The 2023 NFL Draft is really starting to creep up on us with less than two weeks until the spectacle begins. This week we’re switching our focus over to the running back position, where the Lions have already made some changes this offseason.
It was looking like the Lions might bring back Jamaal Williams considering he was coming off of a brilliant 2022 season and there was mutual interest there. But after testing the market, and after the Lions realized David Montgomery could be acquired in their price range, a change was made, and Montgomery is now a Lion, while Williams has joined the Saints.
The Lions’ future at the running back position is still in question, however, with D’Andre Swift’s contract expiring after this season and not much depth behind him and Montgomery. Adding a young running back on a rookie deal through this year’s draft is definitely on the table, and there are plenty of talented young players to choose from.
If you’ve missed any of the previous installments in our 2023 draft rankings series, be sure to check out:
- Ranking the top 15 cornerbacks
- Ranking the top 14 defensive tackles
- Ranking the top 10 off-ball linebackers
- Ranking the Lions’ best options with the sixth overall pick
- Ranking the top 10 offensive linemen
Now, here are some of my favorite fits at running back for the Lions in this year’s class:
Bijan Robinson (Texas), 5-foot-11, 215 pounds
There isn’t much to say about Robinson that hasn’t already been said ten times over on this website. He’s a generational talent and probably the best running back prospect we’ve seen since Saquon Barkley, if not better. But the positional value is what seems to be the hang-up with most people. Bill Barnwell did a wonderful job of explaining the complicated relationship between teams and first-round running backs and I suggest everyone give it a read.
Bijan Robinson has some absolutely insane carries. I am blown away. pic.twitter.com/MMoPZeqZuS— Brenden Deeg (@BrendenDeeg_) April 7, 2023
How he fits: All-purpose back. Immediately becomes the bell cow for the Lions.
Round grade: Top-5 talent, top-20 pick
Jahmyr Gibbs (Alabama), 5-foot-9, 199 pounds
The thing that pops out at you right away with Gibbs is his speed. Any time he touches the ball, he’s a threat to score. At the NFL Combine, Gibbs ran a 4.36 40-yard dash which was the second-fastest time among all RBs—behind only Devon Achane, who we’ll get to later. In the passing game, he is a complete mismatch against linebackers and safeties and graded out as one of the best receiving RBs via Pro Football Focus. Gibbs doesn’t have the size to be a workhorse back, but he can still be a game-changer for any offense.
How he fits: He’s everything the Lions hoped D’Andre Swift would be. Should be getting plenty of targets in the passing game. Home run hitter.
Round grade: First/second round
Tyjae Spears (Tulane), 5-foot-10, 201 pounds
After the top two RBs, there is a cluster of talented backs to choose from in the pick 60-100 range. One of my favorites is Spears, who is one of the shiftiest and most explosive backs in this class.
If you had to pick one highlight to pitch a prospect to an NFL GM in draft meetings, what would it be? (post in comments)— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) April 11, 2023
Here’s ours for @GreenWaveFB RB Tyjae Spears:#TheDraftStartsInMOBILE™️ pic.twitter.com/UmnUcLQbgG
Spears suffered a torn ACL and meniscus in 2020 and takes some of the most violent-looking cuts you’ll see for someone as thin as he is, so teams will have to bear that risk in mind.
How he fits: Change of pace back to complement Montgomery and good receiving threat. Potential Swift replacement.
Round grade: Second/third round
Devon Achane (Texas A&M), 5-foot-8, 188 pounds
Achane is not only the fastest running back in this class, but the third-fastest athlete to test at the combine. Due to his size and speed, there have been a lot of comparisons to Jahvid Best, but I find Achane to have much better vision and willingness to take on contact.
Where Achane could use some extra work is on passing downs. He’s not going to magically get any taller or bigger, so pass protection is already not his strong suit, but him consistently missing assignments is only making things tougher. He also hasn’t shown much route running ability and tends to just leak out 5 yards and catch some dump-off throws for most of his receptions. That’s not to say that he can’t be an effective pass catcher out of the backfield, but he’s going to have to prove that he can bring more value in that area.
How he fits: Complementary speed back. Get him the ball in open space or let him run against light boxes.
Round grade: Second/third round
Zach Charbonnet (UCLA), 6-foot-0, 214 pounds
Charbonnet is one of the best pure runners in this class. He seems to find rushing lanes right as they’re forming and has good burst to explode right through them. He’s not a guy that is going to outrun you, but he is incredibly difficult to bring down, and he does a nice job of keeping his legs churning to get as many yards after contact as possible.
Slightly shocked I haven't seen more love for Zach Charbonnet over the last few weeks— Josh Norris (@JoshNorris) April 11, 2023
He creates on his own, albeit not in the same electric way that Gibbs and Spears do, but there are some 'wow' plays with his style pic.twitter.com/2DlzphsoqZ
There is a lot of overlap between what Charbonnet and Montgomery bring to the table. Both can be considered bell cow backs, and both are at least decent at catching the ball and protecting the quarterback. You could argue that maybe Charbonnet is a redundant fit, but I would argue that it’s not a bad thing to have two very balanced RBs that can wear down a defense on the ground and through the air.
How he fits: RB1 potential. You’re getting a similar player to what you already have in Montgomery, though Charbonnet has a little more juice.
Round grade: Second/third round
Tank Bigsby (Auburn), 5-foot-11, 210 pounds
Bigsby was a big Pro Day winner after improving his 40 time (4.56) by a full tenth of a second (4.45). He is one of the best “make you miss” running backs in the class, mostly due to his lethal “dead leg” juke move.
As a runner, Bigsby is a little too patient at times and could work on being more decisive as a runner. He has the desired size to become a bell cow back in the NFL and can be effective in both a zone- or gap-scheme rushing attack, like most others in this class.
Bigsby’s college production was consistent on a year-to-year basis and he’s an absolute touchdown machine, but on a game-by-game basis, he can disappear for long stretches at a time.
How he fits: RB by committee with Montgomery/Swift. Probably won’t take a ton of touches away from Monty and Swift in the passing game.
Round grade: Third round
Eric Gray (Oklahoma), 5-foot-9, 207 pounds
I really like Gray as an option in the late Day 2/early Day 3 range as someone that can challenge Swift for touches in the passing game, and has some desirable traits as a runner, to boot. He does not offer much in the speed department (only a 4.62 40-yard dash), but he’s very explosive and has a knack for making defenders miss in tight spaces and in the open field.
Eric Gray doesn't possess home run speed, but he does have a sharp cut to create yards pic.twitter.com/F4xKZTKLyt— Billy M (@BillyM_91) April 10, 2023
How he fits: Passing game specialist that can handle some carries as a complementary/change of pace back.
Round grade: Third-fourth round
Kendre Miller (TCU), 5-foot-11, 215 pounds
After suffering an MCL injury on his right knee in the College Football Playoffs—which required surgery—Miller has been unable to participate in any pre-draft testing. This will likely hurt his draft stock, but had he tested, I believe he would be much higher on people’s boards because he is an impressive athlete. Miller has good vision and great contact balance but is not overly explosive and I wouldn’t consider him a power back. He will also need to work on adding value as a pass catcher and as a blocker because he is not proficient in those areas quite yet.
How he fits: Won’t add much in the passing game right away, but is a very efficient runner and can take up a fair share of the carries.
Round grade: Third/fourth round
Roschon Johnson (Texas), 6-foot-0, 219 pounds
Johnson probably could have become a feature back for a Power 5 school, but he chose to stay at Texas and play the “do-it-all” RB role in the shadow of Bijan Robinson. He lacks the suddenness you’d like to see from a feature back, but give him a path to run through and some time to get going and he can be a wrecking ball with his size and power.
How he fits: Power back, special teams contributor, capable pass catcher, and solid blocker.
Round grade: Fourth round
Israel Abanikanda (Pittsburgh), 5-foot-10, 216 pounds
Abanikanda is an elite athlete that ran a 4.44 40-yard dash at his pro day and is the youngest running back in the entire class (20.5 years old). Most of Abanikanda’s tape is him finding a hole and zipping past everyone, which is great, but he didn’t really show much ability to shake off tacklers and gain any yards after contact. His contact balance is average at best, and he also hasn’t shown much value as a receiving threat or pass blocker.
How he fits: Developmental speed back.
Round grade: Fourth round
Zach Evans (Ole Miss), 5-foot-11, 202 pounds
Evans is a big play machine, and a home run threat any time he touches the ball, as made evident by his 6.9 (nice) career yards per carry. I don’t see his vision as being one of his stronger traits, however, and he does tend to leave some yards on the field when he doesn’t have a gaping hole to run through. In the passing game, Evans had just 30 receptions in three years and is unproven as a pass protector. He also comes with a long list of injuries that teams will need to do their homework on.
How he fits: RB2 that can complement Montgomery; has RB1 upside.
Round grade: Fourth-fifth round
Lions top-30 visits
Keaton Mitchell (East Carolina), 5-foot-8, 179 pounds
Mitchell is one of two running backs that the Lions have met with—that we know of—so far. He is a big play machine with his elite speed and explosiveness, leading all of college football with 31 carries for 15 or more yards, according to PFF. If the Lions do not choose to add to the position early, Mitchell would be a nice consolation prize in the later rounds and could give them some extra juice on offense.
How he fits: Scatback/gadget player or possible transition to receiver?
Round grade: Fifth round
Evan Hull (Northwestern), 5-foot-10, 209 pounds
Hull is one of those “first one in, last one out” types of hard-working athletes, and I think Dan Campbell and the Lions will certainly admire his attitude and work ethic. On the field, he could improve on his play strength as he often goes down to first contact without much of a fight. Hull was very effective in the passing game and has good hands and some shiftiness to his game. I see him as a solid third-down back for now, with the potential to earn some carries if he can become a more powerful and decisive runner.
The Lions met with Hull during Northwestern’s Pro Day, according to Tony Pauline.
How he fits: Third-down back that can be a good receiving asset.
Round grade: Fifth round
Other Day 3 options
DeWayne McBride (UAB), 5-foot-10, 209 pounds
Kenny McIntosh (Georgia), 6-foot-0, 204 pounds
Sean Tucker (Syracuse), 5-foot-9, 207 pounds
Chase Brown (Illinois), 5-foot-9, 209 pounds
Lew Nichols III (Central Michigan), 5-foot-10, 220 pounds — Met with Lions at Local Day