The offseason is here for the Atlanta Falcons, and that means it’s time to go full-throttle into free agency and the 2023 NFL Draft. With my colleagues taking the lead on the free agency front, I’m going to be focusing my efforts over the next few weeks on the draft. Atlanta secured the 8th overall pick for 2023, the second year in a row that the team will hold that selection.
The next event on the Draft Season calendar is the Reese’s Senior Bowl—a showcase of the top draft-eligible seniors (or players who graduated early) that takes place in Mobile right around the first week of February. To get everyone ready for the week to come, I’ll be breaking down the top players to watch for the Falcons and the league at large.
Next up in the positional previews is running back, where the Falcons are pretty settled at the top of the depth chart for the 2023 season with rookie phenom Tyler Allgeier and dynamic veteran Cordarrelle Patterson. However, with Caleb Huntley recovering from an Achilles injury and Patterson turning 32 this year, there’s a potential need for another committee member.
It’s tough for running backs to stand out in the Senior Bowl practices thanks to limited tackling and an emphasis on receiving in the 1-on-1s. However, it seems like players find a way every single season. Last year it was Dameon Pierce and Rashaad White who emerged as clear winners and found themselves much higher in the final draft rankings. There are a number of prospects who could emerge from this group as well, and here are some of my favorites.
Chase Brown, Illinois
One of the most productive runners in college football, Chase Brown put up over 1600 yards and 10 TDs for Illinois during the 2022 season. An electric athlete with elite long speed, Brown (5’11, 200) is a dynamic playmaker. He’s got quick, efficient feet to avoid tacklers and impressive short-area quickness. Brown is a decisive runner with good vision who generally makes the most of his carries, and he proved himself as an effective receiver this season. While Brown is unafraid of contact and runs with good overall balance, he’s not a power back and isn’t a reliable short-yardage option. He’s also a mediocre pass protector, despite giving good effort. Brown would be a tremendous fit as a complement to Tyler Allgeier in Atlanta’s offense, and I’m excited to see how he performs in Mobile.
Roschon Johnson, Texas
“The other Texas running back”, Roschon Johnson had the unfortunate job of playing second fiddle to one of the best players in college football: Bijan Robinson. It’s hard to stand out in that situation, but Johnson actually put together an efficient season in that role: 554 yards (5.95 YPC) and 5 TDs. At first glance, Johnson definitely looks like an Arthur Smith RB at 6’2, 223. While he doesn’t have Bijan’s electric athleticism, Johnson is still a very good linear athlete. His vision is excellent, and Johnson is an accomplished short-yardage runner who possesses outstanding contact balance and physicality. In the passing game, Johnson is a plus pass protector with good hands as a receiver. Johnson is an underrated player overall, and could be this year’s Dameon Pierce with a standout week in Mobile.
Kenny McIntosh, Georgia
A late addition to the Senior Bowl roster, Georgia’s Kenny McIntosh is one of the more intriguing prospects in Mobile. Buried on the depth chart for years in an incredibly talented and crowded RB room, McIntosh finally got a chance to shine in 2022. He certainly looks the part of an NFL back at 6’1, 210 and possesses a very good overall athletic profile. McIntosh has a patient running style that can be a little deceiving, as he’s capable of making very quick, efficient cuts. He also runs with good power and contact balance in short yardage situations. What stands out the most about McIntosh is his talent as a receiver. He’s a natural hands catcher and well-developed route runner with the ability to line up in the slot or out wide. As a runner, he needs to work on developing his vision, and he’s currently a work-in-progress in pass protection. The overall package of traits is enticing, and a strong week in Mobile could lift McIntosh firmly into the Day 2 conversation.
Chris Rodriguez Jr., Kentucky
Another prototypical Arthur Smith RB, Kentucky’s Chris Rodriguez Jr.’s frame actually reminds me a bit of Tyler Allgeier at 5’11, 220. Much like Allgeier, Rodriguez Jr. is a physical bruiser who runs with patience, vision, and exceptional contact balance. He’s a very difficult tackle with a punishing style, and he thrives as a short-yardage and goal-line option. As a receiver and pass-blocker, Rodriguez Jr. is very untested—and he has a chance to prove himself in this area at the Senior Bowl. The bigger questions stem from Rodriguez Jr.’s athleticism: he’s fairly average across the board. That will probably cap his ceiling to that of a committee back, but he’s got a future as a short-yardage grinder in the NFL.
Tyjae Spears, Tulane
Outside of Bijan Robinson, Tyjae Spears might have the most enjoyable tape of any running back in this class. Spears is coming off an incredible 2022 season at Tulane where he put up 1581 yards (6.9 YPC!) and 19 (!!) rushing TDs, and as the numbers suggest, he was downright dominant. He’s on the smaller side at 5’10, 190, but Spears makes up for it with elite athletic traits and more physicality than you’d expect. He can beat you in a lot of ways: quick cuts, explosive burst, and electric long speed. Spears also runs under control with very good pacing and footwork, and his vision is a plus trait. In terms of questions, he was never a big part of Tulane’s third down plans, either as a receiver or pass protector. I also question how many carries Spears can handle at sub-200 pounds. Even so, Spears is a fun, dynamic playmaker who should be a significant part of a RB committee early in his NFL career.
Other players to watch:
Eric Gray, Oklahoma
I hope you enjoyed this entry in our Senior Bowl 2023 preview series. I’ll be in Mobile to cover the Senior Bowl for The Falcoholic from Tuesday, January 31 through Thursday, February 2. Stay tuned on Monday for our final position preview: tight end.