UCLA RB Zach Charbonnet could’ve declared last year, and he likely would’ve been amongst the top five at the position. The 2022 NFL Draft saw 23 running backs selected across all seven rounds. However, zero RBs were drafted in the first round for the first time since 2014.
The 2023 NFL RB class is coming back with a vengeance, as it is one of the most talented groups in recent memory. Did Charbonnet’s decision to return actually hamper his draft ceiling, or does his talent make it a moot point? Let’s find out.
Zach Charbonnet NFL Draft Profile
- Position: RB
- School: UCLA
- Current Year: Senior
- Height/Weight: 6’1″, 220 pounds
Hailing from California powerhouse Oak Christian, Charbonnet finished his high school career with 4,741 rushing yards and 62 total touchdowns. With his production and the school’s notoriety, it’s no wonder the Camarillo native earned recognition as a four-star recruit and a top-five running back in the class.
Despite offers from 20+ programs, including Pac-12 juggernauts UCLA and USC, Charbonnet decided to sign with Michigan. And after setting the Wolverines’ record for most rushing touchdowns by a freshman (11) — along with 850 rushing yards — the sky seemed to be the limit.
However, he fell out of the rotation in 2020, causing him to enter the transfer portal heading into his true-junior season. Where better to reinvigorate your career than in your home state? Charbonnet took his talents back to SoCal, joining Chip Kelly and the UCLA Bruins.
It didn’t take long for him to run rampant on the West Coast, as he immediately stepped into the starting role. In fact, he’s played so well that he garnered a nickname: “The Terminator.”
Across two seasons in LA, with a few games remaining in 2022, Charbonnet has surpassed 2,200 rushing yards and 25 TDs on just over 350 carries. By the time he says “Hasta la vista, baby” to the UCLA fan base, he will have effectively channeled his inner Skynet and laid waste to the entire conference.
But we’ve seen dominant college running backs leave for the NFL and flame out quicker than Twitter under new ownership. Will Charbonnet be another forgotten star, or is his skill set conducive to professional success?
Zach Charbonnet Scouting Report
UCLA head coach Chip Kelly knew what Charbonnet could bring to the Bruins early on, saying this last September:
“He’s got that innate talent that all the great running backs have.”
And Kelly’s view of his RB1 hasn’t changed this season, as he stated, “He’s got a work ethic that’s off the charts. His dedication to the film room, his dedication to the meeting room, his dedication to the weight room is unmatched.”
Where Charbonnet Wins
Charbonnet is one of a few running backs I would bang the table for in the 2023 NFL Draft. Simply put, you know what you are getting from him. A natural and powerful runner, Charbonnet lowers his shoulders into contact and runs behind his pads better than most in the class.
By all accounts, he owns a quiet demeanor off the field. But on it, he makes the bells ring for nearly every opponent he faces. Charbonnet is less “make you miss” and more “run through you,” which lends to his north-south style.
The UCLA RB owns impressive contact balance, even for a bigger back at 6’1″ and 220 pounds. He shrugs off arm tackles and has the leg drive and pure strength to churn through congested areas.
Additionally, he doesn’t shy away from initiating contact and finishes every run with a sought-after forward lean. That aggressive, determined play style, paired with his nuance as a ball carrier, makes Charbonnet an RB coach’s dream.
However, the UCLA RB has enough lateral quickness to bounce outside or cut upfield and generate chunk gains. He’s an easy accelerator, exploding out of the backfield. In fact, he hits holes and creases with unparalleled violence, providing an imposing presence that wears down defenses.
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While Charbonnet is a bruising back, he knows how to get the most out of his abilities. While I liken him to a runaway freight train with the ball in his hands, the UCLA RB is more of a Tesla in how he computes rushing lanes.
He stays square and patient behind the line of scrimmage, allowing his blockers to reach their landmarks. That innate vision sets NFL RBs apart from those on the college stage.
At the next level, your God-given size and athletic ability can only take you so far — technique, awareness, and film study become paramount. When using his vision in tandem with rapid feet, Charbonnet can bounce between holes with relative ease, taking advantage of cutback lanes.
In the open field, the UCLA product deploys an active off-hand that can dish out punishing stiff arms. His jump cut also effectively creates space between him and incoming defenders swiftly.
Now, let’s not forget the other aspects of being an RB. Charbonnet has solid hands as a receiver, dropping less than 10 passes in his career. But more importantly, the UCLA RB has a strong foundation as a pass blocker. He sets with a wide base and can absorb blitzes from linebackers.
Charbonnet’s Areas for Improvement
Now, although I love Charbonnet as much as the next analyst, I recognize no prospect is perfect. Injuries will be an area NFL teams explore, as Charbonnet missed the entire spring session heading into his true-freshman year at Michigan with a knee injury that required a procedure.
He played the majority of that season but stated that his knee never felt 100%. Since then, Charbonnet has dealt with knee, calf, and biceps injuries, none of which proved too significant.
Moreover, the UCLA RB begins to lose ground to other prospects in the class athletically. He really doesn’t have any elite, game-changing traits just decision-makers can bank on.
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Charbonnet is a bit stiff when changing direction and lacks an overall fluidity to his game. Switching the ball between arms on the move can be clunky, and he has some wasted motion pressing and bouncing from holes.
He’ll fire his feet and try to utilize upper-body deception (head/shoulder fakes), but in most cases, it would’ve been more efficient to work upfield. Speaking of, Charbonnet doesn’t have the second gear to gash defenses for long TDs, as DBs — or even some LBs — have the top speed to track him down.
And laterally, the California native doesn’t possess the wiggle/twitch to create for himself in space. Lastly, Charbonnet is little more than a checkdown option as a receiver due to his aforementioned athletic limitations.
Current Draft Projection for UCLA RB Zach Charbonnet
Charbonnet was easily in my top five at the position last cycle, so it was surprising that he returned. Yet, I won’t fault a player for achieving their goals and earning a college degree, which appears to have been his plan since leaving high school.
Now, however, Charbonnet is competing with a far more talented class, dropping him into the 6-10 range among RBs. He is still one of the safest backs a team can select, but that high floor comes with a low ceiling.
Franchises and fan bases want dynamic weapons at their skill positions, and Charbonnet doesn’t fall into that bucket. And honestly, his one-cut skill set, while still useful in a league that is moving to lighter boxes, is not rare. Plus, the value of running backs in the draft is lower than most positions.
As a result, Charbonnet likely won’t hear his name called until early to mid-Day 3. Yet, there is always the chance a team (presumably one that runs a healthy amount of inside zone/gap) that covets his production, intangibles, and downhill thumping snags him at the bottom of the third.
Nevertheless, whatever franchise selects Charbonnet in whatever round will get one of the best pure rushers in the 2023 NFL Draft — and one that should enjoy a lengthy and successful career in the league, barring injury.