2021 NFL draft prospects: Memphis RB Kenneth Gainwell

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Eric Edholm
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Eric Edholm's criteria for grading NFL draft prospects. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)
Eric Edholm's criteria for grading NFL draft prospects. (Albert Corona/Yahoo Sports)

Memphis RB Kenneth Gainwell

5-foot-11, 195 pounds

Yahoo Sports draft grade: 5.77 — potential starter

TL;DR scouting report: Highly productive, undersized and inexperienced weapon out of the backfield who can also boost a passing game

Games watched: Ole Miss (2019), South Alabama (2019), Tulane (2019), Penn State (2019)

The skinny: A 3-star Rivals recruit (after playing QB in high school), Gainwell committed to the Tigers initially as a receiver but played the first four games of his freshman season at running back — even rushing for a 72-yard TD vs. Georgia State — before redshirting. (The Tigers featured Patrick Taylor, Darrell Henderson and Tony Pollard in the backfield that year). In 2019, he became Memphis’ leading rusher, even keeping Washington Football Team 2020 third-rounder Antonio Gibson at receiver more often. Gainwell gained 2,069 yards from scrimmage (1,459 rushing, 610 receiving) and scored 16 TDs (13 rushing, three receiving), earning AAC Rookie of the Year honors and named first-team all-conference. He opted out of the 2020 season and declared early for the 2021 draft.

Upside: Outstanding production in small sample size. Big-play machine — registered 23 plays of 20-plus yards in 2019, tied for third in the country that season behind LSU’s Ja’Marr Chase (29) and Oklahoma’s CeeDee Lamb and tied with Kentucky’s Lynn Bowden Jr. Had a gain of at least 25 or more yards in 12 of 14 games that season.

Really nice initial burst, light feet and change-of-direction skill. Has a knack for making the first defender miss. Subtle cuts in tight quarters make him a tricky tackle. Slashing running style to work back against the grain — always looking for a back door to escape from.

Took snaps as “Wildcat” QB (was a run-first QB in high school), lined up in the slot and out wide and was featured in the backfield. Some NFL teams have kicked around the idea of moving him to slot receiver.

Talented pass catcher who grabs the ball in stride and can run a diverse route tree for a back. Surprisingly effective in pass protection — scans the front well and typically finds the leaks he needs to plug. 

Tough and determined. Runs hard and scraps for every extra inch. Handled heavy workload in 2019 — averaged more than 20 touches per game. Plenty of tread left on his tires — only 292 career touches and he preserved his body in 2020. Good ball security, too — zero lost fumbles in his career (did put two balls on the ground that Memphis recovered).

Ate up a solid Tulane defense in 2019 on 18 rushes, 104 yards, TD; nine catches, 203, two scores — becoming the first player since 1997 to surpass 100 yards rushing yards and 200 receiving in a game.

Dec 28, 2019; Arlington, Texas, USA;  Memphis Tigers running back Kenneth Gainwell (19) runs the ball against Penn State Nittany Lions linebacker Cam Brown (6) in the first quarter at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports
Kenneth Gainwell is a tough, determined runner, but lacks experience having started for just one season at Memphis. (Photo by Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports)

Downside: Inexperienced. Gainwell has only 723 college snaps in 18 games. One-year starter — it will be close to 20 months since his last game when he next takes the field. Effectiveness waned down the stretch in 2019. Might never be a volume back in the NFL. Hardly used on special teams — unclear if he even has return potential.

Good but hardly game-breaking long speed — won’t outrun DBs. Lean frame that might not have much more room for added body armor. Played with admirable fearlessness but might need to better protect himself to ensure a longer career. Like Tarik Cohen early in his NFL career, Gainwell must avoid contact better. Has a slot receiver’s build.

Pacing as a runner could be better — sometimes presses the hole too fast or doesn’t wait for blocks to develop. Not overly creative in open spaces.

Typically displayed good, reliable hands but also guilty of a few ugly drops in 2019. Effective at chip blocking and unafraid of contact but could do a better job squaring up — NFL defenders will adjust to his high shoulders.

Best-suited destination: Gainwell would be ideal in a zone-blocking system as a runner and used heavily as a receiver. It’s not that he can’t run inside, but for self-preservation purposes, giving him a measured workload and not asking him to ram it inside 10-12 times a game feels like the best plan. He also could work out of the slot and be effective on trick plays. A team such as the New York Jets or New England Patriots that need to generate yards any way they can would do well by considering Gainwell.

Did you know: One of Gainwell’s brothers, Kory, joined the Tigers football team prior to the 2020 season. Another brother, Curtis Jr., suffered a stroke while weightlifting as he tried to be a walk-on at Southern Mississippi. The stroke has led to multiple brain surgeries and ended Curtis’ football career.

Player comp: Similar prospect to 2019 seventh-rounder Myles Gaskin but with more upside as a receiver.

Expected draft range: Top-100 pick