The running back position is continuously changing and evolving when it comes to the NFL and the game of football as a whole. Running backs have been trending downward in recent years when it comes to the draft and the value placed at the position. That devaluation of runners could be coming to an end soon with players like Carolina Panthers’ star Christian McCaffrey dominating at the NFL level and Washington State running back Max Borghi impressing in the college ranks.
Just as McCaffrey has begun to revamp and revolutionize the running back position in the NFL, Borghi is doing the same as a burgeoning collegiate star for the Cougars. Below I will examine the progress that Borghi has made during his short college career for Wazzu and what could be in store moving forward. While he may not appear in the top group of runners for the 2021 NFL Draft yet, that could be changing with another elite season in 2020.
Legend growing for the Cougars
Borghi came to Pullman in 2018 as the 23rd-ranked all-purpose running back out of high school in Colorado and seemed primed and perfect for head coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense. The talented all-purpose back posted 53 receptions alone as a true freshman while working behind former San Francisco draft pick Joe Williams. The sky was the limit for Borghi heading into his sophomore season, and Cougars’ fans were excited to see him as a full-time starter.
Heading into the 2019 season, Borghi led all returning FBS running backs with 21 missed tackles after the catch. This type of ability speaks to his elusiveness, vision, and toughness with the ball in his hands. Through two collegiate seasons, there’s no secret that Borghi’s receiving prowess is the most substantial aspect of his game. He has posted 139 catches over two seasons, with only one of them being as the feature back.
In my recent article detailing the top backs available for the 2021 NFL Draft, I discussed how Borghi’s success could affect Kylin Hill’s draft stock at Mississippi State. I also mentioned that under Leach’s tutelage in 2019, Borghi caught 86 passes out of the backfield for 597 yards and five touchdowns. That reception number tied Borghi for 12th overall and first amongst running backs.
It is fair to wonder about a potential drop-off in production with new head coach Nick Rolovich, especially in terms of Borghi’s receiving numbers. Hawaii runners were mostly a non-factor in the receiving game last season, with leading rusher Miles Reed only catching three passes all year. However, Rolovich experienced much success with the famous run-and-shoot offense in Hawaii and should keep this offense humming successfully in 2020. Borghi may be featured more as a runner this season, and this could help his draft stock in terms of showcasing him as a complete running back and legitimate 2021 NFL Draft prospect.
McCaffrey’s impact on the process
McCaffrey’s historic 2019 season included a ridiculous 116 catches, which placed him second in the league, behind only Saints’ receiver Michael Thomas. This breakout season came on the heels of an already impressive sophomore campaign in 2018. During McCaffrey’s second season with the Panthers, he topped 1,000 yards for the first time while catching 107 passes.
McCaffrey has topped at least 80 receptions in each of his three years in the NFL while playing in all 16 games for three straight years. The former Stanford star became one of 13 players with over 50 catches during the 2019 season, representing the massive need for running backs to be versatile weapons out of the backfield.
The former Stanford star was not always the multi-purpose, running and receiving threat that he is now. McCaffrey was a prolific runner in college but never caught more than 45 passes, which came during his senior season. One could argue Max Borghi is ahead of McCaffrey in his progression as a pass-catcher at this point in his career. Both players can run the full route tree and are extremely dangerous after the catch. Please take a look at this wheel route run by Borghi last season, where he goes untouched 70 plus yards for the score.
Max Borghi, RB Washington State
•134 receptions in 2 seasons
•6.0 YPC career average
•23.9% of the team’s scrimmage yards in 2019
•25 plays 14+yards in 2019
•10.8 100m dash HS (he’s got juice)
— Ray G 🏁 (@RayGQue) December 20, 2019
Next level running back comparisons for Borghi
In terms of all-purpose running backs and comparisons, Borghi compares favorably to both McCaffrey and former Chargers’ running back Danny Woodhead. Woodhead was not the same type of in-between-the-tackles runner as McCaffrey, so it’s fair to consider him as a better comparison for Borghi at this point in the evaluation process. As a favorite target of Philip Rivers, Woodhead posted some impressive numbers of his own during his time with San Diego. Woodhead also posted 104 catches in 35 starts as a Division II star at Chadron State.
All three players have similar size, although McCaffrey is a tad taller at 5’11” and has bulked up since entering the league. The extra mass has made The Carolina back a better inside and all-around runner. Woodhead added weight during his time in the league and became a better runner as his career went on, but was never the elite threat that McCaffrey has shown so far in the league.
Woodhead posted two seasons of over 75 catches and six touchdowns apiece. These are the type of numbers Borghi is capable of, at least early on in his NFL career. Woodhead posted decent numbers as a rusher but never came close to those of McCaffrey. Borghi is a sturdy runner but will need to show improvements as a consistent threat carrying the ball to improve his upside as a 2021 NFL Draft prospect.
There are other players whose skillsets compare favorably to Borghi, such as current Chargers’ Pro Bowler Austin Ekeler and Patriots’ satellite back James White. However, I believe Woodhead and McCaffrey give fans a decent range with which to track Borghi’s progression as we get closer to the 2021 NFL Draft. Borghi is a better prospect than Woodhead was when he entered the league in 2009, but he has a long way to go to reach McCaffrey as a 2017 top-ten pick.
For now, it’s safe to assume Borghi is a top-10 running back with upside in next April’s draft and a third/fourth-round selection. Prominent pass-first teams such as the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Rams could have an interest, but don’t rule out the Panthers, as mentioned above, as a landing spot. The team could be looking to spell McCaffrey and give Carolina a dynamic one-two, all-purpose machine in the backfield.
Scott Gorman is a writer for PFN covering the 2021 NFL Draft. You can follow him at @sgormanPFN on Twitter.