The running back position has been rejuvenated in the NFL because of all the talent that’s been coming out of college. Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliot, and Le’Veon Bell are just a few examples. During the 2018 NFL Draft, we saw Saquon Barkley, Rashaad Penny, and Sony Michel taken in the first round. Former LSU superstar Derrius Guice should have been a top-10 pick, but that’s a topic for a different day.
This year, it’s no different — the 2019 NFL Draft is stacked with running backs. Many thought that L.J. Scott of Michigan State and Myles Gaskin of Washington were going to enter the 2018 NFL Draft, but instead, they returned for another season of college. It’s safe to say that both have their names in the top-10 running back rankings for the 2019 NFL Draft.
Here, I want to take a look at the top five running backs of each conference and go over the names we should hear when the 2019 NFL Draft comes around. Let’s start with the Pac-12 Conference and the best running back in the country: Bryce Love.
Bryce Love – Stanford
Without question, Bryce Love is the best running back in the country. That might grind the gears of some people, but so far, he’s been my personal favorite. In my opinion, barring injury, he’s a sure bet to go in the first round of the 2019 NFL Draft.
From his patience and mental processing to his burst between the tackles, he’s the best running back in the country. There’s nothing one-dimensional about his running style, and he’s not limited in any aspect on the field. Love has the tools that starting running backs in the NFL possess, and odds are, his transition to the NFL will be an easy one. David Shaw runs a West Coast offense that puts the run first and the pass second. Accordingly, Love has got the ability to carry the ball on every snap. When the ball is in his hands, you can’t question his cutting ability or his lower body strength. He averaged five yards after contact and had 86 broken tackles last season.
Bryce Love with exceptional vision and then the ability to plant, cut, jump and cut. Stating the obvious but man, he's a special talent. pic.twitter.com/GxK3KD2bov— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) July 15, 2018
Love’s lower body control is incredible. His hip flexibility and his ability to plant one foot and have the strength and burst to move himself in the opposite direction are exceptional. When running with the football, he doesn’t waste any time, and there’s no wasted motion. He’ll certainly put up a fight if he’s met in the box, but I wish defenders the best. If you close your eyes when forming up for a tackle, odds are that Bryce Love is going in another direction and making you look stupid.
During his junior season (2017), Love recorded over 2,100 rushing yards on 263 carries, 19 touchdowns, and finished second in Heisman Trophy voting. It surprised many that he didn’t enter the 2018 NFL Draft, but it’s clear he has something left to prove for his senior season. More than likely, it’s to try and get his hands on a National Championship or a Heisman Trophy, or maybe both. There’s no doubt that Love has the ability to be in the running for the coveted trophy once again.
Myles Gaskin – Washington
Need a player with fantastic vision and the shiftiness to make defenders miss? Look no further than Myles Gaskin. He’s more than just a one-dimensional back and has shown that he can carry the workload, despite the question marks regarding his overall size. At 5’10 and 190 pounds, Gaskin will be questioned about whether he’s an every-down running back in the NFL. And personally, I wonder the same thing when I watch him. Those questions can be put to the side for now. During his tenure with the Huskies, Gaskin has 686 carries and has averaged 5.9 yards per carry.
Love this run from Myles Gaskin for a couple of reasons:— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) July 15, 2018
-Cuts his way through the hole
-Keeps his head on a swivel & notices a "would-be" tackler crossing his face, spins & keeps his feet moving forward
-Has the "eyes in the back of his head" mentality - carries high & tight pic.twitter.com/3LKQn2v4vi
As you can tell, just from that video above, his head is on a swivel. He also plays with what I like to call, “eyes in the back of his head” mentality. Most running backs are taught to carry the ball high and tight, and for him to display that during the game with defenders swarming, it’s impressive. It’s always a positive feeling to know that you can trust a player to do that, especially when you see it during the game.
It also seems that whenever Gaskin touches the football, he’s getting into the end-zone. In 2017, he was third in the country in rushing touchdowns with 21. He only trailed Rashaad Penny of San Diego State and Devin Singletary of FAU (Florida Atlantic University).
When you put on the tape of Gaskin, you’ll notice he doesn’t have elite lower body strength. Regardless of that limitation, he’s not afraid to stick his head into the chest of a linebacker and pick up a blitz. Blitz pick-up is important for a running back, and I think it’ll help him see the field more when he gets to the next level. As for what we’ll see from him this year, it’s hard to predict. But it’s safe to assume that he’ll be taking direct snaps, catching passes from the slot, and picking up blitzes. You’ll also see running lanes get smaller with defenders swarming, but he’ll jump-cut and exploit weaknesses in a defense. Lastly, don’t forget touchdowns, plenty of touchdowns.
Zack Moss – Utah
Nobody has caught my eye more than Zack Moss from Utah. There are times that I watch him and I see similar traits to Ezekiel Elliot. I said traits, or, in other words, flashes of the same skillset. I’m not saying Moss and Elliot are the same person or that Elliot is the pro comparison for Moss. If you read my work, you’ll know that I don’t do pro comparisons. I let a player be his own player.
More often than not, Moss will get labeled a bruiser, but there’s a lot more to his game than that. He shows patience out of the backfield and lets his blocks develop in front of him. Further, he’s got great vision and has better burst than people give him credit for.
There will be scouting reports that justify him as a limited back that can’t cut and will only go north and south. If you come across those reports, click the little ‘x’ button at the right side of your tab. Moss certainly has the lateral movement that teams are looking for in an every down back. Being labeled as a bruiser is something we’ll hear about Moss, but I emphatically disagree.
During the 2017 season, he ran for 1170 yards on 213 carries and had 10 touchdowns. Of his 1170 rushing yards, 765 of those yards were after contact. Clearly, Moss has no issue dropping his shoulder and barreling over you. He needs to lower his pad level and become more consistent with his hands in pass protection, but all around, Moss is a complete back. This upcoming season will be a perfect way for him to solidify himself as one of the top-5 running backs in the country.
Patrick Laird – California
Patrick Laird is such a fun story. He played eight-man football in high school but was dominant with over 4,500 rushing yards at Mission Prep. He ran for over 3,100 yards in his senior year alone. Despite having some offers from Ivy League schools, Laird decided to stay in his home state and chose to walk on at Cal, where he competed as a fullback and on special teams.
After three years of working incredibly hard, Laird finally earned a scholarship. In fact, he became the starting running back for the 2017 season, and it’s expected for him to keep the reigns this year. During his first full season as the starting running back, Laird compiled over 1,100 rushing yards on 197 carries and eight touchdowns. Meanwhile, he also recorded 45 receptions for 322 yards and a touchdown.
For the next level, Laird is a really good situational player. He’s not as electric or elite as the other players on this list, but you can give him the ball in particular situations and know that he’s going to give you positive yardage. His ability to run north and south is his forté, but he’s also able to catch the ball out of the backfield. Whether he’s next to the quarterback in the shotgun formation or lined up in the slot, he’s always prepared to make a play.
Patrick Laird, why are you cutting? Take the opening and just go, brother. pic.twitter.com/6GIwU93NJQ— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) July 15, 2018
His cutting ability is average, but he’s a patient runner who allows his blockers to get out in front him. As he travels further downhill, he picks up speed, which helps him lower his shoulder and break tackles. Lowering his center of gravity when running with the football will help him become less exposed to contact. When we enter the 2019 NFL Draft season, be prepared for the pro comparisons to Danny Woodhead.
When he’s not getting straight As or running for touchdowns, he’s making music. It’s hard to give him an overall draft grade with another season to go, but entering the 2018 college football season, Laird should be on your radar.
J.J. Taylor, Arizona
When you think about running backs that stand 5 feet and 6 inches tall, the first player that comes to mind is Darren Sproles. More recently, you’ll think of Tarik Cohen (Chicago Bears) or Jacquizz Rodgers (Tampa Bay Buccaneers). Pretty soon, you’ll be talking about J.J. Taylor from Arizona. Listed 5’6 and 180 pounds, Taylor is an elusive back who has speed to burn. During his tenure with the Wildcats, he split carries in the backfield with Nick Wilson. Now, Wilson has gone to sign as an undrafted free agent with the Chicago Bears. The backfield is now his for the taking, and he should have no issue staying on top of the depth chart as the starting running back.
Despite not having size to become a starting back in the NFL, Taylor can fill the void for a team in plenty of different situations. Last year, he had 145 carries for 847 rushing yards and five touchdowns. Despite only having 12 receptions, he can catch passes out of the backfield relatively well. Of his 145 carries, 35 were for first downs, which gave him a 24.1 first down percentage. Knowing that you’re going to get a first down on almost a 1/4 of his carries says a lot about what kind of back you’re getting, regardless of his size. To boot, Taylor averaged 5.8 yards per carry and almost 60% of his yards were after contact. After 13 games, Taylor had 508 yards after contact and broke 35 tackles on the year.
This cut from J.J. Taylor (RB 21 - Arizona) is absolutely filthy. Just did the Oregon defender wrong lol pic.twitter.com/BjNHeTPO4S— Russell Brown (@RussNFLDraft) July 17, 2018
Don’t get me wrong; only averaging 65.2 rushing yards per game isn’t impressive. However, last year was his first season back after suffering a broken ankle his freshman year. Get rid of the timeshare out of the backfield and give him a full bill of health, and Taylor can be one of the most dynamic running backs in the country, despite his limited size. He’s got great cutting ability, burst, and might be one of the most explosive players in space in the NCAA. No matter what week it is, defensive coordinators are planning for J.J. Taylor, and you should be, too.