The 2020 NFL Scouting Combine begins next week. As I have for the past decade-plus, I will travel to Indianapolis, Ind., for the festivities.
This is the biggest job interview these players will ever have in their lifetime. It’s a rigorous process where they work out for teams, get interviewed by almost every franchise and they undergo medical checks by interested teams.
The Combine is often called the “Underwear Olympics” by some in the media; many poke fun at the process. That’s a foolish outlook from the more ignorant minds.
While it’s not a huge part of a player’s grade – I say roughly one percent – the Combine does reveal a lot about a player coming into the league. Scouts and general managers can see how players respond to workouts, how they’ve prepared for this process, and how intelligent they are during interviews and work on the whiteboard. Film is the largest part of a player’s grade, but the Combine is not to be overlooked.
Here is my 2020 Combine preview for running backs.
This running back class is strong all the way throughout, but there are three players who stand out in the crowd. These three running backs should hear their names in the first round of the 2020 NFL Draft and they can be instant impact players for whatever teams pick them. Picking between the three backs, all graded as late first-round picks by yours truly, really comes down to splitting hairs… or personal preference.
The top back in this class is D’Andre Swift from Georgia. Now, Swift may not take the Combine by storm, but his game is not about explosion. Instead, Swift is an intent and tough runner who patiently waits for blocks to develop in front of him. He does a good job with timing his runs effectively and is a very smart player who understands how to set up defenders at the second and third level before he even crosses the line of scrimmage. In addition to his natural fluidity as a runner, Swift was a consistent and effective receiver out of the backfield during his Bulldogs career.
Jonathan Taylor is my second-ranked back in this class. Taylor had monster production as a runner and joined former Iowa State running back Troy Davis as the only players in NCAA history with back-to-back 2,000-yard seasons. He has track speed at almost 220 pounds, and Taylor should show off that speed at the Combine. Taylor has a ton of carries on his resume, which can be held against him due to wear and tear. He also had fumbling issues and did not show consistent hands as a receiver out of the backfield.
I believe J.K. Dobbins is the third running back in this class – again, all of these guys are super close in terms of talent, but when splitting hairs, Dobbins comes out third for me. Dobbins is a no-nonsense runner who won’t wow you with juke moves or electric toes. Instead, he will hammer a defense and picks up extra yards after contact. Dobbins is an experienced receiver out of the backfield and also might be the best running back in this class when it comes to pass protection.
Small School Standouts
After we get past the top three backs, there are many players clustered in the mid rounds who could be solid starters or at least contributors in a running-back-by-committee approach. In addition to these players, there are some small-school standouts who could be better than some expect.
Darrynton Evans from Appalachian State has a ton of speed in his game. He can gash defenses with the rock in his hands but he doesn’t need open space to operate. Instead, Evans wastes little motion, but has a “jab step” he uses to create space inside. He has good vision as a runner and understands timing of his blocks to burst to and through the hole at just the right time. In addition to how he can help as a runner, Evans can be used effectively as a return man because of his speed. He might be one of the fastest running backs at the Combine.
I watched Charlotte’s Benny LeMay at the East-West Shrine Bowl earlier this year. He did a good job that week in practice, showing off his contact balance and vision as a runner. On film, LeMay shows good speed to get the angle on pursuing defenders. He does not move the pile, although he is a compact runner. LeMay is willing inside but he doesn’t win a lot of collisions. It’s his ability as a receiver that makes him an intriguing small-school prospect. LeMay should show well at the Combine when it comes to catching the ball cleanly and tracking the ball downfield.
Day 3 Favorites
I’ve made it no secret – I love Memphis running back Antonio Gibson. You’ll look over the Combine invites at the running back position and you won’t see his name. That’s because Gibson is going to compete at the Combine as a wide receiver.
He was a running back in high school, but played more slot receiver than running back at Memphis. That being said, I project Gibson as a running back at the pro level – and a threat to attack a defense as a runner and receiver.
Gibson is 220 pounds, but he can run routes from the slot in addition to catching swing or screen passes out of the backfield. He has size, vision and burst as a runner and reminds me of Steelers running back Jaylen Samuels. It will be interesting to see what NFL teams decide is the best fit for Gibson at the pro level.
Anthony McFarland from Maryland is also a late-round favorite of mine. McFarland stayed close to home after high school; that’s why he chose the Terrapins over teams like Alabama and Miami who pursued him after his prep career. Injuries have held McFarland back since his high school days, and at 198 pounds his durability will be called into question. McFarland’s game is all about speed and elusiveness so he should stand out in the Combine drills. However, the most important thing for him to show in Indianapolis is that his injury history can be a thing of the past.