Running backs were back on the board in the first round of the 2023 NFL Draft — which is why Bijan Robinson and Jahmyr Gibbs are starting their pro careers with high hopes.
Following the Day 1 selections of Robinson and Gibbs, the position as a whole was littered with a diverse collection of talented runners; many, myself included, considered it one of the deepest design lessons for ball carriers in a while, perhaps since the amazing class of 2017 with Christian McCaffrey, Dalvin Cook, Alvin Kamara, Joe Mixon, Aaron Jones and Leonard Fournette. I should not forget that Austin Ekeler was also no longer drafted in 2017.
Here are the five running backs who will be most productive in Year 1. I also rankedAnd according to the same criteria.
I was teetering back and forth between Miller and Rams rookie Zach Evans here. Keep an eye out for the latest in Los Angeles. I trust Miller’s make-you-miss abilities more, which is why he ultimately got the nod here. We’re not sure if Alvin Kamara is suspended at the start of the 2023 season, and of course if that happens, this ranking will be too low for the former TCU star.
Miller and Evans were actually part of the same backfield in 2021, and Miller averaged 7.5 yards a bag against Evans’ 7.0 before Evans switched to Ole Miss for his final collegiate season. With a longer back, Miller has surprising contact balance, plus tight-space visibility and violent cutting ability. While Jamaal Williams will likely be deployed as the New Orleans red zone after his remarkably productive 2022 with the Lions, I feel compelled to highlight Miller’s 24 rushing touchdowns in his last two college seasons, including 17 (!) last year. Ironically, there is a lot of Kamara and Williams in his size and style on the pitch.
4. Roshon Johnson, Bears
I like the Bears backfield. Serious. A number of low-priced, high-level veterans and a number of mid-round draft picks with a diverse collection of talent. This is how teams should fill their running back room. Johnson looks eerily similar to another former Texas Longhorns star, D’Onta Foreman, who, on paper, will begin training camp as Chicago’s lead runner.
At 6 feet and 220 pounds with logs for legs, Johnson calmly rips through tackle attempts from defensive linemen and linebackers. And that’s not just an observational opinion. Johnson forced 86 missed tackles in his last 189 attempts in college. That equates to a ridiculous forced missed tackle rate of 43.4%. And Johnson didn’t jump linebackers in the hole too often. The vast majority of those missed tackles came through sheer, unadulterated power. Of course, the Bears are going to lean more on Justin Fields’ arm in 2023. But Chicago conjured the rock 558 times as a team during the regular season a year ago — the second-highest mark in the league — so there’ll be plenty of transfers for this young and deep-running group. Johnson will surprise many with his effortless strength as a ball carrier en route to a fine rookie campaign.
You’ll see a seventh-round pick on this list, and I’m well aware of the history of seventh-round running backs in their debut NFL seasons. Isiah Pacheco’s 830 yards on the ground during the 2022 regular season was the second-highest total for a Round 7 rookie since the 1970 Merge, and before his immediate escape from obscurity, the final seventh round to exceed 500 yards. as a rookie, Bryce Brown was in 2012 for the Eagles.
I’m still behind McBride on this spot, and a lot of that confidence comes from my belief that he was far too talented on the field to be picked in the seventh round to begin with. McBride was a perennial, ultra-efficient runner, and at 1.50 and 210 pounds, he’s the ideal size between tackles. Perhaps his lack of training during the pre-draft process catalyzed what was a fall to the final round of the draft for me. He averaged 7.2 yards per carry during his three-year stay at UAB and forced 175 missed tackles on his 484 attempts. With only Alexander Mattison and Ty Chandler ahead of him on the depth chart, McBride has the ability to make a significant impact on Minnesota’s running game backed by a bulldozing offensive line.
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2. Jahmyr Gibbs, Lions
Gibbs has a lot to contend with on his road to productivity in the rookie year: a pass-happy offensive coordinator, Amon-Ra St. Brown, and free-agent acquisition David Montgomery in the Lions running back room. But the Lions didn’t select Gibbs in the top 20 to keep him playing a background role in 2023. At Georgia Tech and Alabama, Gibbs was a rocket. From the backfield, on fencing, as a slot receiver – it didn’t matter. Its free-flowing acceleration and elite top speed – it ran 4.36 on the combine – were always on full display.
Behind Detroit’s offensive front, Gibbs is given plenty of room to operate, which is quite dangerous for the opposing defense. Even as Jared Goff spreads across football, Gibbs will be a Swiss Army knife for Coordinator Ben Johnson heading into a relatively big rookie year.
1. Bijan Robinson, Falcons
Robinson steps into one of the game’s most effective run games – Atlanta was one of four clubs to achieve a positive expected point total at the ground last season. He also has the top 10 draft pick label and immense hype from a pinnacle reel collegiate career at the University of Texas.
While not quite as fast, there’s enough Saquon Barkley for Robinson’s size and style of play. He stops on a dime and has the thickness to fend off weak tackle attempts as he bursts through the second tier. His head coach, Arthur Smith, likes to run the football — the Falcons led the NFL with 559 tries during the 2022 regular season — and even with prolific teammates Tyler Allgeier and Cordarrelle Patterson still in the mix, expected I fully believe that Robinson will shoulder the heaviest workload in Year 1. He is a forced tackle machine and flashed great ball tracking skills on vertical routes for the Longhorns..