• Zach Pratt

Zach's Draft Corner: Running Back Round-Up

Image Credit: Jim Gensheimer/Bay Area News Group

Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.

It might seem like the 2018 NFL Draft was just yesterday, but in just two short months, college football will once again be underway and fans will be clamoring to find their studs and sleepers of the 2019 draft class. For the next few months, I’m going to give you my names to note for the upcoming season at every position, along with a mini scouting report and where I’d like to see the prospects improve this season if they want to hear their name called early come April. Given in no particular order, these will be the prospects that, at least at the beginning of the season, will be generating the most buzz. Consider this a primer for the upcoming season of Saturdays, and a potential guide for your television if you aren’t sure which game to watch. Previously, I covered the quarterbacks. This week, we have the running backs.

Bryce Love, Stanford University

It should come as little surprise that the 2017 Heisman Trophy Runner-up is expected to have yet another huge season for the Stanford Cardinal. The 5’10”, 209-pound Love decided to forego the draft and return to Stanford for his senior season, and not everyone agreed with his choice. It’s hard to fault him for wanting to get his degree, but he was also a borderline first-round selection in this year’s draft. Love has the type of all-around skill that the scouts want in a modern running back, pairing his elite speed, acceleration, and change of direction with vision and decision making. He has the toughness to run inside, the speed to run outside, and the vision to reverse field if he sees the backside opening up. Love tore up the NCAA last year, totaling 2,118 yards on 263 carries (8.1 yards per carry) and 19 touchdowns, and Love is expected to do the same thing this year.

Stanford doesn’t use Love as a receiver all that often, but his skill set gives him the tools to be the best receiver in this class if he can prove that he has the hands to go with his precise movements and open-field ability. Love also could stand to improve on his pass blocking a little bit, although he is sturdy enough to not be manhandled. The biggest issue is his health. Love was very beat up towards the end of the 2017 campaign, and another year of punishment could hurt his draft stock if he gets hurt again. However, he could also be the first running back off the board in the 2019 draft if he manages to stay healthy while maintaining similar production.

Devin Singletary, Florida Atlantic University

Say what you will about Lane Kiffin’s history or his Twitter antics, but it’s hard to argue with what he is doing right now with FAU. Kiffin has the Owls, a perennial punching bag, on the perch of Conference USA, going 8-0 in conference and 11-3 overall in 2017. His main weapon last season was Conference USA MVP, Devin Singletary. The 5’9”, 200 pound running back was absolutely dominant, running for 1,918 yards and a mind boggling 32 touchdowns in 2017. Singletary also proved valuable in the passing game, catching 19 passes for 198 yards. Singletary is adept at finding the hole and hitting it with one of the quickest bursts in the draft. Though he is smaller, his ability to maintain balance through the line makes him a surprisingly effective inside runner. Where Singletary truly excels, however, is in the open field. Pro Football Focus gave Singletary 93 forced missed tackles in 2017, which is best for fifth all-time in a single season behind only Dalvin Cook, Kareem Hunt, Leonard Fournette, and another guy who you will see on this list in a little bit. That is some mighty good company to be in, and Singletary deserves it.

Singletary has really proven all he can in college football, and simply needs to make it through his third year healthy and consistent with 2017 to be the top back in the class. He will draw numerous comparisons to Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara, and deservedly so. Their success in the NFL will only improve Singletary’s stock, and potentially to the tune of a first round selection.

Justice Hill, Oklahoma State University

Hill is a very tough running back to evaluate, given the system that the Cowboys run. As expected, Hill is a strong receiver and is reliable in pass protection. However, at only 190 pounds and 5’10”, Hill is pretty lean by NFL standards. It seems like he has the frame to put on some more weight, but there is always the fear that his quickness in the open field will suffer as a result. Hill is a good-to-great running back for the Big 12, where the defenders are generally smaller and their effort is optional, but I fear that the NFL might be just too much for him as a workhorse running back. He will have a spot in the league as a reliable third down option (Jacksonville should be drooling over a player like Hill to pair with Leonard Fournette), but his limitations should push him to Day 3.

Karan Higdon, University of Michigan

Karan Higdon is another senior who, similar to Love, decided to forego the 2018 NFL draft to finish off his eligibility in college. Higdon only started half of the season for the Wolverines, but still managed to gain 994 yards on 164 carries and 11 touchdowns, earning himself All-Big 10 Third Team honors from the coaches and the media. Higdon is certain to get a lot of buzz, as he is above-average in productivity both inside and outside. He has enough toughness to get yardage inside, although he is by no means a bruiser, and enough burst to be adequate outside, but he is not a burner.

To me, this is actually an issue, and is the same reason why I do not think Rashaad Penny will be a successful NFL running back. It is one thing to have elite speed while also being able to run inside, or to have elite physicality while also being able to run outside. It is a different thing entirely to simply be above average in both without truly excelling in either. When the level of competition increases, being above average in college turns into being average to below average in the NFL, which leads to a short career. Higdon is my top candidate to be over-drafted in 2019, and is likely to earn the “bust” label if he is not able to improve a good amount in any particular area.

Damien Harris, University of Alabama

While Oklahoma State may be difficult to evaluate due to their system, Alabama is difficult to evaluate simply because they have so much more talent than any opponent they will face in college football. It can be difficult to quickly discern whether a 60-yard touchdown run was because the offensive line blocked so masterfully that any running back could have made the same play, or whether it was the vision and running ability of the running back to get through a hole and make some players miss. It’s why teams whiffed on Trent Richardson.

Harris seems to be on the other end of this spectrum. In the little film I was able to watch thus far, he showed some elite vision and balance in navigating the Alabama backfield. Harris also was able to wrestle the starting job away from 49ers Hub favorite, Bo Scarbrough, who was one of the highest ranked running back of the decade. Harris has the tools to be a good receiver, though Alabama rarely uses him in that role. Mostly, I want to see Harris make some plays on his own accord, where his blockers blow it but he is still able to make a play out of nothing. If he can do that, he will be one of the top backs in the 2019 class.

David Montgomery, Iowa State University

Remember when I said that Devin Singletary was behind a fellow potential 2019 draftee in the all-time record books for single season forced missed tackles? That fellow draftee is David Montgomery, who broke the single season NCAA record with 109 forced missed tackles last year for the Cyclones, 11 more than the previous record holders. This may come as a surprise, as Montgomery ran for almost 800 less yards than Singletary, totaling only 1,146 yards in 2017. Montgomery added 36 catches for 296 yards, meaning that he forced a missed tackle more than once for every fifteen all-purpose yards accrued.

Montgomery lacks the athleticism of some of the other backs in this class, but is crafty enough to put himself in the right position to extend the play. Montgomery is a fun running back to watch, because he has mastered the difficult art of breaking tackles. There are certain techniques that a ball carrier can use to make the tackler weaker in his hit, such as shifting your body to get to a weak point in the defender, or shifting your momentum to reduce the change in velocity after collision. With the tackler in a weaker position, it is easier to run through the tackle and pick up extra yards. Montgomery does this perfectly, allowing him to pick up more yardage than his athleticism suggests he should. If Montgomery can manage to get a little faster, he is a dark horse to be a top-five back in this class.

Rodney Anderson, University of Oklahoma

Rodney Anderson is one of the more intriguing prospects for me in the 2019 class. Coming off the bus, you wouldn’t expect a 6’1”, 219-pound runner to be shifty, but Anderson certainly is just that. Anderson has surprising burst and quickness around the line of scrimmage, while also being physical enough to be a true punisher than runs over his opponents. Anderson is also a solid receiver out of the backfield, which makes him an intriguing weapon given his size. Anderson is almost like Bo Scarbrough if Scarbrough was able to stay healthy, which makes him a definite prospect to keep an eye on.

I would like to see more production out of Anderson, as he was able to rush for only 960 yards in 2017. With Baker Mayfield moving on to the NFL, I expect more balance out of Oklahoma’s offense, which should benefit Anderson greatly. If Anderson can put up some big numbers this year, he can easily work his way into the Day 2 conversation.

Myles Gaskin, University of Washington

Gaskin is another candidate for the running back who is good in college but might not make it in the pros. Measuring in at 5’10” and 191 pounds, Gaskin is another very lean running back. Unlike Justice Hill, however, Gaskin runs like a power back, which is simply fascinating to watch. Gaskin is a good receiver, as well, but simply doesn’t have the speed to truly break away. Gaskin’s size and play style just don’t mesh, and would get punished in the NFL. You’ll hear his name throughout the season for what he can do for the Huskies, but don’t expect his production to follow him to the pros.

Benny Snell, University of Kentucky

This is one of my personal favorites in the 2019 class. The likely reason is that Snell reminds me of another favorite of mine, and a favorite of a lot of 49er fans: Frank Gore. The 5’11”, 223-pound Snell is a bowling ball of a running back. He is, by far, the best weapon on an SEC team. Defenses are keyed on stopping Snell from producing, knowing that Kentucky’s other weapons are unlikely to cause them much trouble. In 2017, Snell was still able to pick up 1,333 yards and 19 touchdowns on 262 carries. Snell is an extremely tough runner who excels at running through the tackle and picking up yards after contact, but also shows a good amount of burst.

I would love to see Snell in a better situation, but that won’t come until he is drafted. Snell hasn’t been used much as a receiver, but showing he has skills in that area could push his draft stock even higher. Snell is someone I’m going to watch quite a bit of this fall, likely while reminiscing about Gore and his severely underrated career.

L.J. Scott, Michigan State University

Scott is another power-oriented back in this class with great patience. He has a deceptive amount of top-end speed to go with his 6’1”, 226-pound frame, but is by no means a burner. Scott is also a good receiver, hauling in 20 catches in 2017. Unfortunately for Scott, he is going to receive an unfair comparison throughout the year, and many will be disappointed if he doesn’t follow the exact trajectory. Back in his Michigan State days, Le’Veon Bell was a power-oriented back with receiving skills and patience but who was a little overweight. Bell was told to lose some weight, and he gained a lot of quickness to go with his power and balance. However, Bell should be the exception rather than the rule. Scouts will be allured by Scott’s surface-resemblance to Bell, but it shouldn’t be expected that he can make that same transformation.

One major issue with Scott is ball security. This is a true killer to any running back prospect, and something I look for Scott to improve in 2018. Conservatively, I project Scott as a backup to a workhorse running back, as he could certainly step up for a game or two if the starting back gets hurt. However, this type of back is generally inactive on gamedays, so his importance is minimal. There is certainly room for improvement, but beware of falling into the Le’VeonBell comparison.

SOPHOMORE STUD ALERT: Jonathan Taylor, University of Wisconsin, and A.J. Dillon, Boston College

There is certainly some talent in the 2019 draft class, but there certainly isn’t a Saquon Barkley type running back who is getting loads of preseason hype to be a Top-5 overall draft pick. For those who still believe that running backs can have a great effect on a franchise, the 2020 draft should have an epic battle for the first running back off the board, and both could potentially be selected in the Top-10.

The first running back is Jonathan Taylor out of Wisconsin. At 5’11” and 214 pounds, Taylor won the New Jersey state title in the 100-meter dash. This speed translates to the field in a very obvious way. The first issue with tackling Taylor is catching him, which is a very tall task for most college defenders. Taylor isn’t just a speed demon, though. He also has the strength to run over smaller defenders that do manage to catch up with him. Taylor broke Adrian Peterson’s single-season rushing record for a true freshman, racking up 1,925 yards in 2017. Taylor also showed some promise as a pass blocker, and will grow to be even better. Wisconsin doesn’t use Taylor as a receiving threat, but he certainly has the tools to be one. Taylor also has elite vision to go with his speed and balance. Taylor is basically Ronald Jones III with power, which is a deadly combination. Although quarterbacks seem to be the Heisman favorites nowadays, it wouldn’t shock me if Taylor wins one in the next two years.

On the other end of the elite spectrum is A.J. Dillon, the 6’1”, 239-pound behemoth out of Boston College. Dillon is the type of running back who is more than happy to run through you, but also has the speed to be scary in the open field and who won’t be caught if he gets past you. The top prospect in the state of Massachusetts, the 4-star Dillon reneged on his commitment to Michigan so that he could stay close to home. Dillon then went on to almost single-handedly transform BC’s offense from Week 7 onwards. In Week 7, Dillon ran over the Louisville defense repeatedly, racking up 272 yards and four touchdowns. In the final seven games of the season, Dillon averaged a monster 179.4 yards on 6 yards per carry and 1.7 touchdowns per game. Each of these games were against ACC and Big 10 challengers, meaning he was putting up these numbers against good college defenses. Extrapolated out to a full season, Dillon would have run for 2,332 yards and 22 touchdowns. This is all while being the only offensive threat on BC’s entire team, meaning that defenses are trying to stop him and simply can’t. Dillon might never challenge for a Heisman because BC is unlikely to have the team success required for the award, but Dillon is my favorite for the Doak Walker award each of the next two seasons.

In the end, I would rather have either of these backs than any of the 2019 class, so it’s worth keeping an eye on their progress and their health throughout each of the next two seasons. Come 2020, we could see some revisionist history on what would happen if Ezekiel Elliot and Leonard Fournette were in the same draft.


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