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 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.
3. Devin Singletary (FAU) | 5’9/208
He’s short, he’s skinny, he comes from Conference USA, he isn’t very fast, and he's a 20th-percentile athlete — what isn’t to love?!
I kid. Motor has always been more than the sum of his parts. A high school standout, Singletary didn’t receive the national attention he should have. The three-star recruit’s choices for school came down to a low-end Power 5 destination (Illinois) or to stay local at FAU. He flipped to the Owls late, rode out a coaching change, and then absolutely dominated the past two years under Lane Kiffin.
In three seasons, over 714 carries, Motor averaged 6.0 YPC. He ran for 4,287 yards and 66 TD (!!!) while posting a 51-397-1 line as a receiver. Despite his lack of foot speed, and despite his lack of muscle. They don’t have a test in Indianapolis for how hard it is to get you onto the ground. If they did, Motor and David Montgomery would have lapped the field.
Montgomery does it more with power than agility, though he also possesses the latter. Motor does it with agility, though he also possesses some power. Each have absurd balance. Sometimes, with Motor, the only way you can get the play to end is by penning him in near the sideline without an escape route, so that he has to step out and surrender himself.
What Singletary lacks in foot speed he more than makes up for with stupid foot quickness. He's the TV time traveler with a gun pointed at his head who disappears only to show up a split-second later behind the unsuspecting gunman.
I’m talking unfair shake, even at high speeds, and especially in precarious phone booth situations. Motor is the rare bird who can score a touchdown in a scenario where two free defenders have him dead-to-rights on his side of the line of scrimmage post-snap. It’s like watching an old episode of BATMAN, where bad guys surround the hero one minute and the next (*Bam!* *Whack!*) they're splayed around the room unconscious.
Motor takes the handoff, sees heavy penetration. He combos a half jump-stop with two stutter steps to short-circuit the defender’s brains and force their feet to betray their intentions. Then, he shoots forward, disappearing from the camera’s view for an instant as he enters the teeth of the scrum through a slit. With any other player, the whistle is about to blow. But in the split-second your naked eye just missed, Motor was running through the arm tackle of one of the fool’s he just clowned in the gap between his left guard and tackle, deeking out a crashing linebacker with a clear shot, and, in the three steps that followed, accelerating to peak speed.
By the time he reemerges into view, as if by miracle, Motor has not only broken free from the black hole that has engulfed most of the planets in this football solar system, but he’s now alone in the second level at top speed pointed towards the end zone. If you’ve only got one safety back there who’s unoccupied, start sending your kick block unit onto the field, because the cannons are gonna fire in a second.
Do I care that he’s undersized and slow? Sure. I care to the extent that I rank Motor behind Montgomery and Jacobs. But I can’t go lower than this. I’m sorry. The players in the past five classes I think of when I think of Motor are Devonta Freeman and Dalvin Cook, two fellow undersized Floridians who were also below average athletes. Like Motor, Freeman and Cook were full-spectrum-vision slashers with catch-the-chicken agility in close quarters who shrunk like Ant Man through closing portals as wooly mammoths fought for leverage above.
Just as Motor’s plus-plus agility and vision help offset his lack of deep speed, his Walter-White-as-Heisenberg determination, assuredness and fearlessness with the ball in his hands offset his lack of standing-still-in-street-clothes power. You aren’t taking Motor down with an arm tackle. He wasn’t tackled on first contact, per PFF, on 57.2% of his touches, good for No. 2 in the class. That’s right: This little string bean is not only elite-elite at making you miss, but he was also elite at breaking tackles in college.
Motor is also a skilled receiver — you’ll have to return to 2017 to see it, as FAU’s offense lost all its creative chutzpah this past season when Lane Kiffin was replaced by Charlie Weis’ 24-year-old son and receiving was yanked from Motor’s list of things to do — and a downright violent pass blocker who is looking to light you up.
I don’t buy that Singletary is a boom-or-bust prospect, because guys who are difficult to touch and more difficult to tackle don’t often fail. SPARQ score couldn't quantify Dalvin Cook or Devonta Freeman’s inane ability to create doubt in defender’s minds. Guys like this play faster and bigger than they are on the football field because they force opponents to play slower and smaller than they are. If you’re saying I can get Motor Singletary in late Round 3, I’ve already got a card written out with his name on it.
4. Miles Sanders (Penn State) | 5’11/211
SPARQ percentile: 78.8
Speed score: 104
Comp: Medium-rare Cadillac Williams with a side of Felix Jones
You know how the Harris brothers at Alabama were RB1 in 2015 and 2017? Miles Sanders was the RB1 in-between, the premier back in the 2016 class. He curiously chose Penn State despite the fact that a freshman named Saquon Barkley had just single-handedly made that Christian Hackenberg-led offense watchable (shoutout to Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton and Kyle Carter!).
Unlike David Montgomery, who didn’t need much time to shove aside Mike Warren, Sanders couldn't unseat the old guard. In Sanders’ case, the old guard was a generational NFL talent. A one-year starter, Sanders finished with a mere 276 career carries, only topping Elijah Holyfield (215), Josh Jacobs (251), and Dexter Williams (257) among the consensus top-20 RBs in this year’s class.
Sanders does not have a significant injury on his ledger and he’s arguably taken fewer big hits than any back in the class. In that sense, and in the sense that he’s a good athlete with five-star pedigree and a game that fits where the NFL is going, he’s safe. Where risk enters Sanders’ equation is in the subtleties, feel and trust-worthiness.
At present, Sanders is a classic slasher who knows his way around a PS4 controller with an array of jukes and spins. Good Miles Sanders is the Miles Sanders who sees the hole, bursts into it smoothly, makes a defender miss in the claustrophobia zone, angles to the sideline, and then punches the gas. Good Miles Sanders is a patient runner who works with his blockers, a guy with several gears who is methodical when he needs to be methodical, twitchy when he needs to be twitchy, and fast when he needs to be fast.
Good Miles Sanders has the hips of a hula girl, the flair for combos of a boxer, and the go-with-the-flow-and-ride-the-wave instincts of a surfer. Good Miles Sanders is a surefire starting NFL running back. Good Miles Sanders was made to feast in a zone-blocking scheme.
I love that Sanders also brings a ton of value in the passing game. And since he’s had very limited reps, I think it’s fair to project continued growth as a receiver and as a pass blocker, two areas he’s already above-average in. Sanders is skilled enough to line up in the slot. If he continues to develop in this area, he’s going to become a real weapon to a creative offensive staff.
But Sanders' inexperience showed on the field at times last season. He’s smooth and sleek in action, a natural, but Sanders does not yet see the entire field and anticipate several moves ahead. Vision and feel are two things he possesses, (he’s not Justice Hill), but Sanders hasn’t yet reached that intuitive zone where everything around him slows down and he sees every possibility like Dr. Strange.
That’s how he really levels up, and it’s possible to project that growth because Sanders had less than half the touches that Devin Singletary and David Montgomery had the past three years. With more reps comes more feel. It’s like with anything.
Bad Miles Sanders is a guy who is loose with the ball. Bad Miles Sanders is a guy who loses his decisiveness and doesn’t have world-class athleticism or a big power element to his game to fall back on. And when he’s making mistakes and losing confidence, Bad Miles Sanders can let a tough matchup become an impossible one — he struggled in three of Penn State’s biggest games this season.
But to be entirely fair: Miles Sanders was in a different situation than Saquon Barkley was. In 2017, Penn State had Hamilton and Mike Gesicki around to salvage Trace McSorley’s ducks and give the Nits’ passing attack bite. When the receiving corps sharply regressed in 2018, McSorley turned into an AAF third-stringer and defenses zeroed in on Sanders without fear of getting shredded through the air.
If Sanders hits his ceiling, he’s going to become one of the best backs in this class — perhaps even the very best. If it turns out that this is just sort of who he is, then he'll be a solid-enough committee guy, eminently replaceable.
5. Darrell Henderson (Memphis) | 5’8/208
Darrell Henderson is the most fascinating back in this class. A polarizing prospect who’s the running back answer to the classic quarterback question: “Was he a product of the system?”
Henderson went ballistic last season, running for 1,909 yards and 22 TD on 8.9 YPC (!!!!!) while adding 295 yards and three more scores as a receiver. Watching college football on Saturdays the past few years, every time they cut to a Memphis game for a studio update, you knew you were about to see Hendo break off a 75-yard touchdown run. They wouldn’t have cut in otherwise.
Henderson is no scat back. He runs fearlessly with a sort of kinetic violence, using speed to create force. He’s also a proven receiver, with a 63-758-8 line over three years in college. Henderson did not drop a pass at Memphis. Per PFF’s rankings, he ranked No. 1 in drop rate (0.0%!), No. 1 in breakaway percentage and No. 2 in elusive ranking.
He was also No. 9 in percentage of attempts he didn’t go down on first contact. In fact, among the class’ top backs, Henderson finished behind only Monty Pylon and Motor Singletary in broken tackles forced per attempt last year (0.27, which tied him, coincidently enough, with Josh Jacobs).
Henderson is a different kind of explosive. He appears to shimmer while accelerating as though disturbing the air from centuries of apathy. When he shifts into that gear, and you start hearing that weird radio frequency in the stadium, he gone.
Henderson’s twitch can also be used to shake defenders, but he’s the opposite of Motor Singletary in this category. Where Motor changes speeds and stacks moves to erase lanes and freeze defenders in place, Henderson only has one card to play in every interaction, one stutter step or one head fake.
And that’s because he plays the game in Ludicrous Speed. His attitude is always the same as Rick Moranis’ in SPACE BALLS: “What’s the matter, Colonel Sanders? Chicken?” He’s always looking for a pitch to turn on and he swings from the heels. But when he passes through Ridiculous Speed and into Ludicrous Speed, Henderson’s vision field distorts and he’s unable to move off his path. As Dark Helmet yells, “What have I done? My brains are going into my feet!”
Hendo runs like a flag pole, like Lamar Jackson or Tevin Coleman, upright with his shoulders back and his feet close. This style may deprive him of a little agility and contact balance, though he remains solidly above-average in both phases.
Henderson no doubt draws his otherworldly speed from this style, so it’s not going to change a ton, but he’s going to leave himself open to big hits when he’s not breaking into the open field and outrunning everyone. In college, in Memphis’ up-tempo spread system, it was easy for Henderson to find that space. Sometimes he didn’t even have to work that hard to find it.
Once he gets to the NFL and the windows of opportunity are far smaller, can Henderson adept his game? Is he willing to negotiate with that swing-for-the-fences attitude and work to become more nuanced behind the line of scrimmage? Where before space was given to him, Henderson must now become the kind of player who can create a little of it on his own. If he can, he’s going to excel in the NFL. Because the home run power will play— but only if the pitch recognition improves.
If it doesn’t, Henderson is just another Ameer Abdullah, an undersized burner who excelled in college but busted in the NFL when he could no longer simply outrun everybody. I’m tentatively bullish that Hendo can be more.
I had such a hard time separating Henderson and Damien Harris in these rankings. Harris wins with polish and know-how and versatility. Henderson doesn't have the patience or nuance or polish for all that, but he has a trump card Harris can only dream of, air-rippling explosion. You want the high floor or the higher ceiling? I’m not done turning that one over in my head.
6. Damien Harris (Alabama) | 5’10/216
SPARQ percentile: 57.3
Speed score: 99
Comp: Carlos Hyde
Damien Harris is hot dish at a family dinner in Minnesota in December. Old reliable. Homey. A dinner that manages to be enjoyable and filling and perfect for the occasion but not-worth-asking-about despite the fact that it was made from 16 different ingredients, a dish everyone will enjoy but nobody will tell their co-workers about on Monday morning.
Harris was considered a mega-talent coming out of high school, the Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year in 2013. In a 2015 scouting report, 247Sports’ Allen Trieu wrote that Harris was a “big-play back who can go the distance from anywhere on the field.” Rivals ranked Harris as the No. 8 overall prospect in the country.
His career was an unmitigated success. And yet it feels like I've already forgotten that Damien Harris played on four great Alabama teams. No disrespect. It's just that Harris never took a game. On each of the past three Alabama teams he played on, he never ranked among the top-three Crimson Tide offensive players you were afraid of.
Nonetheless, Harris led Alabama in rushing in each of his final three seasons (he stayed for all four years of his eligibility clock), taking over as the lead back after Derrick Henry left for the NFL. Harris’ two best seasons were in 2016 and 2017, when he racked up 1,037 yards (7.1 YPC) and 1,000 yards (7.4 YPC), respectively. His career 6.4 YPC is a program record.
He’s coming off a down 2018 year in which he rushed for 876 yards (5.8 YPC) in an offense that changed drastically to facilitate Tua’s game, which meant spacing the field and attacking. Harris was less a fit for that than he was the previous run-first offense with Jalen Hurts under center. He would have been a better fit in the league a decade ago. Can Harris become a standout in the new-age NFL?
The 2018 season also marked the first time -- and only time to our knowledge -- that even a hint of discord in the Harris-Bama marriage cropped up, with Nick Saban benching Harris for “internal reasons” to start the team’s mid-October game against Tennessee. Harris did enter that contest during the first quarter, but ended up receiving just three carries. It was the first time he failed to start a contest since 2016. Count it an as a lover’s quarrel. Character is not an issue for Harris.
As you can gather from some of those sharp YPC numbers, he knows how to find room to work. Harris won’t flash fry the opposition with Darrell Henderson-esque bolt-out-of-the-blue breakaway runs, but his mature, disciplined approach to each and every carry can make up for some of his general lack of burst. Harris has the clinical eye of a jeweler, inspecting the defense for flaws pre-snap.
The result? A three-yard run here, a five-yard run there, a one-yard loss, another five-yard run, then suddenly he spots a lane, gathers his momentum and hurtles into the open field. Harris doesn’t have Henderson’s get-up, but he did post 12 runs of 30+ yards the past two seasons. That breakaway speed that Trieu referenced out of high school probably never existed in the first place. But Harris makes it work.
He makes it work as a blocker, too, and as a receiver, especially on shorter-area screens and the like, when he can get the ball quickly before the defense is able to pin him down. Harris runs determined and brings the hammer in collisions. He didn’t break a ton of tackles in college, however. But he's not a man to cough up the ball, either. Harris didn't fumble over his final 350 carries.
Harris' SPARQ percentage of 57.3% is perfect. That’s him. He won’t juke you out of your cleats, he won’t run away from you and he won’t hurdle over you. But he will occasionally make you miss, make you run after him, and run through you. Maturity, patience and extreme ball security might not be the sexiest combination of traits, but there is value in consistency and a high floor, and Harris has both.
7. Bryce Love (Stanford) | 5’9/200
SPARQ percentile: N/A
Speed score: N/A
Comp: Dion Lewis (Lance Zierlein)
*Did not participate in the NFL Combine
Who is 2020-2025 Bryce Love?
Is he the 2017 Bryce Love who was Chris Johnson’s doppelgänger on the field and an A+ human being and student off it? Is he the fearless sprinter who reaches world-class speed in a few steps and runs through arm tackles due to the force his legs are generating? The guy who sees a crease and is 30 yards downfield quicker than a hiccup? The guy who you can’t rip off the field, even when he’s in so much pain he limps back to the huddle after every run?
Or is he the 2018 Bryce Love, the guy who struggled to stay on the field and wasn’t effective while on it? A one-dimensional undersized air back who doesn't have the nuance or vision or short-area make-you-miss twitch to be an NFL difference-maker?
We know that Love is never going to be a standout in the passing game. He’s a serviceable receiver who could have provided more than Stanford asked of him, but he’ll never be Alvin Kamara. I wouldn’t trust him to pick up a blitz in the NFL. And I’d never ask him to. You don’t need to risk his health with that stuff. You’ve got another back for that on the roster.
But if you get 2018 Bryce Love, you may just have a small, injury-prone, real-life sprinter who took optimal advantage of Stanford’s strong 2017 offensive line and then cratered as a player when that line regressed. When there is no daylight, Bryce Love becomes a black hole.
He doesn’t create. He's a spot-up sharpshooter. If his feet are squared and you hit him in rhythm, he’s cold-blooded. If you don’t give him space, you erase him. And as long as Love is healthy, he’s a dead-eye because he’s faster and more explosive than you are.
To boom, Love needs to be healthy from the torn ACL he suffered in December, he needs to have retained all of his speed and burst, and he needs to be running behind a solid offensive line on a team that uses him judicially and intelligently (and in an organization that has the patience to give him a medical redshirt in Year 1). Lots of caveats. But if they’re all met, Love may go to multiple Pro Bowls.
And here’s the thing: This running back class stinks. There are but a few prospects in it who have perennial Pro Bowl upside. Love is on the short list. That’s meaningful. Running back is a position where you can find value on the cheap. In the draft, I’m not picking them early. Late, I’m swinging for the fences. If I find gold, sweet, if I don’t, I can cut bait without taking a bath.
This running back class has six guys I feel pretty good about. After that, we get into a grab bag of prospects with higher risk profiles. I’d just as soon take the guy with the best chance of turning into a star. The guys RB8 and below, you have to start straining to picture that. You don’t with Love. Flip on the 2017 tape. He was one of the most dangerous runners on Planet Earth a little over a year ago. He may never be that again, but I’m willing to pay the low, low price of a Round 5 pick to find out.
But RB7, for me, splits the difference between Love’s floor and ceiling. If the six guys ahead of him on this list are gone and I’m on the clock looking for a running back, we’re flying to Vegas tonight, because it’s time to make a very fun Day 3 dice roll.
8. Justice Hill (Oklahoma State) | 5’10/198
Holy smokes. Can we pause to admire those oh-so-twitchy testing results? Hill might not have measured in as the biggest dude in Indianapolis, but he bested the running back field in the 40-yard dash, vertical jump and broad jump. This made complete sense after watching him do his thing in Stillwater.
Hill's blood is Monster energy drink. His feet move so quickly and recklessly that he can get ahead of himself and sprint unwittingly into trouble, a man without a plan. Hill is more athletic than Motor Singletary and Miles Sanders and Damien Harris and, well, about 95% of the running backs who have entered the NFL over the past decade.
But Motor and Sanders and Harris can see three moves ahead. Hill is too ADD for all that. He’s your middle school friend without a PlayStation playing MORTAL KOMBAT for the first time, just smashing buttons.
And what concerns me about that — the reason I rank Hill below Love despite the fact that Hill is healthy and has proven his athletic traits through the combine process — is that Hill came from a wide-open collegiate system that was perfect for his current skillset and never forced him to develop a deep level of nuance in his game.
Think about guys like Mason Rudolph and James Washington from the past few classes — guys who were flattered by the Oklahoma State system and haven’t yet made the adjustments to consistently win in the NFL. If Hill doesn’t stop running like he’s Jason Statham in CRANK, he may just be lighting up the AAF in a few years.
Hill’s size or lack thereof is going to be a problem in the pros when it comes to pass protection. Hill is appealing because he has clear traits that could play very well in a rotation. If he can improve on his pass blocking — at least he gives effort? — he could make an early dent as a third-down option. We already know he can catch.
He’s able to handle more of a load than you would expect given his size (268 carries in 2017), too, though that skill is probably wasted on the NFL because Hill is unlikely to develop enough to become an NFL starter. A little patience goes a long way, kid. If a team can harness Hill’s frenetic energy, there’s clay to be molded.
9. Ryquell Armstead (Temple) | 5’11/220
SPARQ percentile: 31.4
Speed score: 112
Comp: BenJarvus Green-Ellis floor... and maybe a little more?
Armstead is a sort of post-hype sleeper.
When he popped for 919 yards (5.9 YPC) and 14 touchdowns in 2016, as a true sophomore, he looked to be on his way to collegiate stardom and a long NFL career. But Armstead cratered out for 604 yards at 3.9 YPC in 2017. Now on the national back-burner, Armstead surged back with 1,098 yards in his final season at Temple despite dealing with a throbbing ankle injury that cost him three full games.
There’s an endearing quality to Armstead’s rough-and-tumble playing style. It’s easy to fall in love with his tape. For all of the super-fun spread-happy schematic pyrotechnics of modern football, it’s refreshing to see an old-school, unapologetic bruiser. Armstead is certainly that.
At the NFL Combine, Armstead told reporters that he grew up modeling his game after Brandon Jacobs. He worships Jacobs, referring to the former Giant as his “idol.” Wanna guess the two words Armstead used to describe his own playing style? Whoever said “mean” and “violent” — come on down!
Armstead’s balls-to-the-wall physicality and passable athleticism render him extremely difficult to deal with between the tackles. This constant “come at me, bro” approach is a delight to watch, though it does give a little pause on the back end, as we’ve seen Armstead struggle through nagging injuries.
Armstead needed to prove himself in Indianapolis, especially in terms of top-end speed. Prove it he did, bolting a 4.45 40-yard dash. Armstead's Speed Score of 112 is easily tops in the class (Mike Weber is No. 2 at 106). The rest of his testing results (minus the 22 bench reps) were less impressive, but side-to-side agility isn’t Ryquell Armstead. He’s a as-the-rhino-charges straight-line banger.
He probably won’t help you much in the passing game (just 29 career catches), either. And that’s so unfortunate because I could project a player of Armstead’s rushing skillset to become an NFL starter if only I could trust him on passing downs. To be fair: Temple’s offense was an unimaginative smash-mouth attack that really didn’t ask him to do much in that area. But either way, Armstead, at present, is one-dimensional.
But boy do I love that dimension, a high-end Speed Score affixed to one of the class' most violent straight-line runners. If he doesn't develop further, Armstead is a die-on-my-sword early-down grinder akin to BenJarvus Green-Ellis. Where he becomes a steal is if a team can get something out of him as a receiver. We already know he’s down to crack blitzers in pass pro. Receiving is the one glaring area of weakness in his present evaluation.
10. Alexander Mattison (Boise State) | 5’11/221
SPARQ percentile: 74.9
Speed score: 93
Comp: Mike Gillislie (Lance Zierlein)
In my first draft of running back rankings, Mattison sat just outside of the top-10. But he’s a prospect who grows on you. I watched a ton of him in college. And while I was a big fan of Mattison’s game, I'll be honest with you: I didn't expect him to test as well as he tested. I would have taken the “under” on 50th percentile.
He did significantly better than that to skip up my RB board a bit. Because I already know Mattison can do things on the field. I know he’s a natural receiver, a guy who would have made for a hell of a tight end if God hadn’t cheated him out of five inches. I know he’s a well-built load as a runner who is going to get what’s blocked for him every time, maybe a little more.
But Mattison hit very few home runs in college, his lack of long speed obvious. He tested above the 75th percentile in Indy despite turning in the 4.67 forty that confirmed those suspicions. So while I’m pretty sure Alex Mattison is going to hang around the NFL for awhile as a team’s designated “pass catcher/short-yardage runner” utility guy, I don’t like his chances of becoming much more than that. But if I can check those two boxes off my RB committee to-do list at the price tag of a mid-Day 3 pick? I’m there.
11. Dexter Williams (Notre Dame) | 5’11/215
SPARQ percentile: 81
Speed score: 97
Comp: Rashard Mendenhall (Lance Zierlein)
A risky prospect with character red flags who was arrested and suspended for separate reasons in college, Williams struggled for years to free himself from a crowded RB room and Brian Kelly’s doghouse into a consistent role. He finally busted out nationally this past October. He’s a see-hole, hit-hole rocked-up smooth operator with 81st-percentile athleticism. I could see ranking him as high as RB7 (he was RB8 in my first draft when I was focusing more on the ceiling than the floor) or as low as RBOffMyBoard.
12. Trayveon Williams (Texas A&M) | 5'8/206
SPARQ percentile: 19.4
Speed score: 99
Comp: Slightly less versatile Duke Johnson
After two seasons of on-again, off-again flashes under HC Kevin Sumlin at Texas A&M, Williams ripped it up for a program-record 1,760 yards in Jimbo Fisher’s first year at the helm in 2018. While an undersized back with an upright running style, good (but not great) speed, and 19th-percentile athletic tests that elicited concern, Williams should be able to swing third-down NFL work. He brings the lunchpail blocking, is a nifty receiver (66 career catches), and has good quickness as a runner.
13. Karan Higdon (Michigan) | 5’9/206
SPARQ percentile: 59.8
Speed score: 101
Comp: A faster Andre Ellington, minus the receiving chops
A small one-cut runner who runs low, sees the whole field, and doesn’t back down, Higdon needed a good day in Indianapolis to guarantee a draft slot and got it (59.8%). To stick in the NFL long-term, he’s going to need to become a better receiver and pass blocker.
14. Alex Barnes (Kansas State) | 6’0/223
SPARQ percentile: 92.5
Speed score: 101
Comp: Rashad Jennings
A big aggressive banger who opened eyes by testing in the 92nd percentile in Indy. Expectations must be tampered because of the misleading nature of Barnes’ athletic profile (great on tests that have little predictive value for RB success, worse on tests that do) and his tape, which shows a banger without much nuance. Feels like a replaceable backup type who could hang around due to his ability to pick up blocked yards. And not for nothing, he block a little himself.
15. Rodney Anderson (Oklahoma) | 6’0/224
*Did not participate in NFL Scouting Combine and didn't have qualifying 2018 stats due to injury
Forget the dopey “if he had never gotten hurt, he could have been RB1” narrative. Anderson is always hurt (broken leg in 2015, fractured vertebrae in 2016, torn ACL in 2018), a Mr. Glass tease who had only 217 touches at Oklahoma (almost all of them over the second half of 2017 next to Baker Mayfield in one of the great offenses in college football history). Anderson is an aggressive upright runner who takes a ton of big shots, so the injuries aren't gonna stop. He does have some receiving chops, but Anderson isn't athletic enough to win the corner or make you miss in close quarters. I don't really get the sleeper appeal tbh.
(Meanwhile, somewhere down in the RB20s wasteland…)
Elijah Holyfield (Georgia): Stop it, you guys. Just stop it.