makes sense if Jacksonville uses pick No. 25 on Etienne.
“I’m one of the best skill guys in the draft,” Etienne said. “I’m able to do it all. I feel like [I can take] teams to the next tier. I possess a lot of things that are God-given that a lot of guys don’t possess. Being able to impact the team on three downs is different and makes me worthy of the first round.”
No matter how the draft and his NFL career play out, Etienne earned a degree in sports communication.
“Football will be over in a couple of years,” Etienne said. “I’ll still be young.”