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NFL Combine preview: Running backs to watch for the Falcons

Our coverage of the upcoming 2023 NFL Combine continues with a look at some of the top running backs to watch in Indianapolis. The on-field workouts for the Combine begin March 2.

With the Super Bowl in the rear-view mirror, the offseason is in full swing for all 32 teams as we rocket towards free agency and the 2023 NFL Draft. The next event on the Draft Season calendar is the NFL Combine: a week-long convention in Indianapolis that gives NFL teams an opportunity to evaluate a huge group of prospects up close and personal. While fans are most familiar with the on-field workouts—sometimes dubbed the “underwear olympics”—the medical checks and player interviews are just as important for teams.

Just like for the Senior Bowl, we’ll be breaking down the top players to watch for the Atlanta Falcons at every position group. We’ll start on the defensive side of the ball and work our way through the offense as we approach the start of the Combine on-field workouts on March 2. Speaking of, here’s the schedule for those workouts if you’re interested.

NFL Combine 2023 On-field Workouts Schedule

FRIDAY, March 3 at 3 PM ET: CB, S
SATURDAY, March 4 at 1 PM ET: QB, WR, TE
SUNDAY, March 5 at 1 PM ET: RB, OT, IOL

Workouts will be televised live on NFL Network and can also be watched on NFL+, if you have that subscription.


Next up is a position group that’s in good hands thanks to Tyler Allgeier’s breakout rookie campaign and veteran Cordarrelle Patterson’s dynamic presence: running back.

Running back

The 2023 NFL Draft features a very interesting running back class. There’s the true blue-chip star at the top in Bijan Robinson, a fringe first-round talent in Jahmyr Gibbs, and then a whole lot of late-Day 2, early-Day 3 talent. In short, this is a good class to need a star at the top, or a good class to get that RB2/3 committee member a bit later. I do believe Atlanta needs another RB to fill out the depth chart, and this class has a number of intriguing options throughout.

Israel Abanikanda, Pitt

A player who wasn’t on my radar prior to starting my Combine prep, Pitt’s Israel Abanikanda absolutely should be on everyone’s radar going forward. After a few years as a committee member, Abanikanda finally took the reins of Pitt’s offense in 2022 and exploded onto the scene with an incredibly productive season: 1431 yards (6.0 YPC) and 20 (!) TDs. Abanikanda has a great build (5’11, 215) and pairs that with plus burst and long speed, a physical running style, and some positive flashes as a receiver and pass protector. As a one-year starter, Abanikanda is still developing his vision, and his change-of-direction skills are modest at best. I think he’ll test well and work his way into the mix in the early-Day 3 range.

Devon Achane, Texas A&M

One of my early draft crushes, Devon Achane has a solid chance to be the fastest player at the Combine. This is a prospect with elite speed who is also a talented and experienced RB in his own right. Here’s my blurb on Achane from a previous mock draft:

A former track standout, Achane could be one of the fastest and most explosive athletes in the 2023 class. I wouldn’t be shocked if he times in the low 4.3s, or potentially even high 4.2s. It’s not just speed, though. Achane is an effective and experienced runner who possesses good vision and surprising patience for a player with so much athleticism. He’s elusive, with quality footwork and balance to stay upright when making his cuts. If he hits the second level, Achane is a home run threat. His burst is special, and you can see the track background when he gets to full speed. Achane isn’t going to be a primary runner—at 5’9, 185, he’s simply not big enough to handle 15+ carries in the NFL.

Tank Bigsby, Auburn

One of the top prospects entering the 2022 season, Auburn’s Tank Bigsby didn’t quite take off to the level that some were expecting. Bigsby possesses a good frame (6’0, 205) and a physical but patient running style that has led to a lot of success in short-yardage and red zone situations. This is a tough, competitive runner who will always fight for extra yards after contact. Athletically, Bigsby appears sufficient but didn’t pop off the tape as much as I’d hoped. He’s a reliable pass protector, but doesn’t offer much as a receiver at this point. Bigsby can definitely find a role as a productive committee member in the NFL, and potentially more if he can develop his third down skillset.

Chase Brown, Illinois

I was very impressed by Chase Brown at the Senior Bowl, who showed off his speed and elusiveness by breaking several long runs throughout the week of practice. His Combine testing will be vital to his draft stock, but he’s a steal right now at his current fourth-round projection. Here’s my writeup on Brown from the Senior Bowl preview:

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.

Zach Charbonnet, UCLA

A prospect linked to the Falcons as far back as the 2022 NFL Draft cycle (before he elected to return to school), UCLA’s Zach Charbonnet once again enters the draft as a logical target. This is one of the most “Arthur Smith” RBs in the class, with a muscular 6’1, 220 frame and a physical downhill running style. Charbonnet is one of the more polished runners in the class, with highly-developed vision and outstanding contact balance. He will choose the correct lane or cutback and take full advantage of what the offensive line gives him. Charbonnet isn’t a particularly dynamic receiver, but he’s got reliable hands and has a lot of upside in pass protection. There aren’t many holes to poke in Charbonnet’s game except a lack of high-end athleticism, but a better-than-expected Combine performance could alleviate those concerns and push him into the second-round conversation.

Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama

If not for Bijan Robinson, we’d probably be talking a lot more about Alabama’s Jahmyr Gibbs as a top prospect in the class. Gibbs is a more specialized player than Robinson, but he’s awesome at what he does. At a listed size of 5’11, 200, Gibbs is a smaller back who has shown off a dynamic skillset as both a receiver and runner. Athletically, he pops off the tape, with outstanding agility, elusiveness, burst, and long speed. I also think he’s got well-developed vision and consistently takes advantage of his blocks. Gibbs isn’t going to be a 15+ carry back in the NFL and doesn’t offer much of a pass blocking skillset, but what he gives you as a receiver and change-of-pace back are well-worth a Day 2 pick. A weigh-in at or near his listed measurements will be important for Gibbs’ hopes of potentially sneaking into the back half of the first round.

Roschon Johnson, Texas

I was expecting big things from Roschon Johnson at the Senior Bowl, but his week was cut short due to injury. What I did see on the first day was impressive and in line with his tape. Johnson is an underrated prospect and I expect him to test relatively well for his size. Here’s my snippet on Johnson from the Senior Bowl preview:

“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.

Kenny McIntosh, Georgia

Kenny McIntosh was another runner who had some splash plays during the week of practice in Mobile. Based on The Draft Network’s consensus rankings, it seems like McIntosh has worked his way into the Day 2 conversation and could wind up as the first RB selected from the Senior Bowl group. Here’s my blurb on McIntosh from the Senior Bowl preview:

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.

Bijan Robinson, Texas

You’re going to hear the Falcons linked to Texas’ Bijan Robinson a lot over the coming months. Why? Because he’s a top-3 talent in this class and he’ll almost certainly be on the board at 8. Robinson is a rare, special prospect on the level of Saquon Barkley and prime Todd Gurley. Just pop on his tape and tell me you don’t see it: the absurd acceleration, incredible elusiveness and body control, contact balance, and hands and route running that rival some receivers. Robinson is the full 3-down package and would be an elite addition to any offense. There’s no question that Robinson (or any RB) is a luxury pick in the first round, but boy would he be a fun luxury pick. You can easily make the argument that Atlanta makes more sense than most other teams, given Arthur Smith’s propensity to lean on the run game.

Tyjae Spears, Tulane

In a very talented group at the Senior Bowl, I’ve saved the best for last. Tyjae Spears was by far the most impressive runner during the week of practice, showcasing his electric running style. He also checked an important box in his evaluation by weighing in at over 200 pounds. Spears should perform very well at the Combine, and his stock will only continue to rise as a result. Here’s my writeup on Spears from the Senior Bowl preview:

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.

Other players to watch:

Sean Tucker, Syracuse
Zach Evans, Ole Miss
Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State
Kendre Miller, TCU
Evan Hull, Northwestern
Chris Rodriguez Jr., Kentucky

I hope you enjoyed this entry in The Falcoholic’s NFL Combine preview series. Stay tuned for our next position preview: tight end.