Pitt RB Israel Abanikanda was one of the most explosive breakout stars of the 2022 season. The 2023 NFL Draft RB class is incredibly strong, and the margin for error is slim for every prospect. But Abanikanda’s profile as a potential workhorse is unique among his peers, and he also might have the physical upside to be a volume back.
Israel Abanikanda NFL Draft Profile
- Position: Running Back
- School: Pitt
- Current Year: Junior
- Height/Weight: 5’10”, 217 pounds
- Length: 32″
- Hand: 8 1/4″
36 carries for 320 yards and six touchdowns. That was the stat line that “Izzy” Abanikanda logged in Week 6 of the 2022 college football season against the Virginia Tech Hokies. It’s a stat line that gave him the school’s single-game record for rushing yardage over Hall of Famer Tony Dorsett — and it’s probably the game that led you to your first Google search of “Israel Abanikanda NFL Draft.”
It was a historic performance from Abanikanda and one that gave him the national attention he deserves, as he embarked on a dominant 2022 campaign. But in truth, Abanikanda’s ability was teased as far back as his high school days.
Abanikanda was viewed as a potential diamond in the rough when he joined Pitt as a three-star recruit in 2020. He flashed all throughout the 2020 season, and everyone — including his then-QB Kenny Pickett, gushed about the natural talent he brought to the fold.
In 2021, Abanikanda flashed his promise in a rotational role, accruing 123 carries for 651 yards and seven scores, and he also added 24 catches for 197 yards and a touchdown. 2022 saw Abanikanda emerge as the lead back for the Panthers, and in Pickett’s absence, he became the premier playmaker on offense.
Once he became Pittsburgh’s lead back, Abanikanda didn’t even glance behind him. He barreled forward and dominated defenses week after week, amassing 1,431 yards and 20 touchdowns on 239 carries, averaging six yards per attempt.
It goes without saying that Abanikanda was a first-team All-ACC honoree. In fact, he fielded the most votes of any ACC running back by a sizable margin, beating out Will Shipley, Sean Tucker, and Trey Benson.
He’s not a secret anymore — Abanikanda is the real deal. And as the 2023 NFL Draft approaches, many now wonder just how far he can rise up the board.
Israel Abanikanda Scouting Report
Here’s a closer look at Abanikanda’s 2023 NFL Draft scouting report. After a breakout season, he’s entered the early-round conversation. Can he be one of the first backs selected?
So much of playing the running back position is about proper execution, but RBs with elite physical skill sets can set themselves apart. Abanikanda has that to start. At 5’10”, 217 pounds, the Pitt RB has a very dense, compact frame with great overall mass and natural leverage in contact situations.
Going further, Abanikanda is an instant accelerator with elite explosive capacity. He can surge into open space and immediately create distance. He also brings dangerous burst in congestion and can immediately escape and find daylight after shredding through tackles.
Additionally, Abanikanda’s long-track explosiveness can destroy tackling angles upfield. And with his elite explosiveness, he can make the most out of tight seams.
Explosiveness is more important than long speed for RBs, but it doesn’t hurt that Abanikanda has both. He has legitimate field-stretching speed in space. He’s able to hit an extra gear and create separation against defenders with his long-strider speed.
At Pitt’s Pro Day, Abanikanda was able to confirm the vertical athleticism visible on tape with his testing numbers. He jumped an astonishing 41″ in the vertical jump and ran an unofficial 4.41 40-yard dash, which some onlookers timed in the 4.3 range.
Abanikanda is an extraordinary linear athlete, but he also has good agility and twitch as well. With loose hips and quick feet, he can effortlessly vary his strides to sift through congestion and reach open space. In space, he has solid twitch and foot speed.
The Pitt RB can levy quick cuts and quickly reset his feet to explode downfield. Moreover, Abanikanda has the lateral agility to sidestep and spin away from contact risks in the backfield, and he can quickly reset attack angles while setting up in the pocket.
At his size, Abanikanda brings definite contact balance. His strong lower body and leverage as a runner allow him to chisel through tight spots. Expanding on this, the Pitt RB actively uses his hips to rotate through tackles, shake off solo defenders, and roll through arm tackles in congestion, even while gaining speed upfield.
Furthermore, Abanikanda can splice through crowds and continually reset his feet to distribute weight and stay up. While he’s not as proficient at absorbing direct blows, his balance in congestion is a strength.
Operationally, Abanikanda brings appeal as well. The Pitt RB has shown he can identify lanes quickly and engage with decisiveness. He’s also shown he can process second option lanes quickly and divert course when met with resistance.
Particularly between the tackles, Abanikanda can quickly process cutback lanes and hit those lanes with authority, and he can decisively plant and drive through open gaps.
Abanikanda has above-average vision, but his creative instincts inside the backfield more often guide him through adverse situations. Abanikanda can use crisp hop-steps in the backfield to reset attack angles while still pressing upfield and supplementing acceleration.
In a similar vein, he can gallop through tight spaces to avoid being tripped up, and he’s shown he can set up defenders and lure them into blocking paths, then sidestep around and into space. Similarly, he can actively use cuts to set up defenders in blockers’ paths while pressing upfield with his explosiveness.
Going further, Abanikanda can instinctively split-step and chop his feet before adapting and snaking inside to available lanes. The Pitt RB has a great feel for small seams inside when outside runs are walled off.
Abanikanda can patiently follow blocks downfield and adjust long-track angles as space fluctuates. That patience and instinct show up in tight spaces as well. Abanikanda allows blocks to flow in front of him and can pierce through narrow paths on inside runs.
Though he might not be classified as a bruiser, Abanikanda does bring a tangible element of physicality to the fold. He’s shown he can squirm through arm tackles and churn through contact to a degree, and he’s an energetic runner in close quarters who fights to stay up.
He’s willing to lower his shoulder into contact and finish forward on runs, and he secures the ball well in contact situations. Most notably, Abanikanda proactively and combatively uses stiff arms to pry lunging defenders off his frame and can levy successive stiff arms while moving upfield. That targeted physicality is what’s most appealing.
On passing downs, Abanikanda brings good utility as well. While he still has room to grow as a receiver, he’s able to run routes out of the slot and employ a degree of ankle flexion on quick outs.
Out of the backfield, he can run RB angle routes, sneak routes, and swings, and he has the burst to be a vertical threat in various alignments. Furthermore, Abanikanda’s explosiveness, agility, and balance translate well after the catch.
As a pass protector, Abanikanda is very willing and urgent, and he gives great effort when chipping defenders outside. He hurries to his spot and understands play leverage. But what’s more — he can square up free rushers, engage with his hands inside the torso, and carry outside rushers past the apex.
Beyond simply obstructing, Abanikanda has shown he can keep his head up, maintain synergy, and sustain blocks to a degree.
Abanikanda’s Areas for Improvement
Abanikanda is a phenomenal athlete with a strong overall profile, but there are some negatives to note. The Pitt RB has good agility, but he doesn’t quite have elite lateral twitch or movement speed, and he sometimes has to gather himself ahead of cuts.
Moreover, Abanikanda doesn’t quite have the sheer mass to bowl through contact and drag defenders consistently.
Abanikanda’s most notable area for improvement, however, might be his full-field vision, which is questionable. He has the athleticism to bounce runs outside, but he often lingers in the backfield when lanes are closed off.
He’s a great runner inside the tackles, but he’s almost too comfortable there. He sometimes misses opportunities to bounce runs outside into space, deferring to congested lanes. Similarly, he doesn’t always see available space and can get tunnel vision inside the tackles.
Going further, Abanikanda occasionally misses initial lanes inside the pocket and careens into offensive linemen. At times, the Pitt RB can struggle to control his momentum out of the exchange and reduce space for himself when he needs to adapt.
Abanikanda can be a bit indecisive when faced with impending contact in the backfield, and there are occasions when he can better use space to keep himself clean and throttle up. There will sometimes be a delay in opening his hips to available lanes, giving defenders advantageous pursuit angles inside.
As a receiver, Abanikanda’s routes out of the backfield can be more detailed at times. He doesn’t always sink to maximum capacity. And when targets do come his way, he sometimes resorts to body-catching over the middle of the field. He’ll let the ball get inside his torso and fail to corral passes with his hands — a habit that can attract drops.
Among other things, Abanikanda can be uncontrolled as a pass blocker. He can do a better job staying in phase, and he sometimes plays himself out of position on approach, with room to be more patient and composed.
And finally, while Abanikanda doesn’t have bad pad level overall as a runner, he can be a bit upright through congestion sometimes, which can allow defenders to get inside his frame and stall his momentum.
Current Draft Projection for Pitt RB Israel Abanikanda
Abanikanda carries a top-75 grade on my board and is my sixth-ranked RB prospect in the 2023 NFL Draft, behind only Bijan Robinson, Jahmyr Gibbs, Tank Bigsby, Kendre Miller, and Tyjae Spears. He’s very much worthy of early-round capital and could field consideration as early as Day 2.
Complete runners who lack glaring weaknesses will always have a place in the NFL, and to start, Abanikanda falls under that distinction. He has the necessary size and density to go along with elite explosiveness and high-level long-strider speed — traits at the center of his big-play ability.
But Abanikanda also flashes the quick processing ability and smooth creative instincts between the tackles to chisel away at small seams, and he has enough lateral agility, foot speed, twitch, and contact balance to work through congestion.
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Abanikanda’s profile is one that’s proficient working in congestion and in space, as he not only has the explosiveness to stretch the field but also the targeted physicality to keep himself clean as he works upfield.
The Pitt RB’s full-field vision can improve, as he passes up valuable opportunities to bounce outside too often. And he still has room to refine his ability on passing downs, although he has a serviceable floor as a blocker and already provides some versatility as a receiver.
Abanikanda’s high-level physical skill set alludes to universal scheme versatility as a runner, and he’s already very comfortable working between the tackles with inside zone and gap schemes. Additionally, at under 21 years old, he still has a ton of tread left on the tires.
With his complete pallet of traits, Abanikanda has the build of a workhorse and the athleticism of a true dynamic NFL runner. He can be a productive impact starter at the NFL level for a long time, with the ability to contribute on all three downs.
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