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2023 NFL Combine preview: 12 running backs the Lions should be watching

Identifying who and what to watch at running back during the 2023 NFL Combine.

NCAA Football: West Virginia at Texas Scott Wachter-USA TODAY Sports

The 2023 NFL Combine begins on Monday, February 27, with prospects arriving in their positional groups. Over the first few days, players will get medical checks, meet with NFL teams, and take the podium to answer questions from the media. Then on Thursday, March 2, the league will start four days of televised coverage of on-field drills.

This is the latest in a series of articles that will explore the participants at this year’s combine that the Detroit Lions should be keeping a close eye on during positional activities. If you missed any of our previous installments, check them out here: Quarterbacks

Up next: Running backs

Team need

Entering this draft cycle, the Lions are expected to add a running back, but they could go a lot of ways with their approach. If they are unable to retain Jamaal Williams, they could look for his replacement. They may also be interested in adding a back capable of stepping in for D’Andre Swift—if injured, or as a future replacement (Swift is in the final year of his rookie contract). They may also simply want to upgrade their depth and add a back who can compete for an RB3 or matchup role.

The good news is this class has plenty of options regardless of which direction they take.

What to watch for

When the running backs are on the field in Indianapolis for Combine drills, the most important traits for the Lions tend to be explosiveness, reaction timing, and passing game contributions. So when watching, keep an eye on their balance through the hips, how they get in and out of their breaks, how quickly they accelerate through cuts, ball location on passing drills, and how natural they are at catching the ball.

Now on to the prospects.

The Superstar

Bijan Robinson, Texas (6-foot-0, 220)

I went into detail about Robinson and his projected value in a recent mock draft roundup, but the bottom line with him is, he might be the best running back we have seen in quite some time.

D’Andre Swift insurance

Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama (5-foot-11, 200)

Gibbs is a big play waiting to happen. With an elite burst and top flight speed, Gibbs will make you pay if you give him open space. He is also arguably the best pass catching back in this draft class, with 25 receptions of at least 15 yards over the last three years, per PFF.

Devon Achane, Texas A&M (5-foot-9, 185)

Archane is undersized but blessed with traits that will help him succeed in the NFL. He is a track star who routinely puts his elite speed on display and should push the 4.3 mark in the 40-yard dash. But his game is more than just speed, as his vision and reaction time allow him to weed through even the thickest of traffic.

Tyjae Spears, Tulane (5-foot-11, 195)

Spears is one of this class's biggest risers after his performance at the Senior Bowl. While he doesn’t possess Achane or Gibbs’ speed, he’s plenty fast and has tremendous contact balance. With experience in gap and zone-blocking schemes, and the patience to work in both, he would fit in immediately with the Lions’ approach to the run game.

Eric Gray, Oklahoma (5-10, 207)

Stylistically, Gray is the closest comp for Swift in this class. He reads his blocks, looks like he will be comfortable in multiple schemes, and is creative when he finds an opening. His receiving skills and elusiveness make him a perfect complement to a power back in a rotation.

Jamaal Williams insurance

Zach Charbonnet, UCLA (6-foot-1, 224)

Charbonnet burst onto the scene as a freshman at Michigan in 2019, but Jim Harbaugh leaned heavily on Hassan Haskins (Titans) and Chris Evans (Bengals) in 2020, and the emergence of Blake Corum made for a crowded backfield. Charbonnet transferred to UCLA (he grew up in California) and it wasn’t long before he took over a starting role. Charbonnet’s a balanced back, but his ability to withstand and deliver power is his best trait.

Tank Bigsby, Auburn (6-foot-0, 215)

Patient, loose, and explosive, Bigsby doesn’t have the traditional power of a back his size, but he finds other ways to work through tackles. His vision, downhill runner mentality, and ability to push through arm tackles give him a recipe for success. He’s not a polished pass catcher, but he is efficient as a pass protector, which will go a long way in the NFL.

Roschon Johnson, Texas (6-foot-1, 220)

Johnson would have been a starter if he had transferred out of Texas, but instead, he opted to stay and work in a rotational role behind Bijan Robinson. A north/south runner with the necessary balance to run through tackles, he is a reliable pass catcher, but even better pass blocker.

Kendre Miller, TCU (6-foot-0, 220)

Better lateral quickness than you might expect for a back his size, Miller is a difficult player to bring down once he gets his momentum going. He also has a tremendous nose for the end zone. He scored a rushing touchdown in every game in the regular season (17 total), with the only time he didn’t score coming in the college football playoff when he was injured early in the game.

The “sleeper”

Israel Abanikanda, Pittsburgh (5-foot-10, 215)

Despite rushing for over 1,400 yards and finding the end zone 20 times on the ground this season, Abanikanda doesn’t get as much hype as he should. He has above-average speed, terrific burst, solid size, and great contact balance, but he is still relatively raw in some technical areas. Against ACC competition, he simply out-athleted defenders, but he’ll have to learn to be a bit more disciplined at the next level. The good news there is, Abanikanda is one of the youngest players in this draft class (he won’t turn 21 until October).

The “third down back”

Kenny McIntosh, Georgia (6-foot-0, 207)

Not your traditional starting Georgia running back, Mcintosh is more of a complementary piece with upside, rather than a starting NFL back. Still, he is experienced, patient, and should challenge Gibbs for the role of the best pass catching back in this class. His pass pro looks good as well, which should make him a third down specialist to start his career with the upside to develop into half of a starting rotation.

The “I wish he was bigger back”

Deuce Vaughn, Kansas State (5-foot-6, 175)

Vaughn has two major flaws: he is drastically undersized and he has 763 career touches (over 100 more than any other back in this class). But for a team that believes he can be the next Darren Sproles, Vaughn is going to be very tempting as a late-round prospect for some teams. Blessed with speed, lateral quickness, explosiveness, and contact balance, Vaughn has the potential to be a contributor all over the field on offense, as well as a special teams returner.

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