For the first time in what seems like years, we have a running back class without a “best prospect since Adrian Peterson”. Even without that, it would be hard for this group to live up to the last two classes of backs we’ve seen enter the league. Unfortunately for running backs, slowly but surely analytics have become more ingrained in the decision making process. All signs there indicate that having a dominant or transcendent back doesn’t necessarily lead to team success.
We might not see a running back go in round one this year, but that doesn’t mean this group can’t play. There are numerous backs in this class that should be able to contribute immediately, and also take on bigger roles in the future.
1. Josh Jacobs, Alabama: Playing in a deep backfield, Jacobs saw just over 200 rushing attempts in his college career but he certainly made the most of them. While his violent running style is apparent, Jacobs is a patient and decisive runner that rarely goes down on first contact. When called upon, Jacobs has also shown flashes as a receiver. Having played just over 700 snaps for his college career, Jacobs like many young backs could improve in pass protection/blitz pickup. Between his size, traits and limited tread on the tires from college, Jacobs possesses plenty of traits that would indicate he will be an effective feature back at the next level.
2. David Montgomery, Iowa State: Over the past two years, no back in college football made defenders miss more than Montgomery. A patient runner, Montgomery has the build that suggests he should be able to handle 20 plus touches a game. While he wasn’t a huge big play threat, Montgomery’s skills that you can’t teach such as vision and balance constantly led to him creating extra yards. The Iowa State product also showed some ability as a receiver, and experience in pass blocking as well.
Lack of timed speed could lead to concerns about Montgomery as defenders will only be faster at the next level. We’ve seen backs who don’t run the 40 particularly well make an impact at the next level, and considering Montgomery checked in just over 220 pounds it’s not the issue it would be for a smaller back. There is enough there to suggest Montgomery could be a great value in the second round as a reliable back who can play an every down role.
3. Darrell Henderson, Memphis: This past season, Henderson was a big play waiting to happen with over 27 runs of 20-plus yards in 2018 alone. While his big play ability was most notable, he’s a more physical runner than given credit for and in space is difficult to bring down. The Memphis product doesn’t have the 4.2 speed you might expect, but he accelerates and gets to his top speed quickly. Henderson was reliable in the passing game this year as well, hauling in all 23 of his targets and even saw some snaps lining up in the slot.
Memphis deployed a trio of running backs this past season, so it is unknown if Henderson could handle a 300 plus touch workload. Not having to run against heavy boxes could also lead some to over think how the big play ability will translate to the pros. On certain instances, he would also play a little too fast and not wait for holes to develop. At the least, Henderson has the talent to be valuable multi dimensional back in a role where he splits carries.
4. Bryce Love, Stanford: Love’s 2018 season was ended with a torn ACL, but before that he dealt with lingering injury that limited his production. Looking back at his fully healthy 2017 you see a back that looked Jamaal Charles-esque. Love showed top-end speed, to go along with an ability to run between the tackles to go with elusiveness. On top of that, he isn’t afraid to fight for extra yardage and has the potential to be a nice weapon in the passing game.
If guaranteed that version of Love would return, he’d be my top back in the class. Unfortunately, that’s not a certainty and the ACL tear could make him a PUP list stash for the team that drafts him. Love seemed to be more productive within a zone blocking scheme, so going to a system that plays to his strengths would be beneficial. The potential is there for high end production as a lead back or in a timeshare. It’s just up for a team to figure out what point in the draft would taking the chance be worth it.
5. Devin Singletary, Florida Atlantic: Singletary spent just three seasons at FAU, but leaves as the most decorated player in the young program’s history. While his combine measurables would indicate he’s undersized and ran poorly, Singletary’s game isn’t dependent on speed. The man known as “Motor” is a slippery runner who can accelerate and change directions quickly. While his yards and yards per carry dropped in 2018, part of that can be credited to numerous changes on the offensive line and at offensive coordinator. Even checking in at 5’7″ 203, Singletary proved to be durable despite the big workload.
Despite a profile that has the makings of a dangerous pass catching threat, Singletary wasn’t really used in that capacity in college. Drops were an issue when given those chances, so how he adjusts at the next level will be crucial to his development. Without being a true breakaway threat, there could be questions surrounding Singletary’s adjustment from Conference USA to the NFL. Focusing on the positive, the pieces are in place for him to carve out an impact role within a pro offense. The potential is there for more, and Singletary could be one of the better values in this class if he falls to day three.
6. Miles Sanders, Penn State: Given the tough task of being the guy after Saquon Barkley, Sanders filled in admirably this past season. As a result, he leaves Penn State without a lot of tread on his tires and has plenty of desirable traits in his own right. Sanders appears to be a quick decision maker when he hits the hole, and has a nice balance of elusiveness and power in his running. Despite PFF crediting him for dropping two passes this year, he does show some passing game ability as well.
The biggest issue for Sanders would be ball security. In his only season with an expanded role, he had five fumbles which if it carries over would certainly impact his playing time. Despite some impressive athletic measurables, Sanders wasn’t incredibly explosive ripping off chunk plays. Considering the limited playing time, there could be some untapped upside with Sanders that would make him an intriguing day two target.
7. Damien Harris, Alabama: In a crowded Alabama backfield, Harris led the way in terms of touches this past season. It’s easy to see why as he’s dependable, can play all three downs and holds onto the football. He’s a patient runner, and is willing to get physical but doesn’t have a ton of burst or ability to make a defender miss. Harris’ style bodes well for running between the tackles which works in a time where many teams utilize multiple backs. He also demonstrated an ability to contribute in the passing game. With limited wear and tear, Harris is a player that should contribute early on and depending on the situation could see himself become the starter sooner rather than later.
8. Devine Ozigbo, Nebraska: Ozigbo didn’t receive an invite to the combine, but had a noteworthy senior season playing within Scott Frost’s zone blocking scheme. He showed patience as a runner with good balance in traffic which helped him per PFF produce a personal best 4.5 yards after contact per attempt. Ozigbo as a runner also demonstrated some power along with lateral quickness. Despite not being extremely explosive or having the softest hands, Ozibgo showed he can contribute in the passing game. With limited tread on his tires (only one year with 150+ carries), the framework is there to be a nice value for a team that emphasizes a zone blocking scheme.
9. Rodney Anderson, Oklahoma: When playing for the Sooners, Anderson demonstrated a skillset with plenty to like. Despite being a bigger back, he can cut without losing speed, runs with patience and has pass catching ability. The problem is Anderson wasn’t on the field a whole lot while at Oklahoma. Anderson had a broken leg end his 2015, broke his vertebra in the spring of 2016 and played just 35 snaps in 2018 before his season ended with a knee injury.
Due to those circumstances, we will almost certainly never see a “fully healthy” version of Anderson on an NFL field. Even before the injuries, Anderson wasn’t extremely explosive and there’s no telling if he’ll be ready for training camp. Yet, there was enough to like from his 2017 season that could make him worth a flier at some point on day three.
10. Benny Snell, Kentucky: Snell isn’t flashy, but there’s something to be said for how productive he was throughout his college career. Kentucky’s all time leading rusher, Snell’s a compact back that can run between the tackles and does a nice job picking up yards after contact. Part of that can be attributed to his balance as there were instances where arm tackles didn’t faze him. He also showed some ability as a pass catching option, but more so for check downs.
Snell isn’t much of a breakaway threat, and questions surround how much burst he has in terms of getting to the second level of defenses. Per PFF, this past year was his best in pass protection so continued improvement there could make up for other deficiencies. A verbal and emotional leader at Kentucky, Snell can handle an every down role, but it might take time before he gets that opportunity.
2019 class grade: C+