2023 NFL Draft Position Review: Running Backs

Charlie lays out an overview at the top players from each position for the 2023 NFL Draft. For further information, check out our in-depth analysis of 2023 NFL Draft Prospects by Position.

By Charlie Campbell.
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This page was last updated April 18, 2023. Follow me @walterfootball for updates.

Running Back Class
Early-round talent: A
Mid-round: B+
Late-round: B
Overall grade: A-

Merging the 2023 and 2022 prospects
Bijan Robinson
Jahmyr Gibbs
Breece Hall
Kenneth Walker
Zach Evans
Zach Charbonnet
Kenny McIntosh
James Cook
Rachaad White
Tyrion Davis-Price
Brian Johnson Jr.
Dameon Pierce
Devon Achane
Zamir White
Deuce Vaughn
Chris Rodriguez

Just to be clear, this article and series is all my opinion based off my own study and information I’ve gotten from general managers, directors of college scouting, national scouts, area scouts, and NFL coaches who know way more than I do.

2022 was a below-average class of running back talent. No running back was selected in the first round and only three went in the second round. The 2023 NFL Draft is different in that it has two running backs who are definitely worth first-round picks in Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs. Across the scouting community, Robinson is viewed as a rare prospect and one of the only elite players in the draft. Some teams have him as their highest graded player in the 2023 NFL Draft. Gibbs is also loved and viewed as a first-round talent. After that pair, there are a lot of good running back prospects for Day 2, the mid-rounds, and into the late rounds.

If you were to merge the two classes together, Robinson would clearly be the top player. Team sources have said Robinson graded out higher than other recent high first-rounders like Saquon Barkley, Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey. Gibbs is a better prospect than Breece Hall as well.

Zach Evans, Zach Charbonnet and Kenny McIntosh are not as good as Hall or Kenneth Walker, but they are better than James Cook. Devon Achane, Deuce Vaughn and Chris Rodriguez are quality mid-round prospects similar to Dameon Pierce and Zamir White.

Safest Pick: Bijan Robinson, Texas
Previous Picks:
2022: Breece Hall
2021: Najee Harris
2020: D’Andre Swift
2019: Josh Jacobs
2018: Saquon Barkley
2017: Leonard Fournette
2016: Ezekiel Elliott
2015: Melvin Gordon
2014: Carlos Hyde
2013: Eddie Lacy

The track record here is pretty good, with only Hyde being a true disappointment at the NFL level. Robinson was an easy choice here because he looks like a safe bet to turn into a one of the best running backs in the NFL. Here is a summary on Robinson from an area scout:

“It’s rare that the best pure runner is also the best pure receiver; that’s what makes Bijan unique,” said an area scout. “He can legitimately go run routes like a true receiver. His skill set is more Marshall Faulk than any of those guys. Saquon can obviously win in the passing game, but he’s not out running routes like Reggie Bush (Bijan does). His ball skills are as good as the top receivers in this class.

“There are other runners on his level or even a notch better, but you’re talking about the elite of every class, even on that alone. You can realistically run the offense thru him because he’s in on every situation as your RB1, 1-2nd Down, 2 minute, 4 minute. He’s more advanced all around than [Reggie] Bush, Joe Mixon, Saquon, Zeke. McCaffrey would have been like that had he been 215 pounds like Bijan. You have to go back to Faulk to find an elite runner and receiver like Bijan.”

On top of being a power runner with speed, athleticism, receiving and blocking ability, Robinson is known to be a great kid, a hard worker, and an excellent teammate. It would be a massive shock if he were a bust and didn’t turn into a good starter.

Biggest Bust Potential: Sean Tucker, Syracuse
Previous Picks:
2022: Karyn Williams
2021: Chuba Hubbard
2020: A.J. Dillon
2019: David Montgomery
2018: Rashaad Penny
2017: Wayne Gallman
2016: Kenneth Dixon
2015: Mike Davis
2014: Lache Seastrunk
2013: Montee Ball

Overall this bust list is looking pretty accurate. Recent players like Hubbard, Dillon, Montgomery and Penny are decent backs, but none of them became an impactful starter.

This was a tough choice given that none of the 2023 NFL Draft running back prospects really jumped out at me. I chose Tucker because he has seen some media hype as an early-rounder but he is not overly powerful or fast for the NFL. Tucker also really struggles in pass blocking. Thus, I think he is a backup-caliber player and could get overdrafted.

Running Back Rankings by Attributes

Natural Running Ability:
NFL prototype: Johnathan Taylor, Colts
  1. Bijan Robinson
  2. Jahmyr Gibbs
  3. Zach Evans
  4. Deuce Vaughn
  5. Devon Achane
  6. Zach Charbonnet
  7. Kenny McIntosh
  8. Chris Rodriguez

Recap: There are still a number of coaches in the NFL who want an old-school approach of a running-based offense. Plus, a lot of passing led offenses want a back who can wear down defenses in the second half.

Robinson is a flat out stud running back. While he has a very good skill set with size and speed, Robinson’s instincts and natural running ability makes him a dominant back. With incredible vision and feel, Robinson seems to be a step ahead of the defense and that that leads to him making defenders look silly in their tackling attempts on a routine basis. Robinson has incredible cutting ability. He cuts in an instant with ridiculous change of direction ability. It is rare to see a big back that is so sudden in his movements to out cut defensive backs and second level defenders, but Robinson jukes and cuts by them with shocking ease. With his feel, Robinson can be a one-cut downhill zone rushing runner or function in a man blocking scheme that can create on his own. Robinson has a superb jump cut that leaves defenders grasping at air. With his natural ability, Robinson is capable of carrying his offense and his team to a win.

On top of being fast, Gibbs is a natural runner. He has excellent vision, body lean, runs behind his pads, and is patient. Gibbs sets up blocks and uses his speed to dart through holes before they close. Defenders really struggle to get a hold of Gibbs as he has great feet that make him very elusive. He is sudden with his ability to cut and change direction. To go along with suddenness, Gibbs has a devastating jab step with cuts back to the inside and he routinely uses it to make tacklers grab air. His abrupt juke even works on defensive backs. With his change of direction skills and quick feet, Gibbs can create for himself as he turns bad looks into big runs all on his own and Gibbs is an asset to bail out his line when blocking assignments are missed.

As a runner there is a lot to like about Evans. He possesses a nice combination of traits like vision, elusiveness, and superb feet. The elusiveness can be seen as he cuts around tacklers, spins away, and dodges tacklers with shifty moves. His short compact build adds to the elusiveness as defenders have a hard time grabbing a hold of him. His vision is natural to see holes about to open, cut back lanes, and reading the flow of defenses behind his blockers. His quick feet are great to cut on a dime, provide him with excellent balance. Evans also has strength to his build to run through tackles and pick up yards after contact.

As a runner, Vaughn is an underrated weapon for the NFL. With football running through his blood having grown up as the son of a coach and scout, Vaughn has tremendous instincts and natural feel. He seems like he is a step ahead of the defense and has great anticipation. Vaughn is a slashing back that is real threat to rip off a big gain anytime he touches the ball. He has a first-step burst and accelerates through the hole with a second gear to explode downfield for long gains. What makes Vaughn deadly is his incredible elusiveness. Vaughn has tremendous juke, stop-start, cut back and natural instincts to dodge tacklers in the open field. Vaughn has rare elusiveness and change of direction skills. While he is small, when Vaughn is running behind the line it can work to his advantage as defenders have a hard time spotting him and that makes him dangerous on cut backs as defenders can be late to redirect.

As a runner, Achane is a speed back that is real threat to rip off a big gain anytime he touches the ball. He has a first-step burst and accelerates through the hole with a second gear to explode downfield for long gains. With his explosion, it looks like Achane gets a step head start over everybody else on the field. In the open field Achane is not just fast, but he has moves to dodge tacklers and serious change of direction skills. The fast back Achane is a threat to tackle any carry to the end zone.

Charbonnet is a hard nosed runner that runs tough and often pushes the pile with imposing size. He has the lower body strength to move the pile and Charbonnet keeps his legs moving after contact. Even though Charbonnet is a powerful runner, he is not a slow plodder as he has some quickness. However Charbonnet is quicker than fast, and lacks elite speed to run away from defenses. Still, Charbonnet has enough quickness and shows a burst to hit the hole before it closes along with acceleration to the second level.

McIntosh is a power back capable of taking on a big work load and being a physical runner that wears out defenses. McIntosh is a strong back that charges through defenses and picks up a lot of yards after contact. His lower body strength is impressive as you see tacklers bounce off his thighs and he uses his strong upper body to run over defensive backs in the open field. McIntosh is a load that is very tough to get on the ground and he makes defenders pay for trying to tackle him.

As a runner, Rodriguez is a load. White is a true power back that runs over defenders and constantly runs through tackles. Rodriguez is constantly breaking arm tackles and he does a fantastic job of keeping his legs churning after contact. Rodriguez is a decisive runner, that charges downfield and is not one to dance in the backfield. He has zero hesitation to stick his nose into a scrum and power through the defense to generate positive yardage. His power allows him to finish runs well and he consistently is charging through tacklers to finish runs falling forward.

Pass Receiving:
NFL prototype: Christian McCaffrey, 49ers
  1. Bijan Robinson
  2. Jahmyr Gibbs
  3. Devon Achane
  4. Deuce Vaughn
  5. Kenny McIntosh
  6. Zach Charbonnet
  7. Zach Evans
  8. Chris Rodriguez

Recap: The passing-driven NFL has many offensive coordinators emphasizing running backs’ ability to help the aerial offense over their running ability. Coaches want backs who have good hands, run good routes and can rack up yards as outlet receivers. This group is very good overall as the majority are good receivers out of the backfield. Although none of them is like a Christian McCaffrey type where they could legitimately line up as a slot receiver like McCaffrey can.

In the passing game Robinson is going to be an asset and a mismatch weapon. As a receiver Robinson is phenomenal and team sources saying see him run routes as a wide receiver is jaw dropping. He runs superb routes to create separation and gets open for his quarterback. He has soft hands and tracks the ball well. Robinson has made some amazing highlight reel catches contorting his body and adjusting to the ball in ways that have not been seen from a big strong running back. As a pro, Robinson will be a dangerous mismatch weapon as a receiver with his speed and shiftiness in the open field. He could have the ability to line up in the slot and run routes like other talented receiving backs of Alvin Kamara and Christian McCaffrey.

Gibbs is well suited for the passing driven NFL as he is a superb receiving back. He runs good routes out of the backfield and has soft hands. The way that Gibbs runs his route and moves in the open field is very reminiscent of Kamara. There is no doubt that Gibbs can be a weapon as a receiver. With soft hands, Cook is natural catching the ball. He is elusive in the open field and can rip off yards in chunks. He is too fast and shifty for linebackers or safeties to cover in man so he provides an excellent mismatch and will be a third down receiving problem in the NFL.

Achane can be a weapon as a receiver. With soft hands, Achane is natural catching the ball. He is elusive in the open field and can rip off yards in chunks. He is too fast and shifty for linebackers or safeties to cover in man so he provides an excellent mismatch and will be a third down receiving problem in the NFL.

In the passing game Vaughn is a valuable contributor and that was given clear proof with 91 receptions over the past two seasons. He is an excellent route-runner out of the backfield and his shiftiness is very difficult to defend in the open field. His cutting ability and sudden bursts create separation from linebackers along with gaining yards after the catch. Vaughn is dangerous in space once he gets the ball in his hands as he weaves through defenders with his elusiveness. As a pro, he should be a real weapon for the passing game on wheel routes, screens, and check downs.

In the passing game, McIntosh has good hands for a big back. He makes challenging catches and is dangerous in space. McIntosh is a quality route runner as a receiver and he should be a very good check down option. In the passing game Charbonnet is a nice back to serve as an outlet receiver. He is smooth in space and has soft, reliable hands.

As a receiver, Evans will need some work for the NFL as the TCU and Ole Miss offense did not throw him the ball much. He flashed the ability to contribute as a receiver, but only had 22 receptions over the past two years. While Evans will need some development in route-running, he has the skill set to be a good receiver.

Rodriguez is a big power back that was not used as a receiver at Kentucky, but he has the ability to contribute some in the NFL.

Pass Blocking:
NFL prototype: Ezekiel Elliott, Cowboys
  1. Bijan Robinson
  2. Jahmyr Gibbs
  3. Kenny McIntosh
  4. Zach Charbonnet
  5. Chris Rodriguez
  6. Deuce Vaughn
  7. Devon Achane
  8. Zach Evans

Recap: This is huge for offensive coordinators. If a running back can’t pass protect, he is going to have a hard time seeing the field in the NFL. If the defenses know that a running back isn’t trusted to protect the quarterback, it is an immediate tip about what the play is going to be. Coaches want multiple backs with pass-protection skills. The importance of blitz pickup and pass blocking is vital for playing time for a running back.

In pass protection, Robinson is a willing blocker who will dish out some good hits. Once he learns his protection assignments, he should be a devastating three-down starter in the NFL. Robinson has the potential to be one of the top pass-blocking backs in the league and as good as Ezekiel Elliott has been.

Gibbs is a tough blocker who will take on blitzers and is smart at identifying the correct player to block. He got good grooming in a pro scheme and tailback responsibilities at Alabama. Once McIntosh gets some development with learning NFL blitz schemes, he could be a real asset in the passing game as a reliable quarterback protector.

Charbonnet and Rodriguez flashed some blocking potential. They have enough size to square up blitzers and take on defenders. Vaughn is very small, but he is a football player and blocked a lot better than one would expect. Achane’s size could prevent him from ever being a good blocker in pass protection. Evans needs work and grooming as a blitz protector for the NFL.

Yards After Contact:
NFL prototype: Derrick Henry, Titans
  1. Bijan Robinson
  2. Zach Charbonnet
  3. Kenny McIntosh
  4. Zach Evans
  5. Chris Rodriguez
  6. Jahmyr Gibbs
  7. Deuce Vaughn
  8. Devon Achane

Recap: For running backs to be consistently successful in the NFL, they have to have the ability to get yards after contact. Breaking tackles is critical to moving the chains and setting up good down-and-distance situations. This group offers an excellent set of prospects who can pick up yards after contact.

Robinson has a strong build and breaks a lot of tackles to pick up yards after contact. With natural knee bend, Robinson runs behind his pads and keeps his legs churning after contact. Due to his developed upper body, defenders have a hard time of controlling him to get him on the ground. Robinson also has a wicked stiff arm to push tacklers away and continue to gain yardage. He had some highlight-reel stiff-arm plays on which he made defenders look ugly in their tackling attempts.

Charbonnet is a hard-nosed runner who runs tough and often pushes the pile aided by his imposing size. He has the lower body strength to move the pile, and he keeps his legs moving after contact.

With his strong build, knee bend, and ability to run behind his pads, McIntosh breaks tackles consistently and picks up yards after contact. Defenders will struggle to bring him down at the second level, and it often takes multiple defenders to get him to the turf. With his contact balance and strength, McIntosh is a tough runner who can wear out defenses.

Evans is not a bulldozer who just flattens defenders, but he does run through contact, keeping his legs going and using moves to make it tough for defenders to grab a hold of him. In the NFL, Evans should be a solid back to pick up yards after contact because he has good overall balance, strength and knee bend while being able to run behind his pads.

Rodriguez is a hard-nosed back who runs angry and often brings pain to defenders who try to tackle him. Coming downhill, Rodriguez shows serious aggression to run through defenders and power through them to continue to add yards. He has the lower body strength to move the pile and keeps his legs moving after contact. He is very good at tacking on yards after contact.

While Gibbs is not the biggest of backs, he does have strength to his build and is able to break tackles while picking up yards after contact. Gibbs is not overpowering for the NFL, but he will be able to shed tacklers to get additional yards. Gibbs also finishes runs well, delivering some blows to defenders while falling forward.

Vaughn also has strength to his build to run through tackles and pick up yards after contact. While he gets some yards after getting hit, he won’t be as prolific as the players above thanks to his size. With his lack of stature, Achane is not a bulldozer to get a lot of yards after contact, but he is tough.

Zone-Blocking Runner:
NFL prototype: Dalvin Cook, Vikings
  1. Bijan Robinson
  2. Jahmyr Gibbs
  3. Zach Evans
  4. Zach Charbonnet
  5. Kenny McIntosh
  6. Chris Rodriguez
  7. Deuce Vaughn
  8. Devon Achane

Recap: The zone-blocking scheme calls for backs to have quickness and physicality. They need the ability to follow the moving wall, use vision and anticipation to see the hole opening, and make one cut to run downhill. It is a different type of running compared to a set, designed play. There isn’t a running back in this group who would be a poor fit for a zone scheme.

There is a lot to like about Robinson, Gibbs, Evans, Charbonnet, McIntosh and Rodriguez in zone-blocking systems. They all are hard-charging downhill backs who have a quick first-step to hit the hole before it closes and a second gear to get to the defensive backs.

Vaughn and Achane can run some zone plays, and they have the burst to dart downfield. Both would be better in a man schemes given their size, but they have enough ability to execute some plays in zone.

Power-Man Runner:
NFL prototype: Alvin Kamara, Saints
  1. Bijan Robinson
  2. Jahmyr Gibbs
  3. Zach Evans
  4. Deuce Vaughn
  5. Devon Achane
  6. Kenny McIntosh
  7. Zach Charbonnet
  8. Chris Rodriguez

Recap: Thanks to having excellent feet to go along with being fast, Robinson shows serious elusiveness in the open field, where he can cut and weave his way around defenders. Robinson is very shifty and has the lateral quickness to dodge defenders. He would be a great fit for a man scheme.

Gibbs and Evans are good fit for power-man schemes with their quick feet, speed, shiftiness, and ability to create on their own. At Alabama, Gibbs showed the ability to run the ball well in man or zone schemes, and Evans did the same at Ole Miss and TCU.

Vaughn could fit well in a man scheme thanks to being able to create on his own. He should appeal to power-man schemes with his ability to make things happen and dodge defenders. Vaughn is an incredibly elusive runner.

Achane could function in a man scheme because he has good elusiveness to go with his speed, which allows him to create on his own in a variety of ways.

McIntosh, Charbonnet and Rodriguez are more of one-cut downhill runners. While they each have some lateral quickness, they are more of North-South runners. All of them could fit in a man scheme, but they might be better off in zone schemes.

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