I am a card-carrying member of the “don’t draft running backs in Round One” club. Sure, Saquon Barkley and Josh Jacobs are superb talents, but we have seen how quickly things can change in the NFL. Le’Veon Bell sat out the 2018 season in the hope of a pay day – he got it, and found himself averaging less than 4 yards per carry behind a terrible New York’s Jets offensive line. Injuries have hampered Todd Gurley’s career, who has gone from the star of the LA Rams offence to cut in just two years. When superstar back Christian McCaffrey signed a 4 year extension with the Carolina Panthers worth $65m, I immediately became concerned that he jinxed his career by becoming one of the “second contract backs”.
The situation does not look good for running backs at the moment. Grind your way through college, play hurt, get drafted and pray that you make it to your fifth year in the league with some tread still on your tyres. If thins go wrong, you could be out of the league whilst your fellow draft class-men are getting paid.
That being said, let’s try and find some mid-round talents whose names are worth looking out for in this year’s draft class.
Benjamin has all the skills to enjoy a successful career in the NFL. He has good vision, is elusive, and can receive the ball out of the backfield. At 5’ 10” and 205 lbs, he has the ability to power and slip his way out of tackles. But can he make defenders miss? This is the key question hanging over all elusive backs.
Aged just 21, he has the physical potential to flourish in the league. He is coming off back-to-back 1000+ yard seasons. In 2019, he rushed for over 100 yards in 6 games, averaging 4.3 yards per carry and 10 touchdowns. He ran an impressive three cone drill at the Combine (6.97 seconds), and a satisfactory but not outstanding 40 yard dash (4.57 seconds).
There are two issues for franchises to consider before they hand their card in and select Benjamin. He fumbled the ball 6 times last season – is this an issue that will transfer itself into the NFL? To add to that, he was the bell cow for the Sun Devils, taking 253 carries. How will that heavy load have affected his longevity?
I predict that Eno Benjamin will be off the board by the end of round four. If a team is in need of a running back and likes what they have seen from him already, he could quite easily be taken in the third. He could well prove to be an effective RB2, working alongside a dominant runner that could benefit from sharing the load next time out. Derrick Henry had over 300 carries last year, and would be the perfect power back alternative to Benjamin’s elusive abilities.
Perfect Pick: Tennessee Titans
If a concern about Eno Benjamin is the amount of time he has spent on the field already, then this is not the case for McFarland, who split reps at Maryland in a committee system. A redshirt sophomore, he is only 21 and with lots to learn. Fortunately for the team that drafts him, there is plenty of untapped potential to be discovered. Just 5’ 9” and198 lbs, McFarland is an explosive back with rapid acceleration. Although he wasn’t used consistently in the pass game, he does have the hands to become a dependent receiving back at the next level. He ran an impressive 4.44 in the 40 yard dash at the Combine, which confirmed to scouts his straight line speed.
McFarland enjoyed an injury free, 1000+ yard season in 2018. Injuries and competition for places restricted him to just 114 carries in 2019, but he averaged an impressive 5.4 per touch, scoring 8 touchdowns and conceding just one lost fumble.
The former Maryland Terrapin may well benefit from his limited usage last year. With plenty of tread on his tyres, he may well be an attractive selection in the fourth round, but don’t be surprised if he slips into the fifth. He would benefit from playing a supporting role in a pass-heavy offence, offering an outlet in play action reps. He could well compete with a player like Dexter Williams at Green Bay for the RB3 slot.
Perfect Pick: Green Bay Packers
Now it’s time to get a little crazy with this exercise. If there’s one Running Back I loved watching last year, it was Derrick Henry. There is something simply beautiful about watching a 6’ 3” power back steam past defenders, breaking tackles and dismissing contact. I’m not on the hunt for the next Derrick Henry, because he is a rare talent that most certainly can’t be found in the later round of the draft. What I am doing however, is looking for a high-risk high-reward player on Day 3 with similar physical traits.
Sewo Olonilua stands at 6’ 3” and 240 lbs. He is built like an inside linebacker, and while at Texas Christian University bench pressed 425 lbs. He completed 25 reps on the bench press at the Combine this year. The guy is a powerful athlete.
The Horned Frogs used him sparingly and for the most part in short down situations in 2019, with Olonilua sharing touches with Darius Anderson, who also enters the 2020 Draft. At times utilised in the wildcat formation, Olonilua averaged 4 yards per carry from 134 attempts, scoring 8 touchdowns. Though more agile than you might think for a man of his size, he may struggle to make defenders miss at the next level.
Double Headed Horned Frog
Anderson had more carries last year, and is another late round prospect. Anderson enjoyed a better yards per carry average, but Olonilua scored more touchdowns, and has the physical traits to be an effective third and fourth down back in the NFL with his powerful running ability.
Sometimes, you just see a prospect and will them to succeed. Don’t ask me why, but when watching Olonilua’s tape, I found myself rooting for him. He would benefit from taking the field when his offence are on 3rd and 1, either powering past the line of scrimmage or fooling the opposition that a run play is coming.
One team that needs depth in the Running Backs room is the New York Jets. They released Bilal Powell and Ty Montgomery at the end of 2019, and Olonilua would provide a very different set of skills to the patient, silky approach of starting back Le’Veon Bell. Olonilua could hear his name called with one of the two Round Six picks the Jets own in this draft.
Perfect pick: New York Jets
There you have three more Running Backs to watch for in the middle to late rounds of the upcoming draft.
-Tom Scott @downthemannyrd