Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Is any running back in the 2024 NFL Draft class worthy of a Round 1 pick?

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For a running back, there is a unique pressure that comes with having to make the bulk of your professional earnings off your rookie deal. Short of QB, no other position is subject to the same kind of NFL Draft scrutiny because it’s understood that you can, in theory, find long-term answers anywhere in the draft (or even after it).

At a time when the NFL’s market for running backs is more constricted than ever, the incoming class might have a hard time breaking through on draft weekend. There’s no surefire first-round talent this time around, like Bijan Robinson a year ago, and you can’t bank on a team aggressively seeking a running back, as the Detroit Lions did with Jahmyr Gibbs.

We’ve seen only one draft in NFL history (2014) when a back wasn’t picked in the top 50. But with the lack of attention drawn by this crop, there could be a repeat occurrence this April.

There are some viable prospects, though, so let’s look at some and profile their play style, productivity and current draft stock.


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Tier 1 (Top-50 range): All-purpose backs

1. TreVeyon Henderson, Ohio State: Henderson is the most talented back in this class and the one name I’d confidently say should be in the top-50 conversation. Now that he’s healthy and available for Ohio State, he’s showing the kind of every-down skills and athletic ability we saw during his breakout freshman campaign.

He is averaging 6.7 yards per carry on his 118 attempts and has produced more than 1,000 yards of total offense, splitting time with Chip Trayanum and Miyan Williams. Of the 129 FBS running backs with at least 100 carries, Henderson ranks eighth in expected points added (EPA) per rush, 11th in explosive rush rate (the percent of runs gaining 12-plus yards) and 14th in yards after contact per rush.

Henderson is listed at 212 pounds, but he looks closer to 225 at times, as he finishes runs with great power and consistently falls forward. His patience and contact balance make him valuable on traditional under-center runs or spread schemes, and he has enough burst to get to the third level of defenses. His best asset is his change of speed, which he uses along with his jump cuts to break pursuit angles. He’s a good enough pass protector and pass catcher to play on third downs, too.

He’s at the top of my position board, and he could be a quality starter early in his NFL career.

2. Jonathon Brooks, Texas: Brooks will be an interesting test case for the current state of affairs at this position. Before the ACL tear he suffered earlier this month, Brooks might have been just a stride behind Henderson. Now, it might make the most sense for him to return to school and try to ensure his 2025 draft stock is as high as possible.

Brooks doesn’t have the pop in his pads that Henderson does — he wins with a kind of smooth and slippery style reminiscent of Arian Foster. Through 10 games, he’d amassed 1,139 yards and 10 scores on the ground while averaging 6.1 yards per carry. He operated as a bell cow back for Texas but still ranked top 50 in EPA, rushing success rate and yards after contact.

If he declares, I’d take that to mean he feels good about what he hears from draft evaluations.



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3. Braelon Allen, Wisconsin: It feels wrong that we’ve watched Allen for three years now and he’s still only 19. Wisconsin’s profile as a legitimate Big Ten contender has taken a sizable dip during Allen’s college career, and that might have affected his perception nationwide, but there’s still big-time potential in this 6-foot-2, 240-pound bowling ball.

Allen is averaging just 1.6 yards before contact on his rushes this year, which ranks 92nd in the country. The Badgers’ new offensive scheme is supposed to create more seams in the defense, but the offensive line hasn’t generated enough movement for Allen to find the big runs of his freshman year. He has also been battling some lingering injuries all season.

Still, he’s averaging 5 yards per carry and ranks 26th in percentage of yards gained after contact and 23rd in success rate on his rushes. He’s been the main reason Wisconsin has had a viable running game this season, and it would make a lot of sense for him to make the leap to the NFL and maximize his earning potential in his 20s.

Tier 2 (picks 50-100): Outside zone runners and pass catchers

With so many NFL offenses existing between the Kyle Shanahan-inspired outside zone world when under center and the spread passing game from shotgun, teams need explosive-play potential in at least one of the backs in their rotation. Outside of the top three guys in this class — each of whom could be a legitimate star at the position — the following crop looks to be the most valuable.

4. Trey Benson, Florida StateBenson is my favorite of the guys meeting this criteria. He possesses an impressive combination of decisiveness between the tackles and shiftiness in the open field that changes the dynamic of a running game. In noting how much he hated leaving Benson off his recent top-50 draft board, The Athletic’s Dane Brugler made mention of Benson’s lighter workload, but the Florida State standout still ranks top 40 in rushing EPA per game, meaning he’s turning a limited number of carries into big-time offense.

I’d also expect Benson to run one of the best 40-yard dash times in this class.

5. Trevor Etienne, Florida: Etienne has quietly (but quickly) come onto the radar, becoming a splash-play machine in 2023. He ranks top 15 in EPA per rush despite having one of the lowest yards-before-contact numbers in the FBS. He’s gained an incredible 71 percent of his yards after contact this year, and 32 percent of his touches have resulted in a first down or touchdown.

Etienne has a compact frame at 5 feet 9, 205 pounds, and he has stayed durable enough to believe he can be a real piece of an NFL rotation.

6. Will Shipley, Clemson: Similar to Allen, Shipley might have a bit of an overexposure issue — he’s been a known commodity in college football since his freshman year in 2021. He hasn’t helped push beyond that with up-and-down production, but his speed and hands are still there.

7. Donovan Edwards, Michigan: The same conversation exists for Edwards, who just hasn’t produced the kind of splash plays as a runner or receiver that he did toward the end of the 2022 campaign. The athletic ability isn’t an issue for him or Shipley, but consistency is, and that might knock them out of top-100 consideration should they declare.



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Tier 3 (Day 3 options): Outside looking in

8. Blake Corum, Michigan: The name (and ranking) here that likely will draw the most attention, but the eye test hasn’t shown Corum to have the same pop that existed before his 2022 knee injury. Corum has been an effective runner, especially in short-yardage situations and heavier personnel groupings, but his 7.2 percent explosive rush rate ranks 110th — and he’s playing behind one of the better offensive lines in the country.

9. Bucky Irving, Oregon

10. Jase McClellan, Alabama

11. Kendall Milton, Georgia

12. MarShawn Lloyd, USC

Guys such as Irving and Lloyd benefit a great deal from their QBs, as they’re often able to run into lighter boxes and against smaller personnel groupings. They’re tough runners with adequate speed, so it’s not entirely fair to say they’re scheme-/situation-dependent players, but neither is reliable enough as a pass protector to be a third-down specialist. They’re also not the type of all-purpose backs who could lead the charge on early downs.

As for McClellan and Milton, two big-bodied backs who are built to punish defenses, their draft market likely will be restrained to teams that emphasize under-center, downhill-run schemes. On passing downs, they can be solid in protection, but an offense would be giving something away in terms of having a receiving threat out of the backfield. Both guys can likely hang around the league for multiple contracts, but expect them to find their homes late in the draft.

(Photos of Jonathon Brooks, Trey Benson and TreyVeyon Henderson: John Rivera / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images; Grant Halverson, Jason Mowry / Getty Images)

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