It seems that every year the draft community has a debate about whether drafting a running back in the first round is a good value or not. More often than not, folks will argue that you can find good backs in later rounds, so why invest top draft capital in the position when other premium positions are valued higher at the top of the draft? While I do agree with the sentiment that you can find good backs later in the draft, I will never pass on a first-round caliber back if I need a running back and one falls to me. The idea of passing on a certain position because you can find one later in the draft doesn’t make sense to me because outside of quarterback, we see all sorts of hits in later rounds at varying different positions.
Just yesterday, my colleague Benjamin Solak discussed the odds of a running back getting drafted in the first round in this year’s class, and like him, I fully expect we see at least one running back drafted in the first round—and I actually expect we see two.
This year’s running back class is a solid group with excellent talent at the top and very good depth throughout the middle rounds. The two headliners in this class are Clemson’s Travis Etienne and Alabama’s Najee Harris. Both of these players could have gone pro last year, but ultimately decided to come back to school and raise their stocks, which both successfully did. I personally have Etienne as my clear-cut RB1, as I feel like his vision, explosiveness, and breakaway speed gives him more big-play ability than Harris, which is something I ultimately value in running backs.
Harris is a tremendous player in his own right, as he is exactly what you look for in a three-down back in today’s NFL. He has the size and power for the tough yards through the middle of the defense but also has the agility and lateral movement skills to make defenders miss in space. Both Etienne and Harris are excellent receivers out of the backfield and play-callers will have the luxury of being creative when it comes to getting the football in their hands in space.
The next running back after Etienne and Harris is North Carolina’s Javonte Williams, who could also be a dark horse candidate to be the first runner off the board. If a team values size, strength but also burst and explosiveness, Williams could be their guy. Williams had a tremendous season at North Carolina, rushing for 1,140 yards and 19 touchdowns on 157 carries. Williams’ physicality, contact balance, and toughness as a runner pops when you watch his tape, and the numbers back it up. Per Pro Football Focus, Williams forced 76 missed tackles as a runner which ranked first in the country. As of now, Williams is likely to hear his name called very early in Round 2, but depending on what happens with Etienne's or Harris' stock over the coming weeks, Williams could very well sneak into Round 1.
Now, if your team needs running back but misses out on one of the big three backs, don’t panic. There are multiple backs who may not be at the level of Etienne, Harris or Williams, but are still solid players who can contribute to your football team from day one. While there is no clear consensus about who the fourth-best running back in this class is, I believe that one player stands above the rest and that’s North Carolina’s Michael Carter.
Carter, along with Williams, combined to form one of the best running back duos we have seen in quite some time. As a senior, Carter ran for 1,256 yards and nine touchdowns on 156 carries. Carter also caught 25 passes for 267 yards and two touchdowns as a receiver out of the backfield. Carter checked in at 5-foot-8 and 202 pounds at the Senior Bowl, and while he may be shorter than your average back, he doesn’t look or play small.
Carter is a do-it-all back who can beat you both as a runner and as a receiver. Carter boasts excellent athletic ability with above average top-end speed. He is at his best in the open field where he displays outstanding change of direction and lateral agility to make defenders miss. Carter has the best instincts as a runner in this class and has an outstanding feel for cut-back lanes and seams with the speed to exploit those openings. He would be best utilized in a wide zone rushing scheme where he can stretch the defense horizontally while setting up his blockers and exploding through the running lane.
Carter may not have Williams' or Harris' ability to break tackles or deliver a blow upon contact, but he runs hard and always works to fight for extra yards. As a receiver, Carter shows soft hands with an ability to play the ball in the air. He has shown an ability to run routes from out of the backfield and in the slot and is quick in and out of breaks. Where Carter does struggle is in pass protection, as he doesn’t have the size or strength to hold up at the point of attack. This is a concern that running back coaches will have to deal with as they look to get him on the field.
The debate whether running backs are worth a first-round pick will carry on whether or not one gets selected in the first round of this year’s draft. People just have different team-building and draft philosophies and that’s OK. The debate on who RB4 is, on the other hand, is one that we will have a clear answer to after the second day of the draft. When it’s all said and done, I expect it to be Carter, and deservedly so.