2020 NFL Draft: Top 5 running backs in the Pac-12

The 2020 NFL Draft RB class poses historic potential. However, the Pac-12 hasn't garnered much hype. Led by Eno Benjamin, they host a bevy of talented backs.

Pac-12 running backs have been a mainstay in the NFL Draft over the past decade. Since 2009, they’ve sent at least one RB to the NFL via the draft each year. This group, of course, is headlined by Christian McCaffrey. The eighth overall pick from 2017, who has already established himself as one of the elite backs in football.

It hasn’t ended at the draft, however. Just last year we witnessed Phillip Lindsay take the league by storm as an undrafted free agent. The UDFA out of Colorado led his hometown Denver Broncos in rushing and eclipsed 1,000 yards on the ground. The Pac-12 has sent a lot of RB flavor to the NFL in recent years, ranging from the top-ten to post-draft festivities.

Now, as we look ahead to the 2020 NFL Draft, the Pac-12 hosts a flurry of backs who are worthy of a draft selection. Eno Benjamin, the headliner, accompanies two high upside juniors and a pair of hard running seniors on this list. The big names such as Travis Etienne, D’Andre Swift, and Jonathan Taylor, among others, have engulfed the RB love in the media. Thus, these Pac-12 backs have flown under the radar in the premature draft process.

Honorable Mention: C.J. Verdell, Oregon

It wouldn’t have been fair to exclude C.J. Verdell from this list entirely. Just a redshirt sophomore, it’s unlikely he enters the draft with two years of remaining eligibility. However, it’s certainly not out of the question. Verdell is one of the most underrated backs in the nation entering the 2019 season. Last year he was the only Power 5 player with 1,000 rushing yards and 300 receiving yards.

A dual-threat RB, Verdell is equally electric toting the rock or catching it. He made countless big plays last season and eclipsed 100 yards in five games. Splitting reps with underclassman Travis Dye, the pair form the best RB duo in the conference. These are both guys to monitor over the next couple of years. We’ll see if Verdell returns next season. If not, he should warrant an NFL draft choice come April.

5. Stephen Carr, USC

The wildcard of this RB group, Carr has experienced a rollercoaster of a collegiate career thus far. After an impressive start to his freshman season, Stephen Carr’s NFL Draft outlook seemed mightily encouraging. Then the injuries started to pile up. Towards the end of the 2017 season, he battled a foot injury which forced him to miss five games. He then underwent offseason back surgery before last season and missed the entire spring. Now onto 2018, he missed the final three games with a high ankle sprain.

Never at 100% health, Carr consistently found himself on the injury report. The biggest hurdle for him right now is proving a clean bill of health. Last year he was expected to claim an essential piece of the production pie with Ronald Jones II moved onto the NFL. Lingering injuries riddled his performance, and his workload subsequently fell. Now competing with Vavae Malepeai, it’s Carr’s job to seize.

As Graham Harrell takes the reigns of USC’s offense, the Trojans backfield will be more involved in the passing game. Carr flashed ability as a receiving threat in ’17 and ultimately can be a facet of his game which draws NFL appeal. He’s a composed runner with some sauce. Carr displays excellent body control pressing the line of scrimmage, which makes it easy to evade the initial defender. He’s shown to be an elusive back who possesses speed when hitting the hole.

With a minimal sample size at our disposal, Carr enters the 2019 season with heaps of boom or bust potential. You could make the case he has the most to gain of any NFL draft-eligible back. There’s still a lot of untapped potential in the former five-star recruit. Playing a full year with no hiccups is what lies between Carr establishing himself as a legitimate NFL draft prospect. However, as he’s still eligible in 2021, it wouldn’t be surprising if he returned for his senior campaign.

4. Joshua Kelley, UCLA

Coming out of nowhere, Joshua Kelley took the Pac-12 by storm in 2018. After redshirting following a transfer from UC Davis, Kelley finished top five in the conference in rushing yards and posted a top-ten rushing season in program history. With just one offer coming out of high school, Kelley is now starring on the big stage with his sights set on the NFL.

Lacking top-end athletic traits could be what limits his ceiling as a day three pick in the next NFL draft. However, he makes up for it and then some in other areas. At 5’11”, 204 pounds, Kelley boasts a compact, stocky frame. It’s rare to see him go down on initial contact. He’s always going to be churning those legs and dragging defenders. Kelley’s competitive toughness comes in spades.

What makes Kelley unique is his blend of burst, power, and strength. He hits the hole with authority, and while he isn’t a burner, Kelley has the long speed to take it the distance if he gets an open seam. For a guy with impressive power, it’s surprising to see Kelley move into the second level with the ability to make guys miss when he gets there untouched.

Among college football’s feel-good stories, it’s easy to root for Joshua Kelley. I look forward to this season as he emerges as a household name. Last season he broke a UCLA-USC rivalry record with 289 rushing yards in the Bruins’ upset victory. Let’s see how he tops that this year.

3. Zack Moss, Utah

From a size standpoint, I went into my Zack Moss evaluation, expecting a much different runner. At 5’11”, 220 pounds, I was anticipating a more robust back who won in between the tackles. While Moss can undoubtedly move it North-South, that’s not necessarily his vantage point.

At his mass, Moss is exceptionally flexible in his lower half. He showcases superb feet and sudden change of direction. He sees the field well, trusts his reads, and shoots through running lanes with acceleration. Moss anticipates defenders well moving into the second level and uses his blockers out in space. With his skill set, he poses a threat both inside and out. Possessing requisite speed to win the corner, he also has the inside burst to scoot away from defenders for chunk gains.

Perhaps the best facet to his game is his support in pass protection. Moss is among the best in that department the draft has seen in a half-decade. Utah even often deploys him out wide on the perimeter as an extra blocker. His technique is textbook. Moss displays precise hand placement and rises on his blocks to gain leverage. Of course, it varies how teams value blocking in their backs. However, backs who can block will always hold value.

Moss enters his senior year a modest 569 yards away from becoming Utah’s all-time leading rusher. If all goes to plan, he’ll crush Eddie Johnson’s 30-year record. Moss is an intriguing package between his size, cuts, and secondary traits. The cousin of former Pro Bowler Santana Moss, Zaccheus will carry the family tradition to the NFL.

2. Salvon Ahmed, Washington

As much as I liked Myles Gaskin, I couldn’t wait for him to move on to make way for Salvon Ahmed. I’m projecting a bit here with Ahmed, but he’s been every bit of impressive in his understudy role over the past two seasons. Now with the keys to the backfield, it’s his time to prove himself as one of the most lethal runners in the country.

First and foremost, what stands out in Ahmed’s game is his speed and quickness. Already clocking a 4.32 in the past, that tempo is ever apparent on the field. Ahmed operates at a rapid play speed and is always at full throttle on the gridiron. He strikes with force in his cuts and doesn’t miss a beat as he maintains his top speed. The Huskies back is a human lightning bolt. Give Ahmed the ball in space, and he’s going to eat. That’s all he needs. Luckily, he understands how to get himself isolated.

With the start of the Jacob Eason era set to take off at UW, the Huskies will field a new offensive product. Ahmed will be just as crucial in the transformation. Gaskin and Jake Browning each started the past four years as the Huskies sported a reasonably conservative approach. Now with legitimate playmakers in Eason and Ahmed; along with guys like Aaron Fuller and Hunter Bryant, it’s time to release the hounds and showcase a dynamic Pac-12 offense.

Ahmed is the Pac-12 back I’m most excited to watch in 2019. Ahmed boasts a rare athletic profile, and I can’t wait to see how he tests at the NFL Combine when the time comes. He’s merely capable of doing things most backs can’t. The upside Ahmed presents is something to be enthralling. Perhaps a hot take at this point, I’m predicting Ahmed plays his way into a day two NFL draft pick.

1. Eno Benjamin, Arizona State

Now for the crown jewel of the Pac-12 running backs. Eno Benjamin enjoyed a historic sophomore campaign and proved to be the best playmaker on a team which also featured first-round pick N’Keal Harry. Although Benjamin lands as Neal Driscoll’s ninth-ranked RB during the preseason process, I think there’s a strong chance he’s a top 5 back off the board; even in this potentially historic class.

A complete package, Benjamin offers just about everything you look for in a back. He possesses superb vision with the change of direction and short-area quickness to poke in and out of lanes with ease. Benjamin has graceful feet, and it’s his cutting ability which has proven to be his trademark trait to this point. With his dynamic skills to reset paths and make guys miss, Benjamin also runs with tons of physicality.

With a low center of gravity, Benjamin runs with excellent pad level and leg drive. He has a knack for breaking tackles and led all Pac-12 running backs with 77 missed tackles forced in 2018. Whether the Arizona State back is making guys miss or barreling through defenders, Benjamin is a tough customer to bring down. He’s an instinctive, physical runner and holds the nuance to be a game-breaker at the next level.

Fresh off a school-record 1,642 rushing yards, Benjamin now looks to build on that and add to his résumé for the NFL Draft. Although, there’s not much left for him to prove, despite his lack of experience. If not for such a loaded RB class, Benjamin would surely find himself higher on most preseason rankings. On the flip side, there’s still a season to play, and a lot can change. It’s going to be fascinating to watch how the RB class landscape takes shape over the fall.

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