2023 NFL Draft: Strong RB Class Could Reshape Future of the Position

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2023 NFL Draft: Strong RB Class Could Reshape Future of the Position
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2023 nfl Draft: Strong RB Class Could Reshape Future of the Position

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    AP Photo/Stephen Spillman

    The nfl may be a passing league, but coaches still believe the run game is crucial, particularly late in a contest to close out a victory. The running back position is devalued in general, but even so, talented ball-carriers are still important to execute at a high level.

    “I think there’s a physicality to it,” Tennessee Titans head coach Mike Vrabel said, per The Athletic’s Zak Keefer. “I think it’s important to play good defense, [and] I think it’s important—you have to be able to run the ball.

    “When you look at [nfl trends] over 20 years, they’re telling you to be able to take care of the football, to run the football and stop the run and [be] able to efficiently throw the football. All of those things are heavy predictors of success.”

    A changing of the guard is looming, as some of the league’s best runners are nearing the point when the wear-and-tear of a professional career takes effect.

    The Dallas Cowboys’ Ezekiel Elliott, New Orleans Saints’ Alvin Kamara, Carolina Panthers’ Christian McCaffrey, Minnesota Vikings’ Dalvin Cook and Tennessee Titans’ Derrick Henry are currently the game’s highest-paid backs in total contractual value.

    All five will be 27 or older next season. Henry, who’s often considered the game’s best runner, will be 29 in January. Injuries have taken a toll on all of them.

    Elliot isn’t the same explosive back he once was. Kamara is currently dealing with injured ribs. McCaffrey hasn’t played a full season since 2019. Cook is playing through a bad shoulder. Henry missed over half of the 2021 regular season due to a Jones fracture.

    Furthermore, other tops backs—Los Angeles Chargers’ Austin Ekeler, Green Bay Packers’ Aaron Jones, Atlanta Falcons’ Cordarrelle Patterson, Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Leonard Fournette and Cincinnati Bengals’ Joe Mixon—will also be 27 or older going into next season. The cliff at 30 years of age comes quickly.

    High-end draft picks in running backs tend to be frowned upon, though next year’s class has the makings of a special group. Organizations can transition away from their highly paid, aging stars and bring in a younger alternative with a little more juice at the onset of their careers. It’s smart business to invest early, maximize value and complete an offense.

    The following eight collegiate bell cows are showing they are the nation’s best backs and crammed with nfl potential.

Bijan Robinson, Texas

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    After three running backs went in the first round of the 2018 class, four running backs even heard their names called in the first round during the subsequent four drafts. None of them came off the board higher than the 24th overall pick.

    Texas’ Bijan Robinson has a good chance to be the highest drafted running back since the Giants took Barkley second overall in 2018. A complete back deserves such consideration.

    Sometimes, the best quotes come from the opposition, especially when a player is facing a Nick Saban-led squad. The greatest coach in college football history sees something special in the first-team All-Big 12 performer.

    “He can do everything,” Saban told reporters. “He’s got speed. He’s got power. He’s a very instinctive runner. Sets up his blockers well. Has a burst. Has got great hands. Good receiver. They use him a lot in the passing game. This guy is as good of an all-around back as there probably is in the country. Or he’s certainly one of the best of all the guys in the country.”

    Saban has certainly seen quite a few good backs in his time, especially on his own team with the likes of Trent Richardson, Mark Ingram II and Derrick Henry. Robinson is different than those mentioned, though.

    The Longhorn is an explosive, slashing runner. The 6’0″, 222-pound ball-carrier has the speed to hit big runs off tackle and the power to run between them. According to Pro Football Focus, he led all runners with 34 missed tackles forced going into this past weekend’s action.

    Robinson is also very capable in the passing game. He shows soft hands out of the backfield and the ability to adjust on the ball as a receiver. Robinson has 679 receiving yards and seven touchdowns to go along with his 2,345 yards and 23 scores on the ground through 24 career games.

    An average of 126 yards from scrimmage since stepping onto a collegiate field is impressive enough. It’s even more so when every opponent knows it has to stop him, while the rest of the team has been, frankly, mediocre.

Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama

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    AP Photo/Vasha Hunt

    Jahmyr Gibbs experienced his coming-out party this past weekend when the Alabama running back lit up the Arkansas Razorbacks for 206 rushing yards.

    “He does a great job of pressing the hole,” Alabama head coach Nick Saban told reporters after the contest. “He gets the defense to commit, gets the linebacker to commit, makes a quick cut and hits the hole. He’s really good at that.”

    But Gibbs’ value isn’t necessarily derived from his running ability.

    nfl lead backs need to be competent in all three phases of an offense. They must be effective runners, capable receivers and block when called upon. Each back varies in how good they are in these areas.

    For example, Derrick Henry is more of a traditional workhorse back who isn’t on the field all the time for third downs. Meanwhile, Christian McCaffrey or Alvin Kamara are viewed as offensive weapons who may be even more effective in the passing game.

    Gibbs has a bit of the latter in him, which could ultimately make him the RB2 in this year’s position class.

    “… Dalvin Cook and Alvin Kamara are common comparisons I’ve heard from scouts,” ESPN’s Matt Miller said about Gibbs.

    The Georgia Tech transfer has 78 receptions in 24 career games. He posted 90-plus receiving grades in each of the last two seasons, per Pro Football Focus.

    Gibbs easily slides out of the backfield, effortlessly snags passes and glides through the open field. The back went three straight games with receiving touchdowns this season before he exploded with a huge rushing output this past weekend.

    To Saban’s earlier point, Gibbs has some shake in the hole and burst to create chunk plays once he gets to the second level. He ripped off a pair of 70-plus-yard runs against the Razorbacks.

    “As soon as Jahmyr hits the second level, I just know he gone,” outside linebacker Dallas Turners said. “As soon as he gets that little crease, all that little space he needs, I just know he’s going to hit the hole as hard as he can, and he’s going to take it all the way just like he does.”

Sean Tucker, Syracuse

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    Natural running ability often jumps off the screen. A person knows it when they see it. A truly gifted runner shows excellent vision, patience, footwork, contact balance and burst to and through the hole.

    College might not have a better natural runner than Syracuse’s Sean Tucker. The All-American is particularly adept at setting up blocks in the Orange’s zone scheme. During his second season with the program, Tucker broke Syracuse’s single-season output with 1,496 rushing yards.

    Think about that number for a second. Syracuse may not be a powerhouse program, but the likes of Jim Brown, Ernie Davis, Larry Csonka, Floyd Little and Joe Morris all donned the orange and blue.

    Yet Tucker is arguably the most productive runner the team has ever fielded. He entered this season with more carries (44) of 10 or more yards than any other returning ball-carrier, per Pro Football Focus.

    Tucker is coming off the best game of his collegiate career with 232 yards against the Wagner Seahawks. In fact, the ACC’s top rusher eclipsed 200 yards before the two teams reached halftime.

    Wagner is an FCS program, so the number might not be as impressive to some. Nonetheless, it shows how talented Tucker is. He could and should dominate against inferior competition.

    “The thing is, Sean is so humble. I just love him to death,” head coach Dino Babers told reporters after the 59-0 victory. “Whenever he runs, I get excited. I like it that when he gets out in the open, no one catches him. That’s really comforting and reassuring. I think more than that, he’s just one of those guys everyone roots for.”

    At the same time, Tucker has averaged 112 rushing yards per game against ACC competition since the start of the 2021 campaign.

    Babers alluded to an interesting aspect of Tucker’s skill set. What is his top gear?

    Tucker isn’t going to be the biggest or most physical back and tends to run away from defenders at the collegiate level. Is he more of a David Montgomery or Michael Carter—great runners who didn’t show an elite top speed during the pre-draft process?

    The collegiate standout did sprint for his high school track team and won two indoor titles in the 55-meter dash, which may quash any questions about his overall burst.

Devon Achane, Texas A&M

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    Last season, Isaiah Spiller led the Texas A&M Aggies with over 1,000 yards rushing before becoming a fourth-round draft pick by the Los Angeles Chargers. He wasn’t even the best running back on the Aggies roster.

    That honor went to Devon Achane, who has moved into a featured role this season. Despite Spiller getting a bigger workload last year, Achane still managed 910 rushing yards.

    The underclassman also led the team with nine rushing touchdowns. In fact, Achane led all FBS backs with 105 or more carries last season by averaging 7.0 yards per attempt.

    The 5’9″, 185-pound junior could turn out to be the fastest player in the entire class.

    Achane also competes on Texas A&M’s track team. At one point during his prep career, the speedster posted the season’s fastest outdoor 200-meter run (20.46 seconds) in the nation. He also helped win state championships in the 4×100-meter and 4×200-meter relays.

    At the collegiate level, Achane already posted top-10 program performances in the indoor 60-meter dash (6.63), outdoor 200-meter dash (20.20) and outdoor 100-meter dash (10.14). He’s been named a first-team All-American in the 4×100-meter relay and second-team in 100-meter and 200-meter events.

    The speed translates onto the football field, and he’s definitely not a straight-line runner like some track athletes.

    Instead, Achane shows magnificently quick feet with outstanding balance. The back doesn’t need to decelerate through his cuts. He makes his moves at 100 mph and explodes past defenders.

    Obviously, Achane’s slight frame will be a concern at the professional level. He’s held up well so far as the team’s lead back. His 81 carries for 466 yards are the most on the Aggies. No other back has more than nine totes for 39 yards through Texas A&M’s first five games.

    Achane is getting stronger, too. His two best efforts came in the last two weeks against SEC competition. Scouts will almost certainly keep an eye on how he holds up against the likes of Alabama, Ole Miss, Florida, Auburn and LSU.

Blake Corum, Michigan

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    Blake Corum waited his turn. The running back is now showing out as the focal point of the Michigan Wolverines’ offense.

    As a true freshman, the Wolverines’ coaching staff had Hassan Haskins and Zach Charbonnet as a complementary tandem. Corum’s 26 carries finished second on the team, but he averaged a meager 3.0 yards per carry.

    Last season, Haskins proved to be the more reliable option, with 1,327 yards and 20 touchdowns, but Corum stated to come on with 952 yards.

    This year, the junior doesn’t have any competition in the same backfield. Corum’s 93 carries are 70 more than anyone else on the roster.

    The 5’8″, 210-pound runner is suited for a featured role. His head coach, Jim Harbaugh, fawns over the back’s subtle movement to avoid contact.

    “Blake can get so close to a defender, within inches, and then make a slight move where somebody that close doesn’t even touch him,” Harbaugh told reporters last week.

    “Some backs will make the cut two yards away, or a yard away…Blake Corum gets to the point where he can smell their breath and then make a slight, six-inch cut and miss by the narrowest of margins. It’s incredible.”

    The trait is also vital at the nfl level. The ability to see holes before they open is essential because they close quickly. A back must be able to slip through much smaller spaces when so many are used to gaping holes at the collegiate level.

    In Corum’s case, he takes those little openings and turns them into chunk plays. According to Pro Football Focus, his eight rushes of 20 or more yards led major college football entering this past weekend.

    He then ran the ball 29 times for 133 yards Saturday in Michigan’s win over the Iowa Hawkeyes. His 10 rushing touchdowns currently top everyone.

    A problem could manifest in Corum’s lack of usage in the passing game. Last season, the back caught 24 balls, yet he’s been barely used in the same regard this year. His four receptions are the fewest among this year’s top-five leading rushers.

Khalan Laborn, Marshall

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    It’s often said that it doesn’t matter how many stars a recruit is once they get onto the field because everyone must prove themselves. Yet scouts never forget when they see a premium talent who doesn’t live up to expectations at first.

    Case in point, Khalan Laborn originally committed to the Florida State Seminoles as a 5-star recruit and the nation’s best running back, per 247Sports Composite Ranking.

    After a redshirt season and two largely forgettable campaigns, the Seminoles coaching staff dismissed him for an unspecified violation of team rules.

    Scouts must dig deep into Laborn’s medical and off-field history since the running back suffered a dislocated kneecap in 2018 and served two previous team suspensions before being dismissed.

    At Marshall, Laborn is now the nation’s second-leading rusher, just two yards behind Illinois’ Chase Brown. Laborn took advantage when an opportunity presented itself to be the Thundering Herd’s primary ball-carrier.

    Last season, Rasheen Ali tied for the nation’s most rushing touchdowns at 23. Ali took an indefinite leave of absence from the program in August, though.

    Laborn had to endure what life is like away from football. He went to junior college, drove for Uber and worked in a lumber yard. He wasn’t going to let what could have been his last opportunity slip.

    “The Good Lord gives you opportunities if you keep working hard,” Marshall head coach Charles Huff said. “… I’m so happy for him.”

    Talent can be an obvious thing to see. Laborn is a 5’11”, 212-pound downhill runner with some shimmy in the hole and the ability to leave defenders in the dust with his cutting ability.

    He posted at least 102 rushing yards in every game this season, including 163 yards against the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

    Other prospects around the country may be more recognizable, post slightly better numbers and come from bigger programs. Laborn can be as good as any of them, and few have faced and overcame the same adversity throughout their careers.

DeWayne McBride, UAB

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    DeWayne McBride wasn’t a heralded recruit and didn’t land at a pipeline program only to eventually transfer elsewhere, but he’s made scouts notice him through his play.

    The junior has improved every year at UAB, and the Blazers’ coaching staff obliged by giving their back a bigger workload with each passing season.

    As a true freshman, McBride carried the ball 47 for 439 yards and a whopping 9.3 yards per carry. During his sophomore campaign, the 5’11”, 215-pound ball-carrier officially broke out with 1,371 yards and 13 touchdowns.

    McBride led all returning Group of Five running backs in overall grade and average yards per carry, according to Pro football Focus.

    In four games this season, UAB’s feature back has carried the ball 75 times for 521 yards and six touchdowns. The underclassman understands he can be even better, though.

    “Just got to attack the day every day, trying to get better. Even when I do great, see what I did wrong and how I can get better,” McBride told Pro football Network’s Oliver Hodgkinson. “My biggest problem is, when I bounce outside the tackles, I get too into running and get loose with the ball. I can also work on attacking the safety more.”

    A Nov. 19 meeting with the LSU Tigers should serve as an excellent litmus for McBride as he continues to improve and evolve as one of the nation’s best backs.

    McBride displays top-notch contact balance and power to break through arm tackles and even run over some defenders. His impressive accomplishments in the weight room transfer to the field.

    “The 215-pound back has the highest power output on the team, according to UAB head strength coach Lyle Henley,” The Athletic’s Bruce Feldman wrote. “McBride … led the nation with an average of 4.72 yards after contact, cleans 345 pounds and bench-presses 385 and has squatted 550. In addition, he ran the 40 in the low 4.5s.”

    McBride will have a decision whether to return for his senior campaign after this season, but another year of elite production should make his choice rather easy.

Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State

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    Once upon a time, a diminutive running back from Kansas State had an entire room full of nfl scouts laughing when he wasn’t tall enough to register during height measurements on a Senior Bowl stage. The scouts helping in the matter needed to measure a few inches lower to get an accurate height.

    That same running back dominated at the collegiate level. Then, the 5’6″, 190-pound ball-carrier went on to play 15 nfl seasons as one of the league’s best all-around weapons.

    Current Wildcats running back Deuce Vaughn has quite a bit of Darren Sproles to his game.

    Actually, Vaughn is a tad smaller than Sproles. Kansas State lists its current backfield star at 5’6″ and 176 pounds. However, he takes the field and plays like greased lightning.

    He forced 63 missed tackles during his first two seasons, according to Pro football Focus (h/t Bleacher Report’s Connor Rogers). He doesn’t go down nearly as easily as his size indicates.

    “Then there is Deuce. He is just stupid. He’s insane,” Kansas State offensive lineman Cooper Beebe told the Wichita Eagle‘s Kellis Robinett in the most complimentary way possible. “He makes people miss left and right. He’s just a valuable weapon.”

    In 28 games with the Wildcats program, the two-time All-Big 12 performer and consensus All-American produced 3,646 yards from scrimmage and 34 touchdowns. He has a little bit of experience as a returner, too. Vaughn returned some kicks as a freshman.

    But what scouts will truly love is how he can contribute to so many areas.

    Vaughn is a slippery runner and a natural receiver out of the backfield. He’ll put everything he has into blocking when asked to. He’ll be forced to play on special teams.

    If he does so at a high level, there’s no reason to believe he can’t have a long and productive professional career, much like his undersized predecessor.

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