Who to Watch at the NFL Combine – Running Backs
By Ha Kung Wong
As I mentioned in my first article in this series detailing which Quarterbacks you should watch at the NFL Combine, there are 338 prospects that are going to participate, so there will be plenty to keep tabs on. And as much you might want to watch everything, let’s face it, unless you’re a professional scout, and have no friends or family (or hate your friends and family), you probably aren’t going to do that. So which Running Backs should you watch at the NFL Combine? First, don’t forget to check this week’s Podcast where our own Ryan Whitfield and Joey Alibro, as well as Dan Thury of Beer Fueled Fantasy Football discuss who they will be watching at the Combine. Second, let’s take a look at a few Running Backs you might want to keep an eye on.
Joshua Jacobs – Alabama
Perhaps the most interesting thing about Josh Jacobs, other than his standout athleticism, is the limited amount of run he had at Alabama. Jacobs was a three-year backup, part of a deep backfield who had to vie for snaps behind starter Damien Harris. At least he did until the 2018 season, where had a career high 120 rush attempts for 640 yards and 11 TDs, as well as 20 receptions for 247 yards and 3 TDs. That’s a stellar 6.33 yards per touch, well in line with the rest of his college career. He was still splitting snaps with both Damien Harris and Najee Harris, but it was clear that his low center of gravity and sturdy frame at 5′ 10″ and 216 pounds, as well as his breakaway speed, was a perfect complement for Alabama’s backfield. And, on the flipside, sharing snaps limited his wear and tear entering the NFL.
He has athleticism, agility, running instincts, balance, power, serious lateral cut ability and quick feet and has drawn some comps to Alvin Kamara. If you ever watch his tape, you’ll see that he can be shifty in the backfield and but one cut and blast down field at blazing speeds, completely blowing away the defense.
There are some concerns, though that Jacobs tends to rely on straight line speed in the second level, and also looks to make contact instead of avoiding it, making open field tackles more manageable for defenders. Plus, there’s some concern with his ability to pickup blitzes, a skill that’s critical in the NFL.
The 40-yard dash, vertical and broad jumps have been identified as predictors for general RB success in the NFL, but I’ll be looking at other drills when I watch Jacobs. I’ll keep an eye on those drills, but am also interested his 3 cone drill, as I’d like to see his agility changing directions multiple times, something he’ll need to do to improve his running in the second level, considering how much faster NFL defenses are as compared to college. It should also give some idea at how quickly, from a physical standpoint, he can pick blitzers.
David Montgomery – Iowa State
David Montgomery has it all. He’s been a true bell cow for two years operating on the ground and through the air, averaging 4.7 yards per carry in 2018 for 1,216 yards with 12 TDs and catching 22 passes for 157 yards. He’s impressive getting open and giving his QB an outlet while exhibiting soft hands, and once he has the ball, he’s tough for defensive backs to tackle. He’s not the traditional pass catching back needing space to operate, as he excels in traffic having no issue absorbing and recovering from contact, and has one of the best jump cuts I’ve seen.
He’s proven to me that he can be an automatic every down back, but the eye test doesn’t show as much explosiveness as some of the other RB prospects. So I’ll be keeping a close eye at the first 10 yards of the 40-yard dash to see what how fast he’ll be able to hit holes. We all know that simply seeking contact, while potentially viable short term, is unsustainable long term. Whether he can exhibit some elusiveness will be key to his success in the NFL.
Damien Harris – Alabama
It’s interesting because, many draft pundits have Jacobs ranked higher than the actual starter in Alabama, Damien Harris. As far as I’m concerned, the jury is still out, but Harris has had three impressive seasons in a row now, even while splitting carries (and thus avoiding significant wear and tear), with 1000+ yards from scrimmage each time. And with an impressive 6.4 yards per carry and 7.8 yards per reception over four seasons, his upside astronomical. But perhaps what impresses me the most is his ball security, as he’s NEVER lost a fumble throughout his 4 year career in Alabama.
He runs with a low center of gravity and often brushes off first contact, making for a terrific early down back. He’s also solid in pass protection, able to quickly identify breakdowns and move accordingly.
Although Harris has plus receiving skills and solid single-cut and go ability, he doesn’t exhibit above average acceleration or game breaking speed, and rarely can avoid contact. In addition, without finding the gap and going downfield, he’s unlikely to have the speed to make corners or make guys miss in the backfield. Because of this, Harris has been projected as more of a grinder, between the tackles runner that may need a speedier complement for obvious passing downs. Because of this, I’m again interested in the first 10 yards of the 40-yard dash and also interested in agility drills to see how he stacks up against the competition. Perhaps he has the skills, but never had to use them in Alabama, so his Combine performance should be one to watch.
Benjamin Snell Jr. – Kentucky
Benny Snell Jr. has quite a history of football in his family, and he didn’t waste it at Kentucky. Snell led the Kentucky backfield as a sophomore, starting all 13 games and receiving second-team All-SEC recognition after leading the conference with 262 carries for 1,333 yards and 19 TDs. Outside of Herschel Walker and Knowshon Moreno, fairly lofty company, Snell was the third SEC back to exceed 1,300 rushing yards and 13 rushing touchdowns in his first two seasons and he repeated the feat as a junior. And he didn’t stop there. He ended up ranked in the top 10 in the nation with 1,449 yards, 16 receiving TDs and 289 carries, earning Associated Press third-team All-American and first-team All-SEC honors. And when the dust settled, Snell left Kentucky as the Wildcat’s all-time leading rusher.
Snell had tons of success as a runner largely on the back of his strength and power (at a solid 5′ 11″ and 210 lbs.), jump cut ability and patience behind blockers. And although he’s known more for being a downhill grinder with vision, he also has a fairly decent catch radius out of the backfield.
The concern surrounds speed and agility. He’s never been a finesse runner and lacks breakaway speed, elusiveness, lateral agility and ability to change direction. Plus, there’s some concern with ability to pickup the blitz in pass protection, something that will be critical for him being an every down back in the NFL.
Some people don’t believe Snell has the tools to be a bell cow back in the NFL. I’m watching all of his agility drills as well as his vertical and broad jump (as both the vertical and broad jump will give us an idea of how much burst he has), and I’m sure plenty of NFL execs and scouts will be doing the same. Seeing as how pundits believe speed and agility are his largest drawbacks, it will be interesting how he stacks up against other Combine participants, and a solid showing could do a lot for his draft stock.
Devin Singletary – FAU
With his heavy workload and impressive results over 3 years, Devin Singletary looks to be one of the surer draft selections for an every down back. In his second year, he led the nation with 32 rushing TDs, tying for the national lead with 301 carries and ranking fourth with jaw-dropping 1,920 yards earning him first-team all-conference and second-team Associated Press All-American honors. He repeated his performance to a slightly lesser degree in his third year, earning first-team all-conference honors after leading the league with 261 carries for 1,348 yards and 22 TDs.
He’s a strong runner, especially for his size (5′ 9″ and 200 lbs.), with excellent balance that allows him to take on plenty of contact. He runs light and has amazing acceleration and downfield speed. His balance not only comes in handy with contact, but also at making a variety of dynamic cuts in running lanes and in the open field to make defenders miss, as demonstrated by his whopping 113 broken tackles in 2018. Once he gets in space, watch out. And his vision is impressive as he’s able to quickly find openings in defensive lines and exploit them. And when he stays home, he’s incredibly solid in pass protection and blitz pickup. So you’re probably thinking, “what’s the catch?”
Well, first there’s his wear and tear. He’s had a whopping 715 carries in three years, 562 of which where in his last two. Second, although he has great acceleration, he lacks true breakaway speed, relying instead on his agility to avoid defenders. Plus, he does sometimes have what I like to call “Reggie Bush Disease”, which is essentially dancing in the backfield too long and making excessive cuts before going downfield, which is rarely a good thing in the NFL where defenders are much faster at locating and swarming the ball. And last may be his lack of usage as a receiver, as he only had 19 receptions in 2017 and just 6 receptions in 2018.
For Singletary, I’m going to be paying attention to his 40-yard dash. I already know how agile he can be, so I’m more interested in what his top end speed, break away speed and recovery speed will be, which is generally what the 40 predicts. And I might also pay attention to his flexibility tests, which are generally of the pass/don’t pass variety. No one really looks at these, but good flexibility tests may help demonstrate resistance to soft tissue injury. Either way, NFL execs and scouts are probably going to want him regardless of how he does, but showing big top end speed could bump him up to the top of the heap.