2021 NFL Draft Rookie Profile: Kenneth Gainwell (Fantasy Football)
We all know the narrative regarding Antonio Gibson, a former WR who only had 33 carries in his college career. He would go on to have one of the most productive rookie RB seasons in recent history for the Washington Football Team. So why did Gibson only receive 71 total touches in his final year as a Memphis Tiger, considering how talented he proved to be at the next level? That’s because his former teammate Kenneth Gainwell took over that backfield in 2019, and never looked back. He had a tremendous breakout season for the Tigers, compiling well over 2000 scrimmage yards as a redshirt Freshman. Profiling as one of the most elusive dual-threat RBs in this class, Gainwell has the potential to be a PPR machine in fantasy for the next several years.
Let’s dive into Gainwell’s production, athletic profile, and film to assess his strengths and weaknesses heading into the NFL draft.
Editors Note: This article is part of our Rookie Profile series going on until the 2021 NFL Draft. For more on each rookie, check out Andy, Mike, and Jason’s exclusive rookie rankings and production profiles found only in the Dynasty Pass, part of the brand-new UDK+ for 2021.
College Production Profile
After playing quarterback at Yazoo City High School in Mississippi, Kenneth Gainwell would switch to the running back position heading into his freshman year at Memphis. Despite flashing upside as a rusher in his high school career, Gainwell would have to wait a full season before he would receive the opportunity to lead the Memphis backfield. As a result, he would redshirt his freshman year, compiling only 10 touches, 143 scrimmage yards, and one touchdown.
In 2019, as a redshirt Freshman, Gainwell would absolutely dominate for Memphis. He would lead the AAC in scrimmage yards (2069) and finish 3rd in touchdowns (16), while accounting for 71% of the team’s RB production. In addition, in his performance against Tulane, Gainwell became the first FBS player since Troy Edwards in 1997 to compile 100 rushing yards and 200 receiving yards in a single game. He would finish the season with an impressive 30% adjusted yards market share, proving how vital he was to that Tigers offense. Furthermore, per Rotoviz, Gainwell would conclude his collegiate career with a 51% RB dominator rating and 13% receiving yards share. For comparison, Najee Harris and Javonte Williams, two RBs who are projected to go ahead of him in rookie drafts, finished below Gainwell in both of those career metrics. So while his collegiate career was cut short due to COVID, we saw plenty of upside in 2019 that should have us very excited for his fantasy potential in the NFL.
*Pro Day Measurements
If there is one concern with Kenneth Gainwell’s profile, it would be his athletic measurables. In his last year at Memphis, he measured in at 5’11” and only 191 lbs. That could be a slight concern at the next level, especially if we project him to be a three-down RB. However, keep in mind that Gainwell has had several months to prepare for the NFL draft. Hopefully, he comes in heavier on his pro day on March 19, which would alleviate some of the size concerns that showed up on tape. I would also keep an eye on his 40-yard dash leading up to the draft. His high school number of 4.68 is relatively low for someone his size. That would give him a weight-adjusted speed score of 79.6, which, per PlayerProfiler, ranks him below the 10th percentile among draft-eligible RBs. And while straight-line speed is very different from game-play speed, we would still like to see Gainwell improve on that number heading into the draft.
Pro Day Update: With Kenneth Gainwell improving his weight, strength, and speed heading into the NFL draft, his athletic profile is looking much more favorable. For reference, these measurements would place him in the 80th percentile with a 105.3 weight-adjusted speed score, right on par with D’Andre Swift. Combine that with his outstanding film and production profile, and Kenneth Gainwell should be entrenched as a top 4 RB in this 2021 class.
What’s on Tape
If you followed along with my weekly Dynasty Report, you might already be familiar with my film-evaluation process. In short, I try to watch 4 to 6 games per player, analyzing every snap in each of those games. Let’s dive into Kenneth Gainwell’s tape and analyze how productive he can be for fantasy managers.
Games Viewed: Ole Miss (2019), Tulane (2019), Tulsa (2019), Temple (2019), Penn State (2019)
1. Kenneth Gainwell is extremely elusive in the open field, often creating yards in 1 vs 1 situations.
A trait that I absolutely love to see in RBs is the ability to evade tackles, generating yards beyond what the offensive line has blocked. This trait was extremely evident in Gainwell’s 2019 tape. Oftentimes, he would find himself in one-on-one situations against a DB or LB and, by simply sidestepping or spinning away from contact, would gain additional yards. His ability to process the defense and anticipate their movement was truly remarkable, which often led to big plays for the Memphis Tigers. Couple his elusiveness with his contact balance, and it becomes extremely difficult to tackle Gainwell in the open field.
Below is just one example of Gainwell’s elusiveness. He takes the handoff and slips away from a tackle at the line of scrimmage. As soon as he sees the safety accelerating towards him, he stops on a dime and spins away from the defender. What could have been minimal gain resulted in a 15-yard play.
2. Gainwell is a natural receiver, making him one of the most versatile RBs in this class.
Gainwell’s most intriguing skill set is his receiving prowess, which raises his upside as a fantasy RB. In his short collegiate career, we saw him lineup as a slot and outside receiver frequently for the Memphis Tigers. They would often utilize him in the screen game, allowing him to use his elusiveness to make big plays. His route running is also very proficient for an RB, often creating a mismatch out of the slot against slower linebackers. If we factor in his outstanding ball-tracking skills and reliable hands, I fully expect Gainwell to be heavily involved in the receiving game for his future NFL team.
Below is one of my favorite plays from Gainwell’s tape. Lined up outside, he keeps his eyes on the ball, adjusting and reeling in the back shoulder pass. What impressed me the most is how seamlessly he corralled the reception, evaded a couple of tackles, and accelerated towards the end zone. We also see some of that contact balance that I previously mentioned!
3. Gainwell has great vision and patience as a rusher, often waiting for the blocking to develop before accelerating forward.
One of Gainwell’s more underrated skill sets is his vision and patience as a rusher. He does an excellent job of letting the play develop and taking what the defense gives him. In my opinion, this is extremely important for Gainwell’s success at the next level since he does not have the elite speed to rush past the defensive line untouched. Because of his lack of straight-line speed, Gainwell will often rely on his vision, anticipation, and elusiveness to gain yards as a rusher. At times, it almost resembles Le’Veon Bell‘s running style, where he simply waits behind his blockers before executing a timely move.
What’s Not on Tape
1. While he profiles as a three-down RB because of his receiving ability, Gainwell’s pass blocking needs improvement to excel at the next level.
This is where Gainwell’s lack of size could be a concern in the NFL. With more athletic edge rushers and linebackers in the league, Gainwell might struggle as a blocker with his 191 lb frame. In his college tape, there were a few instances where defensive linemen and edge rushers would push him aside a little too easily to get to his QB. It is important to note, however, that effort was never an issue with Gainwell. He often displayed the willingness to protect his QB and would succeed. However, if he can gain 10 or 15 lbs, Gainwell can be a much more consistent pass blocker, allowing him to become an every-down RB at the next level. Update: Kenneth Gainwell did measure in at 201 lbs on his Pro Day, which does alleviate some of the concerns I had regarding his blocking at the next level.
2. Gainwell’s smaller frame could prevent him from gaining tough yards, especially in short-yardage situations.
While Gainwell is a solid rusher between the tackles, you will not find him knocking over defensive linemen and carrying defenders for those tough yards. In his college film, there were a couple of short-yardage situations where I expected Gainwell to run through a tackle to gain additional yards. Instead, the LB or DB would out-muscle him, preventing Gainwell from breaking the tackle. For now, I do not expect him to be used as a goal-line back unless he adds more pounds to his frame. Especially in the open field, Gainwell is much more dangerous relying on his elusiveness and change-of-pace instead of lowering his shoulder for the added yards.
2021 Fantasy Outlook
Outside of Najee Harris and Travis Etienne, Kenneth Gainwell is one of my favorite RBs heading into the draft simply because of versatile skill set. Since he profiles as both a rusher and a receiver in the NFL, I fully expect Gainwell to be a productive PPR running back for fantasy, assuming he lands in the right situation. As far as draft capital goes, Gainwell will likely be a mid day 2 pick. However, if he does measure and test well in his upcoming pro-day, I would not be surprised if he is drafted in the early 2nd round as one of the top 3 RBs in this class.
In dynasty rookie drafts, with several wide receivers likely going ahead of him, I expect Gainwell to be a late first-round RB. While I have seen him fall as far as the mid 2nd round in a couple of drafts, I expect that ADP to change drastically if receives the high draft capital that some have projected for him. And if he does land in the perfect situation, such as Arizona, Miami, or Pittsburgh, I expect Gainwell to be an immediate contributor for dynasty managers.