2024 NFL Draft: Running Backs

February 28, 2024 by Staff

Running backs may no longer be prioritized in the NFL draft, but teams still need effective run games. With that comes the opportunity to find those players a bit later.

Trevor Sikkema at PFF highlights the strengths and weaknesses of the top 10 running backs. Missing from his list was Notre Dame's Audric Estime which we assume was an accidental oversight as Fox Sports lists him as the top-rated running back.

Regardless, it's a safe bet that a running back will not be drafted No.1 over-all. It is worth noting that the last running back to go first in the NFL Draft was Ki-Jana Carter out of Penn State in 1995.

Meanwhile, NFLDraftBuzz.com rates the running backs based on the average ranking of all the scouting services in their data base. Combined, the numbers agree with Sikkema putting Brooks at the top of the position class with Estime 6th. But even Brooks doesn't go off the board until the late second round, and possibly early in the 3rd.

Whether or not Brooks is, indeed, the first RB taken is going to highly depend on how teams are prone to use their backs. Specifically, 20-carry-per-game running backs are rare, so pass blocking and route running could be, and likely will be, the lead considerations.

Here is Sikkema's Top 6

JONATHON BROOKS, TEXAS: Brooks has impressive wiggle for his size, pairing that with nice footwork and change-of-direction ability at 200-plus pounds. He displays good vision and feel for zone-blocking schemes with solid contact balance. His long speed isn't elite, but his burst makes up for it. In the passing game, he has natural hands and the requisite footwork and strength/balance to be a reliable pass blocker.

Brooks' north-to-south tendency is good, but that gives him tunnel vision, at times, to not see the best rushing lanes. His hands are good in the passing game, but he doesn't have much nuance in his routes.

JAYLEN WRIGHT, TENNESSEE: Wright brings top-tier athleticism to the running back position. His explosive first step is very impressive, making his cuts devastating, and he can turn speed into power for taking on contact. His vision is also improving, as he does show a decent amount of patience to set up blocks and stay between the tackles or within the blocking scheme. In the passing game, his strength makes him a reliable pass protector.

Though Wright possesses decent patience, he doesn't always see open rush lanes when they aren't the primary hole. His pass-catching ability is there, but it's not as natural as it is for others.

BLAKE CORUM, MICHIGAN: Corum has a great center of gravity for taking on contact. His shorter frame allows him to be precise and explosive when putting his foot in the ground to burst or change direction. He can “get skinny” between the tackles on gap-blocking plays. He has controlled, precise footwork behind the line of scrimmage and in space, and his patience is a huge plus of his game. On third downs, he is a natural receiver and a willing pass blocker.

Corum's shorter leg stride length affects his overall long speed; he lacks that get-away level of top speed. Though he is a very willing pass protector, his size can cause him to be overwhelmed when taking on pass rushers.

BUCKY IRVING, OREGON: Irving doesn't have the best long speed, but he boasts great burst in his first few steps to hit holes quickly. He has fast, controlled and balanced footwork to make guys miss in a phone booth. His center of gravity lets him bounce off tackles and always fall forward, and despite his size, he is naturally looking for yards between the tackles. As a receiver, he is a natural, reliable hands catcher who has plenty of potential as a receiver.

Irving is a very north-to-south runner, which can be good, but there are times when the sideline is open and he doesn't take it. His size limits both his pass-blocking efficacy and top speed.

RAY DAVIS, KENTUCKY: Davis flashes fast footwork and good one-cut ability. His impressive lateral quickness extends into routes out of the backfield, as well. When he gets the ball, he has a playmaker’s mentality in space, wanting to make guys miss. He showcases really nice vision for both gap and zone schemes but is most productive in zone. On third downs, he is a good hands catcher and has a feel for space, blocking and where his help is.

Davis’ long speed will be average at best — and likely below average in the NFL. Though willing, he can get overwhelmed in pass protection.

MARSHAWN LLOYD, USC: Lloyd has NFL-caliber long speed and acceleration. His all-around athleticism in explosiveness and elusiveness is impressive. He maintains the ability to make players miss in space after the catch, as well. As for his build, he has adequate size and strength for pass protection, showing off a good pass-protecting baseline in his fundamentals.

Because of his speed, Lloyd too often wants to bounce runs to the sideline. His recent tape shows he does not see cutback lanes as quickly as he needs to for consistent success in zone-blocking schemes, where his skill set may fit best.

Here's the Top 6 from NFL Draft Buzz

JONATHAN BROOKS, TEXAS: In the end, Brooks is a back with a ton of upside. He's a fit for various offensive schemes, able to zip through zones and bulldoze in power runs. For NFL teams hunting for a back who can mix it up both on the ground and in the air, Brooks is a solid bet. His trajectory at Texas, capped off with a standout season, paints the picture of a player who's just getting started and could make some serious waves in the NFL.

JAYLEN WRIGHT, TENNESSEE: In 2023 as a junior Wright saw action in 12 games for the Volunteers. He ran for an outstanding 1010 yards on 136 attempts for an outstanding 7.4 ypc, with 4 TDs, with one fumble. As a receiver he made 22 receptions for 141 yards.

BLAKE CORUM, MICHIGAN: Given the tangible skill set Corum brings to the table, it's hard to envision a scenario where he doesn't get picked up by the close of the draft's second day. While teams might be cautious due to his knee injury, Corum's inherent abilities, if used correctly, suggest a very productive NFL career.

BUCKY IRVING, OREGON: Irving's prowess extends to his receiving skills, proving to be more than just a traditional back. His utilization in Oregon's passing game highlights his versatility, displaying soft hands and usually good route-running. However, his pass protection and performance in short-yardage situations present serious areas for improvement.

TREY BENSON, FLORIDA STATE: Benson's collegiate journey began at Oregon as a 3-star recruit. Following a severe knee injury in 2020, he transferred to Florida State in 2022, where he quickly emerged as a key player. In his sophomore year (2022), he played 12 games, rushing for 969 yards on 141 carries with 9 touchdowns, and catching 11 passes for 109 yards. His junior year (2023) saw further development, with Benson playing 13 games, accumulating 906 rushing yards on 156 attempts with 14 touchdowns, and making 20 receptions for 227 yards. His impressive performances earned him second-team All-ACC honors in both 2022 and 2023.

AUDRIC ESTIME, NOTRE DAME: His limited burst and top-end speed restrict his ability to stretch plays outside or break off long runs, especially against more athletic NFL defenses. His vision and patience in finding and attacking lanes are noteworthy, but there's a tendency for him to over-rely on these traits, leading to some hesitation and missed opportunities.

In Conclusion

We like a team with a good running game. We miss players like Emmitt Smith, Walter Payton, Barry Sanders, Eric Dickerson, and Tony Dorsett. Just think of the undefeated Dolphins when running backs Larry Csonka and Mercury Morris became the first teammates to each rush for 1,000 yards in a season. Maybe the future will see an evolution in such regard. It almost needs to happen, or the position of running back will be less and less attractive for up-and-coming players to pursue.