Gainwell was a three-star recruit out of Yazoo City, Mississippi and attended Yazoo County High School. He was recruited as a wide receiver and committed to Memphis in the summer of 2017. He had seven offers from FBS programs, with the most prevalent being Tulane and Memphis. Gainwell was a dual-threat QB, rushing for 1,384 yards and scored an impressive 32 touchdowns his senior year. He also had success through the air, as he finished with 3,682 total yards passing and 32 touchdowns in his career. On the ground, he totaled 4,730 yards and 75 touchdowns. Despite his success as a dual-threat QB, his 5'10, 190 pound stature was best suited as a running back for the Memphis Tigers.
Gainwell enrolled at Memphis in the fall of 2018 and decided to redshirt as a freshman four games into the season. 2019 was his first season as a starter, starting all 14 games the Tigers played. As a redshirt freshman, he led all FBS freshman with 2,069 all-purpose yards, ranked 12th nationally in rushing(1,459 yards), and became just the third player in school history to record over 2,000 all-purpose yards(behind only DeAngelo Williams and Darrell Henderson). He led the Tigers to a 12-2 record and an AAC championship that was good enough for an invitation to the Cotton Bowl, where Memphis eventually fell to Penn State. His accolades include the AAC Freshman of the Year, 1st-team All-AAC, 2nd-team All-American by the Sporting News and American Football Coaches Association; and Football Writers Association of America named him National Freshman of the Year. Gainwell follows the lineage of former Tigers' running backs that include DeAngelo Williams, Darrell Henderson, and Tony Pollard as an intriguing NFL prospect in 2021. Unfortunately, Gainwell decided to opt out of the 2020 season due to Coronavirus concerns, as four members of his family contracted the virus and felt it was best for he and his family to skip the 2020 college football season. While not playing this fall, Gainwell is preparing himself to enter the 2021 NFL draft next April.
The first thing that stands out with Gainwell is how he was used at Memphis. He was primarily a running back, but Memphis tried to maximize his receiving skills as much as possible. They were not afraid to line him up their slot wide receiver and run certain routes. Gainwell has natural hands and caught just about everything thrown his way. As I mentioned before, he was recruited as a WR in high school, so this is no surprise. The other thing that pops on tape is his open field ability, shiftiness, and elusiveness. When it is one-on-one with the safety, he can make the defender miss and pick up chunk yards. Gainwell has the kind of wiggle that makes NFL talent evaluators salivate because they know that they can find a role for him on game day and contribute early as a rookie. Gainwell possesses that level of skill/talent that makes him one of the top RB prospects in this class.
Overall Grade and Film Breakdown
(Note: all scores/ratings are based on personal opinion)
Gainwell was used as a hybrid RB/WR for the Tigers. He can split out wide as a receiver and run certain routes. At times, he'd act as the wildcat runner in the backfield, or he could carry the load as the workhorse RB. Gainwell's 2,069 yards from scrimmage ranked 4th in the Nation. That production doesn't happen by accident. He has intriguing open-field ability; and one of his best strengths is his wiggle/elusiveness to make the defender miss one-on-one. He was able to create extra yards with his slipperiness to slip out of tackles. He also is not afraid of contact, sometimes spinning out of a defender's hit and falling forward. Lastly, it was clear on tape that Gainwell is a willing pass-blocker, too. That desire will serve him well at the next level.
Gainwell is a little smaller in stature for a running back at only 5'9, 190. Still, this is not something that will hold him back. He does not possess elite, game-breaking speed and he lacks the explosiveness/burst a la Travis Etienne. He will also need to sharpen up his footwork, as some of his cuts were rounded off before accelerating through the hole. But he understands allowing the play to develop and that it really shows in his vision/patience to look for possible cutback lanes when his first read is not there.
Speed: Gainwell received an 89 speed score. He doesn't possess the elite, game-breaking speed such as Hubbard or Etienne, but he is quick and shifty and can make defenders miss. Here you see him show off speed on a wheel route out of the backfield and win a foot race to the end zone for a touchdown.
Elusiveness: I gave Gainwell a 90 elusiveness score. This is one of his best strengths and one of the reasons why I think he can be successful at the next level. This is a skill you can't teach. You either have it or you don't. Gainwell has the kind of wiggle that stands out on tape and it shows.
In this clip here, you see a great example of his wiggle/elusiveness. This is defended pretty well by Penn State, but Gainwell gets a one-on-one matchup with the safety and it's no contest. Gainwell is too quick for the defender to square up and make a tackle, able to avoid him and gain an extra twenty yards for a long gain.
Patience/Vision: Gainwell garnered a 92 vision score. He consistently showed the ability to be patient and allow the play to develop.
This clip against Tulane pinpoints his vision and patience allowing his blockers to set up a running lane for a long gain. Watch how Gainwell keeps his feet under control, using short, choppy steps to set up his cutback and hit this hole. It's a good example of Gainwell playing with instincts rather than out there guessing and playing timid.
Catching: Gainwell received a 97 catching grade. This is his best skill set. He's natural pass catcher, having been recruited as a wide receiver in high school. Each game I watched, I did not see him drop one pass. He's a reliable pass catcher that can be trusted by his QB.
These two clips show his ability as a receiver and the multiple ways you can use him. As I mentioned, his skill set is intriguing because of his ability to line up as a WR or feed him the ball. The first clip you see Gainwell go in motion and is aligned one-on-one with the defender to no contest. The thing to notice is his adjustment to the football, as it is thrown on his back shoulder along the sideline. Similar to the first clip, the second clip shows another back-shoulder throw that he adjusts to, catches off-balance, spins, and breaks a tackle on his way to a long gain. You can't teach that kind of skill
It would've been exciting to see Gainwell expand upon his successful 2019 season this year. Unfortunately, with the circumstances being what they are, we were unable to see what Gainwell could do in 2020. However, it will be exciting to watch him play at the next level in 2021. The downside to that though, is that Gainwell will not have taken a live hit in a game in almost two years; and you have to wonder how he will adapt to the NFL game. Despite that uncertainty, Gainwell showed enough on tape in 2019 that he should garner an invite to the NFL combine in 2021, which will only help improve his draft stock and show NFL personnel people what he can do.
In regards to his fantasy outlook, I think Gainwell projects as a solid RB2 with the upside of a low-end RB1. He's probably the best receiving back amongst this class and could even be used as a hybrid RB/WR if he ends up in the right situation. Still, I think his future is as a running back, as he can put on some extra weight and play around 200+ pounds and not lose his elusiveness. What he lacks in breakaway speed, he makes up for in make-you-miss ability. If he falls to an ambiguous RB situation, he will have a legitimate shot to open the 2021 season next September as an immediate contributor. If he is drafted to a team with an established starter, he would be one injury away from being an every-week starter. However, due to his elite receiving skills, he can still carve out a role as the pass-catching back and be a fantasy starter - the way James White was used in New England with Tom Brady under center.
Gainwell is positioned as my rookie RB3 overall, firmly behind Travis Etienne and Najee Harris. With the level of talent at WR this year, he probably falls into the top 5-8 range of non-superflex drafts and a middle-to-late round pick in superflex drafts; which would be a value and one you should not pass on. Gainwell projects as an upside RB2 and a trusted contributor to your dynasty roster.