The work never seems to end in the NFL player evaluation world, which means front offices have already turned their attention toward the upcoming college football season in advance of the 2024 NFL Draft. With that in mind, let's continue our CBS Sports summer prospect series -- July 13 was the quarterbacks and July 20 was the -- with one of the most newsworthy positions: the running backs.
Las Vegas Raiders running back Josh Jacobs was the NFL's first-team All-Pro running back in 2022 after leading the league in rushing yards (1,653) and scrimmage yards (2,053) at the age of 24. New York Giants running back Saquon Barkley's career-high 1,312 rushing yards last season ranked as the fourth-most in the NFL and the most by a Giants player since Tiki Barber's 1,662 back in 2006; essentially, Barkley acted as the hub for 2022 NFL Coach of the Year Brian Daboll's offense. Dallas Cowboys running back Tony Pollard led the NFL in scrimmage yards per touch last season (5.9) among players with at least 200 touches, a figure that was the most by a Cowboys player since Herschel Walker's 6.0 scrimmage yards/touch back in 1987.
However, all three Pro Bowl backs were stiff-armed by their respective teams when it came time to get long-term contract extensions done before the start of the NFL season. All three franchise-tagged players will play on one-year deals.
If these three can't secure long-term deals now, what hope is there for others at the position going forward? And they weren't the only top-flight rushers to suffer, either.
- Earlier this offseason, Green Bay Packers Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones took a pay cut in order to remain with the Green and Gold despite running for a career-high 1,121 rushing yards, the 10th-most in the NFL.
- When the player who has led the NFL in scrimmage touchdowns in each of the last two seasons asked for a contract extension or trade, Los Angeles Chargers running back Austin Ekeler was simply handed a reworked deal from his Los Angeles Chargers.
- Cincinnati Bengals running back Joe Mixon also restructured his deal to make himself more affordable for the AFC runner-ups.
- Free agent Dalvin Cook, who is the only player in the entire NFL with at least 1,100 rushing yards in each of the past four seasons, was outright released by the Minnesota Vikings this offseason.
With their market trending downward, some of the league's top backs heldto discuss what can be done.
Six years ago, back in 2017, the running back franchise tag figure was $12.1 million. Today, that figure has decreased by $2 million to $10.1 million, which is what Jacobs and Pollard will make in 2023 on their fully-guaranteed, one-year deals. (Barkley can make up to $11 million after the two sides agreed upon a.)
On the flip side, franchise tag figures have increased for quarterbacks ($21.2 million in 2017 to $32.4 in 2023), wide receivers ($15.6 million to $19.7 million), offensive linemen ($14.2 million to $18.2 million), defensive ends ($16.9 million to $19.7 million) and cornerbacks ($14.2 million to $18.1 million).
"It's crazy to me because running backs bring so much value," Packers Pro Bowl running back Aaron Jones told CBS Sports on July 17 when asked about the running back market after Jacobs, Barkley, and Pollard didn't receive long-term deals. "You got to be able to protect, and have to pass protect just like an offensive lineman. You have to know all the offensive line calls up front, who they're working to. You have to run the ball as well with 11 guys trying to hit you. You make it hard to take you off the field, so you're involved in the passing game. You're doing just as much as anyone else except for the quarterback and maybe the center [on offense]. I really don't understand how the position got devalued, but I hope our value comes back because if you look at it, running backs make a big difference in the game. Whether it's protecting the quarterback -- being that sixth-man in protection -- running the ball, or taking pressure off of the quarterback [in the passing game]."
The Atlanta Falcons and Detroit Lions apparently agreed with Jones in the 2023 NFL Draft because Atlanta took Texas running back Bijan Robinson eighth overall and Detroit selected Alabama running back Jahmyr Gibbs 12th overall -- marking the first time two backs were selected in the top 12 of a draft since 2017. That's when Leonard Fournette, the fourth overall pick by the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Christian McCaffrey, the eighth overall pick by the Carolina Panthers, each went inside the top 10. While the upcoming 2024 crop has a wide range of running back skillsets and styles, it doesn't have the same star power at the top.
This summer series will examine where things stand entering the 2023 college season, but the order could look a little different come next April. Here's an in-depth look at the current top-five running backs with some pro comparisons from former longtime Minnesota Vikings general manager and current CBS Sports HQ NFL analyst Rick Spielman and CBS Sports NFL Draft analyst Ryan Wilson on the latest episode of the "With the First Pick" podcast. Plus, they provide some names who could rise through the ranks in the season to come.
The running backs are ordered using an aggregate ranking from Spielman, Wilson, and yours truly by their readiness for the NFL entering the 2023 college football season.
5. Will Shipley (Clemson)
- Height: 5-foot-11 | Weight: 205 pounds
- Accolades/notable statistics: First player in ACC history to be named first-team All-ACC in three different categories (RB, all-purpose and return specialist); one of four ACC players since 2000 to total 11+ rush TD as a freshman and sophomore (also Travis Etienne, Lamar Jackson and Giovani Bernard); only player in FBS with at least 1,150 rushing yards, at least 200 receiving yards and at least 300 kickoff return yards (joined Clemson's C.J. Spiller (2009) as the only ACC players since 2000 to do so)
Rick Spielman's comp: Jerick McKinnon
"He's a really solid player. I don't think he's a No. 1 running back. I think he's No. 2 running back, complimentary running back. He can catch the ball, but he's not a very good blocker. He has really good vision. Because of his skillset, he was one of the prominent players on Clemson because they needed him to keep them in games thanks to inconsistent quarterback play. My comp was Jerick McKinnon, a great No. 2, compliment running back. He can catch the ball, but Jerick is probably a little bit faster. Similar skillset for what they can bring to an offense as a receiver No. 2 back."
Ryan Wilson's comp: Giovani Bernard
"Shipley doesn't have that Christian McCaffrey or Jahmyr Gibbs athleticism, but he's versatile. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. He's a matchup problem because he can catch. I would like to see him line up at other spots outside of the backfield. He's one of the toughest guys on the field. He's not going to give you much as a blocker, but that's not a surprise because of his size. He'll run through the tackles, but that's not as much his game. I would like to see run through more tackles, but I think he's an integral part of that offense. He's just not quite a super athlete, but he's a solid player. He's a kick-returner, too. I went with Gio Bernard out of North Carolina. Gio is a similar kind of player.
- Games to circle: at Miami (Oct. 21), vs. Notre Dame (Nov. 4)
- Draft range: Third or fourth round
Will Shipley is a running back for the modern NFL: he lined up in shotgun on 98.1% of his snaps, and he possesses an agile brand of running, dodging and darting past defenders with ease after ducking through the hole. His 5.4 yards per carry average last season plus his 3.4 yards after contact average, per Pro Football Focus, indicate his early explosion and ability to power through initial hits. He's a do-it-all running back, as his 38 catches last year ranked as the ninth-most in the FBS for the position. Overall, he's a plug-and-play offensive weapon who can contribute in just about any role on offense coming out of the backfield.
4. Raheim Sanders (Arkansas)
- Height: 6-foot-2 | Weight: 237 pounds
- Accolades/notable statistics: 2022 first-team All-SEC; 1,714 scrimmage yards in 2022 (led SEC, ninth-most in FBS)
Rick Spielman's comp: Roschon Johnson
"I like his size. He runs a lot of the pistol formation. He's very patient, very good run vision. He picks and slides his way through a hole. Very good body lean, hard to knock him off his feet. He has good speed, but he's not electric. He had a long touchdown in the Ole Miss game. He can catch the ball out of the backfield. I liked him because of his size, and he's more than willing in pass-protection. This is physical, workhorse back, but he does need enough carries to get lathered up in a game. He's not going to have 80-yard runs in two plays. He's the type of back where the more you give him the ball, the more he wears out a defense because of his size and physicality."
Ryan Wilson's comp: Joe Mixon/T.J. Yeldon
"He's not fun to tackle. I think he's a really good football player. He doesn't have the juice to turn the corner like Blake Corum, but he's a completely different body type. That's not his game. He brings a different element to the backfield. I have him as a Joe Mixon on the high end or TJ Yeldon on the low end."
- Games to circle: vs. Texas A&M at AT&T Stadium (Sept. 30), at Alabama (Oct. 14)
- Draft range: Second or third round
Raheim Sanders is massive, standing at 6-foot-2 and 237 pounds, but he's much lighter and nimble on his feet than his dimensions would suggest. His production isn't simply three yards and a cloud of dust: Sanders rushed for more than 1,443 yards and 10 rushing touchdowns in 2022 while averaging 6.5 yards per carry. He's not the most explosive player off the line, but his acceleration into the second level is scary for a player of his stature.
If he can improve at being even more decisive and quick at the line of scrimmage, Sanders could see his stock soar for the 2024 NFL Draft.
3. TreVeyon Henderson (Ohio State)
- Height: 5-foot-10 | Weight: 214 pounds
- Accolades/notable statistics: 2022 Honorable Mention All-Big Ten; Ohio State record holder for most touchdowns scored by a freshman (19, 15 rushing and four receiving); 1,248 rushing yards as a freshman in 2021 (second-most in school history); 270 rushing yards vs. Tulsa in 2021 (freshman single-game school record); 6.8 yards per carry in 2021 (led Big Ten, sixth-most in FBS); only played eight games in 2022 because of foot injury
Rick Spielman's comp: JK Dobbins
"In 2021, there was no question that this guy was going to be a first-round pick. Last year, he had a foot injury, but he's a quick runner. He has great vision and runs with a low pad level and center of gravity. He can make quick cuts in the hole. He's patient. I don't know if he has the home run speed. He did have a 41-yard touchdown run against Penn State. He's a very patient runner. Only six targets, I believe in 2022, but his hands on those six targets seemed good enough. That's something you want to find out. He has to stay healthy and show what he showed in 2021. He needs work on his pass-blocking technique, but a lot of these guys in college are that way because of the amount of practice time. My comp is [former Ohio State Buckeye and now-Baltimore Ravens RB] JK Dobbins. They have very similar skillsets."
Ryan Wilson's comp: Cam Akers
"Low center of gravity runner, doesn't run too upright. He is smaller [shorter], so that helps. Has a little burst through the hole, did create a lot on his own in the backfield. He doesn't add much as a receiver, but I don't know if that means he can't do it or if he just isn't asked to do it. I went with Cam Akers because of a similar size. I thought Cam Akers had to do more with less.
- Games to circle: vs. Penn State (Oct. 21), at Michigan (Nov. 25)
- Draft range: Second or third round
TreyVeyon Henderson has the tools to be the 2024 NFL Draft's top running back. The nation's top-rated running back recruit out of the 2021 class appeared to be well on his way to that crown after a dominant freshman year. He's great at getting low and rumbling ahead for hidden yards. However, when watching his tape, there were a few examples of Henderson being caught and dragged down just before he could break off a monster run.
He needs to show he can remain healthy as a junior as well as add a little extra kick to elevate his runs from a nice eight yards to breakaways in the open field at a higher rate. If Henderson can do those things, he'll be ranked a lot higher at his position come April.
2. Braelon Allen (Wisconsin)
- Height: 6-foot-2 | Weight: 240 pounds
- Accolades/notable statistics: 2022 second-team All-Big Ten; 2022 Guaranteed Rate Bowl Offensive MVP (116 rush yards, 1 rush TD on 22 carries); four career runs of 70+ yards (T-most in Big Ten since 2021, second-most in Wisconsin history behind Jonathan Taylor's five such runs)
Rick Spielman's comp: Derrick Henry
"My comp is a poor man's Derrick Henry-style. He's the only back that size that I could come up with. Allen isn't as explosive as Derrick Henry, but he goes forward on contact like Henry because of the size. Probably not as fast as Derrick Henry, but his run style reminded me of Derrick Henry."
Ryan Wilson's comp: AJ Dillon/Qadree Ollison
"He's not particularly twitched-up or shifty, but he's more bull than ballerina. He's not going to outrun NFL defenders to the edge. He's a one-cut and go guy. He consistently gets his pad-level low. He likes to truck would-be tacklers. Explodes through the hole through tacklers, and then he can rip off long runs. I went with AJ Dillon out of Boston College on the high end and Qadree Ollison out of Pitt on the low end. I think Dillon is similarly athletic to Allen."
- Games to circle: at Illinois (Oct. 21), vs. Ohio State (Oct. 28)
- Draft range: Second or third round
Braelon Allen's 416 carries and 2,510 rushing yards are the most among returning Power Five running backs entering 2023, but the wear and tear isn't an issue as he's only 19-years-old. The most astounding element of Allen's gigantic production is he totaled consecutive seasons with 1,200 or more rush yards while Wisconsin saw eight or more defenders in the box on 61.4% of its carries in 2022. That was the fourth-highest rate in all of college football, trailing only Army, Navy, and Air Force -- teams that aren't too familiar with the concept of the forward pass. Allen could be in line for his most productive season yet with new offensive coordinator Phil Longo bringing an Air-Raid offense up to Madison from North Carolina.
His anticipation and vision at the line of scrimmage are some of the best in the nation, as he hits the hole right as it's opening up at high frequency, allowing him to gain the most amount of yards possible on a play. Even though he could easily lean on his overpowering frame to win most of his battles at the line of scrimmage, Allen's agility shines through plenty when aggressively bursting through an opening. His anticipation and frame could power him to the top of his position's draft board as he'll likely enter his NFL rookie season as a 20-year-old.
1. Blake Corum (Michigan)
- Height: 5-foot-8 | Weight: 210 pounds
- Accolades/notable statistics: 2022 consensus All-American; 2022 Doak Walker Award finalist; 2022 Ameche-Dayne Big Ten Running Back of the Year (first in Michigan history); 2022 consensus first-team All-Big Ten; five rush TD vs. UConn in 2022 (T-most touchdowns in a single game in Michigan history); 19 scrimmage TD in 2022 (T-fifth-most in FBS)
Rick Spielman's comp: Kenneth Walker III
"You look at the production on the field more than the size, but you understand 5-foot-7, 5-foot-8 may have some issues pass-blocking. Some short running backs have had very productive careers. I thought this guy was the quickest stop-start guy out of anyone in the draft. He's great at dropping his weight to elude in space. The contact balance is nice. Very good running back. He is short. His hands are good enough. He's a checkdown or screens player because he's so small, not as available downfield. He's a quick, explosive athlete. I just want to see what his speed is. I would compare him to Kenneth Walker III.
Ryan Wilson's comp: Maurice Jones-Drew
"He plays much bigger than his size. He's a bowling ball in the true sense of the word. Small catch-radius, but he's not going to be pushed around. He has kick return ability. He's built low to the ground with quick lateral movements. He can cut on the dime, and it usually takes multiple defenders to bring him down. He has good hands as a receiver, and he immediately becomes a returner in space after the catch in the quick game. I think he brings a lot as a playmaker, both running and receiving, and he's dangerous out in space.
- Games to circle: at Penn State (Nov. 11), vs. Ohio State (Nov. 25)
- Draft range: Second or third round
Blake Corum's ability to keep his feet moving, cut, and explode on a dime are reminiscent of the way Le'Veon Bell operated in his prime with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Corum has the best improvisational running skills of any running back in this class entering the 2023 season, but what makes his cuts so devastating are the suddenness with which they occur. Once Corum makes that jump-cut, he usually has nothing but green grass in front of him.
All he has to do to maintain the top running back spot in the 2024 NFL Draft is stay healthy. Corum suffered a sprained MCL against Illinois that ended his season the following week against Ohio State. He needed to undergo surgery to fix it. His burst is some of the best in the nation, as his 15 runs of 20 or more yards were tied for the seventh-most in college football. If Corum can continue to showcase his trademark agility and acceleration, he'll be the first running back to hear his name called in 2024.