Analysis of 2023 Rookie Running Backs by ADP: RBs 9-12

Mike Havens

We’ve had a few weeks to digest the NFL Scouting Combine results and let the dust settle. Many of us have already made a pre-draft list and know what to expect in the first few selections of our dynasty draft, but beyond that lies uncertainty for all of us. I’m here to help you analyze and rank rookie running backs in this year’s draft.

This is part three of a five-part series. All parts can be found here. As a former running backs coach who has toured the East Coast to attend clinics and hobnob with NFL scouts, I’ve had a great deal of success ranking backs coming out of college, and I’d like to share some tidbits from what I’ve learned from studying this draft class. Below is the ranking system I will use for the duration of this series.

Grading System:

  • A = Elite/Early to middle first-round pick
  • B = NFL starter potential/Late first or early to middle second-round pick
  • C = RBBC or COP Back/Middle or late second to third-round pick
  • D = Lifetime backup or goal-line back/Late third or fourth-round pick
  • F = Bust/Draft with extreme caution

Tank Bigsby, RB Auburn

Rookie ADP RB9

At this range, we’re starting to look for value picks and this is a good one. Bigsby was a three-year starter at Auburn, which is rare to find anywhere in college football, let alone an SEC powerhouse.

He is a downhill runner who plays with a high motor. He’s only 5’11” and 210 pounds but he plays like he weighs 230. He works to outrun defenders, and if that doesn’t work, he’ll try to run through them.

There isn’t a lot of wiggle to his game, so he has to go to a system that plays the power offense well to be efficient. He’s not the type of player who can create space, and he won’t be able to carry the load either. He’s barely fast enough with a 4.5-second 40-yard dash, and didn’t measure anywhere near needed in the vertical jump to display his explosiveness, both of which match his film, so I’m not in love with his long-term outlook.

That said, downhill runners don’t need explosiveness if used properly. He’ll never win the role as the starting back via competition, but he will be a decent complementary piece for teams that need one. If Bigbsy were to ever win the starting gig due to injury, you should sell asap. Once teams figure out his game and he starts to slow down with age, his value will diminish.

The majority of his highlights are long runs, which is always a red flag, but I want to share one highlight against Alabama that made me drop my jaw. When given the ball, he’s expected to run off tackle but is met immediately by a defender. He made a quick move inside, stopped his momentum, then booked it outside for a first down.

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Impressive stuff, and he even had the where-with-all to switch hands to keep the ball away from danger. This is one good play in a sea of mediocrity. I won’t be buying Bigsby unless his landing spot suits his talent. Even then, I would only draft him expecting 10-12 touches per game at best for the early part of his career.

GRADE: C+

Israel Abanikanda, Pittsburgh

Rookie ADP RB10

I don’t think there’s another back in this entire draft who utilizes their blockers as well as Abanikanda does, evidenced by the play-calling at Pittsburgh which was inside runs for the large part. He is patient with his runs, but explosive when he needs to be. He can maneuver his 5’10” 217-pound body to avoid defenders, which makes it difficult to bring him down with arm tackles.

When he gets through the line, he has enough burst and speed to make defenders work. Pittsburgh did not have the quarterbacking talent they had in 2021, so the ground game became the primary source of offense. Knowing this, defenses stacked the box and dared Pittsburgh to run it, and Abanikanda still had success with 1,431 rushing yards.

The gif below displays a pretty solid run that displays the required NFL skills to be good in this league. He gets small as he goes through the hole in the line, he leans left to suck the defense outside to avoid a defender, then puts his teammate in position for a pancake block down the field.

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Though Abanikanda did not participate in the combine other than the 40-yard dash where he recorded a 4.5, he did do very well at his pro day, and that upped his value. He improved his 40 time to 4.41, had a 41-inch vertical jump and a 10’8” broad jump, both of which would be tops in this year’s draft class.

One concern is that he was not involved much in the passing game. I like backs entering the NFL to have a 10:1 ratio when it comes to run and pass plays, and Abanikanda is well below that.

This could be because of the lack of a passing game at Pittsburgh, but it may also be because he wasn’t as useful in this phase of the game. It’s an unknown to keep an eye on, as it could keep him from seeing the field much during the first few weeks of the season.

GRADE: B+

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Roschon Johnson, RB Texas

Rookie ADP RB11

The best part about Johnson is that he played behind Bijan Robinson, and therefore has fallen in the ranks. Had Robinson played elsewhere, Johnson would have been the top tailback on this team, and his value would have been given a boost going into the draft.

Johnson is a good 6’0”, 225 pounds, a size large enough to be capable of carrying the load all season long if asked. He wasn’t a blazer with a 4.58 40-yard dash, nor did he turn heads with his pedestrian 31.5” vertical – almost the lowest among running backs – but that’s not his game anyway.

He is a downhill back with a slight wiggle. He’ll work better in a power system and will be successful when following a lead blocker or puller. Nary a time did I watch Johnson get arm tackled, and he also did not take bad hits either. He seemed to have a knack for keeping his body safe, while also somehow finding a way to bully a defender en route to a first down.

My best comparison is a slightly lighter and faster version of Rhamondre Stevenson. He has the tools to be successful, but just like Stevenson, I’m not looking to draft him unless his landing spot is absolutely perfect.

GRADE: B

Chase Brown, Illinois

Rookie ADP RB12

I’ll come out and say it right off the bat; Brown is underrated. He’s older than most rookies at 23 years of age, but his performance during the season was one of the best, and his numbers at the combine were the best among all running backs.

For the record, I’m not really much of a combine guy. I use it as a tool to compare parallel with film study, and if the performance matches what I see on film then we have a pretty good indicator of what we’re dealing with. With Brown, it’s slightly different.

Chase Brown is 5’9” and 209 pounds. His tape shows top speed, great agility, and a decent amount of burst that’s hard to find in other backs. His combine numbers accentuated all of those attributes, and that got me a little more excited than I was already.

Below is an inside zone play where it’s Brown’s job to allow his line to get set up, and when you see a spot open up you plant your foot and go. This is an excellent example of zone running at the collegiate level, something that’s hard for NFL teams to find.

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He has great speed and burst on tape, and that’s highlighted by his combine numbers. He can run and catch so he can be on the field during all downs. He had 1,643 rushing yards last year, so he can carry the load.

My one knock is that he doesn’t run too hard, and is often brought down too easily. If a defender got a hand on him, Brown often went to the ground. However, he also has the ability to have breakout games at the NFL level, so the bad balances out the good pretty well.

If you have a second-round pick, make Brown a target of yours. Landing spot won’t matter since he has the talent and skills to play in any system. He won’t be elite, but he’ll be a solid contributor for several years. You’ll be hard-pressed to find better value anywhere else in the draft than right here.

GRADE: B

mike havens
Analysis of 2023 Rookie Running Backs by ADP: RBs 9-12