Josh Jacobs during the 2019 College Football Playoff Championship game at Levi's Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports.

Mark Rebilas/USA TODAY Sports.

NFL Draft Preview: Alabama Backs Top RB Class

Matt Citak
April 06, 2019 - 2:21 pm
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The 2019 NFL Draft kicks off less than three weeks from now down in Nashville, Tennessee. Leading up to the start of the first round, I will be breaking down the top prospects at each position, and whether or not the Giants or Jets may have interest.

We began with the quarterbacks, which of course is a hot topic here in New York City. Now let’s tackle the running backs.

Both New York football teams have the starting running back position locked up with two of the best in the game. The Giants made headlines last year when they spent the second overall pick in the draft on Saquon Barkley, passing on numerous quarterback prospects to take the back out of Penn State. How did the rookie do in his first NFL action? Oh no big deal, he only amassed over 2,000 yards from scrimmage, scored 15 touchdowns, caught 91 passes on his way to a Pro Bowl appearance and the NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Not too shabby.

The Jets went out and signed one of the crown jewels of the 2019 free agent market last month when they inked Le’Veon Bell to a four-year, $52.5 million contract with $35 million guaranteed. This contract made Bell the second-highest paid running back in the NFL, a much-deserved honor after dominating the NFL in his first five seasons. Bell sat out the entire 2018 season due to a contract dispute with the Pittsburgh Steelers. In 2017, the All-Pro back finished with just under 2,000 total yards from scrimmage while scoring 11 touchdowns.

Related: NFL Draft Preview: Murray, Haskins Lead Thin QB Class

It is clear that neither the Giants or Jets will be spending an early pick on a running back. In fact, it would almost be malpractice for either team to take an RB before Day 3 considering the number of holes each franchise has up and down their rosters.

With that said, here are the top running backs available in the 2019 NFL Draft.

Josh Jacobs, Alabama

Jacobs leads the way in this year’s running back class. The Alabama back figures to be the only RB to hear his name called on Day 1, and for good reason. Jacobs has great size, coming in at 5-foot-10, 220-pounds, while also offering good speed, agility, and the power teams crave for from their running backs. He only carried the ball 120 times this past season due to the heavy rotation of backs Nick Saban used for the Crimson Tide, but Jacobs took those rush attempts for 640 yards, averaging a nice 5.3 yards per carry, and 11 touchdowns.

While Jacobs uses his powerful frame to punish defenders, it’s his skills in the passing game that set him apart from the other running backs in the draft. Jacobs runs crisp routes and has great hands, and has shown the ability to make defenders miss in space with ease. His light workload at Alabama should actually benefit him as he will enter the NFL with little wear-and-tear. Jacobs is likely to be selected towards the end of the first round — I’d keep an eye on Oakland with the No. 24 and No. 27 picks.

Damien Harris, Alabama

Similar to his Crimson Tide teammate, Harris enters the draft with limited mileage on his legs as Saban incorporated a running back by committee approach at Alabama this past season. That will benefit Harris, although it did lead to the senior back not reaching 1,000 rushing yards on the season for the first time since his freshman year. Still, Harris finished with 876 yards and nine touchdowns on 150 carries (5.8 ypc) while catching 22 passes for an additional 204 yards.

Harris is another powerful back that runs with a physical style that grinds defenses down as the game goes on. He has great patience and vision as a runner, giving his linemen the time to set up his blocks. He lacks home run-hitting burst and speed, but Harris’ skill set should be enough to keep him in the NFL for years to come. Harris will likely get drafted at some point on Day 2, but chances are it won’t be by the Giants or Jets.

David Montgomery, Iowa State

NFL fans may not know much about Montgomery, but that is not going to last for long. The former Iowa State back ran for over 1,100 yards and 11 touchdowns while finishing with over 275 receiving yards in consecutive seasons. While his numbers are good, Montgomery certainly comes with a much heavier workload over the last two seasons than the Alabama backs. He carried the ball 257 and 258 times in his final two campaigns at Iowa State.

The 5-foot-10, 222-pound running back contains a combination of size, field vision and toughness that NFL teams love to see. His ability to create extra yardage for himself should elevate his draft status, and might even lead to him getting drafted before Harris. With comparables to Kareem Hunt’s style of play, Montgomery’s game is ready for the NFL and could end up being a Day 2 steal in this year’s draft. It’s too bad it won’t be for either New York team, though.

Miles Sanders, Penn State

Saquon Barkley left some massive shoes to fill at Penn State, and while he didn’t quite live up to the standards set by his predecessor, Sanders was able to put together a strong campaign in his one year as the starting running back. At 5-foot-11 and 211-pounds, Sanders took 220 carries for 1,274 yards (5.8 ypc) and nine touchdowns while contributing 24 receptions for 139 yards in the passing game. It’s not quite Saquon numbers, but come on, there is only one Saquon.

While he may not be quite as explosive as last year’s No. 2 overall pick, Sanders’ performance at the combine certainly helped his draft status. The 21-year-old impressed with a 4.49 40-yard dash, while his 6.89 3 cone drill time was the fastest among all running backs. With the agility and footwork to shake defenders and the strong frame to punish tacklers, Sanders could be off the board towards the end of Day 2. As great as it would be to pair him with his former teammate, chances are Sanders will not be calling New York home next season.

Darrell Henderson, Memphis

Among the running backs in this year’s draft, Henderson might be the biggest home run hitter of them all. The running back out of Memphis undoubtedly checks in a bit undersized, measuring in at 5-foot-9 but 200-pounds. However, his big play ability is undeniable. Henderson carried the ball 214 times for 1,909 yards last season, averaging a whopping 8.9 ypc, to go with his amazing 22 rushing touchdowns. In fact, it was the second consecutive season that he averaged 8.9 ypc.

Of his 214 carries in 2018, 43 of them went for 15+ yards, while 11 of his touchdown runs were 54+ yards. That sort of breakaway speed doesn’t come around everyday. Henderson finished each of his three seasons at Memphis with at least 225 receiving yards and two touchdowns, highlighting his skills as a pass catcher. He isn’t going to be a bell cow back, but in a complementary role, Henderson could provide a huge boost to a team’s offense. With his experience as a kick returner an added bonus, Henderson could be a great value pick on Day 3 for the Giants.

Benny Snell Jr., Kentucky

When a running back totals nearly 3,900 rushing yards and 48 touchdowns in three seasons in the SEC, NFL teams take notice. Such is the case with Snell, who served as the offensive juggernaut for the 10-3 Kentucky Wildcats last season. Snell ran for over 1,000 yards and averaged at least 5.0 ypc in each of his three seasons, and wrapped up his Kentucky career with a 1,449-yard, 17-touchdown campaign.

Snell is a physical runner and downhill grinder that makes him tough to bring down. He uses his strength and compact frame to pick up yards after contact, and seems to always fall forward when being tackled. Snell is a high character player who was beloved by the entire Kentucky program, and could be a great fit for the Jets on Day 3.

Justice Hill, Oklahoma State

What Hill lacks in size, he more than makes up for in speed. The Oklahoma State running back measured 5-foot-10 and only 198-pounds at the combine, but wowed scouts with a 4.4 40-yard dash, the fastest among all running backs. Hill racked up 3,539 yards and 30 touchdowns over his three seasons with the Cowboys, and managed to average at least 5.5 ypc every season.

Hill has a first-step quickness and burst that is unmatched by any other back in the draft. His ability to make quick cuts will benefit him at the next level, as will his patience to allow holes to develop in front of him before running downfield. His pass protection needs a lot of work, but given his toughness, that seems like something he can and will improve on as he gets some NFL experience. Hill would be a great complementary back to both Saquon Barkley and Le’Veon Bell, and could be in play for the Giants and Jets as a possible Day 3 pick.

Devin Singletary, FAU

Singletary is a very interesting prospect to follow. The Florida Atlantic back absolutely dominated opponents in Conference USA in his three years at school. Singletary carried the rock 714 times and ran for a jaw-dropping 4,287 yards (6.0 ypc) and 66 touchdowns. Yet his professional upside has been knocked by a lot of people, partly due to the level of competition he faced at FAU, and partly due to his size. Singletary was measured at just 5-foot-7, 203-pounds at the combine.

As Tarik Cohen has proven, size does not matter as much as some might think when it comes to running backs. In Singletary’s case, the young back actually uses his size to his advantage — he can get somewhat lost behind his linemen, and then uses his swift lateral agility to bounce around and cut through holes in an unpredictable fashion. His poor performance at the combine will likely cause him to drop in the draft, but his style of play could provide both the Giants and Jets with a nice change of pace back to go with their stars.

Trayveon Williams, Texas A&M

Williams added some weight prior to the 2018 season in order to help him shoulder the heavy workload at Texas A&M, and boy did it pay off. Standing in at 5-foot-8, Williams beefed up to 206-pounds before crushing SEC defenses, running for 1,760 yards and 18 touchdowns on 271 carries (6.5 ypc). He also proved himself capable in the passing game, catching 27 passes for 278 yards and an additional score.

WIlliams may not have the size, speed or power to wow you, but his three-year production in the SEC just cannot be ignored. He may have to work his way onto a team through contributions on special teams, but given the chance to carry the ball, I believe Williams will end up surprising a lot of people. WIlliams worked out for the Jets and could be in play for Gang Green towards the end of Day 3.

Bryce Love, Stanford

Oh how the mighty have fallen. Love burst onto the Heisman scene with an outstanding 2017 campaign, averaging over 8.0 ypc while totaling 2,118 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground. He finished second in the Heisman voting to Baker Mayfield that year before seeing injuries completely derail his senior season. A late-season ACL tear will hurt his draft stock even more, and will certainly bring his durability into question.

Despite the injury concerns, Love’s sudden burst, top-end speed and big play abilities are obvious when he’s healthy. He has a very high football IQ and is known for having amazing character both on and off the field. He won’t be able to contribute right away due to the ACL tear, but if a team is willing to be patient with him, he could end up being one of the biggest steals of the draft on Day 3.

Matt Citak is a web producer for WFAN. Check him out on Twitter at @MatthewCitak.