2019 NFL Draft: Running Backs Who Could Be Instant Starters Next Season

Chris Roling@@Chris_RolingFeatured ColumnistJanuary 31, 2019

2019 NFL Draft: Running Backs Who Could Be Instant Starters Next Season

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Running backs in the 2019 NFL draft class were always going to have a hard time matching the hype of the Saquon Barkley-led 2018 group. 

    Three came off the board in the first round one year ago and six in the top 50—so much for the devaluation of the position. And despite less hoopla around this crop, onlookers can expect much of the same in April, even if big events such as the combine have yet to pump up some of the obvious names to household status. 

    That 2018 class had Barkley dragging the corpse of the New York Giants to competitiveness and has Sony Michel sitting on five postseason rushing touchdowns after he helped the New England Patriots to Super Bowl LIII. Others, such as Nick Chubb and Kerryon Johnson, showed promise. 

    Plenty of 2019 rookies could become starting runners next season. These players show the solid decision-making necessary to compete for lead-back snaps right away—not to mention at least a hint of versatility that could let them develop into every-down players. The true definition of a starter at running back, perhaps more so than any other position, relates to snap counts—not placement on a depth chart. 

    For the following prospects, the right fit and chance to get touches could help them morph into instant-impact starters. 

           

Josh Jacobs, Alabama

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    One doesn't have to look far to discover Alabama's Josh Jacobs is considered the top back in the class. 

    The 5'10", 216-pound Crimson Tide star blends a patient running style with solid change-of-direction abilities that are rare for a bigger-framed back. He showed that a year ago when he rushed for 640 yards and 11 touchdowns on 5.3 yards per carry. 

    Jacobs is the No. 6 overall prospect on Daniel Jeremiah's big board. The analyst wrote for NFL.com: 

    "In the passing game, Jacobs runs crisp routes, possesses natural hands and he's a make-you-miss specialist in space. He does need to improve in pass protection. He must come to balance as a blocker and avoid lunging at blitzers. Overall, Jacobs is a special talent, and his light workload at Alabama (251 carries in three seasons) should be viewed as a positive, not a negative."

    Keep in mind Jacobs didn't always get to flash his skills at Alabama because of the Tide's sheer talent, which included two or more backs in the scheme at all times. 

    Jacobs doesn't have the same hype machine behind him Barkley did. But he's the runaway top prospect at the position, and in a perfect world, he'll land somewhere he can take the majority of the snaps right away. 

David Montgomery, Iowa State

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Though fans may not know about Iowa State's David Montgomery, rest assured NFL teams know about him. He's a 5'11", 216-pound back who can bully defenses as a rusher but has consistently displayed quality hands in the passing game. 

    A year ago, Montgomery ran for 1,216 yards and 13 touchdowns on a 4.7 per-carry average. He also caught 22 passes for 157 yards. It marked the second consecutive season he rushed for double-digit touchdowns and caught at least 20 passes. 

    Not only does Montgomery have solid receiving skills and transition well to running once the ball is in his hands, as Pro Football Focus pointed out, he also averaged a Big 12-best 3.48 yards after contact per attempt last season. 

    Montgomery has a pro frame, versatile mechanics and matching production. As the general public digests more of his film—and if he does well in workouts—it won't be shocking to see him rise to the No. 2 runner in the draft in the court of public opinion. 

Benny Snell Jr., Kentucky

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    When a player slashes and slams through SEC opponents while those defenses key on him, it's time to take notice. 

    So goes the story of Benny Snell Jr., a 5'11", 223-pound back who ripped off 1,449 yards and 16 touchdowns last season while averaging five yards per carry. He surpassed the 1,000-yard mark in all three of his years with the Wildcats and ran for a minimum of 13 scores every season (48 over three years). 

    Snell can surprise with scoring efficiency, too. He ran for four 20-yard touchdowns and scored on 20.3 percent of his red-zone attempts, according to Rotoworld's Hayden Winks. Granted, Snell never caught more than 17 passes in a season, but there is always room for a sledgehammer sort of presence in NFL backfields. 

    With Snell, it's a matter of fit. If he can find a run-heavy spot such as Washington (which has Derrius Guice, who's recovering from torn ACL), he'd dominate early-down touches with great effect. 

Devin Singletary, Florida Atlantic

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    The "small" label will follow Florida Atlantic's Devin Singletary no matter what he does. 

    That's a shame, as guys such as the Chicago Bears' Tarik Cohen (5'6", 181 lbs) have shown that size doesn't matter as much as many think it does with running backs. In the right scheme, Singletary has the skill set and game-changing upside to carve out starter-quality snaps. 

    Singletary, at 5'9" and 200 pounds, ran for 1,348 yards and 22 touchdowns a season ago. That sounds impressive, but he ran for 1,918 and 32, respectively, in 2017. 

    Of course, his level of competition and the fact that Singletary wasn't used as a receiver in 2018 are knocks against his pro upside. But evaluators aren't too concerned—as Dane Brugler of The Athletic rated Singletary in his top 50 and expects him to "go high." 

    Really, Singletary benefits from his size. He can get a bit lost behind the linemen and use his elite lateral agility to move in unpredictable ways. There are some things he needs to work out, but he's got the right combination of skills to make a big impact right away.

Damien Harris, Alabama

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    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Damien Harris was one of the reasons Jacobs didn't get to showcase his talent as much as he should have at Alabama. 

    Still, the 5'11", 215-pound Harris' stock has fallen lately because he declined a Senior Bowl invitation. But that's scout and media chatter, not necessarily how teams feel. 

    The film shows an effective four-year player who shined over his final three seasons, in which he rushed for a minimum of 876 yards and never saw his per-carry average dip below 5.8 yards. In 2016 and 2017, his average was comfortably over seven yards per attempt. Harris' senior year was also something of an NFL audition, as he caught a career-high 22 passes for 204 yards. 

    He's a candidate to vastly improve his stock at the combine if he can put up good numbers to go with his film. But there, he shows good vision and decision-making, and a wear-and-tear style that grinds down defenses throughout games. 

    Quietly a strong receiving option, Harris has Chubb-like potential to steal a starting job and not let go—provided the coaches give him that chance. 

Bryce Love, Stanford

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Bryce Love is a bit of a wild card. 

    He was a Heisman Trophy candidate in 2017 but spent much of 2018 hobbled before he suffered an ACL tear late in the season. This means the Stanford product likely won't do much other than interview at the combine and on pro days. 

    Still, we're talking about a running back who ran for 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns on an 8.1 per-carry average in 2017. He returned to school and underwent the worst-case scenario, but his blend of talents don't come around often. 

    At this point, Love's durability is a bigger question than anything. If he can get on the field before the draft and have solid showings as a receiver and pass protector, that would make him more appealing. But the blend of shifty power, patience and consistency when healthy (4.14 yards after contact per attempt, per PFF) means he'll find NFL success—if not steal a large chunk of playing time from a supposed committee and maybe even start. 

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