With the NFL draft around the corner, I'm releasing my pre-draft rookie ranks with in-depth analytical profiles. Below are my top five rookie running backs. In Part 2, I'll cover RB6-10*
These rankings are fantasy football-focused and driven by statistical metrics I'll explain throughout the profiles. These rankings also factor in expected NFL draft position. NFL draft position, and the scouting that drives it, plays a huge role in prospects' success and failure. The biggest post-draft swings in my rankings will come from draft-dependent prospects locking in high draft capital and strong analytical prospects slipping more than expected in the draft. Regarding draft position, it is my hope that, as much as possible, NFL general managers, scouts, and evaluators are not factoring in the various metrics that I rely on in my positional ranks. If they were, I could save a lot of time and just rank prospects by expected draft position. Obviously, there is overlap between what scouts are looking for and the type of stats teams tend to favor when putting their boards together. But ideally, the metrics below are adding a predictive element that we can add to draft position to better predict fantasy success.
These profiles also include statistical comps. These comps are based on key metrics for running backs like elusiveness, breakaway ability, yards per route run, career production, weight, speed, and expected draft position. The comps won't always be perfect stylistically. Instead, the primary purpose of the comps is to help illuminate a range of outcomes for each player and serve as a reminder that a player's prospect profile is a helpful tool in projecting them to the next level even if an imperfect one.
*I probably won't stop at 10.
1) Breece Hall, Iowa State
Athleticism - At 5 foot 11, 217 pounds, Hall ran a 4.39 40 at the Combine and recorded a 40-inch vertical and a 126-inch broad jump. Hall's workout was extremely impressive for a player who earned pre-draft comps to David Montgomery and Josh Jacobs but who, as it turns out, is significantly more athletic.
Rushing Production - Hall had 897 rushing yards and nine rushing TDs as a true freshman. He then went off for 279-1,572-21 and 253-1,472-20 rushing lines in back-to-back 12 game seasons.
Elusiveness - Hall is great at forcing missed tackles and picking up yards after contact, but he's not elite in Pro Football Focus' elusive rating, ranking behind both Jacobs and Montgomery. However, Hall handled a bigger workload than both of those backs while still impressing.
Elusive rating combines forced missed tackles per touch and yards after contact per attempt. If we alter the formula to look at forced missed tackles per game and yards after contact per game--I'll refer to this as elusiveness per game--it boosts backs like Hall. Hall wasn't elite on a per touch basis, but he broke numerous tackles and picked up significant yards after contact throughout his average game. Elusiveness per game has a slightly higher r^2 than elusive rating to PPR points per game in NFL seasons 1-3 (min. 10 games). In other words, elusiveness per game is slightly more predictive, but they highlight different types of players.
Elusive rating illuminates high-end talents who were underutilized in college. Elusiveness per game favors capable workhorses, whose per touch numbers were diminished by their valuable workloads. Ideally, we'd prefer a running back to score well in both metrics.
From 2015 to 2020, the top five drafted running backs in career elusive rating are:
From 2015 to 2020, the top five drafted running backs in career elusiveness per game are:
- Todd Gurley, Jonathan Taylor, Melvin Gordon, Kareem Hunt, and Devin Singletary -- James Robinson would rank third if he had been drafted.
Hall has a strong career elusive rating of 90, which ranks 75th percentile. Even better, he's in the upper echelon in elusiveness per game, ranking 95th percentile. Hall won't be the NFL's most elusive back on a per touch basis, but he offers the ability to turn high-quality workloads into elite fantasy outings.
Breakaway ability - Hall isn't a top-notch breakaway threat, but he ranks 74th percentile in career breakaway percentage among drafted running backs. With 4.39 speed, he should be able to run away from NFL defenders as well.
Long runs are great, but we'd strongly prefer them to come paired with a big workload. Again, using a per-game metric can help here. In this case, it helps a lot. College breakaway yards per game has a much stronger correlation with NFL fantasy scoring than college breakaway percentage. The top scorers in breakaway yards per game are also far more impressive.
From 2015 to 2020, the top five drafted running backs in career breakaway percentage (PFF's breakaway yards/total rushing yards) are:
From 2015 to 2020, the top five drafted running backs in career breakaway yards per game are:
Even though it's less predictive, breakaway percentage is still helpful because there is a clear danger zone that flags a potential lack of big-play ability. This has been a useful red flag for otherwise impressive prospects like Najee Harris (32%), Josh Jacobs (31%), David Montgomery (31%), Kerryon Johnson (28%), and T.J. Yeldon (25%). Avoiding tackles is great, but it's even better if the next defender can't catch you. Hall is well above this danger zone with a 46% breakaway percentage; he's unlikely to be a plodding rusher. Even better, Hall ranks 89th percentile breakaway yards per game, signaling that he could be a homerun hitter on a healthy NFL workload.
Receiving ability - Hall's biggest red flag is that he doesn't profile as a difference-making receiver. He was involved as a receiver with 2.3 receptions and 20.4 receiving yards per game with six career receiving TDs, but he wasn't very efficient, with just 0.98 yards per route run over his career. This isn't necessarily a huge deal. Hall ranks above backs like Cam Akers (0.93), Ezekiel Elliott (0.88), Melvin Gordon (0.81), and Todd Gurley (0.78). And like those running backs, his lower-than-ideal YPRR ultimately may not matter much. But YPRR was also a red flag for backs like Nick Chubb (1.00) and Damien Harris (0.89), who have been mostly locked out of receiving duties.
Outlook - Hall projects to consolidate early-down duties quickly on his new NFL team. While handling that workload, he should hit big plays and break tackles at well-above-average rates. His potential to further develop into a legendary fantasy running back is somewhat dependent on his team and situation.
If Hall lands with an established receiving back, it could take him a few years to develop into a three-down option--akin to David Montgomery (0.98 YPRR). And he looks somewhat vulnerable if forced to share a backfield with an explosive receiving back in the mold of Austin Ekeler or Tony Pollard. But if he lands with a team that prefers their lead back to handle receiving duties, Hall could emerge as a young Ezekiel Elliott -- his closest comp in my model.
Rookie Pick Prospect Grade: Early 1st
2) Kenneth Walker, Michigan State
Athleticism - Walker impressed at the Combine with a 4.38 40, a 34-inch vertical, and a 122-inch broad jump at 5 foot 9, 211. His 10-yard split was also significantly faster than Breece Hall, boosting Walker in Kevin Cole's post-combine model.
After the Combine, Walker appears locked in as a second-round pick with a chance to be the first running back selected.
Rushing Production - Walker was moderately productive for two years at Wake Forest, totaling 1,158 yards and 17 TDs in 20 games. Walker transferred to Michigan State believing that their system would be a better fit for his skill set; he was right. In 12 games, Walker exploded for 1,636 yards and 18 TDs. He also improved his YPC from 5.3 at Wake Forest to 6.2.
Elusiveness - Walker was elusive throughout his entire career, setting his career-high in elusive rating (162) as a freshman at Wake Forest. At Michigan State, he continued to deliver a high rate of forced missed tackles and yards after contact on much higher volume. Among Day 1-2 running backs, Walker's 2021 is the best single-season finish in elusiveness per game in the PFF database. Leonard Fournette's freshman debut and Dalvin Cook's sophomore season come in second and third. Walker is a little less impressive from a career perspective but still ranks 91st percentile.
Walker's elusiveness is good enough to challenge the idea that the top of the 2022 running back class is weaker than 2021. Both Walker and Hall rank ahead of Javonte Williams, Travis Etienne, and Najee Harris in elusiveness per game.
And... in elusive rating, Walker was dazzling, ranking 97th percentile for his career. In Walker's case, the per-touch metric may be a better indicator of his true talent level -- it now seems exceedingly obvious that Wake Forest wasn't getting the most out of him.
Breakaway ability - Walker is similar to Breece Hall as a breakaway threat. He's wasn't an elite big-play runner but, like Hall, had a 46% breakaway percentage that should translate with sub-4.4 speed. Most importantly, Walker is well above the plodder danger zone. Ranking 73rd percentile in breakaway yards per game, Walker should deliver solid fantasy value in a starting role, even if he isn't involved as a receiver.
Receiving ability - Like Hall, Walker's biggest red flag is his receiving ability. But Walker's receiving resume is far more concerning than Hall's. Hall profiles as a lead back who can handle receiving duties, but one who might not be able to hold off a talented receiving back from stealing snaps. Walker comes with serious risk of being a strict two-down specialist.
Walker averaged just 0.6 receptions and a double-take inducing 4.3 receiving yards per game for his career. Even in his 2021 breakout season, he totaled just 89 receiving yards, 7.4 yards per game.
The dynasty community is leaving the light on for Walker here, believing that his lack of receiving production could say more about Wake Forest and Michigan State than Walker. That makes sense... but only to an extent. Because while Walker didn't see work as a receiver, he did run routes.
Walker's 0.45 career YPRR is lower than pure rushers like Derrick Henry (0.67), Ronald Jones (0.64), and D'Onta Foreman (0.62). It's not that Walker can't overcome poor college receiving numbers. Backs like James Robinson (0.64), Jamaal Williams (0.55), and Miles Sanders (0.53) have surmounted similarly poor YPRR to see NFL receiving work. But as JJ Zachariason emphasized on our RB Deep Dive podcast, Walker's receiving profile is a genuine red flag that should not be dismissed out of hand. Walker isn't destined to be a two-down rusher, but his college profile signals that he has a lower probability of becoming a true three-down fantasy back.
Outlook - Walker is an unusual prospect. His closet comp in my model is Devin Singletary, which is admittedly a bit of a head-scratcher. But like Singletary, Walker is a tad undersized, flashed sufficient breakaway ability, and was highly elusive. And interestingly, Singletary entered the NFL with a questionable receiving resume: 0.79 YPRR with just six receptions for 36 yards paired with 261 rushing attempts in his final college season. We don't think of Singletary as a two-down back at all now, and Walker's elusiveness gives him a similar ceiling as a receiver. However, Walker's floor as a receiver is scary low, with Ronald Jones showing up as his second closet comp. Personally, I'm fairly optimistic that Walker will have sufficient receiving opportunity to hit RB2 value, but his receiving profile makes him a risky bet at the top of rookie drafts. He projects on the Miles Sanders spectrum.
Rookie Pick Prospect Grade: Late 1st
3) Rachaad White, Arizona State
Athleticism - At the Combine, White impressed even before he worked out, weighing in at 6 feet, 214 pounds. His size gives him a significantly higher ceiling than most receiving backs. White then turned in a 4.48 40, a 38-inch vertical, and a 125-inch broad jump. It was an impressive showing for a player who now projects as potentially more than a receiving specialist.
Rushing Production - White is a junior college transfer who logged just 42 attempts at Arizona State in 2020. He was quite productive in that small sample, at least, with 420 yards and five touchdowns in four games. After rushing for 10 yards per carry in his first Power 5 season, White recorded 182 attempts in 2021, rushing for 1000 yards and 15 TDs in 11 games. He finished with a 6.3 career YPC.
Elusiveness - White wasn't an amazing tackle breaker in college, with a good but sub-elite career elusive rating of 92. He also showed sufficient elusiveness per game, ranking just behind Cam Akers, James Conner, and Javonte Williams and ahead of Nick Chubb and J.K. Dobbins. White probably won't handle a huge workload in the NFL nor be elite on a per-touch basis, but he projects as a capable tackle breaker.
Breakaway ability - White's career breakaway percentage of 40% isn't impressive, but it's also not quite a red flag. Jonathan Taylor (42%), Miles Sanders (42%), Kareem Hunt (40%), James Conner(40%), J.K. Dobbins (40%), and Cam Akers (38%) all had similar breakaway rates. But anytime you're in between Royce Freeman (41%) and Zack Moss (39%), it's not ideal. White ranks 61st percentile in breakaway yards per game and should hit the occasional long run, but breakaway ability won't drive his fantasy value.
Receiving ability - White impressed as a receiver at Arizona State, averaging 3.4 receptions and 40.5 receiving yards per game with two career TDs. Even better, he was extremely efficient, with an elite 2.59 YPRR. White is one of only six* drafted prospects with a career YPRR of 2.3 or better. The other five are Christian McCaffrey (2.81), Kenyan Drake (2.71), Alvin Kamara (2.49), Kenneth Gainwell (2.46), and Joe Mixon (2.38).
*David Johnson is the seventh running back on this list with an absurd 4.38 YPRR, but he only has two charted games in the PFF database.
Outlook - White's resume consists of just a season and a half of Power 5 football, and he is an older prospect; he turned 23 in January. As a result, White has a low floor. To reiterate that, my model comped him to Jeremy McNichols. But White's closest comp, Alvin Kamara, also highlights his high ceiling.
At a minimum, White's elite receiving profile should get him on the field in a rotational role. Hopefully, his plus size helps him impress his coaches more than Javorius Allen (another close comp). Ultimately, White will probably follow a Kenyan Drake career trajectory -- flashing but rarely sustaining fantasy success. But if a team selects him on Day 2 and is willing to use him as more than a pure receiving back, his profile gives him a realistic chance of being the top running back in the class.
Rookie Pick Prospect Grade: Late 1st
4) Isaiah Spiller, Texas A&M
Athleticism - Spiller skipped the 40 at the Combine, and he probably wishes he skipped it at his Pro Day as well. At 6 feet, 217 pounds, Spiller posted a 4.64 40. Even with lighting quick Combine times this year, it's not a given that Spiller would have posted a sub-4.7 in Indianapolis. Paired with a 30-inch vertical and 114-inch broad jump at the Combine and a 33-inch vertical at his Pro Day, Spiller's athleticism is a bright red flag. Once thought to be in the top tier of the 2022 class, he now looks in real danger of falling to Round 3.
Rushing Production - Spiller started his career as a true freshman and ended it at just 20 years old; he doesn't turn 21 until August. In his three SEC seasons, Spiller totaled 2,993 yards and 25 TDs in 35 games, for an average of 5.5 YPC.
Elusiveness - Spiller's elusiveness is similar to Rachaad White's -- sufficient, but not off-the-charts. He should be a solid tackle-breaker with an 89 career elusive rating and a 75th percentile ranking elusiveness per game.
Breakaway ability - Spiller's workouts put his long speed and burst in serious question, but his college stats should help ease our minds. His 43% breakaway percentage matches James Cook (who posted a 4.42 40) and is within shouting distance of Breece Hall (46%) and Kenneth Walker (46%). Spiller's timed athleticism is definitely disappointing, but he doesn't have the production profile of a plodder. Even as a committee back, he was sufficient in breakaway yards per game, ranking 60th percentile.
Receiving ability - Spiller posted solid receiving production, averaging 2.1 receptions and 16.7 yards per game, with one career TD. Spiller was similar to Breece Hall in receiving efficiency, with 0.94 YPRR. He could develop a valuable receiving role like Kareem Hunt (1.04), David Montgomery (0.98), Devonta Freeman (0.96), or Ezekiel Elliott (0.88). But there's also a chance that he doesn't add much in the passing game like Nick Chubb (1.00), Jordan Howard (0.99), or Damien Harris (0.89).
Outlook - Overall, nothing in Spiller's profile suggests he can't be a highly successful NFL running back... at the same time, nothing in his profile really suggests that he will be. He's good at avoiding tackles, sufficient at picking up big plays, and should be solid as a receiver. But he doesn't jump off the page in any facet of the game and brings uninspiring athleticism to the table. If a team pulls a CEH and selects him in the first round -- could you imagine? -- he's capable enough to profile as a low-end fantasy RB1. He also has a backup level floor.
Rookie Pick Prospect Grade: 2nd
5) Tyler Allgeier, BYU
Athleticism - Allgeier weighed in at the Combine at 5 foot 11, 224 pounds. He had a mostly unimpressive day with a 4.6 40, a 33-inch vertical, and a 120-inch broad jump. He then had a 7.09 3-cone at his Pro Day, which isn't great either. However, all of Allgeier's numbers are sufficient for his size, including his 10-yard split.
Rushing Production - Allgeier was used sparingly as a freshman and then converted to linebacker in 2019. His second stint at running back was more productive. In the backfield again for 2020, Allgeier delivered 1,130 yards and 13 TDs in 11 games with 7.5 YPC. He then posted 1,601 yards and 23 TDs in 2021, finishing with a career YPC of 6.4.
Elusiveness - Allgeier was highly elusive at BYU, finishing with an elusive rating of 127, 96th percentile. That said, Allgeier wasn't quite as impressive on a per-game basis, ranking 85th percentile in elusiveness per game. But Allgeier wasn't a committee back. If you remove the four games in 2019 when the then-linebacker logged snaps as a running back, he ranks 90th percentile in elusiveness per game. If you remove both 2019 and 2018, he ranks 97th percentile. Only Jonathan Taylor, Todd Gurley, Melvin Gordon, Kareem Hunt, and Devin Singletary had better elusiveness per game than Allgeier did in his final two seasons.
To be clear... the fact that BYU barely played him as a freshman and wasn't even sure he was a running back as recently as 2019 matters. But Allgeier should be very inexpensive in rookie drafts, and his final two seasons indicate a ceiling that could far exceed his draft cost.
Breakaway ability - Allgeier had a 44% breakaway percentage over his four-year career, which ranks 61st percentile. He also averaged 41 breakaway yards per game, 69th percentile. Among running backs weighing at least 220 pounds, only seven finished better in breakaway percentage and breakaway yards per game: Saquon Barkley, Rashaad Penny, Joe Mixon, Todd Gurley, Nick Chubb, Derrius Guice, and D'Onta Foreman. For a bigger back, he can move.
Receiving ability - In 31 games at running back, Allgeier averaged 1.5 receptions and 14.1 receiving yards with one career receiving TD, which isn't great. Even over his final two seasons, Allgeier wasn't prolific as a receiver.
But Allgeier was solidly efficient with a career 1.11 YPRR. Allgeier doesn't project similarly to true three-down big backs like Joe Mixon (2.38), Saquon Barkley (1.66), or Leonard Fournette (1.62). But he has a chance of being capable as a receiving option in the mold of Najee Harris (1.13), Kareem Hunt (1.04), or David Montgomery (0.98). There's also a chance of him hitting as an NFL player while still underwhelming as a receiver, like Nick Chubb (1.00) or Jordan Howard (0.99).
Outlook - Allgeier profiles like a bigger Isaiah Spiller. And since athleticism isn't a strong suit for either player, Allgeier's size makes him the more appealing option on paper. But -- and this is not a small but -- Spiller has a much stronger chance of being selected on Day 2. If I knew both players were going to be Round 3 picks, I would have Allgeier ranked ahead, but that would basically be an expected outcome for Spiller and a phenomenal outcome for Allgeier.
Instead, Allgeier is my pick for best-of-the-rest in a year where you can defensibly have almost anyone as your pre-draft RB5. Allgeier flashed enticing breakaway ability for a big back and could realistically earn a three-down role. His fever dream upside scenarios include three-down Jordan Howard and big-play-threat Najee Harris. Of course, he also has major red flags. His athleticism conjures visions of T.J. Yeldon and Royce Freeman, and two years ago, his coaches literally had him tackling dudes. But... in a thin running back class, you could do a lot worse than betting on a big, productive rusher who can break tackles, hit long runs, and handle check-down duties. He might even get you the occasional sack.
Rookie Pick Prospect Grade: 2nd