Zach's Draft Corner: Top Running Backs in 2019
Image Credit: Amal Saeed
Welcome to Zach’s Draft Corner, where it’s always amateur hour.
We’ve already discussed the very top players at the running back and wide receiver positions, but 2020 will be a fantastic year to need a skill position player in the draft. Not only is there Travis Etienne and Jerry Jeudy at the elite prospect level, but there are plenty of prospects that I could easily see being selected prior to the conclusion of Day 2 of the 2020 NFL draft. As with any prospect, how you rank the individual prospects will be based on what traits you value and how risk averse you are, but nobody should bat an eye if these players are selected in the first three rounds next year.
Jonathon Taylor, RB, University of Wisconsin
5'11", 221 pounds
2018 stats: 307 carries for 2194 yards, 7.1 yards per carry (YPC), 16 touchdowns, 8 receptions for 60 yards
The current NCAA leader in career rushing yards is Ron Dayne, another Wisconsin product who played four seasons between 1996 and 1999. Taylor is unlikely to break that record, as he is 2,954 yards short. If Taylor continues his pace, he will wind up around 868 yards short of the record. What needs to be said, though, is that Taylor will wind up 868 yards short of the record with only three full seasons compared to Dayne’s four. This amount of production in a Power 5 conference should show you that Taylor is a strong prospect. He’s an elite athlete with a strong offensive line that gives him easy reads. Taylor’s film is routinely a highlight film, and it will be difficult for evaluators to find too much wrong with him with so much built in for things to go right.
A.J. Dillon, RB, Boston College
6'0", 245 pounds
2018 stats: 227 carries for 1108 yards (10 games), 4.9 YPC, 10 touchdowns, 8 receptions for 41 yards
Taylor might be considered an elite athlete in the traditional sense, but Dillon is an elite athlete because of the way he moves as a massive running back. Dillon is the closest thing we have seen to Marshawn Lynch since Beast Mode was running through Saints and grabbing his crotch while diving into the end zone at the CLink. At an inch taller and 30 pounds heavier, Dillon might be even more ferocious. The unceremoniously dubbed Mammoth Mode (unceremoniously because I did it just now), Dillon was banged up for a few games last year, and teams are wanting to move towards smaller, quicker running backs who can be weapons in the passing game. He may not be going across the middle for slants, but Dillon can take a screen pass, whip up a head of steam, and plow over some linebackers just fine. Dillon is one of my favorite running backs in this class to watch, and will be yours too if you like old school bruisers in the vein of Mike Alstott.
D'Andre Swift, RB, University of Georgia
5'9", 215 pounds
2018 stats: 163 carries for 1049 yards, 6.4 YPC, 10 touchdowns, 32 receptions for 297 yards
Having to resort to splitting time with Elijah Holyfield last season, 2019 is the Year of Swift, and I couldn’t be more excited for it. Swift is one of the most controlled and balanced runners in this class, with the athleticism to break away on a long run at any moment. He’s also one of the strongest receivers in this class, and could have a very Alvin Kamara-esque burst onto the scene when he gets drafted if he gets to go to an offense more creative than what Georgia puts out there. His issues, surprisingly, come in the open field, where he seems to miscalculate angles and run into defenders rather than away from them. Leaving yards on the field is never good, and leaving them in the open field typically results in large chunks of lost yardage. If he can fix that issue this year, the sky is the limit.
J.K. Dobbins, RB, Ohio State University
5'10", 214 pounds
2018 stats: 239 carries for 1053 yards, 4.6 YPC, 10 touchdowns, 26 receptions for 263 yards
Another story of a talented running back having to split time with a less talented one, Dobbins should see an uptick in production with a less crowded backfield and a more dynamic offense. Haskins was a great quarterback, but the system was built for quick plays in the middle of the field, which stacks the defense in the running lanes Dobbins wanted to move through. With Justin Fields running ability and added arm strength, the real estate in the middle of the field should open up, allowing Dobbins to utilize his vision, balance, and athleticism to make some big plays for the Buckeyes this season.
Cam Akers, RB, Florida State University
5'11", 210 pounds
2018 stats: 161 carries for 706 yards, 4.4 YPC, 6 touchdowns, 23 receptions for 145 yards
I feel bad for Akers. He was the top ranked running back in the 2017 class and broke Dalvin Cook’s freshman rushing record at Florida State. In 2018, a new coach brought a new offensive system to the Seminoles, the offensive line devolved into a glorified sheet of paper, and an ankle injury Akers played through limited his production to something far less than what is expected of a player of Akers talent. The problem is that the scheme and offensive line issue likely won’t improve in 2019. Akers should use his talent to run as far away from Florida State after this season, and a team that can spot his talent despite the lack of production could find themselves a steal.
Najee Harris, RB, University of Alabama
6'2", 230 pounds
2018 stats: 117 carries for 783 yards, 6.7 YPC, 4 touchdowns, 4 receptions for 7 yards
Stop me if you’ve heard this before. Alabama has a player go in the first round of the NFL draft, another player at the same position go in the third round of the NFL draft, and then will replace those players with another large, strong, athletic player who might be even more talented than the players that left. At certain positions, Alabama is just a football factory, and running back is certainly one of them. Harris should still produce at a similar level in his new role, and looks to be a Bo Scarbrough-type running back but without the health concerns. The San Francisco-area native ended three different careers on a single run against Tennessee last year, and only the stiff arm would be expected on a running back of Harris’s size. With a full year of being the main back for Alabama, his stock should rise quickly.
Eno Benjamin, RB, Arizona State University
5'10", 201 pounds
2018 stats: 300 carries for 1642 yards, 5.5 YPC, 16 touchdowns, 35 receptions for 263 yards
Time for a personal story here. As a new Iowa fan in 2010, I was told of their troubles recruiting the higher end talent. I was extremely excited when they received a commitment from a running back out of the state of Wisconsin named Melvin Gordon, and I though maybe things would change. Gordon ended up decommitting to stay closer to home at the University of Wisconsin, and Iowa endured a streak of 2- and 3-star running backs. Then Eno Benjamin committed to the Hawkeyes. I was elated that a 4-star running back out of the state of Texas would commit to Iowa, and he was a loud recruiting tool to help lure other talent to Iowa City. Unfortunately, Benjamin wanted to continue to be wooed by other schools, Iowa disapproved, and the two sides mutually agreed to part ways. Today, Iowa still struggles to get that top-end talent at skill positions, and Benjamin looks to be a potential first round prospect
Benjamin does it all. He can run defenders over, he can run around defenders, he can catch out of the backfield. He is a complete, modern running back. He can sometimes get a little too cute with his moves, but the moves are effective enough where he still pulls it off. Now, please excuse me while I go cry into a pint of Ben & Jerry’s and think of what could have been.
Ke’Shawn Vaughn, RB, Vanderbilt University
5’10”, 215 pounds
2018 stats: 157 carries for 1244 yards, 7.9 YPC, 12 touchdowns, 13 receptions for 170 yards
Vaughn was a former 4-star running back prospect out of Nashville, TN who spurned offers from Tennessee, Ohio State, Wisconsin, West Virginia, and Notre Dame to attend the University of Illinois, a school with a severe lack of talent along the offensive line in a conference with a vast amount of talent along the defensive lines. He made the best of a bad situation, but wanted out after his sophomore season. Vaughn transferred home and sat out the 2017 season, but burst onto the scene with one of the best seasons of any running back in the country. Vaughn averaged nearly 8 yards per carry in the SEC, which is likely the strongest conference in the nation at the top. Vaughn is decisive, fast, and balanced, which is a deadly combination. I can pick any number of long runs, highlighting his speed, as the play to include here, but this play where he absolutely trucks a linebacker shows how varied Vaughn’s game can be.
J.J. Taylor, RB, University of Arizona
5’6”, 184 pounds
2018 stats: 255 carries for 1434 yards, 5.6 YPC, 6 touchdowns, 16 receptions for 133 yards
You read that right. 5’6”. It’s hard to make it to the NFL at that size, but his saving grace is the 184 pounds makes him as thick of a 5’6” as you can get. The Darren Sproles comparisons will be obvious, but are fitting for this playmaker. Taylor isn’t going to make his money by running over defenders, but his speed, quickness, and lack of surface area make him as tough as any back in this class to bring down. Taylor is also an excellent receiver, though he doesn’t get to highlight his talents in an Arizona offense that is severely lacking a passing game.
SMALL SCHOOL SLEEPER
Darrynton Evans, RB, Appalachian State University
5'11", 191 pounds
2018 stats: 179 carries for 1187 yards, 6.6 YPC, 7 touchdowns, 12 receptions for 87 yards
Evans is the classic case of “get the talent now, find a way to use him later.” During his freshman season, Evans wasn’t even given a real position. College Football Reference simply lists him as a “UT,” or Utility Player. During his sophomore campaign, Appalachian State moved Evans to wide receiver, producing meager results. Finally, during his junior season in 2018, Appalachian State moved Evans to running back, and he exploded onto the scene. His pure athleticism is a joy to watch in the open field, but there are still a lot of nuances and vision aspects of his game that he needs to fix. However, I repeat, he was just moved to the running back position last year. Give this kid some time, and his talent as a running back will start to match his supreme athleticism.
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