2020 NFL scouting combine preview: running backs

Yahoo Sports

The NFL scouting combine is essentially boiled down to four key phases: medical evaluation, interview, athletic testing and positional workouts.

This year, in previewing the 2020 combine, we decided to highlight one prospect at each position who needs to nail (at least) one phase of the combine.

We also wanted to highlight one smaller-program prospect at each position who could make a bigger name for himself with a strong performance in Indianapolis.

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The NFL scouting combine workouts begin Feb. 27 and run through March 1.

Previous combine previews: Quarterback

Running back overview

The decisions by Clemson’s Travis Etienne, Alabama’s Najee Harris and Oklahoma State’s Chuba Hubbard to return to school lightened the strength of the RB pool, but it’s still a good year to be looking for talent at the position.

J.K. Dobbins (Ohio State), D'Andre Swift (Georgia), Jonathan Taylor (Wisconsin), Zack Moss (Utah) and Clyde Edwards-Helaire (LSU) all helped lead successful teams last season with excellent rushing contributions. It’s considered a solid but not great class for pass-catching backs as well.

Thirty backs in all will be in Indianapolis, but there’s a question as to whether there’s a sure-fire first-round prospect among them. The past 10 NFL drafts have averaged 1.6 running backs in Round 1, and that’s about on par for what we expect this year, with Dobbins, Swift and Taylor possibly having the best chances to crack the top 32.

Who needs to nail the medical evaluation

Zack Moss

If you’re strictly grading Moss as a runner, he stacks up to pretty much every back in this class. He’s the Utes’ all-time leading rusher (4,067), and he also holds the top spot in school history in career rushing TDs with 38. His ability to break tackles, glide through gaps and keep his balance after contact all are top notch. Moss also blends quickness and power in a way that even some of the higher-ranked backs in this class cannot.

Utah RB Zack Moss is a great runner, but injury concerns persist. (Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Utah RB Zack Moss is a great runner, but injury concerns persist. (Photo by Jeff Halstead/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

But there are worries about Moss’ strange knee injury that ended his 2018 season, as well as a shoulder (AC separation) injury that caused him to miss parts of two games. Moss also suffered a right ankle injury in the 2018 season and will need a thorough medical vetting. He pulled out of the Senior Bowl to train in California, reportedly for non-injury reasons.

The cousin of former NFL WRs Santana and Sinorice Moss, Zack is a great talent, but NFL teams worry about his long-term durability. 

Who needs to nail the interviews

TCU RB Sewo Olonilua

There aren't many major character concerns in this position group, but NFL teams will want to know more about Olonilua’s arrest last spring that led to felony drug charges. Those legal issues later were resolved, and he was not disciplined further by the Horned Frogs after sitting out the first half of the 2019 season opener.

We checked with an area scout on Olonilua, who said he was “a good kid” but added that the “marijuana questions will be out there.” This is more of a case of determining whether this will be a problem going forward for his prospective NFL team rather than rehashing his past, which really isn’t all that concerning.

Who needs to nail the athletic testing

AJ Dillon, Boston College

The weigh-in will be the first interesting element of the combine for Dillon, who has played in the 250-pound range in his three years with the Eagles. NFL evaluators will scrutinize that number, as well as Dillon’s body-fat percentage.

But if he can run well in the 40-yard dash, turn in a relatively quick 3-cone drill for his size and perform well in the broad and high jumps relative to his mass, it will be fascinating to see where and how high he lands in the draft.

Dillon rushed for 4,382 yards (a 5.2-yard average) and 38 TDs in three seasons and might be able to draft off Derrick Henry’s 2019 success, potentially landing with a team that wants to pound the rock and outplaying his eventual draft status.

Who needs to nail the positional workouts

Jonathan Taylor

He finished each of the past three seasons in the top-10 of the Heisman Trophy voting and ran for an utterly absurd 6,174 yards (6.7-yard average) and 50 TDs in his 41 college games. But Taylor faces questions about his fumbling — six last season, 17 in three years — and his contributions in the passing game.

Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor's positional workouts at the NFL scouting combine could help him be a high pick in the 2020 NFL draft. (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Wisconsin RB Jonathan Taylor's positional workouts at the NFL scouting combine could help him be a high pick in the 2020 NFL draft. (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Wisconsin made a concerted effort to throw the ball to Taylor more this season, as he doubled his previous two years’ output in 2019 alone. But his career receiving production (42 catches, 407 yards, five TDs) and limited route variety still show that Taylor doesn’t yet excel in this area.

Turning in some clean workouts, especially catching the ball well, can help him land in the draft’s first 40 or 50 selections.

Small-school standout

James Robinson, Illinois State

The 5-foot-10, 220-pound Robinson is coming off a terrific season in which he ran for 1,917 yards and 18 touchdowns in 15 games. We love his vision, contact balance and toughness, but there remain questions about his straight-line speed and lateral quickness. A strong workout could help Robinson, who currently projects to be drafted somewhere early in Day 3.

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