It’s hard to believe that the college football regular season has ended, and conference championship season is upon us. This season was one of the best in recent memory as the sport rebounded from a COVID-19-affected 2020 campaign. Additionally, the fact that perhaps outside of Georgia, there was no clear-cut top team made it feel like multiple teams actually had a chance to win it all. It was truly a season to remember and one that I’ll be talking about for quite some time.
As we turn the page on the 2021 college football season, we begin to shift our focus to the NFL draft process and begin to hear about top collegiate players declaring for the draft. The evaluation process is a year-long cycle in which evaluators gather as much information as possible on a prospect in advance of the NFL draft so they can have as accurate of an assessment as humanly possible. As a scout for The Draft Network, I have been watching film on games all throughout the season but I am now fully devoting my time to studying the tape and evaluating these prospects to put final grades on them for the 2022 NFL Draft.
A player I recently studied that I came away really impressed by was Texas A&M’s Isaiah Spiller. Spiller, a three-year starter with the Aggies, is one of the best running back prospects in this year’s class and is a name many in the draft community are familiar with. He came to Texas A&M as a heralded recruit out of the Houston area and had offers from just about every major university you can think of. He ultimately chose the Aggies and elected to play close to home and has been a difference-maker for the Aggies the minute he first stepped onto Kyle Field.
As a true freshman, Spiller burst onto the scene, rushing for 946 yards and 10 touchdowns on his way to earning freshman All-American honors. He then followed up his freshman season with an outstanding sophomore year which saw him eclipse 1,000 yards on the ground for the Aggies. As a junior in 2021, Spiller ran 1,011 yards and six touchdowns capping off what was a terrific career with the Aggies should he decide to enter the draft.
It’s hard to argue with the production Spiller has had in his three years as an Aggie, but as we all know, production isn’t the end-all, be-all when it comes to your status as an NFL draft prospect. Taking a closer look at Spiller the prospect, it’s easy to see why many evaluators had him as their RB1 heading into the season. Spiller offers outstanding size for the position at 6-foot-1 and 215 pounds and is a very good athlete overall. He is a patient runner who shows excellent vision and burst on inside runs. He runs with outstanding power and contact balance and is a load to bring down in the open field. While not the fastest and most dynamic back, he does show good quickness in short areas and when he gets going downhill, he can cover ground in a hurry with a long stride.
Spiller is a disciplined runner who gets what’s there and consistently gains four to six yards a pop. In the passing game, Spiller shows very good hands and ball skills while doing most of his damage on screens, quick outs, and wheel routes. He is dynamic in the open field both as a runner and receiver with an ability to make quick sharp cuts and run through arm tackles. He does need to work on his ability as a pass blocker, though, specifically with his technique and hand placement.
In what’s expected to be a lackluster running back class at the top of the draft, Spiller has a strong chance to be the first back off the board. The question is, where will the NFL value a back with Spiller’s skill set?
We have seen backs go early in recent seasons. Last year, two backs went in Round 1 with Travis Etienne and Najee Harris coming off the board early. In 2020, Clyde Edwards Helaire was the only back to go in Round 1, but Jonathan Taylor, D'Andre Swift, and J.K Dobbins quickly heard their names called early in Round 2. It’s conceivable that Spiller could be a late first-round pick given his size, skill set, and overall production in the SEC but I believe Spiller will be a product of what I call “over-scouting” leading up to the draft, thus his perceived draft range will be much lower.
Since Spiller likely won’t test all that great in the 40-yard dash and that he won’t wow scouts with his ability to line up in shorts and run routes on air, I can see him being nitpicked and pegged as an early-down-only back who lacks big-play ability and passing game versatility. This sort of thing is common during the lead-up to the draft and is often a big reason why we see so many misses, especially at the running back position. A perfect example of this was the selection of Edwards-Helaire over a back like Jonathan Taylor. From a production, size, and natural running ability standpoint, Taylor was a superior prospect to Edwards-Helaire by a wide margin. However, because teams were enamored with Edwards-Helaire's ability as a receiver, he vaulted up the boards throughout the process.
The NFL, at the end of the day, is a league where gaining four to five yards a carry is extremely valuable and having a true three-down back can change an entire offense. Spiller may not be the most dynamic back like Etienne or be as good of a receiver as Christian McCaffery, but he is a rock-solid prospect in almost every area and has the skills to be a long-time NFL starter.
As it stands, Spiller is my highest-graded back in the class and there is a high probability he keeps that title throughout the whole process. His size, consistency, and running style are eerily similar to Joe Mixon who is having a ton of success in the NFL. While Spiller likely won’t hear his name in Round 1, he is the type of player who you draft in early Round 2 and immediately plug him into your lineup and expect to have a feature back for the next four seasons at the very least.
It’ll be fascinating to watch Spiller’s pre-draft process play out. If I could offer a piece of advice to NFL teams it’s simply this: don’t overthink this one.