If you've followed NFL free agency closely, you know the market for running backs like Melvin Gordon III and Todd Gurley wasn't robust. Both landed new jobs, but neither was highly compensated. Gordon got the bigger deal at $8 million per season with the Denver Broncos, and Gurley ended up with the Atlanta Falcons on a one-year, $6 million contract.
Teams simply aren't willing to spend big on a running back, and for good reason. Starting-caliber backs can be found later in the draft and at a budget price.
Last year's two leading rushers, Derrick Henry and Nick Chubb were both second-round draft picks, but starters can be found even later than Round 2. Alvin Kamara was a third-rounder, while budding star Aaron Jones was a fifth-round selection.
Does this year's draft class contain the next Kamara or Jones? It's entirely possible, and here, we'll examine some prospects who could be that guy. We'll be looking specifically at prospects ranked outside the top five on Bleacher Report draft analyst Matt Miller's big board and at players with the skill sets needed to be stars at the next level.
AJ Dillon, Boston College
Boston College's AJ Dillon wasn't known for his receiving ability in college. So as a prospect, he's closer to Chubb or Henry than Jones or Kamara. However, that's not necessarily a bad thing as Chubb has racked up 2,490 rushing yards and 16 rushing touchdowns in his first two professional seasons.
That's the sort of early impact NFL teams would love to have.
Dillon has the potential to have a similar impact as a runner. He amassed 1,685 yards on the ground in 2019 to go with 14 touchdowns and an impressive 5.3 yards per carry. At the scouting combine, he then ran a 4.53-second 40-yard dash at 247 pounds.
It's extremely unlikely that Dillon will hear his name called in the first couple of rounds—he's the seventh-ranked back on Miller's big board—but he'll likely hear his name called on the field early and often as a pro.
Darrynton Evans, Appalachian State
Teams looking more for a receiving back or leading committee member—similar to the roles Kamara and Jones fill—could be more interested in Darrynton Evans of Appalachian State. The small-school prospect has big-time ability and is the eighth-ranked running back on Miller's board.
In 2019, Evans rushed for 1,480 yards and caught 21 passes for another 198. He scored a total of 23 offensive touchdowns and added another on a kick return. Armed with 4.41 speed and top-notch agility, he has the potential to be an open-field nightmare for NFL defenders.
"He can run with patience, but has the loose hips and agile feet to plant-and-go in a hurry," NFL.com's Lance Zierlein wrote. "He sees the field and does a nice job of setting up and eluding tacklers with lateral cuts or stacked moves."
While Evans doesn't possess the size (5'10", 203 lbs) to be a bruising interior battering ram, he's big enough to be more than just a third-down option.
Antonio Gibson, Memphis
At 6'0" and 228 pounds, Memphis' Antonio Gibson is a bigger back and really more of a running back-wide receiver hybrid. He produced 735 receiving yards and just 369 rushing yards in 2019, though his 11.2 yards per carry were magnificent.
Gibson worked out as a receiver at the combine, too. Had he been listed as a running back, his 4.39-second 40-yard dash would have tied for the best at his position.
While some likely view Gibson as a receiver/returner at the next level, he could be a legitimate mismatch out of the backfield. Like the New Orleans Saints do with Kamara, teams could move Gibson from running back to the slot to the perimeter on the same drive. That would add schematic versatility to an up-tempo offense, making it difficult for defenses to adjust.
Gibson isn't a polished running back prospect, but he could shine as an offensive weapon in the right offense.
Ke'Shawn Vaughn, Vanderbilt
Vanderbilt's Ke'Shawn Vaughn is a tough, physical runner with enough receiving ability to play on any—and potentially every—down at the NFL level. Though he's more of a plant-and-go bruiser than an elusive runner, his ability to run through contact at 5'10" and 214 pounds shouldn't be overlooked.
"He's not hard to find, but can be hard to tackle," Zierlein wrote. "He's best suited to compete as a backup in a one-cut rushing attack from under center where he can build momentum and create yards after contact."
Like Kamara, Vaughn may come into the league as the No. 2 back behind an established veteran. However, his ability to produce in both the ground and passing games should get him plenty of early work. With 4.51 speed, he should be able to make the most of his opportunities.
This past season, Vaughn rushed for 1,028 yards with an average of 5.2 yards per carry. He also caught 28 passes for 270 more yards and scored 10 total touchdowns.
Eno Benjamin, Arizona State
Arizona State running back Eno Benjamin saw a notable dip in production this past season. He went from 1,642 rushing yards in 2018 to 1,083 in 2019. His average dropped from 5.5 yards per carry to 4.3.
However, Benjamin views the decline in running production—largely due to a change in surrounding talent and scheme—as a positive.
"I think I really, truly developed a leadership skill. I mean, it was not more so about me. It was about what can I do to help the team win," he said, per Darren Urban of the Arizona Cardinals' official site.
Benjamin has the mentality to be a committee back at the next level. He also has the skill set. A tremendous pass-catcher, he augmented his offensive production with 42 receptions and 347 receiving yards this past season.
As a pro, Benjamin will be able to contribute in both running and passing situations.
Rico Dowdle, South Carolina
If you're judging South Carolina's Rico Dowdle on his production, you're likely to be underwhelmed. He wasn't a major piece of the offense in 2019, carrying the ball just 106 times for 498 yards in 10 games. He also added 167 yards on 22 receptions.
Physically, though, Dowdle is an intriguing prospect. He has good enough speed (4.54-second 40) and even better explosiveness, as evidenced by his 38-inch vertical jump at the combine. On the playing field, he uses these traits to beat up on opposing defenders.
"His elusiveness is created with vision rather than wiggle and he's more determined than punishing as a finisher," Zierlein wrote.
As a pro, Dowdle should start out as a physical backup who can contribute on both early and later downs. With time, his skills could lead him to a starting role.