Identifying The Next Tier: 2020 Running Backs

Photo: Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Every year, there’s a debate about which position is the most important for prospects entering the NFL. Among the favorites are quarterback, offensive tackle, edge rusher and cornerback. Somewhere near the bottom of the list is running back. 

From Todd Gurley to Melvin Gordon, this offseason has been a clear indicator of the dwindling value a high-priced option is.

The 2020 draft class is loaded, but the same names often come up. In every draft, we see a late-round running back go on to star for their new team. Who are the options that could be in line for that type of immediate career track this year? 

Anthony McFarland Jr., Maryland

As a redshirt freshman in 2018, Anthony McFarland Jr. was an instant hit. He finished the year with a single-season freshman record 1,034 yards and four touchdowns. McFarland’s historic campaign made him as only the second Maryland player to ever gain back-to-back 200-yard rushing games since Charlie Wysocki in 1979. 

However, McFarland’s numbers declined the following season. He recorded just 614 rushing yards, 126 receiving yards and nine total touchdowns. In 23 career games, McFarland rushed for 1,648 yards on 245 attempts with 12 touchdowns. He also caught 24 passes for 199 yards and a touchdown.

Biggest strength: McFarland comes out of the blocks full head of steam. He hits the ground running even before holes have actually revealed themselves. McFarland only operates at one speed and that’s full go. He’s an Energizer Bunny type of runner that’s always looking to make the big play due to his tempo. McFarland is a true dictator and forces things to happen under his watch. 

Biggest weakness: He will gobble up what’s already present or free to him, but when forced to create on his own lane or make tacklers miss in one-on-one situations, he struggles. On runs with gaping holes or blocked up cleanly, McFarland will make it a mission to devour every blade of grass presented but make-you-miss type of plays and garnering yardage isn’t his calling card. He’s an efficient runner between the tackles, but he can get a bit happy and impatient with keeping runs in their proper areas. 

Sewo Olonilua, TCU

Sewo Olonilua played in all 13 games as a freshman at TCU. He logged 15 carries for 122 yards and a touchdown. As a sophomore, he played in all 14 games and recorded 64 carries for 330 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. He also added another 166 yards through the air on 19 catches. 

Olonilua showed steady improvements on the field and his totals improved during his junior campaign. He started in seven of the 13 games he participated in. Olonilua finished with a team-leading 635 rushing yards and two touchdowns. He had a breakout performance against California in the Cheez-It Bowl and scampered for 194 rushing yards and a touchdown. 

Olonilua’s rushing total was the most in program history since 2010. He suffered an off-field setback after he was arrested on two felony drug possession charges in May 2019. In his senior season, Olonilua ran for 537 yards and a career-high eight touchdowns.

Biggest strength: He is a galloping rusher that gobbles up yards at his own pace. Olonilua’s stride length helps him cover ground quicker than it appears and despite running with an extremely high pad level, he maintains his speed and step pace. Olonilua is very athletic for a running back of his size. His cuts on a dime aren’t very frequent but he makes optimal split-second decisions when forced with run predicaments in multiple areas. Olonilua has the ability to make defenders miss in space and does it at a high success rate even though that’s not the basis of his playing style. 

Biggest weakness: When attacking or running out of grass to the sideline and forced to change directions, he has to take a lot of small choppy steps. Olonilua has even come to a complete stop on occasions before being able to attack in the opposite direction. The lack of change of direction skills allows tacklers to crowd his body while trying to redirect; being that his body frame is larger, tackle attempts are often successful if someone is able to catch him in the act. 

Darrynton Evans, Appalachian State

Darrynton Evans was an instant contributor as a true freshman. In 12 games, he racked up 217 rushing yards while carrying the ball 48 times. Evans’ greatest contributions, however, came on special teams. He served as the primary kickoff returner and collected 563 yards on 25 returns. Evans was sidelined for the duration of the 2017 season due to a right knee injury. In 2018, he came back and started in eight of the 13 games he played in.

Evans took over the reins as the lead running back during the fifth game of the season and collected a Sun Belt-leading 1,187 yards along with seven touchdowns. His development stayed on the upswing the following season and he finished with career-highs in rushing yards (1,480) and rushing touchdowns (18). Evans also had a career year as a receiving threat with 21 catches for 198 yards and five touchdowns. He was named the 2019 Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year.

Biggest strength: Evans keeps defenders on a string with his movements and is able to cut on a dime. His hard steps into the turf are effective and leave tacklers reaching in areas he once appeared to be. Evans is excellent at setting up moves and can make tacklers look silly with the body movements that he’s able to incorporate while making them miss in space. He is an explosive run threat when he’s in the clear and there are very few players who can catch up to him. Evans is a hash-numbers-sideline runner that, when able to get to those areas, can take it the distance with ease. 

Biggest weakness: Appalachian State’s run-heavy offense delayed Evans’ development and feel for the passing game. He was aware of his assignments in pass protection but his technique is currently lacking. Evans doesn’t understand how to set his base and run his feet on contact. He can also look a bit lost and struggles to find where to fit into passing concepts after he scans through his protection rules prior to releasing out on routes. When getting out, Evans is a fish out of water.

Joshua Kelley, UCLA

Joshua Kelley's story began at UC Davis in 2015 where he rushed for 530 rushing yards and four touchdowns in 10 games. Kelley returned as a sophomore and surpassed his totals, recording 609 yards and four touchdowns. UC Davis combined for a 5-17 record during Kelley’s first two seasons which led to the coaching staff’s dismissal. Kelley wanted to go elsewhere and eventually landed at UCLA.

He was a walk-on in 2017 and sat out the following season to satisfy transfer rules. Kelley went on to start in nine of the 11 games played during the 2018 season. He rushed for 1,243 yards and 12 touchdowns while adding 27 receptions for 193 yards. As a senior, Kelley started in all 11 games and finished with 1,060 yards and another 12 touchdowns. He became only the eighth Bruin rusher to record back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons.

Biggest strength: When allowed an alleyway of access, Kelley creates an insurmountable level of force that enables him to carry out his momentum throughout runs. He has a wide stance and is a high kneed strider that won’t wow with his straight-line speed, but he has enough to generate explosive plays and turn the corner when opting to bounce runs to the perimeter. Kelley’s effort stands out when finishing runs. He’s consistent with protecting the ball with both arms and dipping his shoulder when he expects contact. His hands are highly consistent and he has made plenty of catches outside of his frame on various types of routes in the passing game.

Biggest weakness: While Kelley will look like he was shot out of a cannon, his burst and speed will quickly flame out after a few seconds of quick initial burst. When in the clear, he was often caught further down the field. Kelley comes out the gates early and with plenty of momentum, but there’s a precipitous drop off after that first initial wave.

Antonio Gibson, Memphis

Antonio Gibson's collegiate career got off to a slow start. He started in eight of the 14 games he played in and brought a different dynamic to the team’s plan of attack. 

Gibson was used primarily as a depth piece and recorded just six catches for 99 yards and two touchdowns. In his final season, Gibson was used in multiple spots. He was listed as a wide receiver and collected 38 catches for 735 yards and eight touchdowns. He also spent time in the backfield and totaled 33 carries for 369 rushing yards and four touchdowns. Gibson’s breakout senior season led to him becoming the AAC Co-Special Teams Player of the Year and a second-team all-conference selection.

Biggest strength: Gibson has played everything from running back to receiver to a top return specialist. He provides value in a lot of areas and has yet to focus on one distinct position because of the chess piece he has become. Even though he was very versatile, Gibson wasn’t presented with many opportunities in the offense. When they came his way, he made the most of them. Last season, Gibson averaged 19.3 yards per catch and 11.2 yards per carry. Gibson also averaged 28 yards per kickoff return. Those numbers provide a snapshot of just how explosive he was in limited opportunities. 

Biggest weakness: Gibson is still trying to figure his way out and develop a clear position. A lot of what he’s done so far has been off of strictly athletic abilities. His pad level from start to finish is sky high and his route details are lacking. Patience must also be shown if he’s playing in the slot and if he’s playing strictly one position, his development could speed up very quickly.

Written By:

Jordan Reid

Senior NFL Draft Analyst

Senior NFL Draft Analyst for The Draft Network. Co-Founder of Former QB and Coach at North Carolina Central Univ.