Five big RB questions heading into the 2019 season
Pro Football Focus is an invaluable resource to dive deeper into statistics when thinking about college football and the NFL Draft. Here is a breakdown of five running backs heading into next season, what their numbers could mean down the road and a take from Rivals.com National Recruiting Director Mike Farrell.
Is Eno Benjamin exceeding expectations?
Overview: Benjamin was ranked as the fifth-best running back in the 2017 class, so his success at Arizona State is not unexpected. He is coming off a tremendous season and after a lot of people worried about ASU's future after the hiring of coach Herm Edwards.
The former four-star running back who was rated behind Najee Harris, Cam Akers, D’Andre Swift and J.K. Dobbins in the 2017 position rankings, busted on the national scene last season with 1,642 yards and 16 touchdowns. His rushing yards were good for fifth nationally and he also caught 35 passes to increase his all-purpose bona fides. Benjamin did have 300 carries, which could be an over-usage concern but he’s emerged as one of the go-to backs in college football.
Farrell’s take: I don’t think Benjamin is exceeding expectations since he was ranked so highly but I think he’s surprising some people who felt he’d be a better fit at Iowa, his first commitment, than he would in the Pac-12 at Arizona State. Despite excellent athleticism, some people felt Benjamin was a one-cut guy who couldn’t make people miss but we saw something different. His shiftiness in the open field as well as his ability to catch the ball speak to his skills and he’s probably the best kept secret at running back in the nation.
Is A.J. Dillon getting too much hype?
Overview: Dillon continues to show he’s one of the best running backs in the game, but there are some concerns as the massive 6-foot, 250-pound running back prepares for his third - and probably final - college season.
As a freshman, the former four-star rushed 300 times for 1,589 yards and 14 touchdowns averaging 5.3 yards per touch. By any measure, that is a lot of load for a freshman to carry even though he was magnificent. But this past season, Dillon totaled just 1,108 yards and 10 touchdowns on 227 rushes for a 4.9-yard average. While those numbers are still great, there was a marginal decrease and the fact needs to be considered that Dillon has 527 carries in two seasons. He could approach 800 or so career carries after next season which might warrant a second look by NFL decision-makers on durability.
Farrell’s take: I will be very interested to see how Dillon runs at the NFL Combine down the road because of his size and that will determine where he goes in the NFL Draft. But as far as college football goes, he’s certainly not getting too much hype as he’s the key to the Boston College offense. When he was out last year, the Eagles struggled. He’s the biggest back in the country with his level of talent so I expect him to carry the rock a lot and not wear down.
Is Travis Etienne the nation’s best back?
Overview: So much discussion centered around freshman phenom quarterback Trevor Lawrence and the NFL-caliber defensive line at Clemson this season - and rightfully so because they were incredible players - but the job Etienne did in the Tigers’ backfield was outstanding as well.
He averaged 8.1 yards per carry and scored 24 rushing touchdowns, more than the top 200 running backs reviewed by Pro Football Focus. That is eight more TDs than Wisconsin's Jonathan Taylor on 102 fewer carries. Etienne was also playing in an offense that loved to throw the ball as Lawrence passed for 30 touchdowns so this was not just a run-focused offense. It’s why Etienne could emerge as RB1 after next season since he has only 311 carries over his first two years.
Farrell’s take: Taylor is still my top back in college football for next season, but Etienne is higher on my NFL Draft board and is my No. 1 back for the NFL. The reason? He’s explosive and can change direction so well I find him to be a bit niftier than Taylor and he has a little more wiggle. Out of high school, we questioned his speed, but he’s shown that he’s plenty fast for college football and I think he tests well when it comes his time to impress NFL scouts. I expect both Taylor and Etienne to be in the Heisman discussion, but Lawrence will take votes away from the running back as his teammate.
Is this the year former five-star Najee Harris breaks out?
Overview: Harris was the top-ranked player in the 2017 recruiting class, ahead of a lot of talented players who have already made a significant mark on college football and some who could be some of the game's best players heading into next season. The former five-star has not reached that level yet, though, after rushing for only 1,153 yards and seven touchdowns in his first two seasons at Alabama.
One argument could be made that because Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs were featured more in the Crimson Tide's offensive attack that Harris was usually the third option the last two seasons. With Harris and Jacobs off to the NFL, this could be the season that the 6-foot-2, 227-pound prospect explodes on the national scene. The former five-star was tied at No. 162 in carries last year, so chances came at a premium in Tuscaloosa. Does he have a breakout campaign and get the attention of the NFL or does Harris slip through the cracks in Alabama's offense?
Farrell's take: I have to think that this is the year of Najee in the SEC. He’s just too talented not to take this opportunity and run with it and a big season is in store. Everything we saw out of high school – size, speed, balance, vision, footwork – has improved at the college level and the two years learning under other running backs should only help. He’s shown flashes of greatness here and there and we should see much more of that this season.
Is Jonathan Taylor getting too many carries?
Overview: The Wisconsin running back had a phenomenal season where he rushed for 2,185 yards and 16 touchdowns. Taylor had an incredible 61 runs of 10-plus yards, far better numbers than any of the top-rated running backs in this year’s NFL Draft. He will clearly be one of the top running backs in college football next season and a prime candidate to be the first player at his position to come off the board in the next NFL Draft.
But the reliance on Taylor in Wisconsin’s offense could also be a long-term concern for some NFL teams. That’s because he carried the ball 307 times last season, more than any running back in college football. The number of touches Christian McCaffrey had early in his Stanford career was a concern for David Shaw and he got dialed back in his junior year. At the NFL Scouting Combine, the analysts talked about running backs having tread left on the tires. Will Taylor be pulled back a little in the Badgers’ attack or will Paul Chryst choose to keep pounding the rock?
Farrell’s take: The quarterback situation at Wisconsin is the biggest issue. Can a kid like Graham Mertz come in and take pressure off the running game or will Taylor be relied upon to carry the load as usual. Taylor should continue to get as many carries as he’s gotten in the past and he will continue to show off his durability. He’s always been a running back who gets stronger as the game wears on and thrives off of contact, even in high school, so I don’t see him wearing down.