In this year’s NFL draft, the Jets selected former Pitt running back Israel Abanikanda in the fifth round. Today, we break down Abanikanda in detail.
The 20-year old Abanikanda is listed at 5’11” and 215 pounds and was a first-team all-ACC selection last season as he led the nation in touchdowns and the ACC in rushing.
Abanikanda was another local prospect from Brooklyn before enrolling at Pitt as a four-star recruit. He also ran track in high school.
He saw some playing time as a true freshman, rushing for 95 yards and touchdown on 28 carries in seven games. He added two catches for 11 yards and a score.
Abanikanda did a nice job in a rotational role as a sophomore, racking up 651 yards and seven touchdowns on the ground and 24 catches for 197 yards and a touchdown through the air. He also saw action as a return man, scoring one touchdown on a kickoff return. His breakout game saw him rush for 140 yards against Virginia Tech.
As a junior, Abanikanda embraced the opportunity to start and ended up having a breakout year with over 1,400 rushing yards and 20 touchdowns. He also caught 12 passes for 146 yards and another score. This was impressive production, especially considering the fact that he missed a game and a half through injury and sat out the team’s bowl game.
He made a slow start with just 15 yards on eight carries in the opener, but did score on a 24-yard reception. The rest of the way, he was lights out, rushing for over 100 yards in every game apart from the Georgia Tech game which saw him knocked out of the game before halftime.
His biggest game was a record-setting 320 yard, six touchdown performance against the Hokies.
At the end of the season, he declared himself eligible for the 2023 draft with many analysts calling him a possible day two pick. However, the Jets were able to select him in the fifth round. He already signed his rookie deal earlier this month.
Now let’s take a look at what Abanikanda brings to the table, divided into categories.
Abanikanda has average size with long arms and small hands. While he didn’t work out at the combine, he posted some outstanding speed and explosiveness numbers at his pro day. He ran a 4.45 in the 40-yard dash and posted a 41-inch vertical and 128-inch broad jump.
His agility numbers were slightly below average and he didn’t participate in the bench press, though.
Abanikanda hasn’t played a particularly versatile role as it’s been rare for him to line up outside or in the slot and he hasn’t been targeted from those positions. He’s taken a few wildcat snaps, but did not attempt a pass.
While he was in high school, Abanikanda also saw some playing time as a defensive back.
Abanikanda has a very direct style and is always eager to turn it upfield to go north-south. He can get skinny in tight lanes and bust through arm tackles at the point of attack.
He racks up a lot of production by breaking long runs and had at least one run of 30+ yards in five games in 2022 having not had any in his first two years. He can run away from defensive backs in the open field and showcases impressive burst and acceleration.
While he is not necessarily a flashy runner with tons of spectacular highlights, Abanikanda has the ability to elude tacklers in the hole at the second level to create extra yards.
He has a direct style and isn’t particularly creative but does have some natural ability in the open field.
While not what you’d call a power back, Abanikandi can hit the hole hard and finish a run falling forwards.
Ball security was a bit of an issue in 2022 as he fumbled four times. That, coupled with his small hands, could be worrying, although he had 177 touches with no fumbles in his first two seasons.
Clearly Abanikanda has a nose for the end zone as he scored as many touchdowns last season as anyone in the FBS. While many of these were longer runs, he does have a nose for the goal line.
Abanikanda is still developing as a pass catching threat. He has only had modest production and the majority of this has just been on screen passes or dump offs in the flat.
The closest he’s come to making a downfield catch was on some plays where he caught the ball underneath with the defense in a prevent.
Clearly he needs more chances to test his route running skills. It’s rare to see him running any kind of route, but he would break outside from time to time and on this play he breaks across the middle and makes a good play after the catch, perhaps showing that he has some untapped potential in this area.
Abanikanda has had a handful of drops, most of which were on short high-percentage throws. Again, his small hands could be a concern here, although his long arms give him a decent catch radius. We’d need a bigger sample size to assess whether or not this was a concern.
Abanikanda has had some decent experience as a pass protector, and is a willing blocker. However, his numbers are not good and he may need to improve both his strength and technique before he can do this well enough to get on the field in situations that require him to do this.
In 2022, he had shown adequate improvements in this area to earn a full-time role. He does show an ability to step up and pick up the blitz sometimes, as he has shown he can execute well on cut blocks.
He had one penalty for tripping during his college career.
Abanikanda’s only special teams contributions in college were as a return man, where he flashed some potential on this 98-yard kickoff return for a score.
He has the skill-set to be good at this with his vision, acceleration, breakaway long speed and direct style, but his second longest return on 19 attempts was only 24 yards so he doesn’t have any kind of track record outside of that one score.
Abanikanda exhibits good vision as a one-cut runner, but also in identifying cutback lanes and anticipating opportunities at the second level and downfield.
This is another area where he showed improvement in his junior season and was perhaps a factor in him starting to break some longer runs.
As noted, he’s less experienced in the passing game and can suffer from mental errors when playing this role. On this play, he looked to run a wheel route, but the quarterback clearly expected him to break it off.
On this play, he showed poor anticipation and reaction in pass protection, leading to a costly sack in overtime.
He had one pre-snap penalty in his college career.
Abanikanda was originally planning to return for his senior year, but has said that he noticed the game starting to slow down for him, so felt that moving to the pro level was the best way to keep developing.
His coach praised him for improving his protections and overall assignments and he admits to seeing results from improved preparation and maturity in his final season.
He is a confident and hungry back who will want as much of the ball as possible to try and make plays for his team.
Abanikanda didn’t have any major issues in college, and only missed one full game due to injury, but he was knocked out of a few games, including one where he had an ankle injury and another where he spent the second half of the sideline with his injured shoulder in a sling.
He was dealing with a hamstring injury at the scouting combine, but that had obviously healed up by the time he worked out at his pro day.
Abanikanda is a player who seems to be the best fit in a zone-based system, which should suit the Jets as they are expected to have plenty of zone-blocking concepts with Keith Carter now in charge of coordinating the running game.
He was a college teammate of fellow Jets rookies Carter Warren and Deslin Alexandre. Interestingly, Warren only actually played in four of Abanikanda’s 100-yard games. He had 10 in total.
Abanikanda is a player who many analysts felt was a steal in the fifth round and his athleticism and production are certainly enticing. With his direct style, he could rack up some great numbers behind a dominant line, although he might initially struggle to produce behind an overmatched line or in got-to-have-it situations.
It seems unusual for the Jets to bring in a back who lacks the all-round game of the types of backs they usually like to bring in, but Abanikanda has some traits that suggest he could make useful contributions from the outset if the Jets are smart about how they use him.
Ideally, the Jets will hope he can develop his all-round game, perhaps learning from the other backs in this fairly deep stable. They may well have identified him as someone who has untapped potential in those areas which many analysts have considered to be his main weaknesses.