This year’s running back class has easily been the most difficult group to project in my four years of working on Yards Created. While the previous three NFL Draft’s were highlighted with no-brainer top backs like Elliott, McCaffrey, and Barkley — the 2019 class is nothing of the sort both at the top and throughout the middle of the board.
A quick recap of the last three years is all that is necessary to remind us of the loaded running back crop the league has been infiltrated with. Beyond the multiple first-round picks, Nick Chubb, Kerryon Johnson, Joe Mixon, Alvin Kamara, Kareem Hunt, James Conner, Tarik Cohen, Marlon Mack, Aaron Jones, Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake and Jordan Howard have all been valuable hits for teams wise enough to wait on running backs over the last three years. While Dalvin Cook and Derrius Guice have both dealt with significant injuries, they cap off an excellent supply of backs that have taken the NFL by storm.
This year’s class wields a few exciting talents, but every back has at least one significant red flag planted next to his name. Lack of production, poor athleticism, and injuries plague a group that ultimately looks like a group of misfits when compared to the productive rushers the last three draft’s have yielded.
After months of research, preparation, and charting games, this notebook provides an in-depth look at how the top runners in the 2019 group fared in the Yards Created process and, ultimately, how they project to the next level. Let’s get to it.
Make No Mistake: Josh Jacobs is 2019’s RB1
A classic old-school case of metrics vs. tape, Jacobs never had elite production at Alabama nor does he have world-beating athleticism. While sharing time with three NFL-caliber backs (Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, and Najee Harris) plus two quarterbacks capable of rushing on their own — Josh Jacobs handled 15 or more touches just three times across 40 career games for the Crimson Tide.
The sample size may be limited, but Jacobs was nothing short of an efficient, difference-making piece for the Alabama offense in 2018. Even though his carries were sparse, Jacobs created five or more yards on 37% of his charted attempts last season, tying Saquon Barkley for the third-best rate over the last four college seasons. Alabama’s offensive line paved the way, but Yards Created revealed a highly instinctive runner who is capable of consistently making defenders miss at the next level. Jacobs’ 0.41 missed tackles forced per carry is the 10th-best mark in Yards Created history and puts him in the same conversation as Nick Chubb (0.47), Kareem Hunt (0.47), Sony Michel (0.46), Christian McCaffrey (0.40), and Ezekiel Elliott (0.38) coming out of college.
Jacobs’ passing down work was always limited, too — but his natural ability as a receiver and consistency in pass protection showed up while watching his 2018 snaps. Among the class, only Darrell Henderson (2.8) averaged more yards gained per route run than Jacobs (2.4) while his 88% pass protection execution rate is easily the top of the class and also ranks tied for sixth-best over the last four years.
While many backs in this year’s class have more questions than answers surrounding their profile, Josh Jacobs is the only prospect that has the all-around game that fits the modern, pass-heavy NFL with ease. If you are digging for more info on this year’s RB1, I wrote a full-length profile on Jacobs back in March.
Darrell Henderson is a Yards Created Standout
After averaging 8.9 yards per carry, an absurd 15.5 yards per reception, and scoring 25 TDs on just 233 touches in his final season, it should come as no surprise that Darrell Henderson stands out in a weak RB class. Beyond the ridiculous production and efficiency, Yards Created highlighted just how explosive Henderson is and how much he benefited from Memphis’ excellent ecosystem in college.
Last year, Memphis’ offensive line absolutely leveled clearly inferior opponents, opening up a gargantuan 2.54 yards blocked every time Henderson toted the rock. Not only were the 2018 Tigers the best offensive line I have ever charted, they are the top group by over half a yard! Alabama ranks second over the last four college seasons, as they opened up 1.81 yards blocked per carry for Josh Jacobs.
Don’t let Memphis’ offensive line deter you from thinking Henderson can’t win on his own. While 92% of his carries at Memphis came out of a shotgun formation, Henderson’s burst and power consistently showed up on his carries. Henderson’s ability to explode through the second-level and make defenders miss with phenomenal contact balance and aggressive cuts puts him in rarefied air:
Henderson wasn’t used as a pass protector often — he was asked to pass block on less than 5% of his charted snaps in 2018 — but his short-area burst, natural power, and instinct in the open field will serve him exceptionally well as a matchup nightmare for linebackers. In a perfect world, Henderson would be best unleashed as an Alvin Kamara-type weapon in the NFL.
Will Miles Sanders and David Montgomery Provide Value in the Mid-Rounds of the NFL Draft?
No running back has seen their draft stock skyrocket more in the last few months than Miles Sanders. Standing 5-11 and weighing 211lbs, Sanders has the requisite build to become a featured back in the NFL. He’s also arguably the only back in the class with a well-rounded athletic profile, as the Penn State alum posted scores above the 75th percentile in the forty-yard dash, jumping, and agility drills at the NFL Combine.
Sanders’ metrics on paper are stellar, but his Yards Created profile does warrant some caution. Sanders’ 4.51 yards created per attempt trails Darrell Henderson (6.44), Bryce Love (4.90), and Josh Jacobs (4.61) for the top marks in the class. Sanders is also well below the four-year average (0.35) in missed tackles forced per attempt (0.29) and, as a one-year starter, it should be no surprise Sanders showed inconsistency as both a pass protector and receiver. Sanders’ 75% pass protection execution rate is slightly below-average for an incoming rookie back while the former-Nittany Lion completely failed to fill Saquon Barkley’s shoes as a receiver. Whereas Barkley averaged 4.5 yards per route run (YPRR) on 5.0 targets per game in 2017, Sanders put up a paltry 1.0 YPRR (on 2.5 targets per game).
Like Sanders, Iowa State’s David Montgomery has an NFL build (5-10, 222lbs) — but the combine revealed several holes in his athletic profile. Home run ability is not a necessary trait to succeed on the ground in the NFL, but Montgomery tested at or below the 50th percentile in the speed, jumping, and agility drills. All told, Montgomery is a 37th percentile SPARQ athlete.
While Montgomery is the top back in the class in missed tackles forced per carry (0.44), exactly 85 percent of those missed tackles came through either power or elusiveness. Montgomery’s lack of short-area burst and speed on his bigger frame significantly limited his ability to accelerate to the second-level and create in crowded interior spaces. On his charted carries, Montgomery created just 2.89 yards per attempt in between the tackles — by far the worst clip in the class. Montgomery is best-suited as an outside-zone runner at the next level who needs the defense to flow laterally so he can set up cutback lanes and make defenders miss with his natural wiggle and power.
Bryce Love Could Be a Steal
A true wild card in the 2019 class, I have no clue where Bryce Love will be selected in the NFL Draft. At press time, Love is five months removed from an ACL tear and he dealt with recurring ankle issues in both the 2017 and 2018 seasons at Stanford. Serious injury concerns can never be brushed aside, but Yards Created data illuminates how explosive Bryce Love is… when he’s healthy.
Unlike most college offenses, Stanford runs an old-school ground attack with the quarterback primarily under center. On Love’s charted attempts over the last two seasons, 64% of Love’s carries were with the QB under center. Because Love rarely ran out of three-receiver, shotgun sets — he faced an extraordinary amount of defensive attention.
While Love faced 8+ defenders on an astounding 70% of his carries when Stanford’s quarterback was under center, the rest of the 2019 class rarely ran into stacked fronts:
|Running Back||8+ Defenders in Box|
On his under center runs, Love rewarded Stanford with an enormous 5.55 yards created per attempt — which is the third-best figure in my database. For reference, 63% of Christian McCaffrey’s carries were with the QB under center at Stanford and he created 5.66 yards per attempt on those plays. That ranks second-best in my database behind top scorer, Leonard Fournette (6.60).
Love’s ability to string together moves and make defenders take terrible angles in tight spaces is simply unmatched in this class. Based on where he is taken in the NFL Draft, we will know where Love stands medically very soon.
Can Damien Harris and Devin Singletary Overcome their Red Flags?
Damien Harris seems to be a prospect that lacks a consensus opinion, but Yards Created revealed one truth for sure. He is no where near teammate Josh Jacobs as a prospect:
With the significant edge on the ground, through the air, and as a pass protector — Josh Jacobs and Damien Harris’ respective profiles are on entirely different planets. Overall, Harris’ 3.92 yards created and 0.21 missed tackles forced per attempt rank second-worst out of the 48 RBs I have charted over the last four years. Maybe Harris’ allure as a former five-star recruit and productive ‘Bama back will be enough to keep the light on to warrant a fourth- or fifth-round selection from a team.
While Harris struggled in every facet of the Yards Created process, I am far more intrigued by FAU’s Devin Singletary. While running behind a truly miserable offense line, Singletary rolled up 125.6 rushing yards and 2.1 rushing TDs per game over the last two years.
Singletary’s overall yards created and missed tackle figures will not blow you away — he’s middle of the pack in both categories — but he had to earn his yards while running behind brutal blocking. FAU’s line opened up just 0.93 yards blocked per attempt on his sampled carries, easily last in the class. Their interior offensive line was an even bigger disaster. Singletary saw just 0.69 yards of room on carries in between the tackles, which is the fifth-worst figure I have ever recorded.
Despite the terrible blocking, Singletary demonstrated phenomenal power and balance for a smaller back (5-7, 200lbs). Singletary’s 0.17 missed tackles forced through power alone ranks third-best in the class (behind Jacobs and Montgomery) and it puts him in a similar tier as Jordan Howard (0.18 MTs/attempt – power) and Rashaad Penny (0.17) coming out. Both Howard and Penny have over 20lbs on Singletary.
Still, Devin Singletary created far more questions than answers around his profile with a dreadful performance at the NFL Combine. For a smaller back who does not primarily win with his speed, Singletary’s 15th percentile weight-adjusted forty-yard dash was a particularly horrifying showing. Singletary’s agility (19th percentile score in drills) isn’t any better.
Singletary overcame a bad offensive line, but he hammered Non-Power 5 competition in college, didn’t truly dominated in any Yards Created category, and he has the worst athletic metrics of any top back in the class.
A Final Thought Before the NFL Draft
Altogether, the NFL’s supply of talented rushers has been heavily re-stocked recently, as 8 running backs were taken inside of the first three rounds in each of the last two NFL Draft’s. This year, we may only see 4-5 backs selected by the end of Round 3.
The red flags are clear across the board.
Bryce Love and Rodney Anderson are both rehabbing torn ACLs and have less than inspiring injury histories beyond their knee issues. Damien Harris’ Yards Created data was miserable while Devin Singletary tested as a miserable athlete. Darrell Henderson flashed, but Memphis’ dominant rushing ecosystem certainly helped his elite efficiency. David Montgomery looks like a featured back and rolled up 2,800 scrimmage yards over the last two seasons, but he can’t live off of contact balance forever. Miles Sanders is a smooth glider, but he only has one year of starting reps under his belt. Josh Jacobs has a high floor, but he benefited from a fantastic offensive line and only has 299 collegiate touches to scout from.
Team fit always matters — but landing spot and invested draft capital will be especially critical deciding factors in the future success of this year’s crop. With only a few teams looking for a starting NFL back entering this draft, this year’s rookie running back class projects as the worst we’ve had in recent years.
Pre-NFL Draft Top-12 Running Backs
- Josh Jacobs, Alabama
- Darrell Henderson, Memphis
- Miles Sanders, Penn State
- Bryce Love, Stanford
- David Montgomery, Iowa State
- Devin Singletary, FAU
- Damien Harris, Alabama
- Trayveon Williams, Texas A&M
- Justice Hill, Oklahoma State
- Ryquell Armstead, Temple
- Myles Gaskin, Washington
- Devine Ozigbo, Nebraska
Honorable mentions: Dexter Williams (13), Alex Barnes (14), Benny Snell Jr. (15), Elijah Holyfield (16)