Lacking a definitive top prospect, the 2024 NFL Draft’s running back class could face a historically long wait

Texas' Jonathon Brooks stands out as the 'what if' player. Could he be a future Dallas Cowboy?

(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports)
(Henry Russell/Yahoo Sports)

Bishop Sankey might want to get some Champagne ready. His days as the lowest first-off-the-board running back in NFL Draft history might be numbered.

That bit of oddball draft trivia is a solid introduction to the 2024 running back class, with Sankey having headlined a group in 2014 that appeared to be riddled with deficiencies and lacking star power. The result: Running backs were frozen out of the first 53 picks, resulting in Sankey setting a record for the latest first running back selected when he went 54th overall to the Tennessee Titans.

One decade later, the class of running backs in this month’s selection process could unseat Sankey.

It’s a class that is not bereft of talent, but certainly lacks a defining superstar in a draft that is loaded with quarterbacks, wide receivers and offensive linemen. It has also become a position where the devaluation now begins on draft night, thanks to a league that is leaning more than ever into survival by committee and gap-filling short-term contracts below the elite players.

The reality is never more apparent than when you gauge the class across personnel departments, which continue to be almost completely out of alignment when it comes to ranking the top running back prospect of 2024. Maybe the only thing that unites them in a singular opinion about the class is that it’s a bad year for franchises seeking a do-everything star. This after the 2023 draft offered one of biggest no-brainer running back evaluations in recent memory, with Texas’ Bijan Robinson being the consensus No. 1 player at the position on virtually every draft board across the league. The result was the Atlanta Falcons selecting Robinson with the No. 8 overall pick, which was the highest slot for a running back since Saquon Barkley went No. 2 in 2018.

This year the landscape couldn’t be more different.

“There’s nobody close to Bijan or [Jahmyr] Gibbs or if you’re going back [to previous drafts], even some good second-round guys [from the 2022 draft] like a Breece Hall and Kenneth Walker,” an AFC general manager said of the class. “But when you get to the third and fourth [rounds], I think there’s going to be some good value on the board with guys that can be solid. I just doubt anyone from this one rounds into a high-impact, every-down player. Which is fine, because I don’t think that’s a template at the position anymore, anyway.”

In one sense, it’s a class that represents the typical ebb and flow of talent that has seemingly impacted every position other than wide receiver in recent years. One talent evaluator remarked that this is a good year for quarterbacks at the top, but that next year, the league will be talking about that position being a significant weakness, possibly even as thin as the 2022 draft, which produced only one selection — Kenny Pickett — in the first 73 picks. The flip side of that ledger? The 2025 running back class is expected to be strong and potentially feature a surefire top player in the group.

This year, it will be more about a buffet of traits and scheme fits that drive the pecking order. It’s also a class that could have a lot of depth slammed into the middle rounds. An NFC general manager suggested that as much as there is lacking star power at the top, there could be as many as “12 to 15” running backs drafted from the top of the second round to the end of the fourth. Many teams will make those decisions with the hope of turning a player with some red flags into a more complete player.

“I think there can be a really productive player or two in there, where a guy goes in the fourth or fifth round and gets with the right staff and scheme and really exceeds what we all thought he could be,” the GM said.

It wouldn’t be unprecedented, of course. Even in the lowliest of classes. That Sankey draft, for example, produced fourth-rounder Devonta Freeman, who averaged nearly 1,600 yards rushing and receiving and 14 touchdowns in 2015 and 2016, helping propel the Falcons to a Super Bowl appearance. Freeman was a Pro Bowl selection both of those years before injuries derailed his career. And one year before that Sankey draft, in a 2013 running backs class that also didn’t include a first-rounder, the Pittsburgh Steelers drafted Le’Veon Bell 48th overall, setting the stage for a player who was one of the best running backs in the league during his first five seasons, making three Pro Bowls and two All-Pro teams.

So with that in mind, here is a brief look at a handful of the running backs who will be jammed into the middle rounds of this draft, along with the outlook of each player from a league evaluator.

Texas' Jonathon Brooks had a private visit with the Dallas Cowboys, who appear to be in the market for improving their running back depth. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)
Texas' Jonathon Brooks had a private visit with the Dallas Cowboys, who appear to be in the market for improving their running back depth. (Photo by Tim Warner/Getty Images)

He's the “what if” player in the class among talent evaluators.

Brooks tore his ACL in the 11th game of the season for the Longhorns. Multiple evaluators told Yahoo Sports they believe he easily would have been the consensus No. 1 running back in this draft if he hadn’t been injured. But from just the film — really only one season of it — Brooks’ total package was trending toward star territory.

The Dallas Cowboys had a private visit with him and their second-round pick (56) is right about where some think running backs could start coming off the board.

“I still believe he’ll be the first running back taken, even with the injury,” an AFC general manager said. “He was great before getting hurt. … Only seeing the production for one year is a little concerning, but you can also look at it like that’s less wear and tear.”

One of the candidates to be first off the board, a few evaluators recommended Wright for our All-Juice Team this year. His positives included prototypical size at the position and high-level speed and athleticism. Like Brooks, he also showcased that he could at least be a capable receiver out of the backfield. One NFC scout named Wright as the player who could go higher than people expect — possibly even the first few picks of the second round.

“Tough runner,” the scout said. “Punishes guys when they hit him.”

Another player pitched by a few evaluators for All-Juice Team candidacy, Corum is not considered to be the likely first running back taken. That said, there’s wide agreement that he’s the kind of character player who can win interviews and could be a surprise pick based on scheme and connection with a staff. At 5-foot-8, he doesn’t have the top-shelf size that most teams are looking for, but shorter backs are also being employed more creatively in some offenses, too. He will likely be more of scheme selection than a player who fits all styles. An NFC scout said the “hopeful” comp for Corum would be Ray Rice, but added that he profiles as a slightly more athletic Devonta Freeman.

“He was more explosive and ran tougher in the little bit of the 2022 games that I saw,” the NFC scout said. “There’s a chance there was some mental hangover from his [previous offseason meniscus] surgery.”

Another popular All-Juice Team suggestion — he actually made the final team — Lloyd has small hands and had fumbling problems. There are definitely split opinions on him. Some believe he’s a candidate to be the first running back taken, while others don’t think he’s in the top five at the position. One AFC general manager deemed Lloyd’s fumbling “fixable” and pointed to Lloyd as the running back he believes has the most potential to get taken somewhere in the middle of the draft and then hit big.

“He is built to get a lot of carries in games,” the GM said. “Had a good Senior Bowl week. Showed he could do everything. USC also didn’t utilize him as well as they could have last season.”

He didn’t run the 40-yard dash or do shuttle work at the NFL scouting combine or Wisconsin's pro day. That left an impression on evaluators. Clearly, there was a belief in the personnel community that evaluators would get to test his speed and agility. When that didn’t happen, it feels like it all but eliminated his chances at being the first running back taken.

Still, Allen's muscled-up 6-1, 235-pound size and imposing physique are eye-catching. He also just turned 20 and had a massive amount of production at Wisconsin over his three years there. An AFC evaluator said Allen had some “Derrick Henry” potential in terms of his style of play.

“He’s a freak at 20 physically,” the evaluator said. “Not many guys are built like that. … Behind a good offensive line, he could be really effective.”

A candidate to be the first running back taken, he’s in that “total package” territory with Brooks. He ran a fast 4.39 40-yard dash at the scouting combine and showcased the athleticism that looks so promising. He had two years of production at Florida State after transferring from Oregon but not a lot of “heavy load” games. Evaluators were fans of his athleticism, growth and versatility he showed, especially as a pass catcher. But there was one interesting divergence of opinion on running style. An NFC evaluator who believes Benson could thrive in the NFL in the right scheme said Benson needs to commit to contact plays more consistently rather than looking for clean running lanes.

“He can be physical, but he looks like he’s a little bit of a crease hunter at times,” the NFC evaluator said. “I don’t want to be overly critical of that. It meshes with his speed and creates big plays. But the level of athleticism is about to take a huge jump in the defenses he’s facing and sometimes he’s just going to have to take tough yards.”

Seen as a potential top running back prior to the combine, Estime’s stock hit a brick wall when he ran a 4.71 40-yard dash at the combine. Built in the mold of a punishing, physical rusher with size, he had plenty of high-level production at Notre Dame over the past two years. Evaluators were very intrigued with where his speed would land … and then there was the combine thud. He ran a much better unofficial time at his pro day, registering in the high 4.5s and low 4.6s, but it’s hard to erase the oddity of what happened in Indianapolis. While it might have impacted how personnel departments see his ceiling, his floor as productive physical change of pace back remained intact.

“I don’t know what happened [at the combine] with that 40, but I don’t feel like it reflected in the tape,” an NFC scout said. “There are plays where when he gets into the open field, he’s easily running away from everyone — and that’s not what a 4.71 running back does.”