BackCAST 2023: Is Zach Charbonnet Overrated?

UCLA Bruins RB Zach Charbonnet
UCLA Bruins RB Zach Charbonnet
Photo: USA Today Sports Images

NFL Draft - Running backs are likely to fall in the 2023 NFL draft for two reasons. First, this is a not an especially strong year for top running backs, with only one sure first-round prospect. Second, it is 2023, and by now coaches, pre-draft analysts, scouts, and all NFL fans who are not living under the largest of boulders have recognized that running backs have traditionally been overrated and that teams are wise to shop for them in the later rounds and save their high picks on the true premium positions.

This year's BackCAST projections suggests that bargain-bin shopping for running backs may be an even better strategy this year than usual. There is no generational prospect in this year's draft, and after Bijan Robinson, there is little separating the next tier of runners from one another. Put simply, why would a team use a first-, second-, or even a third-round pick on a prospect who is just as likely to succeed as one available in the fourth or fifth round?

BackCAST projects NFL running back success based on statistics that have correlated with success in the past. Historically, a college running back who has a good size-speed combination, has a high average yards per carry, and represented a large percentage of his college team's running attack is likely to succeed at the NFL level. BackCAST considers these factors and projects the degree to which the running back will exceed the NFL production of an "average" drafted running back during his first five years in the NFL. For example, a running back with a +50% BackCAST is projected to gain 50% more yards than the "average" drafted running back. BackCAST also projects whether each running back is likely to be heavily involved in the receiving game or is more of a "ground-and-pound" back.

BackCAST is based on a statistical analysis of all Division I halfbacks drafted in between 1998 and 2019 and measures the following:

  • The prospect's weight at the NFL combine.
  • The prospect's 40-yard dash at the NFL combine. If he did not run at the combine, BackCAST uses his pro day time.
  • The prospect's yards per attempt with an adjustment for running backs that had fewer career carries than an average drafted running back.
  • The prospect's "AOEPS," which measures how much, on average, the prospect's team used him in the running game during his career relative to the usage of an average drafted running back during the same year of eligibility.
  • The prospect's receiving yards per game in his college career.

What follows are some of the most notable BackCAST projections for the running back prospects available in the 2023 NFL draft.

Bijan Robinson, Texas

BackCAST Score: +121.8%
Type of Back: Receiving
Similar Historical Prospects: Travis Etienne, Reggie Bush

BackCAST and conventional wisdom agree: Bijan Robinson is the best running back prospect in this draft class.

Bijan Robinson ran a 4.46s 40-yard dash at 215 pounds. That is a very good size-speed combination—much, much better than the average prospect. Robinson also had an increasingly heavy workload, handling 23%, 43%, and 60% of the Longhorns' rushing attempts in his three-year college career. Robinson averaged 6.33 yards per carry, which is again very good.

Accordingly, Robinson has a well-rounded and solid projection. However, he is not a Saquon Barkley- or Jonathan Taylor-level prospect. As a pure runner, Robinson's numbers are solid, but he does not excel in any particular metric. His size-speed ratio is good, but not quite as good as the top running back prospects in the last few drafts. His workload was good, but again, not particularly notable in the context of past top prospects. His yards per carry average is also good, but it is not even the highest in this class.

The numbers do suggest that Robinson could excel as a receiver. Robinson finished his three-year college career with 60 catches for 805 yards and eight touchdowns. Accordingly, he could be particularly attractive for a pass-happy team looking for a three-down back.

As the value of running backs has dropped in recent years, there is a real question about how much draft capital a player like Robinson is worth. A pick in the top 10 might be too rich for a player like Robinson, but if a team could somehow grab him near the end of the first round, it might end up very happy.

DeWayne McBride, UAB

BackCAST Score: +60.0%
Type of Back: Ground-and-Pound
Similar Historical Prospects: Alfred Morris, Laurence Maroney

There is a huge gap between Robinson and BackCAST's second-best prospect, DeWayne McBride. That said, even accounting for that gap, McBride could prove to be a steal. Scouts, Inc. ranks McBride as the fifth-best running back and only the 108th prospect overall, which would place him firmly in the fourth round.

McBride has above-average size and above-average workload, but the metric that drives his higher-than-expected projection is his yards per carry. McBride averaged 7.3 yards per carry, which is better than any of the running backs invited to the combine this year or last. At first blush, 7.3 yards per carry in Conference USA seems less impressive than 7.3 yards per carry in the SEC. However, adjusting for strength of schedule has not been helpful in making the metric more predictive. That's not the same thing, however, as saying that yards per carry is a reliable predictor, as there are many examples of running backs with good yards per carry busting and running backs with bad yards per carry booming. It just has been difficult to pick out which backs have yards per carry due to talent, and which backs have inflated numbers due to favorable circumstances.

Another knock against McBride is that he offers little to nothing in the passing game, recording only five receptions in 31 games. Thus, McBride will likely be relegated to, at best, a two-down role. However, the price for McBride is so low that a smart team may be very content if McBride can excel in that limited role.

Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama

BackCAST Score: +59.5%
Type of Back: Receiving
Similar Historical Prospects: Alvin Kamara, DeMarco Murray

Jahmyr Gibbs is widely acknowledged as the second-best running back prospect in this draft, boasting a lightning fast 4.36s 40-yard dash at 199 pounds. However, BackCAST is slightly more bearish than the conventional wisdom on the most recent Crimson Tide running back prospect, placing Gibbs squarely between two players slated to go in the fourth and fifth rounds.

Why the mediocre projection? BackCAST is skeptical of Gibbs' college production. We expect top running back prospects to dominate their backfields, and Gibbs' share of his teams' carries is only very slightly above the average drafted running back. At Georgia Tech, Gibbs ceded carries to fellow runners Jordan Mason and Dontae Smith; at Alabama, he split duties with Chase McClellan. Gibbs' career yards per attempt was also just so-so, but it is worth noting that his yards per attempt improved significantly after he transferred to Alabama.

Gibbs does have very good potential as a receiver. Approximately one-third of Gibbs' production was in the passing game, and of all the running back prospects in this year's draft, BackCAST rates Gibbs as the most likely to have his production skew more heavily towards receiving yards than rushing yards.

Gibbs certainly has more than enough going for him to live up to his relatively high draft position (he is currently rated 24th overall by Scouts, Inc.). However, a team should be confident in his tape before spending the draft capital needed to secure his services.

Sean Tucker, Syracuse

BackCAST Score: +57.0%
Type of Back: Receiving
Similar Historical Prospects: Mewelde Moore, Darren McFadden

From a BackCAST perspective, Sean Tucker is only a hair behind fellow sleeper McBride, but may be an even better value, as he is ranked even lower by draftniks. Tucker is rated 148th overall by Scouts, Inc., which would place him in the fifth round.

Like McBride, Tucker excels in a single metric; for him, it is his workload. Tucker grabbed Syracuse's backfield and never let it go. Indeed, BackCAST arguably understates Tucker's use in the backfield because it does not separate out carries from quarterbacks. Almost all of Syracuse's carries that were not Tucker's went to quarterback Garrett Shrader, who recorded 329 carries at Syracuse after transferring from Mississippi State for the 2021 season. Tucker's yards per attempt is a bit low for a drafted prospect, although the unambiguous vote of confidence that he received from his coaches, who consistently fed him the rock, mitigates some concerns that might raise about his talent.

Tucker also offers value in the receiving game as he recorded 64 receptions for 622 yards and four touchdowns.

Devon Achane, Texas A&M

BackCAST Score: +53.4%
Type of Back: Receiving
Similar Historical Prospects: Darren Sproles, C.J. Spiller

After McBride and Tucker, BackCAST makes a more conventional pick in Devon Achane. Achane is rated as a late second-round pick, which is fairly consistent with where BackCAST slots him.

Achane has very solid if not spectacular numbers for workload and yards per attempt, and he recorded a blazing fast 4.32s 40-yard dash at the combine. However, Achane weighed in at only 188 pounds, which is unusually light for a running back prospect. Indeed, there have been approximately a dozen running back prospects 188 pounds or under who were drafted in the last two decades and most were late-round prospects who never made an impact at the NFL level.

In sum, like conventional wisdom, BackCAST recognizes that Achane is an intriguing talent, but that he will have to fight against some history if he wants to succeed at the NFL level.

Tyjae Spears, Tulane

BackCAST Score: +37.3%
Type of Back: Receiving
Similar Historical Prospects: Kareem Hunt, Aaron Jones

Mike Tanier ranked Tyjae Spears as No. 2 on his Fantasy 40, so we thought it worthwhile to look at his prospects from a BackCAST perspective. Draftniks do not rate Spears highly—Scouts, Inc. ranks him 172nd overall, placing him past the midpoint in the NFL draft. Spears' 37.3% BackCAST, however, suggests that he could present great value for a player who is picked in the latter half of the draft.

Spears has a good size-speed ratio, running the 40-yard dash in 4.47 seconds at 201 pounds. Spears was also productive on a per-play basis, averaging 6.56 yards per carry. His weakest point is his college workload, which was just average. Spears took some time to take charge of the Green Wave's backfield. Spears had only 5.2% of his team's carries as a freshman and only 25.0% of the Green Wave's carries as a sophomore.

Spears also provides value in the receiving game, catching 48 passes for 564 yards and three touchdowns.

Most Overrated Prospect

Zach Charbonnet, UCLA

BackCAST Score: +15.1%
Type of Back: Balanced
Similar Historical Prospects: Kevin Faulk, Mark Ingram

Scouts, Inc. rates Zach Charbonnet as its fourth-best running back prospect, but BackCAST rates him as only the 12th-best prospect. While Charbonnet's projection is not terrible—after all, he still projects slightly better than the average drafted running back—he may nevertheless be this year's most overrated running back prospect.

BackCAST mostly dislikes Charbonnet because of his relatively low share of his teams' carries. Charbonnet started strong at Michigan as a freshman but was out-carried by Hassan Haskins during Michigan's COVID-shortened 2020 season. Even after he transferred to UCLA, he did not dominate his backfield, recording only 38% and 43% of his team's carries during his two years with the Bruins. Although Charbonnet is a bigger back, his 4.54s 40-yard dash time is just OK. Charbonnet is likely garnering attention because he had a very strong senior campaign, averaging 7.0 yards per carry. However, Charbonnet was much less productive on a per-play basis during his first three years as a collegian, which drags down the metric used for BackCAST.

Despite BackCAST's lukewarm take on Charbonnet, if his tape is as good as his draft rating indicates, he certainly could end up being a value pick for a team if he ends up slipping far into the later rounds. Although the historical trends are pointing away from success, Charbonnet is actually pretty good for a "most overrated" prospect, and it would not be shocking to see him succeed.

2023 BackCAST Projections
Name School Weight Forty AOEPS Adj Y/A RcYd/G BackCAST RecIndex
Bijan Robinson Texas 215 4.46 13.7% 6.33 26.0 121.8% 0.53
DeWayne McBride UAB 209 4.53e 5.1% 7.15 0.9 60.0% -0.42
Jahmyr Gibbs Alabama 199 4.36 1.7% 5.51 39.1 59.5% 1.20
Sean Tucker Syracuse 207 4.52e 19.6% 5.40 18.8 57.0% 0.31
Devon Achane Texas A&M 188 4.32 5.9% 6.13 19.8 53.4% 0.51
Keaton Mitchell East Carolina 179 4.38 9.5% 6.41 17.6 39.7% 0.50
Tyjae Spears Tulane 201 4.47 0.5% 6.41 17.8 37.3% 0.32
Deuce Vaughn Kansas State 179 4.50 19.6% 5.54 34.6 33.2% 1.18
Israel Abanikanda Pittsburgh 216 4.41 -1.6% 5.53 11.8 29.1% -0.05
Tank Bigsby Auburn 210 4.56 13.5% 5.38 12.8 23.0% 0.04
Chris Rodriguez Kentucky 217 4.52 -0.2% 6.10 3.0 19.6% -0.41
Chase Brown Illinois 209 4.43 4.7% 5.26 12.1 18.0% 0.03
Zach Charbonnet UCLA 214 4.54 -1.5% 5.91 14.7 15.3% 0.09
Mohamed Ibrahim Minnesota 203 4.51e 16.2% 5.38 3.7 14.1% -0.26
Kendre Miller TCU 215 4.54e -3.9% 6.28 6.9 11.8% -0.23
Zach Evans Ole Miss 202 4.45 -10.9% 6.22 12.0 -10.1% 0.08
Evan Hull Northwestern 209 4.47 -4.4% 4.98 24.3 -12.8% 0.52
Deneric Prince Tulsa 216 4.41 -13.3% 5.47 6.0 -20.7% -0.28
Tiyon Evans Louisville 225 4.52 -16.1% 5.69 5.8 -27.2% -0.36
Eric Gray Oklahoma 207 4.62 -4.1% 5.63 17.6 -35.0% 0.26
Cam Peoples Appalachian State 217 4.61 -10.2% 6.10 2.1 -35.3% -0.44
Travis Dye USC 201 4.75 6.1% 5.90 16.3 -37.1% 0.26
Roschon Johnson Texas 219 4.59 -9.3% 5.53 8.9 -37.1% -0.19
Tavion Thomas Utah 237 4.75 -9.8% 5.24 1.4 -63.2% -0.64
SaRodorick Thompson Texas Tech 207 4.67 -0.5% 4.97 11.2 -74.7% 0.01
Kenny McIntosh Georgia 204 4.62 -17.8% 5.53 21.5 -83.0% 0.45
"e" = estimated

A shorter version of this article originally appeared on ESPN+.


9 comments, Last at 13 Apr 2023, 1:58pm

#1 by Franchise_Punter // Apr 10, 2023 - 10:19am

How does Israel Abanikanda look if you adjust his 40-time to more closely match his pro day (4.41)? His early career usage is suspect, which probably dings him. But hard not be intrigued by that explosiveness and 2022 production. Led the ACC in rushing yards and TDs; 4.41 40 and 41 inch vert at 217 lbs.


Also believe you have his school wrong; he played at Pitt.

Points: 1

#4 by macizdyn // Apr 10, 2023 - 3:05pm

Aaron, where the hell are your regular writers, starting with Mike Tanier? I am aware of the problem, but I think you should weigh in with some truth. Please. This is ridiculously unprofessional, glib pseudo- ignorance.

Points: -2

#5 by garion333 // Apr 10, 2023 - 9:44pm

They're on strike.

And my guess is Aaron's hands are tied atm. 

Points: 1

#7 by jds // Apr 10, 2023 - 10:14pm

And who is this Nathan Foster guy?  The only guy who will still write for the site; other than, I presume, Aaron.

So only new content is ESPN stuff, which pays something, and I guess if you have a contract to provide ESPN with content you do so - because ESPN pays for content!

Points: 0

#9 by rapierma // Apr 13, 2023 - 1:58pm

The QBase article gets pushed closer to the draft every year.

Points: 0

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