As NFL scouts studied De’Von Achane leading up to the 2023 NFL Draft, they needed to know: Was he a track star playing football or a football player running track? The chicken-and-egg question may sound silly, the difference a matter of semantics.
But scouts and coaches alike investigated it during the pre-draft evaluation that ultimately led to the Miami Dolphins selecting Achane in the third round, 85th overall.
What they found can help us understand how Achane went from inactive Week 1 to last Sunday’s 233-yard, four-touchdown performance that launched Achane into the NFL spotlight in a lightning-fast way befitting a lightning-fast player.
Let Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher explain.
“A lot of track guys want to bounce everything outside in their runs and then outrun everybody all the time without doing the work of getting hit, running between the tackles,” Fisher told Yahoo Sports during a Thursday phone interview. “He runs between the tackles very well, has tremendous patience and eyes and he is a natural runner of the ball. Then, when he sees his opening, that’s when the acceleration goes. A lot of track guys, if you really watch, sometimes they’re running fast all the time. With football, sometimes the rhythm of the block, the tempo is not there. De’Von is just the opposite.
“He never used [his speed] until he had to.”
It’s difficult to determine which elements of the Dolphins’ 70-point explosion reflected a one-day wonder and what takeaways from the contest are real and sustainable. So Yahoo Sports set out to understand: What makes Achane a player capable not only of physically producing a record-setting performance but also of earning enough trust to receive a no-look shovel pass in the red zone in his second pro game?
— NFL (@NFL) September 24, 2023
An NFL scout who evaluated Achane in college told Yahoo Sports they weren't surprised he could perform like this. They thought back to what a Texas A&M staffer said before Achane even became the school’s lead back.
“Dude, I’m just telling you — Achane is f***ing different.”
Running back or receiver? Achane’s NFL fit disputed during draft process
The speed that earned Achane All-American honors in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash and 4x400-meter relay is, of course, f***ing different.
So, too, is the way he runs. And receives. And blocks.
The 5-foot-8, 188-pound back plays stronger than his height suggests, coaches and scouts say. His vision, instincts and intellect fuel a confidence between the tackles, while Achane’s elusiveness helps sharply reduce the big hits he takes. Sometimes Achane slides or dips his shoulder to wreck a defender’s angle or slip from a tackle; other times, like on a 76-yard touchdown run in the 2021 Orange Bowl, his contact balance was so adept that a defender who wrapped him just couldn’t bring him down.
Achane raced to 3,578 yards and 26 touchdowns from scrimmage across three college seasons even though he wasn’t A&M’s top back for two of those three years. After fellow back Isaiah Spiller was drafted by the Los Angeles Chargers in 2022, Achane became so integral to the Aggies’ attack that they kept him on the field for 92.2% of snaps last season.
“I took note of it because when you’re in a school watching film, you’re like ‘Holy s***, this guy is in every play,’ ” one scout said. “Running backs always rotate. Bijan [Robinson] was 66%. The No. 1 running back will usually be like 2/3 of the snaps.
“I’ve never seen a guy play so many snaps for an offense.”
Achane’s rushing game was his bread and butter, and yet some scouts projected his size-speed combination translating better to an NFL receiving role. After running back drills wrapped at the scouting combine, Achane and now-Detroit Lions running back Jahmyr Gibbs stayed late to run routes and catch balls for scouts.
He never used (his speed) until he had to.Texas A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher on De'Von Achane
Achane’s sure hands and ball-tracking ability lent some credence to this theory. In A&M practices, he would turn and catch a ball in stride, also excelling during individual receiver drills when Fisher flexed his running backs out as wideouts, teaching them route trees to determine how confidently he could scheme them in creative packages.
But some scouts found the receiver descriptor lazy: Achane had rushed for volume and efficiency, averaging 6.4 yards per carry. Just because he’s short and not yet built out (Robinson is 4 inches taller and nearly 40 pounds heavier, for comparison), could he not run?
Fisher told scouts: He’s a lot stronger than you think.
Achane used that strength not only to run inside but also to block with an effectiveness that belied his size.
“He’s strong enough with leverage and has such great leg strength that he can play with leverage using his hands well in what he does,” Fisher said. “Especially in pass pro[tection], he uses the offensive linemen around him to pin whoever he’s blocking in a box so they can’t exploit him. … There are multiple times on pass pro of linebackers coming up the A-gap that he can beat them there, get him between a guard and a tackle and he can cut them like he does. Very intelligent, beating them to spots on the blitz to use the people around him so he doesn’t get exploited.”
And when Achane did decide to accelerate, his instantaneous reaction time and explosiveness transferred from the track. Texas A&M track coach Pat Henry, whose A&M and LSU tenures have combined to produce the second-most national championships of any coach in any NCAA Division I history, told Yahoo Sports that Achane doesn’t lose his track step pattern and posture when donning pads and football uniform.
When the Dolphins called his name, the fit seemed perfect. Receivers Tyreek Hill and Jaylen Waddle already were redefining what speed could look like in the NFL passing game, and running back Raheem Mostert is also capable of rapid acceleration. How could defenders responsibly stack the box? The Broncos didn’t try once against Achane, per Next Gen Stats.
“The amount of speed you have playing on your team when you add that guy out of the backfield? You’re creating nightmares,” Fisher said.
While Achane understates breakout, scouts consider Christian McCaffrey comparison
Fast forward to last Sunday, Achane’s second active NFL game, and the first in which he got more than two touches.
Achane scored on an 8-yard run to the left end on which at least four Broncos appeared to make contact with him. He scored on a 4-yard bolt up the middle after Tua Tagovailoa flipped him the no-look shovel pass. Achane took another shovel pass, from the right hand with which Tagovailoa does not primarily throw, 10 yards home. And to cap it off, he slipped through two levels of defenders on an inside zone run before turboing to 21.93 miles per hour on a 67-yard touchdown run.
A fifth touchdown was negated by penalty, and another 40-yard run left six defenders sprawled horizontally before cornerback Pat Surtain II caught up at the 5-yard line. Achane now owns the second- and sixth-fastest ball carry times of the NFL season, per Next Gen Stats. He’s Pro Football Focus’ highest-graded running back overall and in the run game.
Dude, I’m just telling you — Achane is f***ing different.An NFL scout who evaluated De'Von Achane
What impresses him most?
“I wouldn’t say I did something that was impressive,” Achane told reporters Wednesday. “Sundays are supposed to be easy. When you put in the work Monday through Saturday, those days are the hardest for me.”
Achane’s humility is almost disorienting but his emphasis on the process aligned with head coach Mike McDaniel’s takeaway. As McDaniel argued speed is his offense’s starting point rather than ending, he referenced his favorite book: “Talent is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everyone Else.”
“Those players are getting the [fame] they deserve because they are fast, but [also] they’ve decided to commit themselves to being football technicians,” McDaniel told reporters Wednesday. "Because their teammates are as invested as they are, their skill sets are able to be featured.”
That’s also why coaches and evaluators think Achane’s breakout performance isn’t a one-off but a glimpse into significant untapped potential.
Consider that not only did he leave college after three years, one of which was shortened by COVID-19 restrictions, but also Achane missed spring practices annually while developing his track craft. He can bulk up more intentionally now that he’s not preparing his body for track meets. And he can practice fundamentals and chemistry without interruption year-round.
Delivering that potential to NFL mad scientist McDaniel leaves one scout comparing Achane to “a poor man’s Christian McCaffrey” who brings the additional element of Division I track speed that “means you’re fast fast.” Another scout countered that “that’s a big comp for a rookie … but s***, he might be able to do that. I don’t see why not. He’s faster than him.”
For now, one of the scouts says “a bigger Tavon Austin” more closely reflects the knack for gadget plays he’s already built as his vertical threat development awaits.
Visiting the Buffalo Bills this weekend, the Dolphins should expect a far tougher task than Denver gave them. The Bills’ defense ranks second in scoring and overall. Their rushing defense is more vulnerable, though, ranking first in touchdown prevention but 14th in total yards and 32nd in yards per attempt.
It’s unrealistic (if fun) to expect Achane to traverse 233 yards again or the Dolphins to score 70 again. But to believe Achane’s viability in Dolphins game plans is real, and not just a mirage of the Broncos’ disastrous day?
“Don’t bet against him,” Fisher said. “Don’t bet against it, because I think you’ll lose.”