Value is the name of the game at running back. If you can get productive solutions at the best value, then you put yourself in a position to benefit the most. These 2023 NFL Draft RB sleepers may allow teams the opportunity to do just that: Acquire optimal players at an optimal price.
2023 NFL Draft sleepers at RB
Running back is naturally one of the more dependent and more replaceable positions on the positional chart. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t value in having a running back who can create for himself. It just means that if you can use top picks on premier positions, and pinpoint diamonds in the rough at RB later on, that’s the way to go. Who might qualify as a diamond in the rough in the 2023 NFL Draft cycle?
DeWayne McBride, UAB
Few young running backs have been more productive through their first two collegiate seasons than UAB’s DeWayne McBride. In 2020, McBride averaged almost 10 yards per carry on 47 attempts. And in 2021, he remained hyper-efficient across a larger sample, putting up 1,371 yards and 13 scores on 205 attempts.
Now draft-eligible, McBride has increased pressure on his shoulders in 2022. But if his 2021 tape is any indication, he’s ready for it.
McBride has a strong, compact frame at 5’11”, 215 pounds. His footwork could be a bit smoother and more efficient behind the line, and he sometimes runs a bit upright. But he has the long-striding explosiveness to get into space and attacks defenders who enter his reach. And when he has a full head of steam, he’s hard to stop.
McBride brings an enticing mix of burst, physicality, and resilience, and is on track to keep trending up.
Lew Nichols III, Central Michigan
Can you remember who the rushing leader in the 2021 collegiate season was? No, it wasn’t Kenneth Walker III or Breece Hall. It was Lew Nichols III, out of Central Michigan.
Nichols tore apart the MAC en route to 1,848 yards and 16 touchdowns on 341 carries. He also added 40 catches for 338 yards and two scores, for good measure.
Nichols may have used a lot of tread in 2021, but he’s still young. He’ll be just 22 years old at the start of the 2023 season. And outside of youth, he brings plenty more to offer.
At 5’10”, 220 pounds, Nichols has a well-leveraged frame with great mass and density. He’s a high-energy back who can use quick cadence shifts to sift through tight spaces. He has good creative instincts but also possesses the burst to capitalize on small openings.
Noah Whittington, Oregon
Western Kentucky was an Air Raid team through and through in 2021. But that doesn’t mean they didn’t have talent in the ground game. Although he was often overshadowed by an electric passing offense led by future Patriot Bailey Zappe, Noah Whittington quietly flashed for the Hilltoppers, while putting up 617 yards and two scores on 102 carries.
Whittington has since transferred from WKU to Oregon, following his RBs coach Carlos Locklyn. With the Ducks, Whittington may be used in a way that further maximizes his talent. He might be undersized at 5’10”, 190 pounds, but Whittington is an explosive athlete who floats upfield. He also gathers himself quickly and surges out of cuts.
Whittington has great short-area twitch and foot quickness, and can masterfully maneuver through narrow lanes. What’s more — he’s flashed receiving upside in a limited sample.
Isaiah Ifanse, Montana State
Naturally, when searching for sleepers at the running back position, the eyes turn to the FCS. After all, that’s where the Patriots’ fourth-round pick Pierre Strong Jr. came from this past cycle.
Every year, it seems as though at least one FCS running back emerges on the NFL draft stage. This time around, that RB may be Montana State’s Isaiah Ifanse.
Ifanse has been a fixture for the Bobcats’ offense over the past few seasons but had his best year yet in 2021. Fueling a formidable playoff contender, Ifanse amassed 1,623 yards and 10 scores on 280 carries across the team’s run as a championship runner-up.
At 5’10”, 203 pounds, Ifanse is a shorter back, lacking in elite mass. But he compensates with a hyper-active running style and consistently finishes forward in contact situations.
Blake Watson, Old Dominion
Old Dominion has quietly amassed a respectable quantity of talent on the offensive side of the ball. Wide receiver Ali Jennings, a transfer from West Virginia, broke out in 2021. And he was joined in the receiving game by 6’8″ tight end Zack Kuntz, who’s a 2023 NFL Draft sleeper in his own right. They also have an intriguing tackle prospect in Nick Saldiveri and an exciting running back behind him: Blake Watson.
Watson was initially recruited by the Monarchs as a wide receiver. Yet, in 2021, he moved into a more traditional RB role and showed great promise in his new niche. The 5’9″, 193-pound runner racked up 1,112 yards and eight carries on 215 carries in 11 games. Watson shows good burst upfield and can use fast feet and loose hips to follow closely behind blocks. He’s also a savvy runner who can use throttle control to navigate congestion, and his natural receiving ability shows up when passes come his way.