“T-Time” is a column by Trevor Denton about football.
There are plenty of potential starting running backs in this year’s NFL Draft class. Georgia’s D’Andre Swift changes directions on a dime and runs routes like a receiver. Big-Ten stalwarts J.K. Dobbins and Jonathan Taylor rushed for over 2,000 yards last season. Clyde Edwards-Helaire was a key cog on LSU’s national championship team.
The Pac-12 will also be well-represented at the position. Arizona State’s Eno Benjamin, Utah’s Zack Moss and UCLA’s Joshua Kelley project as mid- to late-round picks.
“It’s cool because you get to see these guys on film while we’re preparing for an opponent,” Kelley said. “It’s been great to see them come here. We’re all going to compete and have fun this week.”
Yet despite the depth of talent from Swift to Dobbins, there’s a real possibility that no running back gets drafted in the first round for the first time since 2014. Running backs are still vitally important in today’s game.
“I think it depends on what you’re looking for,” said Benjamin about the state of the position. “I think when you look at teams, teams run the ball. Now it’s more so of a two running back, three running back system. I think you have to be able to run the ball to win games.”
Benjamin is right. In the NFL, seven of the top 10 teams in rush yards per game made the playoffs. The 14-2 Ravens rushed for 206.0 yards per game, more than any team in the past 40 years.
Yet of the top 10 running backs this year, only four were first-round picks. There’s a widely held belief around the league that elite running backs can be found at any point in the draft or even in free agency.
Being able to contribute on passing downs used to be an added bonus for running backs. Now versatility is a must-have trait to be considered as a top-15 pick. This year’s class recognizes that, signaling an overall evolution of the position that has trickled down to the high school and youth levels.
“Every back here is here for a reason,” Swift said. “There’s a lot of great backs in this class. But I think I’m the most versatile back in this class. I think I’m a three-down back. I can do whatever I’m asked to do. God gave me a lot of God-given ability.”
In 2019, Panthers running back Christian McCaffrey topped 1,000 rush yards and 1,000 receiving yards, becoming just the third player to do so in NFL history.
Few question the Panthers for drafting him eighth overall in 2017. Many criticize the Jaguars for picking Leonard Fournette — a non-factor in the receiving game — four picks earlier. A solid pair of hands can make a running back invaluable to an offense.
“I like Alvin Kamara’s versatility, as far as being able to run and catch the ball,” Benjamin said.
Benjamin pitched his receiving skills during his Combine media availability, as if he was speaking to all 32 teams.
“I’ve always thought that I had reliable catching hands,” he said.
There may not be as many feature ground-and-pound running backs as there were in year’s past, but this class still has some bell-cows. Taylor estimates he faced loaded boxes half of his college career. He still managed to rush for the most yards by a player through three years in college football history.
But for the most part, this year’s crop contains players who can impact the game in a variety of ways. From Edwards-Helaire, who had 103 rush yards and 77 receiving yards against Alabama, to Benjamin, who honed his catching skills by playing pickup football, this class has plenty to like in terms of versatile skill sets. That’ll be the case even if none are picked in the first round.
You’ll hear a lot about running backs being deemphasized in today’s pass-oriented game. But they’re still integral to high-powered offenses, so long as they can impact the game in a variety of ways.
“T-Time" runs every other Wednesday.