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2023 NFL Scouting Combine Preview: Running Back

Texas' Bijan Robinson
Texas' Bijan Robinson

The running back group is one of the more talented positions in this draft with some blue-chip prospects at the top and depth throughout. There are a handful of players with a variety of skill sets that will attract teams in all areas of the draft, no matter the scheme.

Workout Warriors

These are the players who analysts expect to see perform best in the athletic testing portion of the workout.

Devon Achane (Texas A&M) – A two-time member of Bruce Feldman’s annual Freak List, highlighting the best athletes in the country every summer, Achane should be one of the standout performers at this entire event, regardless of position. The junior averaged 6.4 yards per attempt on the ground over the course of his career, one of the better numbers of the backs in attendance here, and that big-play ability shows up in multiple ways. Achane ran track for the Aggies during his time on campus, with his 100-meter dash time ranking as one of the best in school history. In high school, he was named the Gatorade Boys' Track and Field Athlete of the Year in his state because of all of the awards he stacked up throughout his career. This kid can FLY.

Keaton Mitchell (ECU) – Mitchell, who also checked in on Feldman's Freak List, is a bolt of lightning on the football field. Listed at just 5-foot-9, 188 pounds, he's a certain kind of ballcarrier, but his ability to break off huge chunk plays in space will be attractive to teams that are searching for some big-play potential on both offense and special teams. Mitchell, whose father played in the NFL with the Baltimore Ravens, racked up accolades as a high school sprinter while setting school records in the process. He is lethal in space.

Chase Brown (Illinois) – Brown is a thick runner at 5-foot-9, 215 pounds, and he is built like a back who can handle the load in the NFL. The senior racked up 734 touches on offense during his career with the Illini and at Western Michigan (where he began his career as a true freshman). Brown (and his brother Sydney, a safety in this draft class) grew up in Ontario, Canada, moving to Florida in high school to put himself in position to play college football. In the Sunshine State, Brown won state titles on the track in both the 100-meter dash and as a member of the 400-meter relay team. Listed as the No. 33 Freak on Feldman's list last summer, Brown is poised to shine here in Indy.

Kendre Miller (TCU) – The true junior exploded onto the scene this fall for the surprise Horned Frogs team, as he ran for nearly 1,400 yards and 17 touchdowns as an all-conference performer. Miller has the speed to break away on long runs (49 percent of his yardage came on running plays of 15-plus yards, one of the highest marks in the class) and has outstanding lateral mobility to find space for himself when approaching the line of scrimmage. Miller has a ton of juice on tape, and that should be present in his test scores.

Sean Tucker (Syracuse) – Tucker ran for 2,500 yards in the last two seasons as a starter for the Orange as one of the most explosive backs in college football. Growing up and going to high school in Owings Mills, Maryland, Tucker won the state indoor title in the 55-meter dash for two straight years before moving to upstate New York. While he thrived on the football field, Tucker could not give up his love for track, as he actually ran the 60-meter for the Orange as well. That background should equate to excellent test scores this weekend.

The Drill to Watch

In today's game, running backs have to be able to impact the passing game if they're to be viewed as truly dynamic playmakers worthy of high draft choices. This week, we'll watch these running backs run a series of routes at all three levels of the field. A couple of things you may notice on these routes:

Are they natural at the catch point?

Do they have the ability to adjust to the throw, pull in the reception, gather themselves, and transition to a runner immediately to generate positive yardage upfield?

What level of receiver are they? Just a checkdown option, can they work in the screen game, or can they be flexed out and run routes at a high level as if playing receiver?

Here are the players who have a chance to shine in these drills:

Bijan Robinson (Texas) – To be honest, I could have slid Robinson into a number of categories on this list, but he's stood out in the pass game since his first season on campus. His value as a pass catcher was really brought to light in the system brought to Austin by Head Coach Steve Sarkisian, where he is deployed all across the formation and is used to attack all three levels of the defense. He should look extremely comfortable in these drills (and in the athletic testing portion of the workout as well).

Jahmyr Gibbs (Alabama) – No running back at the Combine has generated more yards per route run over the course of their career than Gibbs, who racked up over 400 yards receiving each of the past two seasons with the Tide and with Georgia Tech. Listed at 5-foot-11, 200 pounds, Gibbs has drawn comparisons to both Alvin Kamara and Dalvin Cook for his elusiveness and explosiveness, but I lean more towards the former because of what he can do in the passing game.

Kenny McIntosh (Georgia) – McIntosh caught 43 passes for 505 yards and a couple of touchdowns this season, showing soft hands and playmaking ability out in space. Used in the traditional screen game, on routes out of the backfield, and split out wide, McIntosh should look like a natural in these drills. By the way, the senior has never dropped a pass in his career.

Hunter Luepke (North Dakota State) – Whether you view him as a running back/fullback hybrid or as more of a moveable tight end/H-back, Luepke is a fun player with pass game value as both a receiver and blocker. The senior scored a whopping 33 touchdowns on offense over the course of his career with the Bison and he should test very well in the athletic workouts, but after watching some of the beautiful adjustments he made to the football as a receiver, it's tough not to list him in this category. He tracks the ball and finishes like a wide receiver down the field.

Best Stories

These players have great stories to tell, but who has taken the most unique journey to get to this point?

Deuce Vaughn (Kansas State) – Listed at 5-foot-6, 172 pounds, Vaughn will be one of the smallest runners drafted in history when he hears his name called in April, but don't let that frame fool you. The true junior touched the ball nearly 800 times in three seasons on campus, running for a boatload of yards as a two-time All-American for the Wildcats. Given his size, production, and the logo on the side of his helmet, the natural comparison many make for Vaughn is former Eagles star Darren Sproles.

Tyjae Spears (Tulane) – Spears had a bout with the injury bug early in his career, but came back in a big way in 2022 with over 1,500 yards and 19 touchdowns. The redshirt junior has always had a nose for the end zone (he's reached paydirt 34 times in his career), and his spacial awareness really sets him apart. The Louisiana native who stayed home to play for Tulane finished his career with a bang, rushing for over 200 yards and four touchdowns in an upset victory against USC in the Rose Bowl. Just a couple of weeks later, he went down to Mobile to participate in the Senior Bowl where he earned rave reviews for his performance during the week of practice.

Significant Stats

These are the players of note with a special statistic or measurement that sets them apart from their peers.

Tank Bigsby (Auburn) – Cartavious Bigsby is absolutely deserving of his nickname "Tank," as he leads all backs in this class with 76.8 percent of his yardage coming after contact this season. Auburn's offensive line is not what it once was, and the junior had to deal with a lot of traffic immediately after getting the football in the backfield. He consistently showed the ability to make the most of the situation. Bigsby, who ran track in high school and will test better than people think, is a fun player to study and has been productive since his first game in the SEC back in 2020.

Zack Charbonnet (UCLA) – Charbonnet came to UCLA before the 2021 season and hit the ground running as a transfer from Michigan. He looks the part at 6-0, 224 pounds and has been an extremely efficient and productive running back for Chip Kelly and the Bruins. No ballcarrier at this event turned his carries into first downs or touchdowns at a higher rate this season than Charbonnet, who did so on 38.6 percent of his touches (per Pro Football Focus). That is a high amount of efficiency for the kind of downhill grinder that Charbonnet projects as at the next level.

Roschon Johnson (Texas) – Bijan Robinson isn't the only Texas Longhorn ballcarrier in this draft, and it would behoove you to get familiar with his backup. Johnson has good size at 6-0, 225 pounds, presents extensive experience as a core special teams player, displays soft hands, can block, and is also a very useful runner both between the tackles and to the perimeter. A high school quarterback who didn't move to running back until his first Training Camp on campus, Johnson forced 0.49 missed tackles per rushing attempt in his final season of 2022. Not only is that the best number of any back at the Combine this year, but it's the highest number of any drafted running back that has been charted by PFF in the last decade. Johnson is a load to bring down.

The Rest of the Pack

Everyone else who will take part in the events in Indianapolis (in alphabetical order):

Israel Abanikanda (Pitt), Travis Dye (USC), Tiyon Evans (Louisville), Zach Evans (Ole Miss), Eric Gray (Oklahoma), Evan Hull (Northwestern), Mohamed Ibrahim (Minnesota), Dewayne McBride (UAB), Camerun Peoples (Appalachian State), Deneric Prince (Tulsa), Chris Rodriguez (Kentucky), Tavion Thomas (Utah), SaRodorick Thompson (Texas Tech)

Mr. Average

We get to read all about the measurements for all these players over the next few weeks ... but wouldn't it be nice to have some context? What is considered a "good" 40-yard dash time? What about arm length? The broad jump? Here's what the average player drafted at each position has looked like over the last decade (based on my own personal research).

Height: 5104 (5'10 1/2")

Weight: 214

Hand Size: 928 (9 1/4")

Arm Length: 3100 (31")

Wingspan: 7458 (74 5/8")

Unofficial 40-Time (Stopwatch): 4.52

Official 40-Time (Laser): 4.53

10-Yard Split: 1.57

3-Cone Drill: 7.07

Short Shuttle: 4.28

Broad Jump: 120"

Vertical Jump: 35"

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