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NFL Draft RB Rankings

by Thor Nystrom

An updated version of this column with plenty more running backs ranked and analyzed will run in the week leading up to the NFL Draft next month. In the capsules below, you'll note two tables. The first is a statistical snapshot courtesy of my colleague Hayden Winks. The second is the spider web of each prospect's test results from the NFL Combine, courtesy of MockDraftable. Josh Jacobs, Bryce Love and Rodney Anderson have no webs because they missed the Combine with injury. SPARQ is a metric that tells us how an athlete tested compared to every other prospect at his position in Combine history. Speed Score weight-adjusts 40-yard dash times of running backs. It's a Newton's Second Law thing, forces equals mass times speed. Or something. It's included because it's shown to have predictive value: Most starting NFL running backs have a speed score of 100 or better.

 

1. David Montgomery (Iowa State) | 5’10/222

SPARQ percentile: 20.2
Speed score: 97
Comp: Kareem Hunt

 

 

montgomery combine

 

Montgomery was overlooked as a prep recruit as a dual-threat quarterback. Heading into his senior year of high school, Montgomery didn’t have an FBS scholarship offer. But a local coach named Matt Campbell, then at Toledo, noted similarities in frame and running style between this wonky 5’10 quarterback you needed a SWAT team to tackle and a platoon back on his current Rockets team, an ascending young MAC talent named Kareem Hunt.

As the 2015 season was wrapping up, Campbell took the Iowa State job. He hadn't been sure if he was going to have roster room for Montgomery at Toledo — a mid-major program with a running back room typically crowded with Power 5-caliber talent — but he certainly had space for the kid on this wasteland of a Cyclones roster he’d inherited.

With very few appealing offers, Montgomery took Campbell up on the offer. It didn't seem to be an ideal fit on the surface -- running back was one of ISU's only positions of strength; the year before, ISU true freshman RB Mike Warren ran 1,339 yards and 14 TD -- but it's not like Montgomery had a lot of options.

Montgomery played the Kareem Hunt to Warren’s Terry Swanson in Year 1, seizing an even timeshare as a true freshman. That same year, Hunt was going nuclear on the MAC to shoot up draft boards. In 2017, Hunt was drafted by the Kansas City Chiefs. In Ames, Montgomery had displaced Warren for good. That season, his sophomore campaign, Monty Pylon broke out nationally, an all-purpose, tackle-shucking maniac. Hunt finished No. 2 to Alvin Kamara in the NFL’s Rookie of the Year voting.

Montgomery and Hunt’s stories diverge from there. And this is where their comp diverges, too: Montgomery is a warrior on the field and a man mature beyond his years off it. Campbell raves about Montgomery and credits him for turning around the Iowa State program.

Coming from poverty, Montgomery understood early that his only path out was through an unimpeachable work ethic. He promised his mom as a freshman in high school that she wouldn’t have to worry about paying for college. Through Campbell, he fulfilled that promise.

In the 2017 NFL Draft, Hunt fell to the Chiefs at 3.86 in part because he tested as a 27.7% SPARQ athlete during his pre-Draft process. After the NFL Combine, Montgomery stands at 20.2%, though he’ll rise at least a bit as superior pro day results are swapped in. But the upshot is that Montgomery has eerie similarities to Hunt, and he comes from the same college coach, Campbell, who repeatedly made the comp before it became popular on #DraftTwitter.

In my notes, I have one box in Montgomery’s column with the words GOD MODE TACKLE BREAKER. He was the NCAA’s best in this department. Per PFF, Montgomery ranks No. 1 in this class in missed tackles forced over the past two seasons with 0.39 forced per attempt. For reference, Damien Harris had 0.15.

Not only is Montgomery powerful, but he’s slippery and can make you miss. All of which gives Montgomery elite contact balance, the best in the class. This skill was particularly valuable at Iowa State, which had an abominable offensive line during the entirety of Monty’s stay (in 2018, advanced metrics pegged that line as one of the 20-worst in all of the FBS in run blocking, with the highest-graded member of the unit ranking as PFF’s No. 115 overall run blocker).

It was rare to see Monty advance past the line of scrimmage unencumbered by quick penetration, issues that the Alabama duo, for instance, never to deal with. Sometimes this led to situations where Montgomery would become Neo, fighting off a gang. Montgomery is a pop-up doll made of Kevlar. When you hit him, it hurts you more than him, and there’s a decent chance you end the exchange on the ground and he doesn’t.

Sure, he averaged only 4.4 YPC in college — but 3.5 YPC came after contact! As College Football Factory’s Kyle Francis noted, USC’s Ronald Jones also averaged 3.5 YPC after contact in college, but 6.3 YPC in sum, meaning that USC’s line blocked two free yards for him in comparison to Monty on every play. Francis points out that Frank Gore’s collegiate YPC average (4.8) was nearly identical to Montgomery’s (4.7).

If Montgomery had played for Oklahoma, he would be considered one of the best college running backs of the past decade. I promise you. It’s a miracle that Montgomery retained his patience and vision while playing behind the unit he did, but I suppose he's uniquely equipped to persevere no matter the obstacle. Built to batter with no superfluous surface area, Montgomery smoothly swipes-left on non-viable running lanes until he sees an opening.

Well ... no superfluous surface outside of his arms, which are quite long for his frame. Montgomery uses those to create space as a runner (while simultaneously guarding the ball like it's a newborn) and to offer his quarterback a bigger catch radius than you’d think given his height. As a receiver, Montgomery is a natural hands catcher with soft mitts.

He moves with purpose and precision on his routes. I believe untapped potential remains in this phase of his game — Montgomery had 58 catches the past two years at ISU with mediocre quarterback play. Campbell said Montgomery was one of the best pass-catchers on the team, as well as one of its best route runners. When he stays home to block, Montgomery knows his assignment and takes to it the same intensity level he does while running.

In the open field, Montgomery is a sawed-off Colossus from X-Men, all rage and force. But like Colossus, he’s not terribly fleet. He ran in the high-4.6s in Indy. Hunt ran a 4.62, a number Montgomery could challenge at his pro day workout. Montgomery didn’t break off a ton of explosive runs at Iowa State, and he isn’t going to in the NFL either.

He lacks long speed, and also high-end foot quickness. And that’s what makes his vision, decisiveness and A+ contact balance so important: Montgomery doesn’t have natural explosion to the hole, so he’s found the perfect blend of defense mechanisms to compensate by opening up alternative opportunities with his eyes andr second/third/fourth opportunities with his power and shake.

Montgomery gets nitpicked for what he isn’t. But how about what he is? He’s Kareem Hunt with a heart of gold. In college, Montgomery would send $100 every few weeks to his brother, incarcerated in a federal penitentiary on murder charges. Does that anecdote surprise you in the slightest? You sort of get the vibe from Montgomery that he's the kind of cat who never once considered the possibility of leaving his brother behind. Not just that he didn't entertain the possibility -- but that it literally never occurred to him. He's working from a different set of equations.

David Montgomery is going to give you everything he has, and you’re going to be proud to have him in your organization. I’d bet a kidney that he’s going to be a top-15 NFL running back for multiple years. I can’t say that about any other back in this class. Josh Jacobs may have a slightly higher ceiling due to superior athleticism, but Montgomery’s floor is tops in this class by margin. Surefire Day 1 starter who was ready to be an NFL bellcow yesterday.

 

2. Josh Jacobs (Alabama) | 5’10/220

SPARQ percentile: N/A
Speed score: N/A
Comp: Malt-O-Meal Kamara

 

 

*Did not participate in the NFL Combine

A zero-star recruit who was heavily used as a Wildcat quarterback in high school — shades of Montgomery — Jacobs finally garnered interest from the big boys after posting his prep highlights online. He was bumped to a three-star when offered by Alabama.

That offer was provisional until Signing Day, when the Tide gave Jacobs the thumbs-up to go through with his ceremony after missing on some higher-priority options. Jacobs didn’t seem to care much about being a tertiary target. His first few months in Tuscaloosa, Jacobs slept on the floor of his dorm room, because he had been sleeping on floors and couches and back seats for so long he was more comfortable on the harder surface.

Those anecdotes are telling. Not as telling as the anecdote coming in three paragraphs, but telling nonetheless.

A legitimate diamond in the rough find, Jacobs vindicated Nick Saban’s decision immediately, working his way into the rotation as a true freshman while flashing as PFF's No. 1-most elusive back in the country. The easy explosion, contact balance, and agility were apparent early. No doubt with the NFL in mind, Jacobs set about bulking up for what he probably thought was going to be his national-coming-out party as a sophomore.

And while he looked good — retaining his athleticism while adding even more oomph as a runner and blocker with the newfound muscle — Jacobs’ body betrayed him. He hobbled through a torn hamstring, which hurt his effectiveness and rendered him just another body in the rotation behind Damien Harris. Then, Jacobs fractured his ankle.

Only nobody knew, because he kept that to himself. He showed up to the SEC Title game against Georgia wearing a protective boot. The media asked about it. Jacobs said it was a minor issue. The injury details didn’t come out until the following year. There's toughness, and then there's that. There's a Jason Vorhees-ian aversion to pain in the profile.

Coming into this past season, Jacobs was a unicorn: A criminally underrated Crimson Tide player. Healthy again in 2018, Jacobs finished second in RB touches amid Alabama's three-headed platoon — Damien Harris had 32 more, Najee Harris had 19 fewer. In contrast to the overlooked Jacobs, the Harris’ were each RB1 in their respective recruiting classes (2015 and 2017). Jacobs got the last laugh, scoring 14 TD in his final campaign and flashing in a big way during the Tide's run to the title game.

And then a weird thing happened. Underappreciated for years, Jacobs suddenly saw his profile explode. Daniel Jeremiah mocked him in the top-10. He was seen as the consensus RB1 and anybody with a divergent opinion was roasted by #DraftTwitter. Members of the community brawled in Jacobs threads like the Anchorman fight scene over who discovered him first. And as we played the one-up game with superlatives, the Jacobs narrative zoomed right through the properly-and-objectively-rated sector and kept on trucking right along into hyperbole.

In our enthusiasm to at long last give Jacobs his due, we made it about us, and not about him. A year ago, I would have bet you $1,000 that I would be higher on Jacobs than consensus in whatever draft class he entered. As you can tell, I would have lost that bet.

We never saw Jacobs as the lead back at Alabama, never saw him in the bellcow role. And despite a perfect situation for a player of his type, especially this past season in Alabama's high-flying spread attack, his per-touch numbers were objectively worse than Harris’. Last year, Jacobs received 140 touches after having gotten a mere 159 touches in 2016-2017 combined. With the increased usage, he set a career-low in yards per touch by 0.9 (5.3).

And sure, it was with more touches overall and with a higher percentage of carries baked in. But Damien Harris averaged 6.3 yards per touch in 2018 — with 32 more touches than Jacobs, 30 of which were rushing attempts. Harris also got more run early in games against energetic starters as as the lead back in the platoon. More of an effort was made to get Jacobs in space, and he got more second-half touches in blowouts against gassed starters or second-stringers.

That’s not all -- Harris' career yards per touch average isn't far off from Jacobs' despite 230 more touches and similar career reception totals. Harris averaged 6.6 yards per touch over 529 career touches (477 carries, 52 catches) at Alabama, while Jacobs averaged 6.9 over 299 (251/48). Jacobs was used situationally — and in Nick Saban's opinion leveraged optimally —` and his rough per-play damage wasn't significantly higher than Harris' despite marked usage differences. And that’s worth thinking about.

Two other things that concern me about Jacobs. He’s struggled with injuries (in addition to his frustrating sophomore season, Jacobs’ junior season of high school was also hampered by a shoulder injury, and then he pulled out of the NFL Combine with a possibly-phantom groin injury), and his athleticism isn’t off-the-charts. I don't hear the durability thing talked about a lot with him, but it's in my mind. Despite the protection of a limited college workload, Jacobs has now had two of his last five seasons seriously affected by injury.

On tape the speed and burst is solid, not sensational. He’s patient behind the line ala Kerryon Johnson, but loses the nuance in the open field, where he becomes a straight-line sprinter. Only he doesn't have Darrell Henderson's explosion to toast you or Motor Singletary's feet to roast you. Lance Zierlein comps Jacobs to Sony Michel.

Jacobs is the best back in the class on passing downs. He’s a polished receiver who knows what he’s doing on routes and picks it clean. He’s got a ton of potential as a pass blocker — some of his crushing blows of unsuspecting blitzing linebackers are #TwitterFamous — but he must work on consistency, as Jacobs is sometimes more focused on delivering a knockout blow than impeding the defender’s progress, which can lead to whiffing.

Get Jacobs into an attacking offensive system that needs a back to do a lot of different things well but doesn’t require a ton of nuance, a simplified one-cut system where his running decisions are binary and his strengths in the passing game can be leveraged. My dream is for him to land in Kansas City as Pat Mahomes’ sidekick.

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is Rotoworld’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!