2022 RB Class; Why the Evolution of the NFL has Tanked the Positional Value

In the past few decades, the NFL has shifted from a running back dominated league into one that heavily relies on success through the air. The “old school” days of the league were dominated by Super Stars like Walter Payton, Emmitt Smith and Barry Sanders…all integral pieces that built the NFL into what it has become today. In the late 90s, a renaissance was brewing that would chance the league forever…little did fans know, but the hard-nosed ground and pound football was transforming into an air raid. In 2001, only 3 QBs all time had thrown for over 4,800 yards in a season…now just 20 years later, there have been 27.

In the last 3 NFL Drafts we have seen 16 wide receivers and tight ends selected in the first round, but just 4 running backs. Albeit, that’s a very small sample size, however, it genuinely and accurately describes the value that is currently held for the running back position. Aforementioned above, it is a league that is now dominated through the air, but in addition it is also a league where running backs commonly play in some sort of committee. Different teams have different schemes that target potential NFL prospects, which creates an insane amount of disparity amongst RB Draft Boards.

The 2017 RB class is a great example that illustrates what the position has become today, in terms of value. In the class, there were 30 RBs drafted, which ranged from 4th overall to 252nd overall. Fournette and McCaffrey, both top 10 picks, panned out really well, but were they worth reaching for when Cook, Mixon, Kamara and Hunt were all available in the 2nd or 3rd Round? It becomes even more of a headscratcher when you realize Aaron Jones was available in the 5th and complete insanity when you realize Austin Ekeler went undrafted. Yes, you can argue that Christian McCaffrey is one of the most dynamic and irreplaceable players in the NFL, but there is a big IF attached…IF he is healthy. The high number of RB injuries due to the volume and aggressiveness necessary to thrive at the position makes the answer to that question almost always no. The high volume of injuries combined with the marginal dispersement of talent adds up to make it almost always not worth drafting a running back inside the top half of the first round. That being said, how does this class stack up?

Top Tier

Breece Hall | Iowa State, JR 6’1″ 220 lbs

At this stage, Hall seems to be the most complete RB prospect in the class. He checks most boxes with a great frame and speed combo, but also has some of the best vision in the class. One of the top producers in the nation, Hall has compiled nearly 4,000 rushing yards and 50 rushing TDs in just 3 years with the Cyclones. Hall was one of the most consistent players in college football and received back to back 1st Team All-American and Big12 POY honors. He played the bell-cow role for a majority of his career, in which he excelled at chipping away and wearing down defenses before breaking off big plays. He moves with grace, but also runs through contact and gets the extra yards on every play and one of his greatest strengths is his ability to turn a broken play into a big gain. He is very versatile and a natural receiver with soft hands that added up to 82 career receptions and 6 TDs. He is a willing pass blocker, but his technique and aggressiveness will call for improvement at the next level. His greatest strength lies in in the open field, where he is most dynamic and elusive. I see Hall going anywhere in the top 50 picks, but it wouldn’t be surprised if he climbed into a 1st Round lock.

Isaiah Spiller | Texas A&M, JR 6’1″ 215 lbs

Spiller lacks the long speed or elite burst on tape, but he is a rather complete prospect that plays sound football and gets the job done. In his three seasons at A&M he has compiled 946, 1,036, and 1,011 yards respectively. Although he never posted any Heisman type numbers, three straight seasons on the 1k mark in the SEC West is impressive in its own right. Spiller fights for the extra yards and has shown excellent vision at times, despite his limited huge play ability. He is a natural receiver that frequently rolled out for passes in the A&M offense. Spiller is a hard prospect to place, but a solid combine would be huge, as his biggest questions are surrounding his speed and burst. Another extremely strong aspect of Spiller is his body control, especially in the receiving phase. He tracks balls with ease and makes off target catches frequently, which further emphasizes his athletic ability and role playing potential.

Kenneth Walker III | Michigan State, JR 5’10” 210 lbs

Walker bursted onto the scene in 2021, after being a relatively unknown at Wake Forrest. The transfer put together a huge season with 1,600 yards and 18 TDs, which at its peak earned some serious Heisman hype in a wide open race. He is a powerful, downhill runner that patiently hits one cut, then goes hard attacking the second level. He is not super dynamic, but is a very steady runner that will hit a wall, bounce it outside and find room. He doesn’t look like a 4.3 guy, but he frequently makes defensive backs miss in the open field, which was extremely evident in his huge game against Michigan. His most underrated quality is his vision, which has significantly improved over time as he got comfortable as the lead dog for the Spartans. He is a major late bloomer, but was the best RB in college football in 2021. The biggest question revolves around his ability as a receiver, as he had just 19 career receptions. Both offenses lacked the utilization of a RB in the pass game, but Walker certainly will be able to display his hands, route running and receiving abilities at the combine and his pro day.

Kyren Williams | Notre Dame, JR 5’9″ 200 lbs

Williams has been a big name in college football for the last two seasons and was a prospect that I think could’ve been a Day 2 pick last year. He is a bit undersized, but is an absolute pitbull on the field and the type of prospect that coaches will fall in love with on tape. He is a do-it-all team player, and by that I mean whatever the coach asks, Williams will do with 100% effort. He carved out back to back 1,000 yard and 35+ reception seasons and made it into the end zone 31 times. His receiving ability is at par with most in the class and certainly will keep him in the Day 2 range. He is a bit undersized, but you really can’t tell on tape, as he is one of the pound for pound strongest runners in the nation. He also excels especially in his willingness to pass block, which further emphasizes his versatility and potential as a prospect and team player.

Tier 2

Rachaad White | Arizona State, JR 6’2″ 210 lbs

White is one of the most dynamic running backs in the class. He had only 42 career attempts heading into the season, but had an average of 10 yards a carry and 5 TDs. In 2021, he upped the ante and put together a 1,000 yard & 15 TD season, on just 182 attempts, and also added 450 yards through the air on 43 receptions. At 6’2″, he is extremely tall and his skillset pushes the intrigue of how productive could he be as a wide receiver? This certainly pushes the envelope for his ability to play in a receiving back role. He is a big and physical back that runs through contact, but that same ability is not always evident as a pass blocker.

Zach Charbonnet | UCLA, JR 6’1″ 220 lbs

Charbonnet is an intriguing prospect in this class. He transferred from Michigan heading into 2021 after being overtaken by Hassan Haskins as the RB1, despite putting up a solid 2019 campaign as the team’s top back as a freshman. After transferring, he put together a very productive season at UCLA, where he regained the lead-dog role and ran for 1,100 yards and 13 TDs. Charbonnet has a solid NFL frame and is a hard-nosed runner that at times can feel impossible to bring down. His biggest strength is his ability to run over linebackers while maintaining great body control through several layers of defenders. He’s got great long speed and exceptional agility on the field, but is likely in the 4.5 range and could be viewed as clunky in the agility drills. However, Charbonnet is a patient runner with above average vision and at times can take over as the best football player on the field. There are many aspects of his game to like, but there is still an element of being a bit “unpolished”, which will keep him as a project at the next level.

Hassan Haskins | Michigan, SR 6’1″ 220 lbs

Hassan Haskins has had an up and down career, but put together a great senior season that has transformed himself back into a draftable prospect. He took over as the bellcow in 2021, put together a 1,200 yard 20 TD season, and is an integral part of the Wolverine’s offense in their first ever playoff bound season. Haskins has a solid NFL frame and a physical and patient run style that has bulldozed his way through the Big10. He took over in the last 3 games of the season, where he ran for a combined 303 yards and 9 TDs on the ground, with 5 of those TDs against #2 Ohio State. Haskins’ late season surge is reminiscent of Trey Sermon last year, but the best could be yet to come in the playoffs on the national stage. He is not the most versatile back and has rarely been used through the air, but his old school style of play will attract NFL scouts into utilizing Haskins in a committee approach.

Chris Rodriguez | Kentucky, JR 5’11” 225 lbs

Rodriguez might not be the biggest name in the class (he hasn’t even declared yet), but I absolutely could see him becoming the Elijah Mitchell of this year. He isn’t the flashiest prospect, but he is steady and gets the job done. He runs well and displays great vision in the backfield, but there were times where he was absolutely swallowed up in games. For instance, against UGA he was held to just 7 yards on 7 carries, which is really concerning from a scouts standpoint. Analytically, he has been amongst the top tailbacks in the country, which will not be ignored. He also wasn’t utilized much as a receiver in the Kentucky offense, but his skillset points us to believe that it is likely due to Kentucky’s offense rather than Rodriguez himself. I am excited to see if Rodriguez declares, but if he returns, then expect him to be a top guy in 2023.

Sincere McCormick | UTSA, JR 5’9″ 205 lbs

McCormick has been one of the most productive players in college football and was a huge reason why the Roadrunners finished with a 12-1 record. McCormick is short, but compact and plays much bigger than his size suggests. He is a handful to bring down and breaks many tackles at the second and third level, but his biggest strength lies when he gets around the edge and utilizes his speed. He is an extremely well rounded prospect, but will be downgraded due to size and experience at a lesser level of competition. However, I love the potential he possesses and believe he could be a steal in the 3rd or 4th round.

Others to Watch

Brian Robinson | Alabama, SR 6’1″ 225 lbs

You have to admire Robinson, who stuck around a crowded backfield at Alabama and now stands atop the depth chart looking at a chance for another Championship. Robinson could have transferred many times during his career, but, like Mac Jones, stuck around and trusted Nick Saban to develop him into being one of the top players in college football. In his first triple digit touch season, Robinson crossed the 1,000 yard mark and added 16 TDs for the Crimson Tide. He’s not the fastest or most athletic prospect in this class, but he is an experienced player coming from a great football background with a proven pipeline to the NFL. I don’t see Robinson anywhere close to the realm of Najee or King Henry, but he absolutely should be drafted into a committee where he can help out right away.

Pierre Strong Jr. | South Dakota State, SR 5’11” 205 lbs

Strong is a small school prospect, but has been one of the most productive and consistent backs in all of football throughout his career. The Jackrabbit RB is light at just 205, but plays up to his size and is an absolute bruiser on the field. Through 4 seasons at the FCS level, he has accumulated 4,500 yards on the ground, 600 through the air and 43 TDs. He likely won’t be drafted early, but listen for his name in the late rounds and expect for him to 100% be in the running to make a 53 man roster.

D’vonte Price | FIU, SR 6’2″ 215 lbs

Price is a 5th year senior from FIU that has yet to eclipse the 700 yard mark in his career, but the tape alone is intriguing enough to mention him here. FIU has been a bit of a punching bag in the C-USA and has just 1 win over the past two seasons, which likely attributes to Price’s limited workload (in 2021, he had just 1 game with over 18 carries). He’s tall for a RB and runs a bit upright, but is hard to take down on the field and plays with aggressiveness. He is a bit untested through the air, but I am excited to watch him in Mobile and see what he can do with an improved offense all around.

James Cook | UGA, SR 5’11” 190 lbs

The younger brother of Dalvin has yet to come close to his older brother’s production, but the relation surely has us scratching our heads and thinking “what if?”. James Cook has shown serious flashes of NFL potential, especially through the air where he has made plays as a natural receiver. He has been apart of a crowded backfield that utilizes a true committee approach, but has averaged 6.1 YPC on his limited touches on the ground. He is small, at under 200 lbs, which certainly will limit his role at the next level, but the pure athleticism is enough to keep Cook in a draftable grade.

Mataeo Durant | Duke, SR 6’1″ 195 lbs

The Senior Blue Devil pieced together an incredible season that led him to breaking several records, as well as becoming a 1st Team All-ACC RB. I was a bit surprised to see Durant left off the Senior Bowl roster, but it is a strong class of seniors at the position. He plays with great versatility and also hauled in 27 receptions, which will only help his NFL potential. He is a bit of a jack of all trades as a prospect, but really doesn’t do anything exceptionally better than anyone else in the class. I think Durant could be a mid-round steal that could develop into a role playing RB at the next level.

Max Borghi | Washington State, SR 5’10” 205 lbs

You may have heard of Borghi referred to Christian McCaffrey-Lite, which is just an unfair comparison, but Borghi has some of the best pass catching ability in the class. The hype began following the 2019 season where Borghi hauled in 86 receptions in the pass heavy, Mike Leach Air Raid…however, the train came to a stop in the following season where he played just one game due to injury. He returned in 2021 and pieced together a strong campaign with 880 yards, but was limited in the new offense to just 16 receptions. There are questions throughout Borghi’s game, but we have seen how dynamic he can be through the air, so there is certainly a level of intrigue heading into the draft season. Someone will likely take a shot on the versatile playmaker, but don’t expect it to be before the 4th round.

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