After going through the top of the 2023 running back class, all I can say is wow. Although PFF has a tricky relationship with the position, this group could easily be something special. The NFL may devalue running backs more than ever before, but don’t expect some of these guys to last too long in the 2023 NFL Draft.
It’s still early, but next year’s class could very well contend with the 2018 NFL Draft for the most backs taken in the top 50 picks of any draft this century (six).
1. Bijan Robinson, Texas (Junior)
If someone gives you the odds, take the bet on Robinson going in the first round right now. He possesses the do-it-all skill set that every NFL offensive coordinator dreams of having in their backfield. Robinson finished third in the FBS with 79 broken tackles last season despite having over 60 fewer carries than the first and second players on that list.
Bijan Robinson (Texas RB 5) you have my attention sir. pic.twitter.com/lufl0TX2gH
— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) March 9, 2021
Oh, and we couldn’t let Robinson’s RB1 status go without mentioning what he can do as a receiver. He hauled in 26 passes for 293 yards and four scores last season while showing off some real-deal route running. Just take a look at this slant here from the slot.
You could argue the two best RBs in the country aren't even draft eligible:
Tank Bigsby, Auburn
Bijan Robinson, Texaspic.twitter.com/xpyvP06CkI
— Austin Gayle (@austingayle_) September 5, 2021
There’s not much Robinson can’t do.
2. Devon Achane, Texas A&M (Junior)
Achane has more of the one uncoachable skill than any other running back in college football: speed. He boasts a 100-meter personal record of 10.12 seconds. He’s not the first fast human being to play running back, though. No, Achane earns his lofty status on this list because he’s skilled in a number of other ways on top of that game-changing speed.
Easily the most impressive of those skills is how he plays through contact. He’s no featherweight despite being listed at 5-foot-9, 185 pounds. He’ll dip a shoulder into contact and make defenders bounce off him. His .31 broken tackle per attempt figure for his career is an excellent number when projecting to the NFL.
Of course, that speed aspect is what strikes fear into the heart of every defensive coordinator. He’s a threat to flip the field and break the game open at a moment’s notice. It’s why he’s averaged 7.2 yards per attempt on 173 carries and averaged 34.2 yards per kick return in his college career.
— Tim England (@tengland_150) September 5, 2021
3. Zach Evans, Ole Miss (Junior)
Evans may have just 146 career handoffs to his name, but that's enough to know he’s going to be in the first-round conversation next spring. On those carries, he’s averaged 7.3 yards per attempt — including 4.8 after contact.
Zach Evans. Gone. And hopefully many more plays like this to come in Fort Worth for the 5-star. pic.twitter.com/NiSXx4YiK5
— Dean Straka (@DWStraka49) December 13, 2020
Evans was the first-ever five-star recruit for TCU, where he spent two years before a toe injury cut his 2021 short and he transferred to Ole Miss. He was second to only Bijan Robinson in 247Sports’ composite rankings in 2020 and deserves to be discussed as that caliber of player. Like Robinson, Evans has that “you name it, I can do it” kind of ability. It’s scary to think about what he’ll be able to do this fall in Lane Kiffin’s playmaker-friendly offense.
— Josh Pate (@LateKickJosh) May 16, 2022
4. Tank Bigsby, Auburn (Junior)
If there is one trump card that Bigsby possesses to a greater degree than any other back in the country, it’s the ability to plant one foot in the ground and change directions. He has the uncanny ability to make near-right-angle turns without seemingly losing any velocity.
Tank Bigsby possesses the traits to be a first-round RB in 2023.
+Physical & aggressive run style
+Long speed & great burst
I am looking forward to watching him this season! pic.twitter.com/qsZSB3lG3j
— Full-Time Dame ???? (@DP_NFL) July 30, 2021
After a standout freshman campaign, Bigsby endured tougher sledding as a sophomore. He struggled at times to overcome the 13th-worst run-blocking offensive line in the Power Five per PFF run-blocking grades. That was especially true against Alabama, against whom he was pounded to dust with only 63 yards on 29 carries. After debating transferring, Bigsby will be back at Auburn this fall with a likely massive workload incoming. He’ll need it to up his draft stock and prove that his fumbles (four last year) and drops (five on 36 career catchable targets) are a thing of the past.
5. Sean Tucker, Syracuse (Junior)
Tucker is cut from a very similar cloth to Jonathan Taylor as a runner. Both are ideally built bowling balls with sneaky-elite speed. Tucker is listed at 5-foot-10, 210 pounds and carries it with as little body fat as you’ll see in this running back class. It’s why when he gets out into the open field that pursuit angles get busted routinely.
Sean Tucker among ACC RBs in 2021:
???? 1,515 yards (1st)
???? 1,014 yards after contact (1st)
???? 66 forced missed tackles (1st)
???? 44 runs of 10+ yards (1st)pic.twitter.com/szEPJePQjI
— PFF College (@PFF_College) May 10, 2022
While he can get a little clunky at times with his footwork and doesn’t have a lot of ways to make you miss, an elite combination of strength and speed is one heck of a starting point for a running back.
Sean Tucker will not be denied! ????
— Bally Sports South (@BallySportsSO) September 26, 2020
6. Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State (Junior)
Vaughn moves like a running back straight out of NCAA Football 07. His ability to stop and cut on dimes is video game-esque. Of course, the reason behind that is Vaughn’s 5-foot-6, 176-pound stature. He is tiny by any running back standards, albeit still well put together from a musculature standpoint. Size only comes into play, however, if you can touch him … and so far at the collegiate level, not a lot of defenders have been able to do that in the open field.
There's a reason Deuce Vaughn is PFF's #1 returning RB ????pic.twitter.com/uZ1YLvrFeM
— PFF College (@PFF_College) January 30, 2022
At his size and hailing from Kansas State, Vaughn is going to be inextricably linked to Darren Sproles throughout the draft process. While that may be a touch concerning, given Sproles never ran for more than 603 yards in a season, it’s very much worth noting that Sproles was a player way ahead of his time. When he finally landed with a creative offensive-minded coach seven years into his NFL career, Sproles posted three straight seasons with over 600 receiving yards. Vaughn can be a similar space weapon thanks to how talented he is with the ball in hand.
7. Blake Corum, Michigan (Junior)
Corum may be listed at only 200 pounds, but that’s nowhere near as worrisome as it is for most 200-pounders. That’s because Corum has the Maurice Jones-Drew body type going on at only 5-foot-8. Built as low to the earth as Corum is, it should be no surprise that he’s one of the shiftiest backs in this class.
Blake Corum: Take of Ankles pic.twitter.com/GEEuDP1sqZ
— Ryan Roberts (@RiseNDraft) April 12, 2022
Corum qualifies as a “quicker than fast” kind of running back who can operate in tight quarters yet be chased down in the open field. He’s not slow, but he's just not the blazer of some other backs on this list. It will be interesting to see what kind of workload he gets this past fall after splitting time with fourth-round pick Hassan Haskins a year ago.
8. Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama (Junior)
After two years at Georgia Tech, Gibbs made himself a smart business decision given the draft history of Alabama running backs. The lead dog at Alabama under Nick Saban has basically been guaranteed to be a Day 2 draft pick — and Gibbs looks like no exception.
Jahmyr Gibbs ???? Call
That 2023 RB Class ???? pic.twitter.com/Tiw0D7r3KZ
— The League Winners (@FFLeagueWinners) November 6, 2021
The biggest thing keeping Gibbs from being a shoo-in at the top of the class back at this point is size. You watch him make guys miss or outrun defenders, and it’s easy to fall in love. At only 5-foot-11 and 200 pounds, though, he needs a whole different level of dynamism to get by consistently in the NFL. Gibbs will get as good a chance as any back in the country to prove that at Alabama this fall.
Here is some Jahmyr Gibbs for your timeline.
— Nick Penticoff (@NickPenticoff) March 28, 2022
9. Zach Charbonnet, UCLA (Senior)
Charbonnet would have been a slam dunk top-five running back on the PFF draft board had he declared for the 2022 NFL Draft. In 2023, however, he’s not particularly close to that. That’s how full the coffers are at the running back position next season.
That return decision may have come down to Charbonnet thinking he can make a similar leap to the one he took from 2020 to 2021. He fell out of favor in the Michigan backfield as a sophomore before transferring to UCLA. There, he immediately showed it was through no fault of his own with back-to-back 100-yard outings to start his Bruins career. He finished with 78 broken tackles on 204 carries. That contact balance combined with ideal size at 6-foot-1 and 220 pounds should serve him well, as he doesn’t have some of the high-end traits of others in this class.
Zach Charbonnet bringing his A game pic.twitter.com/nkHsuaEeVT
— Due# (@JDue51) September 5, 2021
10. DeWayne McBride, UAB (Junior)
McBride is the wild card in the running back class. The former three-star recruit had only three Power Five offers coming out of high school (Lousiville, Purdue and Rutgers) yet hit the ground running as five-stars tend to do. He amassed 439 yards on 47 carries as a freshman in the coronavirus-shortened 2020 season. For an encore, he went for 1,366 yards on only 204 carries (6.7 yards per) for a 90.5 rushing grade as a sophomore. At 5-foot-11 and 215 pounds, he ticks the size box for the position wholesale. All too often McBride sticks out like a sore thumb athletically in the open field against his level of competition.
DeWayne McBride since 2020:
???? 93.1 PFF Grade (1st among G5 RBs)
???? 94.0 Rushing Grade (1st)pic.twitter.com/gm9ZJW88ml
— PFF College (@PFF_College) May 22, 2022
And in his lone Power Five test last year, McBride passed with flying colors, running for 61 yards on 13 carries with three broken tackles against Georgia. Given Georgia’s 2021 defense, I’d say that’s a darn impressive day.