2021 NFL Draft: Kenneth Gainwell Player Profile

Kenneth Gainwell NFL Draft Overview

Position: Running Back
Height: 5’-11”
Weight: 190 pounds
School: Memphis

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Kenneth Gainwell 2021 NFL Draft Profile

The league continues to trend towards a running back by committee approach and possessing running backs with receiving skills has never been more valuable. Kenneth Gainwell fits the mold of a modern-day receiving back in the NFL. Gainwell has underwhelming size for the position, but impressive change of directions skills and boasts overwhelming production from his final season as Memphis. 

Born in Mississippi, Gainwell attended Yazoo County High School. A quarterback in high school, Gainwell was a dual-threat weapon. He finished his high school career with 3,682 yards passing and 32 passing touchdowns with an impressive 4,730 rushing yards and 75 rushing touchdowns. Gainwell received offers from Ole Miss and Tulane but committed to Memphis where a change of position to running back awaited him. 

After playing sparingly in four games as a true freshman, Gainwell redshirted the remainder of the season in 2018. The running back prospect broke out in 2019. As the Tigers starting running back, Gainwell earned first-team All-AAC and Rookie of the Year as a redshirt freshman in 2019. He rushed for 1,459 yards at 6.3 yards per attempt. Incredibly productive as a receiver, Gainwell picked up 610 receiving yards on 51 receptions. He totaled 16 touchdowns in 2019 and topped 2,000 scrimmage yards. Gainwell opted out of the 2020 college season due to the Covid-19 pandemic and is entering the NFL as a redshirt sophomore underclassman. 

Strengths

  • One of the best receiving backs in the draft – Good hands;
  • Slasher with excellent change of direction skills – cuts on a dime;
  • Elite agility – Difficult matchup for a linebacker in coverage;
  • Runs harder than his size would suggest;
  • Little wasted motion – Ability to be patient and make late cuts when the hole develops.

Weaknesses

  • Size is still a concern – Very few backs of his size are effective between the tackles;
  • Lack of second-level burst – Relies on quickness generated from initial cuts;
  • Limited runner to the perimeter – Lacks speed to the edge if no cutback lane develops;
  • Potential liability in pass protection; 
  • Opted out for 2020 – Would like to see another year of production;

NFL Comparison: J.D. McKissic

McKissic has developed into a solid receiving back in the league. His size at 190 pounds limits his carries as a runner, but his short-area quickness and good hands make him an option out of the backfield as a receiver. His receiving ability earns more opportunities as a runner in shotgun formation. McKissic caught 80 receptions for the Washington Football Team in 2020 and earned 85 rushing carries. I expect a similar workload balance for Gainwell on the team that drafts him. 

Teams With Need at Position: Atlanta Falcons, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets, Pittsburgh Steelers, Buffalo Bills

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Projection: Third Round

Bottom Line on Kenneth Gainwell

Expect the usual run on running backs on Day 2 as teams position themselves to select the back they value out of this class. Gainwell’s impressive production as a receiver puts him ahead of a lot of prospects who will come off the board in the middle rounds. Gainwell has good enough hands and short-area burst to line up in the slot on occasion. Making him a versatile back in the passing game. 

However, the lack of size to run between the tackles will limit his draft value. Gainwell doesn’t project as a three-down back. That doesn’t necessarily hurt his value overall as teams increasingly prefer a versatile running back room, full of athletes who have a specific role in the offense. However, it does limit the production Gainwell will have in the NFL. Pass protection is also a big question mark for Gainwell. At his size, he will have to be technically sound and learn how to read defensive blitzes quickly to get on the field as a rookie. Receiving backs have to earn their time onto the field by proving themselves as a solid pass protector. 

Gainwell has a lot of value in a pass-heavy offense. He gets open as efficiently as a slot receiver, which speaks to the versatility Gainwell offers. A creative offensive coach will enjoy finding matchups for Gainwell in two-back sets, and with the former Memphis Tiger lined up as a third-down scat back. A full-time move to slot receiver is a possibility for Gainwell. If he stays at running back, how Gainwell develops in pass protection will determine how often he takes the field as a rookie and moving forward. 

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