2023 Senior Bowl Position Preview: Running Backs
FTN's Jeremy Popielarz previews the top running backs set to appear in this year's Senior Bowl.
Jan 29, 2023, 9:45 AM EST
The Reese’s Senior Bowl arrives this week, with practices starting Tuesday leading up to Saturday’s game. Over the past few seasons, we have seen some of the best talents in the draft go through Mobile, Alabama, to get one-on-one time with NFL coaching staff and personnel in an effort to boost their draft stock. Over the next few days, I’ll preview some of the top names at the skill positions at this year’s event. Today, we’ll look at running backs.
Running backs can really boost their draft stock, as most of these players are second- or third-tier seniors who don't get as much national attention. We saw this rise with Dameon Pierce, Brian Robinson and Rachaad White last year. They saw limited touches during games but were able to showcase their skills all week during the drill sessions.
Chase Brown, Illinois
5-foot-11, 205 pounds
Chase Brown has been one of the most prolific running backs in the nation over the past few seasons, producing 3,206 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns in his career for the Illini. This past season, he produced 1,883 scrimmage yards on 355 touches – both of these led the Big Ten. His 1,643 rushing yards were fourth in the nation last year and only trailed Mohamed Ibrahim by 22 yards for the Big Ten lead. He also managed to find the end zone 13 times, 10 coming on the ground and three through the air.
As a slightly undersized back, Brown uses his track speed to exploit the defense and eliminates angles with his ability to change gears quickly and effectively. This allows him to be patient in picking holes. Once he does, few players can neutralize him. He pairs all of this with quick feet and an ability to set up blocks nicely. On the flip side, he fails to show much power or leg drive once he is corralled by the defense, largely due to him only weighing in at 205 pounds. Ultimately, he has proven to be a dual-threat lead back with home-run ability – especially in 2022, but his size will be his biggest hurdle.
Eric Gray, Oklahoma
5-foot-10, 211 pounds
It has been a roller coaster of a career for Eric Gray, but he finished it nicely in 2022, as he led the Sooners in scrimmage yards and touchdowns. Gray saw 246 total touches and produced 1,595 yards (1,366 rushing) and 11 scores. This was the first time that he had amassed over 1,000 yards on the ground, and he averaged over a full yard more per carry (6.4) than his previous career average. He also continued to show great ability as a pass-catcher, catching a career-high 33 passes. This was the second time he surpassed 30 receptions and the third straight season he added more than 200 yards receiving.
Gray is the prototypical size for a three-down running back at the NFL level and proved he can carry the load this year. He looked much more decisive than in past seasons, which elevated his game to the level many people had been hoping for. Pairing this with his extreme elusiveness in the open field makes him one of the toughest tackles out there. While his quickness and short-area speed help him produce chunk plays, he leaves us wanting more. He hasn't shown off that top gear just yet. He struggles to power through tacklers at times and fails to routinely show strong contact balance throughout his runs.
Kenny McIntosh, Georgia
6-foot-1, 215 pounds
As the next potentially great Georgia running back, Kenny McIntosh exploded in his senior year once James Cook and Zamir White moved on. He out-produced his previous three years in 2022, as he accounted for 1,333 scrimmage yards (829 rushing) and 12 touchdowns on 192 touches and averaged an impressive 5.7 yards per carry. He also continued to show off an impressive dual-threat ability, averaging over 11 yards per reception for the third straight season.
Standing at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds, he has the size that the NFL is looking for in a lead back. However, he has never had the opportunity to carry the full load. His size is paired with a smoothness and explosiveness that allows him to gash defenses for significant chunk plays. Additionally, he displays patience and an ability to force missed tackles in the open field – although it is inconsistent at times. Despite having incredible contact balance, he fails to get his pad level down at the point of contact, resulting in him getting stymied at times. When it comes to the passing game, he is a natural receiver who has the versatility to line up anywhere and create a matchup nightmare for defenses. However, he hasn’t been asked to do much in pass protection, which could be concerning as he heads to the NFL.
Tyjae Spears, Tulane
5-foot-10, 195 pounds
Over the past two seasons, Tyjae Spears has produced back-to-back 1.000-scrimmage yard seasons for the Green Wave en route to 2,845 total yards and 30 touchdowns. He led the American Athletic Conference in rush attempts (229), rushing yards (1,581), and rushing touchdowns (19). Additionally, he led the nation in scrimmage touchdowns with 21. That helped him win the AAC Offensive Player of the Year award in 2022. If that wasn’t enough, the most impressive thing over his career is that he has averaged a hefty 6.8 yards per carry and 11.8 average per reception.
He has only played in 33 games over the last four years, which begs the question if he can handle a consistent lead role at the next level. On top of this, he doesn't have the build of a prototypical NFL-lead back, weighing in under 200 pounds. His vision and decisiveness as a runner allows him to get downhill quickly, then he uses his explosiveness and his ability to change gears to gain significant chunk plays. On top of this, he pairs this with an extreme twitchiness and ability to set up tacklers that makes him a terror in the open field. He’s also dynamic in the passing game, although he was limited in opportunities and was barely asked to handle any pass protection duties.
Roschon Johnson, Texas
6-foot-2, 223 pounds
Roschon Johnson has never been able to showcase all his talent, as his running mate Bijan Robinson stole the spotlight – and for good reason, as he is projected to be a top-20 pick. Even in his limited role, Johnson posted three 600-plus scrimmage yards seasons over four years. This past season, he had 554 yards and five touchdowns on 93 carries and added 128 yards and a score on 14 receptions. On these limited touches, he forced 46 missed tackles and created 4.28 yards after contact per rush according to PFF.
Even in this limited role, Johnson has flashed immense upside. He is the prototypical size for a lead NFL running back and brings a one-cut style of running while adding a ton of physicality and toughness that makes him incredibly hard to tackle. This, paired with tremendous vision and instincts, allows him to use his short-area quickness and burst to produce chunk plays. However, he runs upright at times, so he struggles to get his pad level down which allows defenders to stop him in his tracks. Even though he is a force once going downhill, he struggles to adjust when forced to change direction and doesn’t possess the ability to make defenders miss unless he runs them over.
Additional running backs attending
On top of these top five guys, we will also see Chris Rodriguez (Kentucky), who is a physical but explosive running back who can carry the load. He has seen over 110 carries in each of the last three years and produced over 6.0 yards per carry. Evan Hull (Northwestern) is a good-sized running back who has been a workhorse for the Wildcats and has seen back-to-back seasons with 190 plus carries and over 900 rushing yards. Additionally, Camerun Peoples (Appalachian State) will be making an appearance. He stands an impressive 6-foot-2 and 220 pounds and produced over 2,900 scrimmage yards over his last five years.