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NFL Draft RB Rankings

by Thor Nystrom
Updated On: April 4, 2019, 8:05 pm ET

3. Devin Singletary (FAU) | 5’9/208

SPARQ percentile: 20.0
Speed score: 86
Comp: Devonta Freeman (Filip Prus)

 

 

singletary combine

 

He’s short, he’s skinny, he comes from Conference USA, he isn’t very fast, and he's a 20th-percentile athlete — what isn’t to love?!

I kid. Motor has always been more than the sum of his parts. A high school standout, Singletary didn’t receive the national attention he should have. The three-star recruit’s choices for school came down to a low-end Power 5 destination (Illinois) or to stay local at FAU. He flipped to the Owls late, rode out a coaching change, and then absolutely dominated the past two years under Lane Kiffin.

In three seasons, over 714 carries, Motor averaged 6.0 YPC. He ran for 4,287 yards and 66 TD (!!!) while posting a 51-397-1 line as a receiver. Despite his lack of foot speed, and despite his lack of muscle. They don’t have a test in Indianapolis for how hard it is to get you onto the ground. If they did, Motor and David Montgomery would have lapped the field.

Montgomery does it more with power than agility, though he also possesses the latter. Motor does it with agility, though he also possesses some power. Each have absurd balance. Sometimes, with Motor, the only way you can get the play to end is by penning him in near the sideline without an escape route, so that he has to step out and surrender himself.

What Singletary lacks in foot speed he more than makes up for with stupid foot quickness. He's the TV time traveler with a gun pointed at his head who disappears only to show up a split-second later behind the unsuspecting gunman. 

I’m talking unfair shake, even at high speeds, and especially in precarious phone booth situations. Motor is the rare bird who can score a touchdown in a scenario where two free defenders have him dead-to-rights on his side of the line of scrimmage post-snap. It’s like watching an old episode of BATMAN, where bad guys surround the hero one minute and the next (*Bam!* *Whack!*) they're splayed around the room unconscious.

Motor takes the handoff, sees heavy penetration. He combos a half jump-stop with two stutter steps to short-circuit the defender’s brains and force their feet to betray their intentions. Then, he shoots forward, disappearing from the camera’s view for an instant as he enters the teeth of the scrum through a slit. With any other player, the whistle is about to blow. But in the split-second your naked eye just missed, Motor was running through the arm tackle of one of the fool’s he just clowned in the gap between his left guard and tackle, deeking out a crashing linebacker with a clear shot, and, in the three steps that followed, accelerating to peak speed.

By the time he reemerges into view, as if by miracle, Motor has not only broken free from the black hole that has engulfed most of the planets in this football solar system, but he’s now alone in the second level at top speed pointed towards the end zone. If you’ve only got one safety back there who’s unoccupied, start sending your kick block unit onto the field, because the cannons are gonna fire in a second.

Do I care that he’s undersized and slow? Sure. I care to the extent that I rank Motor behind Montgomery and Jacobs. But I can’t go lower than this. I’m sorry. The players in the past five classes I think of when I think of Motor are Devonta Freeman and Dalvin Cook, two fellow undersized Floridians who were also below average athletes. Like Motor, Freeman and Cook were full-spectrum-vision slashers with catch-the-chicken agility in close quarters who shrunk like Ant Man through closing portals as wooly mammoths fought for leverage above.

Just as Motor’s plus-plus agility and vision help offset his lack of deep speed, his Walter-White-as-Heisenberg determination, assuredness and fearlessness with the ball in his hands offset his lack of standing-still-in-street-clothes power. You aren’t taking Motor down with an arm tackle. He wasn’t tackled on first contact, per PFF, on 57.2% of his touches, good for No. 2 in the class. That’s right: This little string bean is not only elite-elite at making you miss, but he was also elite at breaking tackles in college.

Motor is also a skilled receiver — you’ll have to return to 2017 to see it, as FAU’s offense lost all its creative chutzpah this past season when Lane Kiffin was replaced by Charlie Weis’ 24-year-old son and receiving was yanked from Motor’s list of things to do — and a downright violent pass blocker who is looking to light you up.

I don’t buy that Singletary is a boom-or-bust prospect, because guys who are difficult to touch and more difficult to tackle don’t often fail. SPARQ score couldn't quantify Dalvin Cook or Devonta Freeman’s inane ability to create doubt in defender’s minds. Guys like this play faster and bigger than they are on the football field because they force opponents to play slower and smaller than they are. If you’re saying I can get Motor Singletary in late Round 3, I’ve already got a card written out with his name on it.

 

4. Miles Sanders (Penn State) | 5’11/211

SPARQ percentile: 78.8
Speed score: 104
Comp: Medium-rare Cadillac Williams with a side of Felix Jones

 

 

miles sanders combine

 

You know how the Harris brothers at Alabama were RB1 in 2015 and 2017? Miles Sanders was the RB1 in-between, the premier back in the 2016 class. He curiously chose Penn State despite the fact that a freshman named Saquon Barkley had just single-handedly made that Christian Hackenberg-led offense watchable (shoutout to Chris Godwin, DaeSean Hamilton and Kyle Carter!).

Unlike David Montgomery, who didn’t need much time to shove aside Mike Warren, Sanders couldn't unseat the old guard. In Sanders’ case, the old guard was a generational NFL talent. A one-year starter, Sanders finished with a mere 276 career carries, only topping Elijah Holyfield (215), Josh Jacobs (251), and Dexter Williams (257) among the consensus top-20 RBs in this year’s class.

Sanders does not have a significant injury on his ledger and he’s arguably taken fewer big hits than any back in the class. In that sense, and in the sense that he’s a good athlete with five-star pedigree and a game that fits where the NFL is going, he’s safe. Where risk enters Sanders’ equation is in the subtleties, feel and trust-worthiness.

At present, Sanders is a classic slasher who knows his way around a PS4 controller with an array of jukes and spins. Good Miles Sanders is the Miles Sanders who sees the hole, bursts into it smoothly, makes a defender miss in the claustrophobia zone, angles to the sideline, and then punches the gas. Good Miles Sanders is a patient runner who works with his blockers, a guy with several gears who is methodical when he needs to be methodical, twitchy when he needs to be twitchy, and fast when he needs to be fast.

Good Miles Sanders has the hips of a hula girl, the flair for combos of a boxer, and the go-with-the-flow-and-ride-the-wave instincts of a surfer. Good Miles Sanders is a surefire starting NFL running back. Good Miles Sanders was made to feast in a zone-blocking scheme.

I love that Sanders also brings a ton of value in the passing game. And since he’s had very limited reps, I think it’s fair to project continued growth as a receiver and as a pass blocker, two areas he’s already above-average in. Sanders is skilled enough to line up in the slot. If he continues to develop in this area, he’s going to become a real weapon to a creative offensive staff.

But Sanders' inexperience showed on the field at times last season. He’s smooth and sleek in action, a natural, but Sanders does not yet see the entire field and anticipate several moves ahead. Vision and feel are two things he possesses, (he’s not Justice Hill), but Sanders hasn’t yet reached that intuitive zone where everything around him slows down and he sees every possibility like Dr. Strange.

That’s how he really levels up, and it’s possible to project that growth because Sanders had less than half the touches that Devin Singletary and David Montgomery had the past three years. With more reps comes more feel. It’s like with anything.

Bad Miles Sanders is a guy who is loose with the ball. Bad Miles Sanders is a guy who loses his decisiveness and doesn’t have world-class athleticism or a big power element to his game to fall back on. And when he’s making mistakes and losing confidence, Bad Miles Sanders can let a tough matchup become an impossible one — he struggled in three of Penn State’s biggest games this season.

But to be entirely fair: Miles Sanders was in a different situation than Saquon Barkley was. In 2017, Penn State had Hamilton and Mike Gesicki around to salvage Trace McSorley’s ducks and give the Nits’ passing attack bite. When the receiving corps sharply regressed in 2018, McSorley turned into an AAF third-stringer and defenses zeroed in on Sanders without fear of getting shredded through the air.

If Sanders hits his ceiling, he’s going to become one of the best backs in this class — perhaps even the very best. If it turns out that this is just sort of who he is, then he'll be a solid-enough committee guy, eminently replaceable.

 

5. Darrell Henderson (Memphis) | 5’8/208

SPARQ percentile: 41.6
Speed score: 
Comp: Either a sawed-off Tevin Coleman (Zierlein)… or Ameer Abdullah 2.0

 

 

henderson combine

 

Darrell Henderson is the most fascinating back in this class. A polarizing prospect who’s the running back answer to the classic quarterback question: “Was he a product of the system?”

Henderson went ballistic last season, running for 1,909 yards and 22 TD on 8.9 YPC (!!!!!) while adding 295 yards and three more scores as a receiver. Watching college football on Saturdays the past few years, every time they cut to a Memphis game for a studio update, you knew you were about to see Hendo break off a 75-yard touchdown run. They wouldn’t have cut in otherwise.

Henderson is no scat back. He runs fearlessly with a sort of kinetic violence, using speed to create force. He’s also a proven receiver, with a 63-758-8 line over three years in college. Henderson did not drop a pass at Memphis. Per PFF’s rankings, he ranked No. 1 in drop rate (0.0%!), No. 1 in breakaway percentage and No. 2 in elusive ranking.

He was also No. 9 in percentage of attempts he didn’t go down on first contact. In fact, among the class’ top backs, Henderson finished behind only Monty Pylon and Motor Singletary in broken tackles forced per attempt last year (0.27, which tied him, coincidently enough, with Josh Jacobs).

Henderson is a different kind of explosive. He appears to shimmer while accelerating as though disturbing the air from centuries of apathy. When he shifts into that gear, and you start hearing that weird radio frequency in the stadium, he gone.

Henderson’s twitch can also be used to shake defenders, but he’s the opposite of Motor Singletary in this category. Where Motor changes speeds and stacks moves to erase lanes and freeze defenders in place, Henderson only has one card to play in every interaction, one stutter step or one head fake.

And that’s because he plays the game in Ludicrous Speed. His attitude is always the same as Rick Moranis’ in SPACE BALLS: “What’s the matter, Colonel Sanders? Chicken?” He’s always looking for a pitch to turn on and he swings from the heels. But when he passes through Ridiculous Speed and into Ludicrous Speed, Henderson’s vision field distorts and he’s unable to move off his path. As Dark Helmet yells, “What have I done? My brains are going into my feet!”

Hendo runs like a flag pole, like Lamar Jackson or Tevin Coleman, upright with his shoulders back and his feet close. This style may deprive him of a little agility and contact balance, though he remains solidly above-average in both phases.

Henderson no doubt draws his otherworldly speed from this style, so it’s not going to change a ton, but he’s going to leave himself open to big hits when he’s not breaking into the open field and outrunning everyone. In college, in Memphis’ up-tempo spread system, it was easy for Henderson to find that space. Sometimes he didn’t even have to work that hard to find it.

Once he gets to the NFL and the windows of opportunity are far smaller, can Henderson adept his game? Is he willing to negotiate with that swing-for-the-fences attitude and work to become more nuanced behind the line of scrimmage? Where before space was given to him, Henderson must now become the kind of player who can create a little of it on his own. If he can, he’s going to excel in the NFL. Because the home run power will play— but only if the pitch recognition improves.

If it doesn’t, Henderson is just another Ameer Abdullah, an undersized burner who excelled in college but busted in the NFL when he could no longer simply outrun everybody. I’m tentatively bullish that Hendo can be more.

I had such a hard time separating Henderson and Damien Harris in these rankings. Harris wins with polish and know-how and versatility. Henderson doesn't have the patience or nuance or polish for all that, but he has a trump card Harris can only dream of, air-rippling explosion. You want the high floor or the higher ceiling? I’m not done turning that one over in my head.

 

6. Damien Harris (Alabama) | 5’10/216

SPARQ percentile: 57.3
Speed score: 99
Comp: Carlos Hyde

 

 

damien harris combine

 

Damien Harris is hot dish at a family dinner in Minnesota in December. Old reliable. Homey. A dinner that manages to be enjoyable and filling and perfect for the occasion but not-worth-asking-about despite the fact that it was made from 16 different ingredients, a dish everyone will enjoy but nobody will tell their co-workers about on Monday morning.

Harris was considered a mega-talent coming out of high school, the Kentucky Gatorade Player of the Year in 2013. In a 2015 scouting report, 247Sports’ Allen Trieu wrote that Harris was a “big-play back who can go the distance from anywhere on the field.” Rivals ranked Harris as the No. 8 overall prospect in the country.

His career was an unmitigated success. And yet it feels like I've already forgotten that Damien Harris played on four great Alabama teams. No disrespect. It's just that Harris never took a game. On each of the past three Alabama teams he played on, he never ranked among the top-three Crimson Tide offensive players you were afraid of.

Nonetheless, Harris led Alabama in rushing in each of his final three seasons (he stayed for all four years of his eligibility clock), taking over as the lead back after Derrick Henry left for the NFL. Harris’ two best seasons were in 2016 and 2017, when he racked up 1,037 yards (7.1 YPC) and 1,000 yards (7.4 YPC), respectively. His career 6.4 YPC is a program record.

He’s coming off a down 2018 year in which he rushed for 876 yards (5.8 YPC) in an offense that changed drastically to facilitate Tua’s game, which meant spacing the field and attacking. Harris was less a fit for that than he was the previous run-first offense with Jalen Hurts under center. He would have been a better fit in the league a decade ago. Can Harris become a standout in the new-age NFL?

The 2018 season also marked the first time -- and only time to our knowledge -- that even a hint of discord in the Harris-Bama marriage cropped up, with Nick Saban benching Harris for “internal reasons” to start the team’s mid-October game against Tennessee. Harris did enter that contest during the first quarter, but ended up receiving just three carries. It was the first time he failed to start a contest since 2016. Count it an as a lover’s quarrel. Character is not an issue for Harris.

As you can gather from some of those sharp YPC numbers, he knows how to find room to work. Harris won’t flash fry the opposition with Darrell Henderson-esque bolt-out-of-the-blue breakaway runs, but his mature, disciplined approach to each and every carry can make up for some of his general lack of burst. Harris has the clinical eye of a jeweler, inspecting the defense for flaws pre-snap.

The result? A three-yard run here, a five-yard run there, a one-yard loss, another five-yard run, then suddenly he spots a lane, gathers his momentum and hurtles into the open field. Harris doesn’t have Henderson’s get-up, but he did post 12 runs of 30+ yards the past two seasons. That breakaway speed that Trieu referenced out of high school probably never existed in the first place. But Harris makes it work.

He makes it work as a blocker, too, and as a receiver, especially on shorter-area screens and the like, when he can get the ball quickly before the defense is able to pin him down. Harris runs determined and brings the hammer in collisions. He didn’t break a ton of tackles in college, however. But he's not a man to cough up the ball, either. Harris didn't fumble over his final 350 carries.

Harris' SPARQ percentage of 57.3% is perfect. That’s him. He won’t juke you out of your cleats, he won’t run away from you and he won’t hurdle over you. But he will occasionally make you miss, make you run after him, and run through you. Maturity, patience and extreme ball security might not be the sexiest combination of traits, but there is value in consistency and a high floor, and Harris has both.

Thor Nystrom

Thor Nystrom is NBC Sports Edge’s lead CFB writer. The 2018 FSWA College Sports Writer of the Year, Nystrom’s writing has also been honored by Rolling Stone magazine and The Best American Essays series. Say hi to him on Twitter @thorku!