Draft Day Sleeper: Watch for Nico Evans on Day 3

Credit: Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire Pictured: Nico Evans

 

A 23-year-old, non-combine running back, who broke out as a fifth-year senior in the Mountain West . . . Nico Evans has more red flags than Mother Russia. That’s also why he’ll be a rookie draft steal if he can land on an NFL roster.

When Evans committed to Wyoming in 2014, he was announced as a 5-foot-9, 177-pound scatback. He ended up sitting on the bench behind Wyoming’s all-time leading rusher Brian Hill, and even considered switching to slot receiver in order to get more playing time. According to Coach Bohl, Evans was slow to develop physically, but worked hard with the strength staff. He showed up last spring with size and quickness they hadn’t seen before and quickly won the starting job.1

COLLEGE PRODUCTION

YearSchoolRu AttRu YardsRu AvgRu TDsRecRec YardsRec AvgRec TDs
2015Wyoming14564.00144.00
2016Wyoming11333.0011313.00
2017Wyoming11191.7010707.01
2018Wyoming20413256.587669.41

There’s no ignoring Evans’ anemic career output, but his senior season quietly compares favorably to many of the top backs in this class. His 132.5 rushing yards per game was fourth in the nation, and third in this class, behind only Darrell Henderson and Trayveon Williams. He also joins Henderson and Williams as the only running backs to average over six yards per carry on over 200 attempts.

But these statistics still underrate how good his year was. Firstly, he got hurt against Air Force and left the game after only three carries, which skews his per game averages. In his other nine games, he averaged a massive 145.3 yards per game. Secondly, it cannot be understated how horrendous the Wyoming passing offense was this year.

The Cowboys offense ranked 119th (of 130) and were led by a freshman quarterback who threw for just five touchdowns and 1,310 yards. Evans outgained his quarterback on the ground. While his 1,325 rushing yards aren’t a dazzling raw total, his adjusted market share of total yards was 40%, which is second behind only Alex Barnes among our top 17 prospects in this class. He was one of the most efficient runners in college football despite playing on a team that absolutely could not throw the ball.

ATHLETICISM AND SKILL SET

Evans turned in an excellent pro day performance, reportedly clocking a 4.52 forty, a 37.5-inch vertical, and a 122-inch broad jump. He recorded 22 reps on the bench press. Even taking his measurables with a grain of salt, he appears to be one of the better athletes in the draft, but remains under the radar in a lot of prospect coverage so far.2

One place where Evans has attracted some notice is Pro Football Focus, because his forced missed tackles rate is among the very best in the class. He tied with Bryce Love for fifth overall with 0.26 missed tackles forced per touch. PFF also credits him with 3.7 yards after contact per attempt, which is even better than Love’s 3.5, and puts Evans among the top-12 RBs.

NFL OUTLOOK

Ideally Evans gets drafted as high as the fifth round. Mike Gillislee and Jordan Wilkins are two players with a similar late-breakout college trajectory who became fifth-round picks. But I think even if he latches onto a team as a UDFA, he is a good bet to stick on the roster. He started on all six special teams (kickoff, kick return, punt, punt return, onside kick, hands team) for three years at Wyoming, which should give him an edge in earning a role, even if draft capital gives him a depth chart climb.

A final red flag for Evans is his meager seven receptions as a senior. However, his reputation is that he is a capable receiver and pass protector, and the fact that he was almost moved to slot receiver is at least anecdotal evidence that he is not a liability as a pass catcher. I do think that he projects initially as a change of pace RB in the NFL, but may nevertheless fall below the notice of rookie drafters who target cheap receiving backs.

If Trayveon Williams is an arbitrage Darrell Henderson, then Nico Evans is a super-arbitrage Trayveon Williams. Watch to see if his name is called on Saturday, or if he pops up in reports as a priority free agent. Despite a short collegiate resume, Evans has top-of-class traits and will likely be available in the last round of rookie drafts.

  1. He’s listed at 211, but is probably more like 200 according to his pro day.  (back)
  2. For example, he’s not even ranked on CBS Sports’ prospect rankings, which goes 40-plus RBs deep.  (back)