NFL Draft

2023 NFL Draft: Top 5 Sleeper Picks in Loaded Running Back Class

The 2023 NFL Draft running back class is very deep.

Many already are familiar with Bijan Robinson (scouting report) of Texas, Jahmyr Gibbs (scouting report) of Alabama, Devon Achane (scouting report) of Texas A&M and Zach Charbonnet (scouting report) of UCLA.

However, there are a lot of other backs who likely will be available from the third round on who will provide value to an NFL team.

Top 5 Sleeper Picks at Running Back

UAB running back DeWayne McBride

5. DeWayne McBride, UAB

There will be some questions about the level of competition Dewayne McBride (scouting report) faced in Conference USA, but you can’t question his level of production. McBride rushed for 120 or more yards in 10 of his 11 games last season, and he had nearly 3,100 yards rushing during the past two seasons. He rushed for 19 touchdowns in 2022 after scoring 13 as a sophomore in 2021. He rarely was used in the passing game, but he carried the ball an average of 21 times per game.

The one issue McBride has is fumbling, and that is something he will have to correct. It’s crucial to protect the football in the NFL, and it’s not easy to do because players are coached on how to knock it loose.

Tulane running back Tyjae Spears

4. Tyjae Spears, Tulane

Tyjae Spears (scouting report) is not an extremely big back, he’s 5-foot-10, 201 pounds, but he has remarkable versatility.

Not only did Spears rush for nearly 1,600 yards and 19 touchdowns, but he displays excellent ability at catching the ball coming out of the backfield. He can split out wide and run routes like a wide receiver. Spears can catch a ball anywhere on the field and score a touchdown because he’s got a tremendous burst of speed. Two of his 22 receptions went for touchdowns.

Syracuse running back Sean Tucker

3. Sean Tucker, Syracuse

Sean Tucker (scouting report) is another highly productive back. He had 13 total touchdowns and more than 1,300 yards from scrimmage, including 1,058 yards rushing.

He’s also a good receiver, and that’s important. There is a lot of value in the NFL if you’re not a top-tier guy but you can do multiple things well. You may start your career as a third-down back, and it’s vital to be able to catch the ball, and Tucker does that extremely well, as his 36 receptions in 2022 attest.

Deuce Vaughn Kansas State running back

2. Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State

Deuce Vaughn (scouting report) reminds me of longtime NFL back Darren Sproles. Vaughn is very productive. Some will knock him for his height (5-foot-5, but 179 pounds), but remember it’s not the size of the dog in the fight, it’s the size of the fight in the dog. Vaughn will get tough yards that a lot of people might not expect him to get. He is coming off a season in which he had 1,936  yards from scrimmage and 12 total touchdowns.

His cutting ability is tremendous. First, second and third cuts, he can feel his way through defenses, see what the next cut is he needs to make and force people to miss him in the open field.

He’s not a guy a team will be able to rely on for heavy pass blocking; he’ll have to cut block pass rushers most of the time. But just like Darren Sproles, he will be extremely dangerous as a receiver. Vaughn made 42 receptions for nearly 400 yards in 2022. Vaughn could be an ideal third-down back.

1. Roschon Johnson, Texas

Roschon Johnson (scouting report) could be the steal of the entire draft. His Texas teammate Robinson will be the first back picked, but Johnson has a lot to offer as well, starting with excellent size. He’s a solid 6-foot, 219 pounds.

Johnson had a third of the carries Robinson did, but he averaged 6 yards per rush. He scored six total touchdowns, five on the ground. The intriguing part about Johnson is his athleticism. He has tremendous balance and power, and he breaks tackles extremely well. He’s athletic enough to hurdle players in stride.

Johnson is another player who can catch the ball anywhere on the field. His route tree is very good; it’s more than just screen or swing passes. He can go upfield and make catches in the secondary. He possesses a lot of untapped potential.

Robert Smith is a former NFL running back for the Minnesota Vikings and a two-time Pro Bowler. His career with the Vikings earned him a spot on the 50 Greatest Vikings list. Follow him on Twitter at @Robert26Smith.

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