By Brentley Weissman
The running back position is one that is often at the center of heated debates within the NFL community. The question of whether running backs matter, or if you should pay running backs, always seems to be a huge talking point when free agency and the draft come around. Determining running back value as it pertains to building your football team is very difficult. While I definitely see the point that you can find production from that position relatively easily without investing top capitol, I also do believe that having a difference-making runner can change your entire football team.
This past draft, we only had one running back get selected in the first round, with the Kansas City Chiefs picking LSU star Clyde Edwards-Helaire with the last pick in the opening round. Edwards-Helaire has had a solid year thus far, but I am sure the Chiefs are hoping for a bit more production from their first pick.
A handful of backs were selected in the second round in last year’s draft, with Jonathan Taylor, J.K. Dobbins, De'Andre Swift, and Cam Akers all hearing their names called within the first 55 picks. While most of those runners have experienced somewhat productive years, none of them have done enough to disprove the notion that drafting running backs early is a bad investment. To make matters worse for the "draft running backs early" crowd, the rookie runner who has been by far and away the most impressive this season is Jacksonville’s James Robinson, who went undrafted out of Illinois State.
Robinson has been a revelation for the Jaguars this season and has made the move of cutting Leonard Fournette look to be a genius one. Robinson went undrafted after an extremely productive college career, which saw him run for 4,444 yards and 44 touchdowns in 46 total games. Lacking top end speed, agility, and burst, Robinson was passed over for other players who were perceived to be more dynamic.
As I watched college football this past Saturday, I really hope the NFL doesn’t make the same mistake with Oregon running back CJ Verdell.
Verdell, a redshirt junior, has been one of the most productive running backs in the country since the minute he stepped foot on the field. As a freshman, Verdell ran for 1,018 yards on 202 carries and 10 touchdowns, all while splitting time with fellow freshman Travis Dye. Verdell was even better as a sophomore, as he ran for 1,220 yards on 197 carries for eight touchdowns. For as productive of a player he has been for one of the better teams in the country, one would think that he would be getting more attention as a NFL prospect.
When you look up the lists of the top 5-10 running back prospects for the 2021 NFL Draft, you’ll see the usual names like Travis Etienne, Najee Harris, and Chuba Hubbard. You’ll also see guys like Javonte Williams from North Carolina who has helped himself a ton this year, and same with Virginia Tech’s Khalil Herbert. My question is, where is Verdell?
With Oregon breaking in a new quarterback, the team knew it would have to rely heavily on Verdell this season, and so far he has delivered. In his first two games, Verdell has ran for 223 yards and two touchdowns on just 38 carries. Verdell is clearly the team’s best player on offense and appears to be much improved from 2019.
Verdell is listed at 5-foot-10 and 210 pounds, which is good size for a running back at the next level. He runs angry, and never shies away from contact. Verdell has outstanding toughness, contact balance, and strength as a runner. He routinely breaks arm tackles, and teams must swarm to the ball to gang tackle him. A true north and south runner, he’s a build to speed player who, if there is a seam, can break it and take it the distance.
The criticisms of Verdell are that he lacks top end speed, has questionable vision, and isn’t used much in the receiving game. Verdell is putting these concerns to rest with his play so far in 2020, as he has definitely looked quicker with more burst. Additionally, he has already caught seven passes out of the backfield and has looked natural as a receiver, a huge development as he only caught 14 passes the entire season in 2019.
Like Robinson, Verdell may not be the biggest, fastest, or most dynamic running back, but the bottom line is that he produces and is consistent. He runs tough, is smart, and has more than enough athletic ability to play at the next level. If I were an NFL team, I'd be ecstatic to find Verdell available late in the draft. But, if he keeps playing the way he's played the last two weeks, I expect he will hear his name called a lot earlier than where many project him to be.