This is the first part of our 11-part positional breakdown of the April 28-30 NFL draft. Today: the running backs.
Ben Fennell is an Emmy award-winning producer, editor and analyst across several sports and media platforms. He has been involved in the production of the last eight drafts for NFL Network and also is a producer for the NFL on CBS. You can follow Ben on Twitter at @BenFennell_nfl.
Running backs haven’t been a very valuable commodity in the draft lately. Just 15 of them have been taken in the first round of the last 10 drafts. Only four have gone in the first round of the last three drafts, none higher than 19th.
Don’t look for that to change this year. It’s possible probably even likely, that no running back will get taken in the first round. That hasn’t happened since 2014, when a back didn’t get claimed until the 54th pick (Bishop Sankey to Tennessee).
Iowa State’s Breece Hall is the best running back in this draft. He could squeeze into the back end of the first round, but it’s more likely he’ll be an early-second round selection.
The dearth of first-round running backs the last 10 years speaks more to how the NFL game has changed than a lack of quality players at the position.
With a few exceptions, workhorse running backs are a thing of the past in the quarterback-driven NFL. In the last five seasons, just eight players have had 300-plus carries in a season. During that same period, just 11 players have rushed for 1,300-plus yards. Compare that to 2005-06, when 20 players had 300-plus carries and 16 rushed for 1,300-plus yards.
“While we may not have a first-round running back this year, I still think this is a pretty exciting group of backs,” NFL Network draft analyst Ben Fennell said. “I think there’s a lot of potential starters in this group. It’s deep through the middle (rounds). There probably will be as many running backs taken in the first 3-4 rounds as there always are. The way teams value these guys just has changed.
“There are all different shapes and sizes in this group. You’ve got a ton of 220-225-pound types that teams are going to want to use to bang and wear defenses down. And you’ve got a lot of smaller guys with speed that you want to get into space and who can really help you in the passing game.”
Last year, 23 running backs had 40 or more receptions. The same number had 300-plus receiving yards.
Fennell’s top 5 (traditional)
1—Breece Hall, Iowa State, 5-11, 217, Rd. 1-2
2—Kenneth Walker III, Michigan St., 5-9, 211, Rd. 2
3—Hassan Haskins, Michigan, 6-2, 228, Rd. 3-4
4—Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M, 6-0, 217, Rd. 3-4
5—Brian Robinson Jr., Alabama, 6-2, 225, Rd. 3-4
The Best (traditional)
Hands: 9 ¾ inches
40 time: 4.39 seconds
Vertical jump: 40 inches
Ben’s take: “Hall is an upright, slashing runner. Possesses a combination of patience, burst and explosiveness. He almost comes to a stop at times behind the line of scrimmage while reading his blocks and waiting for them to develop.
“Once he gets to the second and third levels, he’s very creative, very loose. He has great contact-balance and is very hard to bring down. The last two years, he had the third most yards-after-contact in college football.
“He tested very well at the combine. Catches the ball well even though he wasn’t used very much in the pass game at Iowa State (36 catches last season, 82 the last three years). Basically, he’s a Matt Forte type of back.
“The one issue I have with him is he’s a bit of a run-to-daylight guy. Which is to say he has a lot of big runs, but it’s at the expense of a lot of negative and no-gain runs. He won’t always just lower his shoulder and get the “dirty’’ yard. He’s a guy who always wants to bounce it outside, find the crease, get to the sideline. But when you get those 50-yard runs, people forget about all of the no-yard gains.
“Hall should be a three-down back in the NFL. He pass-protects well enough. As I mentioned, he can catch the ball. His upside in the pass game has yet to be tapped into.”
Round projection: 1-2
The Riser (traditional)
Kenneth Walker III
Hands: 9 ½ inches
40 time: 4.38 seconds
Vertical jump: 34 inches
Ben’s take: “Walker was a transfer from Wake Forest who rushed for 1,636 yards and 18 touchdowns in his only season in East Lansing. Like Hall, he’s a well-rounded back. He’s a low-to-the-ground type who can really lower his pads. Plays through contact very well.
“Walker is more of a sudden shaker. He’s not really a loose, can-juke-you-out-of-your-shoes runner. He’s very firm. More of a one-cut, downhill runner. He’s great in a zone scheme. Great after contact. Great in short-yardage. He broke a lot of big runs that people didn’t expect because they underestimated his speed. They expected him to be a 4.5 guy, but he tested out of this world.
“Like Hall, he wasn’t really featured as a pass catcher at Michigan State (just 13 catches last year). But he did it pretty well at the combine and at his Pro Day. He’s a great kid off the field as well. A captain/leader type.”
Round projection: 2
The Sleeper (traditional)
Hands: 9 5/8 inches
40 time: 4.60 seconds
Vertical jump: 33 inches
Ben’s take: “He’s a little thicker than Hall and Walker. A converted linebacker. He’s a thick power back. Very physical. Runs behind his pads very well. Loves to cut back in from the sideline and find extra work.
“He has great vision on his cuts in zone schemes. A one-cut, downhill runner who keeps his shoulders square. Extremely productive after contact. He’s a violent runner. Runs through arm tackles easily. And he can pick up his feet in the open field against defensive backs. He had 25 runs of 20-plus yards the last two seasons. That was the third most in the FBS.
“I’m not entirely sure what you do with him on third down. He wasn’t featured in the passing game all that much at BYU (42 catches the last two years). He was minimally involved in pass-protection. They had another running back they used a lot on third down.’’
Round projection: 4
Fennell’s Top 5 (passing game)
1—Kyren Williams, Notre Dame, 5-9, 194, Rd. 2-3
2—James Cook, Georgia, 5-11, 199, Rd. 3
3—Tyler Badie, Missouri, 5-8, 197, Rd. 3-4
4—Trestan Ebner, Baylor, 5-11, 206, Rd. 4
5—Pierre Strong Jr., S. Dakota St., 5-11, 206, 5-6
The Best (passing game)
Hands: 9 inches
40 time: 4.65 seconds
Vertical jump: 32 inches
Ben’s take: “Williams is an Austin Ekeler type. He’s an excellent pass-protector and has terrific hands (77 receptions the last two years). You can put him in the slot. You can match him up against safeties and linebackers. He hit an angle route against Florida State and turned it into a 55-yard touchdown.
“He had some violent plays in pass-protection. It’s probably his best quality. He’s a pretty physical player for his size. He’ll surprise you with his physicality. But he’s not really a three-down guy. You’re going to want to pair him up with somebody else as part of a 1-2 punch. That’s how a lot of people are being used anyway.”
Round projection: 2-3
The Riser (passing game)
Hands: 9 3/8 inches
40 time: 4.42 seconds
Vertical jump: 33 inches
Ben’s take: “Dalvin’s brother. He’s 20 pounds lighter than Dalvin, but they’re both equally explosive. He looks taller than he is. Reminds you of (Nyheim) Himes, Tony Pollard, Curtis Samuel, those kind of guys. He’s a one-cut, downhill home run threat every time he touches the ball.
“He’s a guy you want to use on the edges, even though he also can run between the tackles. He’s a slashing runner. He gets to top speed very quickly. He’s very loose. Makes tons of exciting plays in space. You want to get him on the move in space. Jet sweeps. Screens.
“He catches the ball very well. When they ran wheel routes with the running backs at the combine, he was the only back who caught the ball above his head. He’s just a very natural receiver.
“I think he’s going to be an absolute weapon for somebody on third down. I could see him going to a team like the Rams and replacing Sony Michel. He just doesn’t quite have the size you want for a guy you’re going to bang between the tackles on a regular basis.”
Round projection: 3
The Sleeper (passing game)
Pierre Strong Jr.
South Dakota St.
Hands: 9 ¼ inches
40 time: 4.37 seconds
Vertical jump: 36 inches
Ben’s take: “He tested off the charts at the combine. Had a very productive college career. They didn’t throw the ball to him a lot at South Dakota State, but when they did, he was effective, whether it was in the screen game or on angle routes or vertical seams.
“South Dakota State is an FCS school, but it’s a strong program. Put on the tape of their 2019 game against Minnesota and he had all sorts of plays in the pass game. At the Shrine Bowl, he shredded people in one-on-ones in the pass game. He reminds me of Tevin Coleman when he was coming out of Indiana. He may be more well-rounded than I’m giving him credit for. But I think, at least early on, he’s going to be a pass-game gadget back.”