We have reached that time of the year where I reveal my top ten prospects in the draft at every single position and as always, we start with the running backs.
This group of backs to me has one true headliner and two other guys, who I would consider in that late first/early second round range. After that there is a bit of a drop-off and I see a lot of variations of the rankings out there. The next five players are worth a day two selection for me, but I see a lot of value in the later rounds with some small-school prospects I really like. So if that top trio is off the board after the top 50 picks or so, it really depends on if there is a guy you really like beyond that and if not, I would wait some time and see if I can address the position later.
With that being said, here is my list:
1. D’Andre Swift, Georgia
This former five-star recruit from Pennsylvania decided to join the best backfield in the country down in Athens. Backing up the dynamic duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, averaging 7.9 yards per touch on right around 100 attempts as a freshman, Swift was asked to replace the enormous production of the two, once they entered the NFL Draft. As the new number one back on the depth chart, he pretty much doubled his touches and yardage, as well as scoring 13 touchdowns as a sophomore. Last season he slightly improved on his rushing total and helped the Bulldogs reach the SEC Championship game for the third straight year. While Georgia’s coaches believe in splitting carries and Swift never quite put up huge numbers, SEC coaches voted his first-team all-conference for his efforts in 2019.
Swift has been one of the most elusive skill position players in all of college football over these last two plus years. He is tough to even put a hand on, as he slices through the defense and he has a way of slipping out of the grasp of defenders. Swift makes defenders stop their feet with hesitation moves in the open field and he consistently wins that one-on-one matchup with the unblocked defender, as he side-steps tacklers and leaves them reaching for air on several occasions. However, I have also seen him leaped over a Notre Dame DB untouched when he got a good six feet into the air. While the ability to make defenders miss in a phone-booth because of how sudden he is with his jukes and spins is special, if someone is in his way, he can blast through that guy’s chest as well and when he does get caught, he stretches forward almost every time.
With the way he can convert his speed from lateral to vertical movement in one step, Swift is perfectly suited for a zone scheme, but he definitely run power as well, because he does not panic when chaos is around him, either sorting through or stepping around it. He can change his footwork and the length of his strides on the fly, as he tries to open a crease, and he has very loose hips to set those sharp cuts upfield when defenders are leveraged to the outside. He does an outstanding job with head-fakes and using change-ups to keep defenders guessing and set up moves. At the same time he possesses the quick acceleration to beat angles when he decides to bounce outside and he uses that off-arm very well to keep defenders away from his body. At 5’9”, 215 pounds, Swift might not the biggest guy, but he can convert speed into power, runs through arm-tackles time and time again and possesses excellent contact balance to make defenders slip off him, while pulling elbow through the collision.
As good as Swift is a runner, he is also an extremely smooth catcher of the football, who actively extends for the ball and shows no issues adjusting to poor placement. He shows no issues tracking the ball over either shoulder and turning his upper body on different angles. While he was heavily relied on as an outlet option, he can actually win on routes down the field out of the backfield and flexed out, as the Bulldog coaches moved him into the slot and flanker spots routinely. His 73 catches in three years with the Dawgs were more than any of the previous back from his school – Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb or Sony Michel. While size is obviously a somewhat limiting factor in that regard, Swift does a pretty nice job squaring up blitzers and mirror them if he can stymie their initial charge and is technically sound with his cut-blocks.
With that being, Swift does appear a little small and is not super-strong for a running back. You won’t see him drive a pile or run through a defender in the gap very often. In blitz pick-up, he tends to dip his head and will give up some ground against fully charging linebackers. He doesn’t quite have the breakaway speed some of the other guys in the draft have and we have never seen him carry the ball more than 200 times in a season. While he only lost four fumbles on over 500 career touches, his elbow gets too far away from his body a lot of times and that amount will increase with grown men being paid to knock it out of there.
If you are looking for a running back who can cut on a dime and pretty much cross guys over as if he was on the basketball court, Swift is your guy. He has the suddenness to leave people stuck in the sand in the open field and is a highly gifted pass-catcher. While there are more qualified guys in protection simply due to size, the Georgia standout is way too talented to get out in a route anyway. His totals may not measure up to guys like Jonathan Taylor or A.J. Dillon, but his averages of 6.6 yards per carry and 9.1 yards per catch, as well as 25 touchdowns through three years at UGA are plenty good.
2. J.K. Dobbins, Ohio State
It did not take this former four-recruit out of Texas very long to put his name on the map. Dobbins went for over 1400 yards on the ground on less than 200 carries as a freshman. He took a little step back in 2018, only to put up monster numbers last season. Dobbins cracked the 2000-yard rushing mark and scored 23 touchdowns from scrimmage, while averaging 6.9 yards per touch. Not only did he help the Buckeyes win the Big Ten all three years he was there for, but he was also named a first-team All-American last season and is now in Ohio State’s record books with the most rushing yards in a season for a freshman and overall.
Dobbins’ combination of explosiveness and power is off-the-charts. He runs the ball with an attitude and is looking to lower the boom on defenders at the sideline. In addition to that, he has a stiff arm that can put linebackers flat on their butt or just push guys out of the way. He did so pretty badly to Wisconsin’s Chris Orr pretty badly last years. You consistently see him pull his body and shoulders forward to maximize the yardage gained. In 2019, over 1200 of his rushing yards came after contact. Dobbins absolutely took over some games with his ability to consistently gain an additional two or three yards and keep the Buckeyes ahead of the sticks, while also showing the ability to break loose for big plays. That’s how he put up 140+ rushing yards alone in nine of 14 games last season and he had 31 different runs of 15+ yards.
I think the young back really improved his vision and patience as a runner throughout his collegiate career. Dobbins can round off his running path very well without losing much speed and he becomes sort of a locomotive once he reaches full speed. At the same time, he can make safeties miss one-on-one 15-20 yards deep consistently, as he attacks their leverage of defenders and makes them keeps them from getting hands on him by widening the steps and then one way or hitting them with a sudden juke. I think he can run the ball with a wiggle than most people would give him credit for. You see him stutter and move laterally faster than defenders can get out of the break-down a lot of times.
As much as people want to talk about Dobbins dropping a couple of passes in the second half of the Sugar Bowl versus Clemson, they seem to forget that he 169 scrimmage yards in the first half alone and that he actually was pretty dependable as a target in the pass game. He finds a way to make himself available as a receiver and adjust to the ball pretty well mid-air. At the same time, he also shows pretty good eyes and reaction quickness in protection to find the blitzer and he does not shy away from taking on guys that outweigh him by quite a bit. Something else that really impresses me are only five career fumbles on right around 800 touches. Dobbins shows excellent fundamentals at keeping the ball high and tight at all times.
As impressive as this past season was for the Ohio State back, he almost exlusively ran the ball out of the shotgun last season and could take advantages of some huge holes in Ohio State’s zone run game with Justin Fields as a threat to the pull the ball for the backside defenders. He does not the most fluid, loose hips I have ever seen, which limits his scheme versatility at the next level to some degree. In protection he needs to do a better job at closing space to approaching rushers and clean up his footwork overall. He also gets too wide with his punch and doesn’t always land it.
While Dobbins might not be as complete a back quite yet when it comes to contributing as a receiver and pass-protector, as well as being a little off that level when it comes to top-end speed, he reminds me a lot of a young Ezekiel Elliott. He can be bottled up throughout the majority of games and then pop for a long score some time in the second half. Dobbins really took over some games late last year and proved his toughness, running with a bummed ankle in the playoff game against Clemson. While the rushing attack was limited to the zone game a lot, he did look pretty good as sophomore, using pulling linemen to open up space and being patient with setting up his running lanes.
3. Jonathan Taylor, Wisconsin
There may not be a greater individual three-year stretch for any running back in college football history than what this young man did in Madison. Following the greatest rushing season of any freshman in NCAA history, Taylor only improved on his numbers in each of the last two years. His sophomore campaign, he rushed for 2194 yards and 16 touchdowns on 7.1 yards per carry. Last season he broke the 2000-yard barrier once again, while also putting up career-highs in catches (26) and receiving yards (252), as well as scoring 26 total touchdowns. Not only has he been a first-team All-Big Ten selection all three years with the Badgers, but he also won the Doak Walker award in each of the last two and been a unanimous first-team All-American.
While he measures in an inch short of six feet and right around 225 pounds, Taylor is a big dude and his running style is built on explosiveness and power. Once you give him an opening to burst through, he can really load up and bring the thunder on that second level. Not every defender is ready for that and that is why more than half of his yards came after initial contact throughout his college career, while putting up 61 runs of 10+ yards altogether. He comes out of the tracks with an explosion and while might need to hammer through the middle a couple of times first, at some point he will break loose and take it to the house. His acceleration might be the best I have seen from all those great Wisconsin backs. Taylor just runs with great force behind his pads and always seems to fall forward. His running style tires out defenses and that’s why a lot of his biggest runs coming later on in games.
However, for a guy who makes things happen with that first explosion through the line and his power, Taylor has pretty sweet feet to make guys miss in tight spaces and slightly switch up his running tracks. He does a tremendous job of letting his big offensive line go to work and when the hole is there, to shoots through it. Not only can he push forward, but also step around traffic and he is much more shifty than people give him credit for. Taylor runs with a forward lean and high knees at all times, consistently pushes the pile forward and gains three or four extra yards when the play seems to already be over already, twisting his way out of several tackling attempts with guys thinking they have him wrapped up. That compact build with a low center of gravity enables him rumble downfield and he has trunks as legs, that many defenders fall off and you never see somebody pull him down by reaching in from the side.
With 300+ carries through in all three years as a Badger, he has been the team’s clear-cut workhorse and big-play machine to rely on, but he took a big step forward as a receiver in 2019. While he was subbed out a lot of passing downs, because of his lack of knowledge about protection and not having established himself as a pass-catcher, Taylor saw a lot more work on third downs last season. After catching only 16 passes through his first two years with the Badgers, he had a couple of TD passes in the 2019 season-opener versus USF alone. He started off the season blazing hot in general with over 500 yards and 11 touchdowns from scrimmage through the first three weeks.
Far and away the biggest concern with Taylor is ball security. He fumbled the ball 18(!) times through three seasons with the Badgers and 15 of those were lost. He doesn’t consistently put that second hand over the ball going into contact and he has not shown much improvement in that area. He also wasn’t asked to protect a lot in a true drop-back passing attack at Wisconsin. You can see why when he does – he overextends and drops his head too much, without using his hands in the appropriate fashion. With almost 1000 career touches through three seasons, there is certainly concern about the workload he has already received. Another big reason I have him behind Swift and Dobbins is the fact he only caught eight passes in each of his two years at Madison and dropped four catchable passes over that stretch.
This guy is the most accomplished and pro-ready runner in the draft, even if he might not be the most dynamic. Taylor will need to improve a lot in pass protection to stay on the field on all three downs, but after running a 4.39 at 226 pounds at the combine (best among all RBs), we know he can be a homerun hitter at the next level as well and that power he packs can not be denied. I thought outside of putting good numbers in the explosion drills, he also caught the ball very well and showed some nice short-area quickness in Indy.
4. Cam Akers, Florida State
Once the top running back recruit in the country, Akers did not have the individual or team success he envisioned at Florida State. After being in the run for the ACC title for many years, the Seminoles had a sub-.500 record over the last three years. With that being said, Akers was a bright spot on many occasions for them. He finished his career with 3361 yards and 34 touchdowns from scrimmage on 5.1 yards per touch. Last season he put up career-highs in rushing yards (1144), receiving yards (224) and scrimmage touchdowns (18). The number of receptions has improved every year for him as well.
Not the biggest guy at 5’11”, 212 pounds, but doesn’t run small at all. Akers can stretch defenses out and then punish the flow with an explosive cut to go North-South, planting that outside foot and seemingly gaining speed through it. He can knife through opposing teams and bounces off tacklers or carries them on his back. When Akers hits the hole, he hits it hard. He loves the dead-leg move in the open field and when he can’t make somebody miss, he keeps his legs driving through contact. He has the balance to bounce off multiple tacklers and keep his footing. The fact that 3.9 of his 4.9 yards per carry came after first contact is mind-boggling.
Since he ran behind an erratic FSU O-line for his entire career, it is tough to judge some of the decisions he made and the vision he showed, but you definitely like some of the movement you se. Akers hop-steps around quite a bit to allow his blockers to open up a hole and utilizes subtle jump-cut to switch running lanes. He does a great job aiming at the outside hip of his lead-blocker (fullback or pulling linemen) and then cut underneath that action once he defender commits that way. His combine performance was highly impressive with a 4.47 in the 40 and an outstanding field workout. He looked so in sync with all the drills, reacting to the bags and keys given by the coaches. That also includes the footwork he displayed during the Duce Staley that premiered this year, but he had seemingly done a hundred times before.
As a receiver Akers he was limited to swing and angle routes with a few seams sprinkled in, but he showed adequate hands and made something out of it nothing when he was targeted underneath. In protection he has the strength to negate some of that initial charge of blitzers and actually took on a few defensive linemen as well, showing good knee-bend and rolling of the hips. As a little extra on top, he can throw that rock and he showed off his arm a 47-yard bomb as a freshman and he had an even more impressive throw to a receiver crossing the field after a swing screen, but his teammate dropped it.
The one thing that Akers really needs to do a better job at is translating information from his eyes to his lower body and not give away opportunities he recognizes. He has to be more efficient with his footwork and start manipulating secondary defenses with what he does behind the line of scrimmage. I need to see more of a plan and better vision to make him an effective inside runner. While he was already involved in pro-style pass protections, he needs to work on his recognition for the rush and ID-ing the biggest threat. I wouldn’t say he is the most interested guy if he isn’t really involved in the play either and he dropped five balls last season.
Akers is physically ready for the pros and has the traits to develop into a featured back, but early on I think you need to utilize him in a gap-scheme that allows him to just hit the hole without much nuance and refine his overall work in pass-protection before you put him on the field on too many third downs. His upside is through the roof, but he is clearly a notch below the top three guys at the position for me.
5. Clyde Edwards-Helaire, LSU
Considered a four-star recruit from Baton Rouge, Edwards-Helaire decided to join his hometown Tigers and the great tradition of running backs they have going on. While he barely saw the field behind Derrius Guice as a freshman, he went for over 750 yards and seven touchdowns from scrimmage in year two and then exploded last season with 1867 yards and 17 touchdowns from scrimmage, whilst averaging 6.9 yards per touch and catching 55 passes on the year. That earned him first-team All-SEC honors ahead of Alabama’s Najee Harris and he was a big part of LSU’s run for a national title.
Overlooked for most of his career because of his height at 5’8”, Edwards-Helaire is built extremely compact and has a very low center of gravity, which makes is tough for defenders to bring him to the ground and he runs with a chip on his shoulder. Once he gets to the second level that guy is a bowling bowl people just don’t seem to want to tackle him. He has the balance and power to plow ahead for yards after contact, as defenders slip off him trying to wrap their arms around him. The small surface-area doesn’t give defenders much they can grab onto and is actually looking to throw a shoulder at somebody even if there is little to gain from it. He was unbelievable in the Alabama game, where his physicality was on a different level and clinched that game with several broken tackles on the final touchdown and a first down run, where he carried that entire defense seemingly to let the clock run out.
As physical a runner as this guy is, he dishes out some very sudden cuts to defeat pursuing defenders. Edwards-Helaire is very patient with setting up his blocks. He does a great job pressing the hole and then working around the block with a quick jump-cut to take the linebacker behind the action to the wrong side. He has the best spin move in this draft class, which he made a bunch of people miss with in the backfield already, but also does a good job side-stepping those guys. Most importantly, he doesn’t panic with his footwork once he sees color flash behind the line. . His start-and-stop quickness to rip off big runs as he catches the defense out of position is impressive, even if he doesn’t run away from guys all the time. That led to him putting up the second-highest missed-tackle rate among all draft-eligible FBS running backs at 0.33 per attempt
This dude was incredible for the Tigers in the passing game last season. Most of those were simple check-downs where he made guys miss and picked up crucial yardage, but he also was asked to run corner routes and motioned in and out of the backfield quite a bit as a coverage indicator. He was also very effective on angle routes after setting up flats earlier. While most of his highlights are probably from last season, he also had an unbelievable individual catch-and-run called back versus Alabama in 2018, when his quarterback was pretty much sacked but still somehow got the ball to his dynamic back and the man with the double-name made a grand total of seven defenders miss.
With that being said, Edwards-Helaire simply lacks elite acceleration or speed without a real second gear. I also can’t really see him make an impact as a receiver downfield the way he did for the Tigers, unless there’s a bust in coverage and he is forgotten about, even if he was used to run guys off quite a bit when split out wide, I thought be benefitted a lot from facing a high amount of dime sets with six defensive backs on the field, trying to counter LSU’s spread formations. There is very little tape on CEH as a pass-protector and I’m not sure if I can see him become a very reliable one simply based on his measurements.
Edwards-Helaire Reminds me a lot of Devonta Freeman. He might not pick up chunk plays by leaving defenders behind in the bust, but he is very good at allowing his blocking to be set up and operating in small spaces. His best qualities are the anger he runs the ball with and the fact he caught 55 passes last season, which is big number for any college back. He also had just two career fumbles and lost one of them on 439 career touches. I’m just not quite sure how sustainable that running style is, which makes me think of Freeman once again.
6. Eno Benjamin, Arizona State
A former four-star recruit with over 7500 career rushing yards and 111 touchdowns in high school, Benjamin barely saw the field as a freshman, but has been their workhorse ever since then. In year two he set a new Arizona State record with 1642 rushing yards in just 13 games. He recorded 90 first downs and touchdowns combined that season and had nine games of 100+ yards on the ground even though N’Keal Harry was basically the only other weapon on that offense. Last season all those numbers across the board dropped, as Arizona State went only 4-5 in conference play. However, Benjamin did score 30 touchdowns over that two-year stretch and he was named first-team All-Pac-12 consecutively.
Benjamin is only 5’10”, but he has excellent thickness throughout his 200-pound body. He runs the ball with a wiggle and shiftiness that is second to none in this draft class. He is just very instinctive and natural player with the way he moves his body to bounce off tackles, operate in tight corners or sometimes even shield guys with his back in protection. He displays ankles of steel with some of the cuts you see him make and he seems extremely comfortable operating in small space and creating a crease for himself. Benjamin is a patient runner who utilizes hesitation steps and pressing gaps to force linebackers to commit. He is special in his ability to start and stop, bounce between gaps and make guys miss with a jump-cut, plus he also has that spin move in the open field that can makes opponents just look stupid.
This guy runs so damn and is really tough to bring down. Benjamin has no problem running through defenders or carrying them on his back. He runs like a wild card horse who won’t be brought down by arm-tackles and finishes runs in a violent fashion. Last season he ran over one of the Oregon safeties so bad at the sideline that I could swear he knocked him into a different dimension and in the regular-season finale the year prior he met a corner at the five-yard line, but just blasted through him for the touchdown. Benjamin lowers his shoulder with an attitude and continues to drive his legs through contact, but at the same time has the short-are quickness to make defenders miss. He closed out a bunch of games for ASU and in 2018 led all Pac-12 players by a wide margin with 78 missed tackles forced.
He put together a bad stat line against Michigan State in 2019, as they made a bunch of good runners look bad, but when you watch him fight for extra yards and somehow squeezing through a couple of times, you can forget about the total numbers. He also closed out the Arizona game in the fourth quarter with several tough runs to convert first downs and keep the clock running. Statistically speaking Benjamin had a pretty underwhelming 2019 campaign, just slightly going over 1000 yards on the ground on 4.3 yards a clip, but he consistently fought for extra yardage with little room to operate and he also caught a career-high 42 passes.
With that being said, Benjamin was rarely used as more than a check-down or flare-out option in the passing game. Seldom was he asked to stay in protection and there is reason for it. He doesn’t mind delivering a blow on a chip-and-release, but doesn’t seem to have developed very good take-on technique as a blocker, slipping off too many blitzers in the process. As a runner, he can be caught dancing around instead of just trying to get back to the line of scrimmage at times and has to bring a little more calmness to the table. His elbow gets too far away from his body when making jukes as well.
Going from one total fumble in 2018 to six last season is pretty alarming, but a couple of them came on exchange problems with his freshman QB, which I wouldn’t necessarily put on him, and the fact he tried to do too much against defenses that consistently put extra bodies in the box, is something you can’t really blame him for. Having a runner who can get around defenders untouched very effectively, but also loves to stick his facemask in their chest is great. Benjamin is my favorite back to watch in this class outside of Swift.
7. Zack Moss, Utah
Even though this former three-star recruit from Miami was already committed to his hometown Hurricanes, Moss decided to move all the across the country after there was a coaching change at his original school of choice, where his brother Santana was already a star at before playing in the NFL for 14 years. He was a three-year starter for the Utes with three straight yards above 1000 yards rushing and scored 39 touchdowns over that stretch. In 2019 Moss broke several school record – career rushing yards (4067), rushing touchdowns (38) and 100-yard games (18), whilst averaging 5.7 yards a rush and adding in 28 catches for almost 400 yards last season. That made him the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year in 2019.
At 5’10”, slightly over 220 pounds, Moss is a patient but powerful runner. He runs the ball with excellent pad-level and really lowers that shoulder when he initiates contact. The Utes’ all-time leading rusher rarely allows defenders to square him in a one-on-one tackling situation and when he is wrapped up, he pulls those knees up to his chest to go through that defender. Moss just pushes some guys off who don’t wrap around his frame and he has that body control to catch his balance again after having one of his legs cut out underneath him. He gets small in the hole by lowering his pads and then displays good burst out of it. Moreover, he uses that off-arm really well to extend through the hit while pulling those legs up high, which led to a nation-leading 87 missed tackles forced last season. In 2018 he ran all over USC, trucking defenders seemingly on every play.
As much of a power back as Moss is, he also has some nifty moves to make defenders miss in his repertoire – jump-cuts, side-steps and spin moves. He can make up plenty of room and really change directions when he drops those hips. You see him just kind of weave through defenses and he is tough to bring down or sometimes even get a hand on. Moss displays a shifty running style as he works his way through the line, with fluid footwork, loose hips and light feet. He might not be an extremely sudden runner, but can stop as quick as you can snap your fingers if he needs to when sorting through the blocking.
While coaches usually don’t want to see it, Moss has a feel for when to reverse field and he can re-accelerate to make defenders regret opening up towards the original direction of the plays. He is just a very aware football player, who seems to know where everybody on the field is and how to adjust on the fly, plus while the numbers might not agree with that, I thought he had underrated pull-away speed when I put on his tape. As a receiver he catches the ball pretty easy and quickly turns upfield to gain yardage, showing a feel for defenders in space, even if he has to turn his back to them to secure the catch, as he led all running backs with 14.5 yards per reception. He also delivers some big blows in protection and keeps active feet to stay in front of guys.
On the flipside, he was never really involved as a downfield option in the passing game and I don’t see him as the kind of dynamic route-runner, who can be one of the premiere targets on option routes against linebacker. In protection he lunges forward too much and can be pulled to the side by aware rushers. As a runner there are some wasted steps when he sets up his cuts. Moss is certainly not the most explosive athlete and his testing numbers are a little concerning – 4.65 in the 40 and just a 33-inch vertical. Medically speaking, he has missed some time with shoulder and knee injuries and logged almost 800 touches through his years with the Utes.
This guy might not be very flashy, but I can really appreciate the violence and feel the runs the ball with. Moss is best suited for a zone-run scheme at the next level, but has the footwork and overall mobility in the lower body to fit most systems. While I don’t think he would be a great workhorse the way he was in college, I think he would be an excellent pairing with a more dynamic back, who can stress defenses to the edges and catch the ball in space.
8. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt
One of the top high school players in the state of Tennessee, no running back exploded on the scene quite like Vaughn did for his home-state Commodores in 2018. With just over 1000 rushing yards through his first two years at Illinois, expectations were fairly low for this kid after sitting out a year, but he had a five-game stretch to close out the season, where he carried the ball 85 times for 749 yards and seven TDs, giving him an average of 8.8 yards per rush. Last season his number dropped, as they did for pretty much everybody on a very stagnant Vandy offense. Vaughn just crossed the 1000-yard rushing mark and his average fell all the way to 5.2 YPC.
This young man has incredible lower body strength and break-away speed. He makes pursuit angles looks absolutely stupid routinely and when you put on the tape of those games in the second half of his junior year, you see him just running away from guys time and time again. He seemed unstoppable during that stretch and almost single-handedly beat Baylor in the Texas Bowl, as he went for 243 yards and three long touchdowns on just 13 carries, but the defense somehow gave up 45 points. However, he also runs very tough and refuses to go down without a fight. He breaks way too many tackle a “smaller” back like him should, as he pulls his legs out of the grasp of several defender. That’s how he averaged a bonkers 5.28 yards after contact in 2018 and had 32 runs of 10+ yards.
What I like to watch most with Vaughn is the way he will attack the line, then cut down his strides as he reads a blocker and all of a sudden turn on the jets again to beat a defender to the edge. So many times you see him bounce outside with one step if there’s a wall in front of him and nobody seems to ever be able to grab him. I also think he shows impressive burst and vision for back-side openings. You see him dot the I in heavy sets and run right through traffic as well line up next to his QB in shotgun and make things happen after catching a swing route. With as little as he had around him in terms of the offensive line and a quarterback whose name I can’t even remember, after Kyle Shurmur left for the NFL draft following the 2018 season, I thought Vaughn definitely still had his moments of brilliance.
I don’t know if anybody is looking at Vaughn’s targets and maybe tries to argue against him because of the little amount of catches in regard to that, but I can’t even count the amount of times his quarterbacks threw the ball into the ground his direction or simply were off target. The Vandy coaches flexed out wide in empty sets quite a bit, even rarely targeted from that spot, in favor of getting more involved in the screen game. Vaughn displays an Impressive punch in protection and does a good job staying sqaure to his man for the most part.
Vaughn tends to bounce outside too much and doesn’t show a lot of situational awareness when it comes to converting for first downs. There are plenty of more accomplished runners and pass-catchers in this draft, who have shown the ability to more multi-faceted. Vaughn is not overly creative once he gets into the open field, as he is quick to just drop the shoulder an extra couple of yards, instead of using all that space to make the defender miss entirely. Even though he is pretty sound technically as a pass-protector, you see him getting run over by a hard-charging blitzes on multiple occasions and NFL coaches will be hesitant to leave him out there on third ddowns.
Vaughn’s total and averages went down pretty significantly in 2019, but he still went for 140+ yards five times despite being part of an offense that averaged just 16.5 points per game (125th out of 130 Division 1 teams). That includes 150 yards and two scores versus LSU despite not touching the ball pretty much in the entire fourth quarter. Vaughn is most comfortable getting to the edge on stretch and toss plays, but he has the vision and toughness to make a living in-between the tackles as well. He projects best as part of a rotating backfield at the next level.
9. James Robinson, Illinois State
The all-time leading rusher in Illinois high school history (9045 yards), Robinson got onto the field quickly for the Redbirds, contributing over 750 all-purpose yards as a freshman. He became the lead-back in year two and earned first-team All-Missouri Valley Conference honors. However, his numbers continue to skyrocket, as he was a finalist for the Walter Payton award as the top player in the FCS with 1290 rushing yards and 12 scores as a junior, and rising to first-team AP All-American and runner-up to the prestigious awards with over 1900 rushing and 18 touchdowns last season.
This young man has a good, dense build at 5’10”, 220 pounds. He doesn’t need a lot of space to break through the line and catches a lot of safeties on their heels, as he tries to split them and all of a sudden he has a good five yards on them on his way to the end-zone. At the same time I see a guy who can take his head down and plow ahead for those tough yards when needed, showing continuous leg-drive and great conditioning late in games. He is really tough to bring down with his low point of gravity and elusive moves. Robinson has been a workhorse his entire life and come through his teams routinely. He was at his best and most relied on down the stretch last season, rushing for over 600 yards on 102 carries in three playoff games with very little help around him.
Robinson does a great job hesitating just long enough behind the line to set up his blockers appropriately. He can make those dynamic moves in the open field as well, but he is at his best with subtle shifts of his running path to take advantage of the leverage of defenders and lead secondary guys to the wrong side of blocks, which he complements with an incredibly well-placed stiff-arm to negate angles. Still, he is a very elusive runner, who shows a lot of creativity and vision with little-fakes, nods and change-up of the feet. While his timed speed of 4.64 at the combine might not suggest it, he was plenty fast enough to rip off several 40+ yard runs for the Redbirds.
He had an unbelievable run versus Western Illinois, where he made three defenders miss that had him dead to rights and he made them all look stupid. Robinson will probably burn NFL defenses on a couple of wheel routes early on in his career, before you see his future teammates catching the ball underneath on crossing routes, as he pulls the flat defender with him. During East-West Shrine week he won on several routes in one-on-ones where he displayed some shake and caught the ball with ease. In the actual game he had a 46-yard screen pass on third-and-eight, where it already looked like he would end up short of the marker. He then came back in the fourth quarter with 61-yard TD run.
The Illinois State star has a tendency of bouncing to the outside too much on zone-schemes and he will have to learn that he can’t reverse field against premiere athletes in the pros the way he was able to on some occasions in the FCS. While he does a pretty good job of squaring up his man in protection and landing an effective punch, Robinson shows too much of a wind-up with his arms when picking up blitzers and he can’t really anchor down against them. With over 600 touches over the last two years, Robinson has plenty of tread on those tires and he only caught 16 passes for 80 yards last season. Even though he handled a large amount of carries, Robinson’s five fumbles in 2019 as mostly the best player on the field are a little concerning.
Obviously the fact Robinson has primarily faced FCS competition will be used against him during the evaluation process, but I also remember banging the table for another highly decorated player out of Northern Illinois a few years ago in David Johnson and until his recent decline connected to injuries, he was All-Pro caliber player. I’m not saying Robinson will be that and I see him having an adjustment period, but I like him much more than some of these one-trick pony guys from the Power Five.
10. Joshua Kelley, UCLA
Just a two-star recruit coming out of high school, Kelly stayed in California with UC Davis from the FCS, where he shared touches for two years. After that he decided to move on to the Bruins, where he put together a nice stretch in the Pac-12. He rushed for 2303 yards and 25 touchdowns over the second half of his collegiate career as Chip Kelly featured guy, earning second-team all-conference accolades his senior year.
Kelley offers a solid build at 5’11”, 220 pounds. He has a bounce to his step and rarely gets caught up in traffic. He does a great diagnosing differences in pre- and post-snap looks and finding solutions for it, without having to make dramatic cuts and losing time in the process. The consecutive 1000-yard rusher can step around traffic and exploit bad cutback discipline, but also get skinny and dart through small openings for instant yardage if there is space to take advantage of. Kelley runs the ball with a wiggle, but he can lower the shoulder on somebody as well if needed, showing a lot of toughness through those years for an average Bruin team. He was unstoppable versus USC in 2018, when he went for almost 300 yards on the ground on 40 carries.
Something I like about his game is the excellent vision he shows for backside cuts on zone run plays. Kelley has had an excellent pre-draft season, starting with Senior Bowl week, where he looked like the top back there. He displayed a tremendous feel for where the hole will open up, looked very shifty and whenever he touched the ball it felt like fireworks would go off. Then at the combine he put some of those speed concerns to rest with a 4.49 in the 40 and he put up the quickest three-cone drill among running backs in Indianapolis.
While he only caught 16 passes last season, UCLA didn’t allow him to display enough of his skill-set in that regard, with his head coach saying that they simply wanted to give their workhorse a break on third downs. During practices down in Mobile he routinely won one-on-one against the linebackers in the pass game, by putting a little English on his routes and making those guys look bad. He got away from Ohio State’s Malik Harrison on almost like a double-jab on angle route and then made Cal’s Evan Weaver fall down trying to catch up against him in the flats. And while he might not be able to stone-wall guys in protection, Kelley doesn’t shy away from putting his body in front of fast-charging linebackers that have 30 pounds on him, even if I would like him to be a little more aggressive with his step-up.
As much as I liked that 40 time for Kelley at the combine, he doesn’t seem to have the true long speed to pull away from defensive backs at the next level, as he was already got caught from behind quite a bit in the Pac-12. There’s not a lot of snaps where you see him run through arm-tackles and once defenders get a clear shot at Kelley, he won’t really get out of a lot of tackles. That’s not too encouraging, since I don’t really see a lot of room for him to add to his frame either.
Kelly has the toughness to run inside and enough burst to bounce out wide if the defense doesn’t account for it. While he was heavily utilized in UCLA’s option run game, I see him thriving in most offenses, even if his ceiling is somewhat by capped by questionable top-end and average contact balance. I think he can take on a bigger role in the pass game, but he might be best suited as a quality piece to a committee. He should be trusted early on however, with the way he can read defenses and not put the ball on the ground (zero fumbles lost in two years with the Bruins).
Just missed the cut:
Antonio Gibson, Memphis
Before we even get into Gibson’s skill-set, we have to differentiate if he is a running back or receiver, with several different groupings depending on the analyst. Last season he had a pretty equal run-catch ratio with 71 touches for 1104 yards and 12 TDs, giving him 15.5 yards per touch. He was also named the AAC Special Teams Player of the Year with an average of 28.0 yards per kick return and one house-call.
Gibson is obviously a little high-cut for a running back, but at 220 pounds he is a strong runner, who can bounce and spin off tacklers, while showcasing incredible contact balance and non-stop leg drive. He is constantly splitting defenders that are reaching out for him and guys slipping off him as they try to drag him down. However, Gibson is also really shifty with the ball in his hands. He makes some dynamic cuts and always brought juice when Memphis put him in the backfield to hand it to him. While he has limited experience reading different run schemes, the pace to his running and the way he can set up blockers already is obvious on film, plus his acceleration and top speed for the position is above elite.
While he was primarily a slot receiver for the Tigers, Gibson was used him in a multitude of ways – motioning around the formation, catching screens, even receiving shovel passes from in-line and in the backfield. As a route-runner he attacks the ball in the air and quickly turns upfield for positive yardage. He really snatches it out of the air on passes over his head. As a true receiver I love the way he sells the vertical route off the ball and creates separation by putting defenders on their heels or open their hips by attacking leverages. He was highly effective on corner routes out of the slot and then came back with a few deep out-and-ups. He also makes himself available on the scramble drill by working back towards the quarterback.
With just 33 career rushing attacks, Gibson doesn’t have a lot of experience reading defenses from the backfield and executing different schemes. He was basically limited to power and stretch plays from split-back shotgun sets. I also have no tape of him in pass-protection or running anything but swing or flat routes out of the backfield. There is only one year of production to base my analysis on and his future team will have to find the right role for him.
While listed as a wide receiver in college, I always thought Gibson had the mentality of a running back with the ball in his hands. His athletic profile and physical style of play to go along with it make him one of the more intriguing options in this draft class. I could not quite put him in the top ten because he is a projection for the most part, but as an offensive coordinator he is a piece I would like to have. He ran a 4.4 flat at the combine and was a big piece to an explosive Memphis offense that produced 34 plays of 40+ yards.
Darrynton Evans, Appalachian State
Another small-school kid I really like is Darrynton Evans. He started out as a two-star recruit, but earned consecutive first-team All-Sun Belt selections and was the conference’s Offensive Player of the Year in 2019 with 1678 yards and 23 touchdowns from scrimmage, averaging 5.8 yards per carry and 9.1 per reception. He also averaged 28.3 yards per kick return and scored a touchdown in each of the last two years.
At 5’11”, 200 pounds, Evans primarily lined up in the pistol, but ran out of single-back, with an offset fullback in front of him, in tight and spread sets. He has enough patience and hop to his step to get around traffic and through a crease. He shows very sudden cuts to punish the flow of defenses and has the instant acceleration to get through the second level untouched a lot of times. Evans is a One-on-one specialist in open space with that sudden quickness to make defenders miss even if they have him perfectly leveraged, making those ankle-breaking, cut-on-a-dime type moves and seemingly picking up speed when he sticks his foot in the ground.
App State tried to get Evans to the edges quite a bit on jet sweeps and swing screens, but ran more zone than anything else with a ton of upfield cuts on the inside. In addition to being as elusive as he is, he displays relentless leg-drive to continue pushing forward and runs more guys over than he really should. You see him spin off several tacklers and lunge ahead as he loses his footing as well
As quickly as Evans’ gets up to speed, he doesn’t have that extra gear to pull away from DBs consistently at the next level the same way he did in college. He also falls into the speed-bump category as a pass-protector and caught just 39 passes throughout his collegiate career, making his third-down role somewhat questionable, even if his skill-set seems appropriate for being a pass-catcher at the next level.
Evans was motioned into the slot and out wide quite by the Mountaineers and will be used more creatively in space at the next level, but the lack of production in the pass game is what keeps me from going all in on Evans at this point. I really like his game and he fumbled just once on 467 touches over these last two years, but for a back his size, I need to see him catch the football.
Right behind them:
Anthony McFarland (Maryland), Darius Anderson (TCU), J.J. Taylor (Arizona), A.J. Dillon (Boston College), Salvon Ahmed (Washington)
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