After years of poor play, the Cincinnati Bengals have been one of the best teams in the NFL for the past two years. Look for the Bengals to again be one of the best teams in the NFL, and to win the AFC North in 2023. The team’s top divisional competition will be the Baltimore Ravens, who added several offensive weapons. The other two teams in the division — Cleveland and Pittsburgh — will be lucky to make the playoffs this year and should have top 15 picks in the 2024 NFL Draft.
In addition to taking a look at the AFC North, this week’s NFL Draft Notebook also reviews the 2020 running back class, previews the 2024 running back group, and much more.
AFC North Preview
Look for the Cincinnati Bengals to have another strong season after going to back-to-back AFC Championship Games. The main reason the Bengals have been so successful is their outstanding offense led by Joe Burrow. This offense should be even better this coming season as the team added Orlando Brown Jr., the top offensive tackle available this offseason. While the roster did lose some players on the defensive side of the ball, the front office spent its first three picks in the 2023 NFL Draft on potential replacements.
How the Baltimore Ravens’ season goes this year will depend on Lamar Jackson’s health. If he can stay on the field, the former NFL MVP will have some much-improved targets to throw to in Odell Beckham Jr. and Zay Flowers. Plus, new offensive coordinator Todd Monken knows how to get the ball to his tight end, so expect Mark Andrews to have a strong season. Look for the Ravens’ defense to be productive again in 2023, after finishing 6th in the NFL last year.
This season we should see much-improved play from quarterback Deshaun Watson after he had the worst seasons of his career. What is the reason for optimism? Watson enters the campaign without a suspension hanging over his head, and the team will have a more wide-open offense. The Browns should also see improved play on the defensive side of the ball now that new defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz is in charge.
While Kenny Pickett showed improved play at the end of the season, he is easily the worst quarterback in the division. On the positive side, Pickett does have several playmakers he can get the ball to, and he will be playing behind a better offensive line. The Steelers defense will again be led by T.J. Watt and his 77.5 career sacks, as well as Alex Highsmith, who had 14.5 sacks last year. The team also added several defensive backs this offseason including second-round pick Joey Porter Jr.
Top-Five Running Backs From The 2020 NFL Draft
It usually takes three years to evaluate a draft class, so over the next few months our NFL Draft Notebook will be looking back at the 2020 draft class. This week, we look at the running back position. This class was led by Clyde Edwards-Helaire, who has not lived up to expectations — to say the least. However, the class did have several impressive day-two picks, including Jonathan Taylor and D’Andre Swift, who have solidified themselves as starters on Sundays.
1. Jonathan Taylor, Indianapolis Colts
Jonathan Taylor was regarded as one of the best running backs going into the 2022 season after rushing for 1,811 yards and scoring 18 touchdowns in 2021. Unfortunately, the Colts’ offense was a complete disaster and Taylor rushed for under 1,000 yards for the first time in his career. Look for him to bounce back this coming season if he can stay healthy, serving as a reliable running threat in the backfield for first-round pick, Anthony Richardson.
2. D’Andre Swift, Philadelphia Eagles
When healthy, D’Andre Swift has produced at a high level, but unfortunately the most games he has played in a season has been 14. Despite rushing for over 500 yards, and accounting for at least 46 receptions each the past three seasons, the Lions decided to move on from Swift. In April, Swift was traded to the Eagles for a fourth-round pick where he will hope to have better luck injury-wise.
3. J.K. Dobbins, Baltimore Ravens
Yet another running back who has battled health issues is J.K. Dobbins, who was held to eight games in 2022. However, he looked like one of the better running backs in the last part of the season. In the final four games of the season, he led the league in rushing yards and yards per carry. Baltimore is counting on him to play like he did at the end of last year since they didn’t add any competition for him this offseason.
4. AJ Dillon, Green Bay Packers
The Green Bay Packers will likely count on the running game more next season, now that Aaron Rodgers is in New York. While Dillion backs up Aaron Jones, he still should be able to rush around 1,000 yards after compiling 770 yards in 2022.
5. Cam Akers, Los Angeles Rams
Cam Akers had his ups and downs last season. He started the campaign off by seeing limited playing time and requesting a trade. He finished the year on a strong point, rushing for over 100 yards in each of the last three games.
2024 NFL Draft Running Back Class Preview
Top Player: Raheim Sanders, Arkansas
While a lot of people have Ohio State’s TreVeyon Henderson rated as the top running back in the 2024 NFL Draft, the highest-rated guy on my board is Raheim Sanders of Arkansas. Sanders has excellent production, finishing second in the SEC in rushing last year with 1,443 yards. Sanders averaged an impressive 6.5 yards per carry. The main reason for his high production is his impressive strength as a runner. He routinely breaks tackles and is one of the most physical ball carriers in this year’s NFL Draft. He also has good speed for a 6-foot-2, 227-pound back and shows the quick burst to get through the hole and an ability to break off the long run. In addition to his ability as a runner, he is a reliable pass catcher out of the backfield, hauling in 28 passes in 2022. If Sanders can have another productive season, he should be a late first-round pick.
Guy I Would Stand On The Table For: Trey Benson, Florida State
One of the more powerful running backs in the 2024 NFL Draft is Trey Benson of Florida State. Last season, Benson set a Pro Football Focus college record by forcing 0.51 missed tackles per rush. When watching his film it is easy to see why he causes so many missed tackles. The gifted ball carrier shows elite contact balance, good lower body strength, and an impressive ability to make quick cuts for a bigger back. In addition to his power, he shows good speed for his size and had 14 carries that went for 20+ yards in 2022, which led the ACC. He is also a proven threat as a kick returner with a career average of 38.4 yards per attempt.
Overrated: Braelon Allen, Wisconsin
A player who is getting compared to Tennessee Titans running back Derrick Henry is Braelon Allen. However, these comparisons are way too lofty for Allen. The Wisconsin star has nowhere near the power and strength Henry has. While Allen has broken his share of tackles, most of the tacklers who are not successful try and tackle him way too high and with poor form. A couple of other reasons he carries a day-three grade on my board: his upright running style, lack of production in the passing game, and only average explosiveness.
Sleeper: Bucky Irving, Oregon
One of the most underrated running backs in the 2024 NFL Draft is Oregon’s Bucky Irving. The reason some people are overlooking him is his lack of size. However, his strength as a runner and contact balance help make up for this deficit. In addition to his power, he is also a dynamic runner who shows the explosion to quickly get through the gap and the speed to break off the long run. One more positive with him is his threat in the passing game, averaging 9.6 yards per catch on 31 receptions in 2022.
Biggest Risk: E.J. Smith, Stanford
A player who shows high potential, yet has limited production, is Emmitt Smith’s son, E.J. Smith. Last season, he was only able to appear in a game and a half before suffering a season-ending injury. He also saw limited time in 2021, only starting one game and rushing for just 133 yards. The reason he still carries a high grade, despite his lack of production, is his high upside. As a runner, he shows great vision, consistent hands as a receiver, and the power to regularly break tackles. One other concern with him, besides his injury history, is his ball security. In just two games last year he fumbled three times; in order to see the field in the NFL must improve in this area.
Breakout Player: Jaylen Wright, Tennessee
Look for Tennessee running back Jaylen Wright to have a breakout campaign in 2023. He is a dynamic runner, and the Vols will likely rely on the running game more this season as they break in a new quarterback. The first trait that sticks out with Wright is his impressive speed, which allows him to be a home run threat. Look for the speedster to run an impressive 40-yard dash at the NFL Combine, evident by his 6.29-second, 55-meter time in high school, which was the top time in the nation. To go along with his speed, Wright is also a determined runner who keeps his feet moving on contact and shows good contact balance. If he can improve his vision as a runner, expect Wright to be one of the leading rushers in the SEC this season.
To look at all of the running backs in the 2024 NFL Draft make sure to check out this Running Back Preseason Preview.
— Another player who could have a breakout season this year is Jase McClellan of Alabama. After being a backup last year, McClellan will be the go-to back for the Tide in 2023. He has the traits to be one of the better backs in the SEC. His ability to help in both the running and passing game is crucial. On the ground, he is a one-cut runner who shows solid power and impressive quickness for his size. He also has been counted on as a receiver during his time with the Tide. Last season, McClellan caught 14 passes for 174 yards and displayed consistent hands. He is a good blocker in pass protection and doesn’t shy away from contact. One more positive is his contribution to Alabama’s special teams unit.
— One of the most versatile players in the 2024 NFL Draft is Will Shipley of Clemson. Last season, he became the first player in ACC history to be selected as a first-team All-ACC honoree in three different categories: running back, all-purpose, and specialist. As a runner, he shows good instincts and is one of the more powerful runners in this draft class. When it comes to helping out in the passing game he shows soft hands and the agility to pick up yards after the catch. He also averaged 25 yards per kick return, displaying the ability to help out on special teams in the NFL as well.
— While TreVeyon Henderson is the more highly rated back by most draftniks, Miyan Williams actually led Ohio State in rushing last season. On the year, he accounted for 825 yards while averaging 6.4 yards per carry. He showed a nose for the ball by rushing for 14 touchdowns including five vs. Rutgers. As a pro prospect, Williams is a hard-nosed runner who is extremely hard to bring down. He flexes impressive short-area quickness for a 5-foot-9, 225-pound running back, although he lacks elite long-distance speed. One more concern is his needed improvement as a receiver, especially when it comes to route running.
— A player who definitely needs a bounce-back season is new North Carolina State quarterback Brennan Armstrong, who transferred over from Virginia. Last season was a disaster for Armstong as he threw 12 interceptions on the year — compared to just seven touchdowns. He showed spotty accuracy by completing just 55% of his passes, and didn’t produce many downfield throws, which makes people question his arm strength. On the positive side, Armstrong was one of the better young quarterbacks in college football before the 2022 season. In 2021, he completed an impressive 65 percent of his passes, including 31 touchdown passes and just 10 interceptions. He also showed NFL glimpses in 2020 by tying for the FBS lead with the most single-season games (6) with 200+ yards passing and 45+ yards rushing. If he can have a good season, teams will consider Armstrong on day three of the 2024 NFL Draft.
— ESPN ranked the top offenses in the NFL last week, and the lowest-rated offense was the Tennessee Titans. Look for this to be a major focus of their offseason next year as they look to add several playmakers. If they are not in the running for one of the quarterbacks in the class, expect Tennessee to take a close look at Marvin Harrison Jr. of Ohio State. Harrison is easily the top wide receiver in the 2024 NFL Draft and would give the quarterback of the future, Will Levis, a much needed number-one wide out.
— The Los Angles Rams will likely have to count more on rookies this season than they have in the past. One rookie who will make an impact is Puka Nacua, the fifth-round pick out of BYU. He has seen his share of reps with the first and second-string offense in OTA’s and seems to be grasping the offense well. It would not be a surprise if he is one of the team’s top three wide receivers by the end of the year.
— Earlier this month the NFL passed a rule that will give the kickoff return team the ball at the 25-yard line for a touchback or fair catch. This rule could change how teams value kick returners in the NFL, since we will likely see very few kickoff returns in the NFL next season. Due to this, players who excelled at returning kicks in college won’t be valued as much in the NFL.
Prediction Of The Week
After seeing two running backs drafted in the top 12 of the 2023 NFL Draft, we won’t see one taken in the top 20 of the 2024 NFL Draft.