Written By: Jason Feiner, @FeinerScores
The draft evaluation process continues to evolve and prospect rankings frequently change. Only nine days separate us from the on-field drills and interview process of the NFL Combine. Many will have the opportunity to raise their stock while others may hurt their standing. The Combine will paint a large picture on where certain prospects may fall in the draft, and with many high profile players, this years event will be one to watch.
Last year, the talent pool at running back consisted of the number 2 overall pick, Saquon Barkley, who claimed the 2018 Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Already sporting impressive talent, the rookie class has been dominant providing role players and plays throughout the season. Although it is not always imperative to get a high profile runner near the top of the draft, it doesn’t hurt to take an impact runner to help drain the clock.
Take the Broncos for example; Phillip Lindsay, an electric, small-bodied, and powerful runner was sensational this year after going undrafted in 2018. There are some occasions where these types of players fall through the cracks, but it is not likely to happen each season. Just a few years ago, the running back position group was thought to be dying. However, with the additions of Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon, both drafted inside the top 15 of the 2015 NFL Draft, it didn’t take long for other organizations to follow suit, capturing playmakers and every down ball carriers.
This year is a little different than last year’s top-heavy offensive draft. The top of the 2019 draft class consists of a multitude of defensive prospects giving way to a plethora of running back talent in the early and mid portions of day 2 and 3. These players have the ability and production to evolve into workhorse backs and will benefit from NFL coaching and schemes. With plenty of ground-and-pound talent expected to come off the board in the mid-rounds, the value has never been better when selecting the next all-purpose back. Let’s take a look at Blitzalytics’ top 5 running back prospects heading to the draft this coming April.
Does your team need a playmaker to control the clock?
1. Josh Jacobs: University of Alabama
Avoiding a defender in the hole, Jacobs pushes the pile for a 12 yard run.
Weight: 216 lbs
Career Stats: 40 Games Played
Rushing Yards: 1491
Yards Per Rush: 5.9
Rushing Touchdowns: 16
Fumbles: 3 (2 lost)
Receiving yards: 571
Yards Per Reception: 11.9
Receiving Touchdowns: 5
Kickoff Return Touchdown: 1
The main addition to the talent pool in the running back class is Josh Jacobs. Jacobs was the backbone of the Crimson Tide offense. Although he wasn’t listed as the starter, he was the hammer at the end of games that often delivered the final blow. With an infectious personality and drive to succeed. He is a team player who strives to do everything he can to account for team success and win games. Josh Jacobs has been consistently utilized to finish opponents and drain the clock late in the game. He is a tough runner who can take over games despite his limited share of the workload. Jacobs was the hammer in the offense, finishing with 14 total touchdowns including three receiving. On limited touches in a crowded backfield, Jacobs consistently showed why he was the best running back in the class displaying elite athleticism, dependability, power, vision and quickness. He is a versatile back that will continue to win over his team as an unsung hero who continues to provide in any way to allow for team success.
The Crimson Tide runner is a powerful back who is not afraid to dominate defenders in contact. His vision at the line allows him to utilize a vicious jump-cut providing room to break into the crease and explode to the next level. Jacobs runs with excellent knee bend and pad level to consistently win in contact and barrel forward for extra yards. He possesses a strong lower body and the determination and balance to stay on his feet and turn out tough yards in a crowd. Possessing exceptional athleticism, quick feet and outstanding lateral agility, the Bama runner can frequently make the first defender miss in the backfield and break into open space, while using his speed to turn around the corner and down the sideline. Jacobs vision and elite movement ability make him a nightmare to track down in each part of the field, and a menace to stop prior to the line of scrimmage. Although he has the elusiveness to avoid contact, he relishes the opportunity to bully defenders and run through them with his pads. With his combined speed and playmaking ability, he is a threat to score with any opportunity.
His versatility and leadership will be highly coveted, as the Alabama product makes the transition to the NFL turf. He is a natural leader with the will and work ethic to succeed. His versatility as a runner, pass catcher and willingness to produce on special teams will be a bonus for any team picking him within the first 32 selections. He is a superstar in the making with immense upside.
One of the most threatening arguments against Jacobs first round price tag is his workload. He was terribly underutilized throughout his tenure at the collegiate level. He has had one game of 20 carries in his career and averaged 6.2 attempts per game over the course of his career, and without a sizeable workload, it is yet to be seen if Jacobs can handle a feature back role in the NFL. The power back accrued just one game of 100 yards in 40 career games and was never named as the starting back in Bama’s offense. Jacob's has sustained numerous injuries throughout his career including multiple hamstring, and ankle injuries, while requiring surgery to heal a broken bone at the end of his sophomore season. His football IQ will also be tested at the next level, as he was never tasked with running a full route tree and will need to perfect his ability in this area in order to be a reliable weapon on passing downs.
Jacobs is a hard runner with a nose for the big play. He shows the versatility to run over defenders or make them miss in the open field, while possessing the versatility to catch balls out of the backfield. He is reliable in pass protection too. He possesses the talent to become a dominant three-down workhorse at the next level. His usage in Alabama's offense is concerning. Having only carried the ball 20 times once in his career and producing one game of 100 yards doesn't sit well with most. He hasn't shown the durability to be a workhorse back at the next level when considering his career workload or injury history. Although he possesses the talent their are concerns with his overall impact and production as a 3-down back. However, his talent, vision, power, quick feet, lateral agility and versatility make up for all the concerns a team could possibly have. Jacobs is a future star at the next level and is worth a first round selection. His character traits and leadership ability are added bonuses that will make most teams place him high on their boards. His style of running is reminiscent of a combination between Sony Michel (vision and footwork) and Derrius Guice (Power and aggression).
Projected Round: 1
Team Fits: Raiders, Buccaneers, Ravens, Colts
NFL Comparison: Sony Michel
2. David Montgomery: Iowa State University
Montgomery Shows off his lateral agility on route to making four defenders miss on a 23- yard score
Weight: 216 lbs
Career Stats: 36 Games Played
Rushing Yards: 2801
Yards Per Rush: 4.7
Rushing Touchdowns: 25
Receiving yards: 527
Yards Per Reception: 7.9
A junior at Iowa State University, David Montgomery has been the Cyclones’ offensive leader for the past two seasons, taking over the starting job at the tail end of his true freshman season. He has been dominant on the offensive side of the ball, forcing a FBS record 109 missed tackles in 2017, breaking the previous mark of 89 held by Dalvin Cook when he was at FSU. Montgomery has been unstoppable, continuously producing big plays and long yardage runs. Throughout his record-breaking campaign in 2017, Montgomery accrued 1,146 yards on 4.4 yards per carry with 11 touchdowns on the ground, while adding 36 receptions for 296 yards. He dominated defenses in 2017 and continued his production in 2018. Through the first 11 weeks of the year, the Cyclones’ leading playmaker has compiled 249 total touches while gaining 1,194 yards and 12 touchdowns on 4.7 yards per carry. He is an electric playmaker who helped provide a win against powerhouse West Virginia, recording 189 yards and a score on 6.5 yards per carry alone. Having been awarded a consensus First-Team All-Big 12 in 2017, he has built on his resume and is the top running back prospect entering the 2019 Draft.
While NFL running back rooms are often led by a committee, the featured back role is not obsolete and David Montgomery has the makings to be the next great one.
Possessing a solid NFL build and electric athleticism, the Cyclone runner has displayed immense lateral agility and short area burst to beat defenders to the edge and around contact. He’s a tackle breaker. When moving laterally, the athletic back is tough to bring down, routinely bouncing off contact and breaking into open space. He is a physical runner with the play strength and pad level to bully defenders in the hole. However, Montgomery will not rely solely on his play strength. He creates separation with his agility, consistently making defenders miss and bowl through arm tackles to keep clean and stay healthy. Montgomery may be strong at the point of attack with exceptional contact balance, capable of throwing his hand in the turf to regain his momentum and keep his feet, but these traits are not his only ammunition. He continues to impress all spectators with his stop-start ability, forcing defenders to fly right past him. He is an elusive back by nature and can avoid and break through contact with ease. Montgomery also has the potential to become a deadly dual threat with his soft hands. He is solid in pass protection, utilizing good technique, staying square, and riding blocks with leverage.
Iowa State’s do-it-all back may be a dominant runner, but he doesn’t come without his negatives. The elusive back suffers an occasional lapse in vision, causing him to miss inside gaps while bouncing the ball outside. This often forces Montgomery to dance in the backfield, losing excessive yardage in the process. He has taken numerous runs for loss throughout his career. Though athletic and shifty, he is not a burner that can instantly beat defenders. His speed and overall athleticism have been a concern when running downhill, and he will not consistently win unless he uses his lateral movement. He is also susceptible to fighting the ball as a receiver and turning upfield too quickly, leaving the ball to fall incomplete. He will also need to develop his mental processing when finding the free rusher in traffic. To be a three down back, Montgomery will need to learn quickly to block the inside rusher prior to moving toward the edge on pass protection. Although he does a great job at avoiding contact, his physical running style could lead to durability issues down the line, especially having already tallied 665 touches in his collegiate career. Another part of his game that draws a concern doesn’t even necessarily impact his playing ability. Throughout his career, Montgomery has let his emotions get the better of him. He threw punches against Baylor in a scuffle and was punished with a suspension for the first half of the Texas game. This is a red flag that will need to be addressed in the interviews come draft season.
David Montgomery is a powerful back with good size and immense athletic traits. With great elusiveness and contact balance, the Cyclone is a big play waiting to happen whenever he touches the ball. Although his vision isn’t always clear, causing poor decisions in the backfield, he is a master at creating from nothing. He is more quick and balanced than fast, but he has enough juice to reach the sideline and turn upfield. He will need to develop in the passing game and has the potential to be an every down workhorse at the next level.
Projected Round: 1-2
Team Fits: Colts, Falcons, Panthers, Chiefs
NFL Comparison: Dalvin Cook
3. Rodney Anderson: University of Oklahoma
Anderson utilizes his vision, lateral movement and contact balance to weave out of trouble on a TD carry.
Weight: 220 lbs
Career Stats: 17 Games Played
Rushing Yards: 1285
Yards Per Rush: 6.4
Rushing Touchdowns: 16
Receiving yards: 281
Yards Per Reception: 16.5
Receiving Touchdowns: 5
Rodney Anderson has endured one of the most disappointing careers in recent NCAA history. This isn’t because the Sooner lacks talent, size or potential — he possesses all of the above, but has suffered injury after injury, leaving his entire career to wishes and could-haves. Oklahoma's bellcow has suffered three season-ending injuries including a fractured leg in 2015, an undisclosed neck injury that ended his 2016 campaign prematurely, and a gruesome knee injury with the same season-ending result. When on the field, he is an electric and powerful three-down back capable of causing damage on the ground or threw the air. Having played in all 14 games in 2017, Anderson was named second team All-Big 12 for his efforts in accruing 1,161 yards and 13 touchdowns with 6.1 yards per carry mark adding 17 receptions for 281 yards and another 5 touchdowns through the air. After a lackluster start to the season, in which he came off the bench for the first 4 games receiving just 15 touches, he exploded in the final 8 weeks of the season. He was an impact player on Oklahoma’s offense during Baker Mayfield’s Heisman winning campaign and performed in big moments. Although the team recorded a loss to the Bulldogs in the College Football Playoff, Anderson was not the reason, as he gashed Georgia for 201 yards and 2 scores on an average of 7.7 yards per run. Although he has suffered a myriad of injuries, he still has the skill-set that makes him a coveted NFL prospect.
The Oklahoma product possesses an NFL frame with a good, thick build, powerful thighs and great athleticism. He has quick feet, outstanding lateral agility in short areas of the field, and great change of direction with the ability to plant his foot and cut upfield quickly. Anderson is a one-cut back who impresses with straight-line burst and excellent explosion to fire through open lanes in the line. He displays an excellent feel for the second and third levels of the defense, often understanding how to manipulate box defenders when pressing the line of scrimmage just to use his jump cut, bouncing outside and finding open space in traffic. Utilizing a surprising second gear when considering his size, he can explode in space, eliminating pursuit angles and forcing diving tackle attempts. When combining his explosive nature with his powerful leg drive and outstanding contact balance, the hard runner is a tough tackle in the open field. He is willing to drop his pads and initiate contact while consistently falling forward and gaining extra yards. The oft-injured runner has shown solid decisiveness when approaching gaps while moving North and South quickly with power behind his pads. When healthy, Anderson has shown immense versatility that would have offensive coordinators drooling.
With outstanding instincts and a high football IQ, the Sooner product has provided big assistance in the passing game responsible for running a full NFL route tree. Displaying great hands out of the backfield, he has had the responsibility to split out wide to running routes down field and winning in traffic. He has made a few “wow” catches throughout his career and provides a mismatch against slower defensive backs and linebackers. He is a true weapon, providing the versatility to become a featured back at the next level.
Anderson’s health is important to bring up again. Having missed three of four collegiate seasons, the Oklahoma product is a high-risk, high-reward type of pick that will almost certainly fall down draft boards. On top of his durability question marks, Anderson has concerning off-field issues, including an investigation into a rape accusation where the charges were eventually dropped. The combination of these two issues is cause for concern in the front office of an organization and will be the hot topic of many team interviews during the pre-draft process.
Every player has areas for improvement, and Anderson is no different.. Although he is a decisive runner who likes to get up field quickly, he can become impatient and lose his vision. He tries to attack the line without a clear running lane, failing to wait for a cut-back route. He can be too quick to bounce the ball outside without waiting for the blocks and gaps to develop. Anderson possesses an urgent running style and becomes frantic when pushing behind the offensive lineman. He pulls on the edge, often jumping at the first sight of sunlight. Although willing in pass protection, he reaches for the defender instead of engaging and needs to stay square rather than turning his shoulders and overextending.
Rodney Anderson possesses all the traits that create featured backs at the next level — the necessary size, power, intelligence, versatility and athleticism to succeed in each phase of the game. He may lack game experience, having only played in 17 games, but his versatility provides offensive systems a chess piece to utilize in a variety of ways. He has the ability to beat any opponent with his legs or hands and can wear down a defense as the game goes on with his physical and daunting running style. He has areas that will need to improve, but if he stays healthy — a big if — Anderson will provide the workhorse impact as a runner, pass catcher and returner... if his drafting team is feeling risky. His upside and potential will make a team take the risk to potentially eat a mid-round draft pick. If he can stay on the field, Anderson will be “the” steal of the draft.
Projected Round: 4 (Round 1 talent)
Team Fits: Chiefs, Eagles, Raiders, Jets
NFL Comparison: DeAngelo Williams
4. Karan Higdon: University of Michigan
Bouncing off bodies in the backfield to find daylight down the sideline and showing off his second gear.
Career Stats: 39 Games Played
Rushing Yards: 2616
Yards Per Rush: 5.6
Rushing Touchdowns: 27
Receiving yards: 177
Yards Per Reception: 11.1
Karan Higdon has been the leader of Michigan’s backfield for the past two years. He helped carry Michigan's offense past Penn State, the 12th ranked team in the nation, with 132 yards on 6.6 yards per carry and a touchdown in the 42-7 blowout victory. Accruing his best season under Jim Harbaugh in 2018, Higdon has recorded 1,178 yards and 10 touchdowns on a 5.3 yard per carry average. He has been the leader of the offense and their bellcow, touching the ball a total of 231 times in 11 contests. He was the fuel that helped lead the Wolverines to a 10-2 record and a national rank of 7.
Higdon is an athletic and powerful back with good foot quickness, allowing him to move down the line in a hurry. Often displaying good agility in the hole, the Wolverine has the talent to break into the open field at all levels, utilizing an effective jump cut to bounce the ball while maintaining good balance. Higdon also has the speed to outrun the second level and the talent to hit a second gear both in the hole and in space. He hits the hole hard on every run, showing off his explosive capability and allowing him to fire through traffic while looking to punish defenders in contact. Capable of transitioning speed to power behind his pads, Higdon can run through defenders by pairing his potent burst with a powerful leg drive. He has displayed great patience in the hole by waiting for his blocks to develop before exploding up field. He is a pure power back with good athletic ability to gash defense for big plays, often looking for defenders to bully. In terms of leadership, Higdon may be a bit cocky, but he is a competitor that will fight for every yard and do anything to help his team win.
Despite his physical presence, Higdon lacks the prototypical build to sustain the beating he endures through his personal running style. The hard runner does not possess an overly thick frame or large amounts of body mass to consistently take on contact without risk of injury. Having missed practices and games throughout his career due to minor injuries, he needs to add weight to his frame in order to sustain his physical demeanor. Although it hasn’t been a problem to this point, it could evolve into a catalyst for durability issues at the next level. Mental processing is a large trait running backs need, and Higdon has missed opportunities to bounce cuts outside. Instead, he engages tacklers rather than looking for the daylight. However, these are not the worst of his issues. Higdon has not garnered much opportunity in the passing game, instead leaving receiving back duties to Chris Evans. His technique in pass protection is an issue. With a tendency to overextend, Higdon will often miss completely while chipping a defender. He was rarely used in Michigan's system as a receiver — he fights the ball and has no knowledge of a route tree. His versatility is capped, and if he wants to become an every-down back at the next level his pass blocking, awareness, and hands will all need to improve.
Higdon is a competitor with a contact-first playing style. He is capable of turning out tough yardage through the trenches and occasionally breaking the play outside, utilizing his jump cut to provide a home-run play and using his straight-line speed, explosion, and second gear to get behind the defense. However, there are too many plays that were stopped at the line due to his aggressive downhill running and lack of vision. Higdon's greatest deficiency comes in the form of the passing game. To stay on the field in the NFL, running backs need to be proficient in pass protection or they will be pulled from the game immediately. Willingness to block is not enough, and he will need to develop in order to consistently stay on the field as a workhorse back. Higdon has the ability to take over early-down work at the start of his career, but a lack of passing game experience will force him to the sideline in most passing situations.
Projected Round: Round 3
Team Fits: Buccaneers, Saints, Packers
NFL Comparison: Jordan Howard
5. Damien Harris: University of Alabama
Weight: 216 lbs
Career Stats: 47 Games Played
Rushing Yards: 2965
Yards Per Rush: 6.5
Rushing Touchdowns: 21
Receiving yards: 379
Yards Per Reception: 7.9
Receiving Touchdowns: 2
There is no denying that Alabama is a superpower, having been to the National Championship game in each of the last three seasons winning two of them. Damien Harris has been an impact player on each of those three teams and now the senior has a chance to play a final championship game in the Tide’s colors. Bama has never been known as a passing team, but that script has flipped with the emergence of Tua Tagovailoa. This has left fewer options for Harris to emerge as the top back in the 2019 class, as a more balance scheme was utilized. Although fewer opportunities and a backfield committee existed in Nick Saban’s offense, Harris has still produced gaudy numbers while leading college football’s #1 team to an undefeated record and a chance at another title. Throughout the 2018 season, Harris has provided the offense with a versatile power back who excels between the tackles, recording 713 yards on 6.1 yards per attempt with 7 touchdowns on the ground and 17 receptions for 177 yards. He was a large part of the game plan in the blowout win over LSU, providing 19 carries for 107 yards and a score. Harris is a team leader who has garnered the respect of his team and coaches. Although his numbers don’t jump off the page, it is important to remember how deep the Tide’s roster rides — Harris splits time in a committee with 2019 draft prospect Josh Jacobs and 2020 first round prospect Najee Harris. Though Harris is an important part of the Bama backfield, he has never held the featured role. Could that change once he enters the NFL?
Alabama’s lead back possesses great size and power for a next level back, showing solid athleticism for someone who’s primarily a one-cut runner. He is quite capable of making the first defender miss in the hole and on the perimeter. He loves to run as the aggressor, often looking for opposite jerseys to hit. Consistently dropping his pads in tight spaces, he regularly will attempt to make first contact with defenders. Once in contact, Harris has excellent contact balance, capable of absorbing hits and bouncing off, while keeping his forward momentum to pick up extra yards. Utilizing his burst up field, he is a very decisive runner who consistently hits the hole hard, quickly picking up tough yardage as he attacks the line of scrimmage with a relentless presence. Even though Harris’ athleticism lacks oomph, he possesses solid burst and short area quickness to drive up field quickly often displaying the speed to break the corner with blockers in front of him. He has enough juice and a hidden second gear to expose angled pursuits on the edge, forcing poor angled tackle attempts. Throughout his career in Bama’s system, Nick Saban has continuously utilized his starting back in the passing game, where Harris often exhibited his soft hands. He also demonstrates a willingness in pass protection with the potential to develop.
Damien Harris is a bowling ball type of back who can use his balance and body control to cut through traffic and into daylight. However, he lacks overall athleticism with few explosive tendencies, placing a cap on his ceiling. In space, he fails to create and has not developed into a dynamic runner with great agility in the open field. Deep speed has never been Harris’ strong suit as he is repeatedly run down, struggling to break away in the third level often leaving big plays on the table. He doesn’t possess a second gear to outrun the secondary and will not provide big game breaking splash plays. He fails to run with low pad level, giving leverage to tacklers and losing ground when he is late to drop his shoulder. Although being a north and south runner can help runners fire through the hole faster, the same trait can lead to impatience when a hole fails to open. Damien has shown the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield, but he was utilized simplistically as a receiver through arrow and screen routes; never downfield. He struggles with technique in pass protection, often throwing his shoulder at defenders and refusing to use his entire frame giving up ground against the bull rush.
Alabama’s two-year starter has the versatility, size and power to lead an NFL offensive ground attack, but lacks the overall athleticism necessary to become an outright monster at the next level. Although his ceiling is potentially capped, he has enough speed and agility to reach the corner and cut upfield, making defenders pay if they over pursue. His versatility in the passing game and his north and south running style will be heavily valued as a change of pace third down back, with the potential to evolve into an every down workhorse. His overall power, size, and contact balance could help him succeed early as a goalline and short-yardage ball carrier. Don’t expect him to start in year one, but he should develop and win a job sooner rather than later.
Projected Round: Round 3
Team Fits: Saints, Raiders, Ravens
NFL Comparison: Spencer Ware
NFL Draft rankings are always shifting, and another rumble is sure to come prior to the Draft in April.