NFL Draft 2024: Running Backs and Linebackers

By Matt Edwards | April 22, 2024 | 3 minutes

NFL Draft 2024: Running Backs and Linebackers

Next week we might witness NFL Draft history. Current projections have zero running backs or linebackers taken in the 1st round. This has never happened before in the 89-year history of the draft. There’s a lot going on here, but as the great Ludacris says, have we seen the last of a dying breed?

Running back replaceability, changing offensive/defensive schemes, and just a general lack of star power in the position groups. These are a few of the many reasons there aren’t any 1st round Running backs or linebackers mocked in the draft. While those are all valid reasons, and each could spawn an interesting path for analysis, I do want to highlight some potential later-round steals from each position group.

Running Backs

The free agency market for running backs had been dwindling until a number of high-profile deals were signed this year. Derrick Henry, Saquon Barkley, Josh Jacobs, have each signed top-of-market deals which have meant the teams that signed them (Ravens, Eagles, Packers, and Vikings) are all out of the market for spending lots of draft capital on running backs. This creates a bit of a chicken or egg situation. Were these deals inflated by the fact that no true 1st round talents were coming up in the draft? Or are no teams willing to spend a 1st round pick on a running back because teams that needed RB help signed one in free agency?

As I mentioned before, I don’t think the zero RBs projected this year is a commentary of how the NFL values running backs. There were two 1st round RB picks last season: Bijan Robinson to the Falcons, and Jamhyr Gibbs to the Lions. When looking at their production in year 1, one aspect of both players' radars really stood out to me. They are both great running the ball when you hand them the ball, but they also were used in different alignments, specifically having a high WR alignment %. Their overall athleticism, and ability to get on the field and be productive in more ways than just traditional handoffs, made them weapons worthy of being drafted so highly.

Bijan Robinson - Running Back Radar, 2023.
Jahmyr Gibbs - Running Back Radar, 2023.

Bucky Irving

Bucky Irving is one of the running backs I like the most in this draft, not just because he went to my new home state school of Oregon, but because Irving’s game is ready for the NFL. He led the country in catches by RBs last year with 64. He had flexibility in his alignment position, aligning out of the backfield on over 12% of his snaps (about what Gibbs was this season for the Lions). He is one of the shiftiest running backs in the country and was 2nd in the country in broken tackle %. There are some concerns with his combine testing: his 40-yard dash and vertical especially. But he did get to 21 mph or greater 3 times this past season according to our physical metrics tracking, so he has shown some top-end speed on film.

Blake Corum

Last season Blake Corum helped lead Michigan to a National Title, finished 9th in Heisman voting (beating out teammate JJ McCarthy by one spot), and led the country in TD’s. Seems like a resume that would be worthy of 1st round consideration right? Diving deeper into the stats helps paint a picture for why that doesn’t appear to be the case.

Michigan has had one of the best offensive lines in the country the past few seasons. They’ve won the Joe Moore award twice, Olu Oluwatimi won the Rimington award, and they had 6 offensive linemen invited to the Combine. Their OL was so good this season that a backup got invited to Indy! The Michigan OL is especially dominant in the run game. Some areas that showed up were yards before contact and stuff %. Blake Corum was 10th in the nation in yards before contact per attempt, and 4th in stuff % (percentage of runs that result in no gain, or a loss of yardage). One cause of concern for Corum is the difficulty in parsing his success from that of the offensive line.

Another problem for Corum’s projection to the NFL comes in the passing game. Unlike Bucky Irving, Corum spent the majority of his time aligning in the backfield. He also was only targeted 17 times. Although he caught 15 of his targets, he has nowhere close to the same level of production and experience in the pass game.

Jonathon Brooks

Texas was potentially on pace to have the first running back off the board in back to back drafts before Jonathon Brooks tore his ACL against TCU. As seen by his radar, Brooks does just about everything well. He was a weapon in the pass game, and didn’t show many weaknesses while running the ball either.

Because he is recovering from his injury, he obviously did not participate in the NFL Combine. Enter StatsBomb's physical metrics! Jonathon Brooks speed and acceleration were on full display during his 73-yard catch and run against TCU. You can see the dot for that run below, it’s the first high dot that is above 21 mph at play 8. He also hit 20 mph or more 8 times last season. He showed his ability to reach top speed on other open-field plays as well like his 40-yard TD against Baylor (also weirdly on his 8th play of the game). When players don’t participate in the combine or pro day testing, teams have to look elsewhere for information on speed and acceleration (and some teams do it even when players participate in the combine or pro days).


An interesting move I am excited to watch this year is Abdul Carter’s move to Edge defender from Linebacker. This was a move that fellow Nittany Lion Micah Parsons was going to make before the Covid 2020 season happened and Parsons ended up sitting out that season. A few years ago, Penn State and Carter would never have thought about making a positional change like that. But, the traditional linebacker role is becoming less and less important as offensive schemes are changing and defenses are adapting to handle them.

Similar to running backs, there were some high profile linebackers that changed teams this offseason: Patrick Queen, Frankie Luvu, Azeez Al-Shaair, and Jordyn Brooks all signed big deals. And also, like running backs, I don’t think this is a statement on the linebacker position as a whole.

Payton Wilson

It has been a joy to watch Payton Wilson play football. The passion he plays with, the speed he flies around with, everything about how he plays screams “football guy”. His stat line from last season sounds like a career stat line for many players: 138 tackles (69 solo), 3 INT, 6 sacks, 17.5 TFL, 1 FF, 2 FR, 6 PBU, and 1 TD.

If that doesn’t do it for you, let me throw a few more Wilson stats at you. Here are a few important stats for linebacker play, and where Wilson ranked nationally:

  • Run Stuffs % (% of tackles for loss or no gain) - 1st
  • Solo Tackle Success Rate (% of solo tackle attempts that result in a tackle) - 3rd
  • True Tackle % (% of plays the player records a tackle) - 5th
  • Stop Tackle % (ball carrier goes down within 1 yard of first contact) - 6th

I love the info in the above visual, especially the distributions on the left hand side. Those distributions help answer 2 big questions for defenses. Are we getting into a good position to make tackles? (Answered by the distribution on the left) Are we bringing down the ball carrier when we are in position to make a tackle? (Answered by the middle distribution) Looking at these values for Payton Wilson in the run game, his first tackle attempt depth is right about average. Where he really excels is yards after contact. His average yards after contact is over 1.5 yards less than the national average. This is where the stop tackles comes shines, when Payton Wilson hits the ball carrier, he usually goes down, and goes down fast.

Wilson is in a similar boat with Jonathon Brooks, if not for injuries, he would be a sure fire 1st round pick. With his combination of great testing and gaudy production numbers, teams would be salivating to get someone like Wilson for their defense. His speed and lateral quickness make him an ideal linebacker for the modern game.

Jeremiah Trotter Jr

Howie Roseman recently admitted a bias toward potentially drafting Jeremiah Trotter Jr because of his dad’s ties to the franchise. It doesn’t hurt that Trotter Jr had a great career at Clemson either. The following chart shows how Trotter Jr caused Havoc for opposing offenses last season.

The chart above looks a lot like our initial route nests (™ Ted Knutson) for offensive skill players. When looked at as a whole it can be pretty messy, but with the coloring, and the individual dots, you actually can get a lot of information (and being able to click on each line to get right to the film is a major plus of the site too!). The coloring for time since snap helps show plays when Trotter Jr is blitzing and creating havoc early in a play? Or plays where the havoc happens later, like when he drops into coverage and reacts to a late throw to the flat, or adds himself as a second contain rusher on the QB. The paths are from our tracking data, and shows the actual movement that a player takes.


If mock drafts hold, we won’t see a running back or linebacker drafted on night 1. It would be historic, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t good options in the later rounds. Isaiah Pacheco was a 7th-round pick. Fred Warner and Demario Davis were 3rd round picks. Teams will be able to find more impact players in this draft, even if there aren’t any selected in the 1st round.

Matt Edwards
Head of American Football Analysis - StatsBomb
@thecoachedwards on X (Formerly Twitter)

By Matt Edwards | April 22, 2024