If you missed Parts 1 and 2 of our “Everything You Need To Know” series, you can check those out below:
- Everything you need to know about Titans first round pick Isaiah Wilson
- Everything you need to know about Titans second round pick Kristian Fulton
Check back soon for breakdowns on Larrell Murchison, Cole McDonald, and Chris Jackson!
The Titans offense was really really good last year after Ryan Tannehill took over behind center in Week 7. With 10 of 11 starters returning, there wasn’t a ton that needed to be added on that side of the ball, however a complementary running back to pair with Derrick Henry and a general need to add more speed elements to the offense were high on the wish list.
Darrynton Evans addresses both of those wishes for the Titans. Drafted in the third round at pick 93 overall, the reigning Sun Belt Conference Offensive Player of the Year has come a long way since being a lightly recruited high school running back from the small town of Oak Hill, Florida.
“My town of Oak Hill is a very small city. I am almost related to everyone in the city. We have one flashing light, one Dollar General, one gas station and a flea market, that’s it. I have a lot of people behind me and a lot of people looking up to me. Why would I want to let them down and at the same time let myself down when I’ve been working too hard to get to where I’m at?”
The Oak Hill native played basketball, baseball, and track growing up in addition to football and comes from a family that’s well-stocked with athletes. His father, Darryl, was an All-American baseball player at Bethune-Cookman, his uncle played for the Phillies, and his mother was a track athlete.
Evans played at New Smyrna Beach High School, historically a bottom dweller in the ultra-competitive Florida high school football scene, only reaching the state playoffs ten times in school history and failing to advance past the first round in the last decade. Evans produced 940 yards and 9 touchdowns as a senior, playing in just seven games due to an injury that kept him out of the lineup for three. The lower profile school and lack of gaudy stats led to a recruiting ranking of just two stars, but his ability garnered enough interest to land him a selection of scholarship offers from lower level FBS programs like Air Force, Buffalo, and South Florida among others.
He ended up choosing Appalachian State — one of the best “small school” programs in the country — over South Florida, in large part, due to a relationship with a recruiter who had left USF to take a job at App State. Evans arrived in Boone, North Carolina as the Mountaineers lowest rated recruit in their signing class, but despite the modest recruiting profile, Evans got on the field immediately. As a true freshman, he contributed as a slot receiver, backup running back, and kick returner, including a 97-yard kick return touchdown in the Camelia Bowl.
Heading into 2017, Evans was moved to wide receiver due to a log jam at running back on the depth chart and some departures at receiver. Head coach Scott Satterfield — now the head coach at Louisville — explained that Evans was simply too talented to keep on the bench.
“I thought he looked great and natural right back at wide receiver, and it looks like he’s put on a little weight as well,” Satterfield said. “He’s going to be one of the more dynamic players on our offense heading into next fall and can play a bunch of positions. He’s so smart and talented, I don’t want him standing beside me. We have to find ways to get him on the field.”
However, a preseason knee injury sidelined him for the entire season and led to him taking a redshirt to preserve his eligibility.
Evans came back stronger than ever in 2018, rushing for 1,187 yards and 7 touchdowns on a 6.6 yards per carry average and earning First-Team All-Sun Belt honors despite spending the first four games as the team’s second back. He, again, served as the team’s primary kick returner, adding a 100-yard return touchdown against Penn State and another 97-yard to set up a touchdown in the Sun Belt Championship game.
Evans exploded as a full-time starter in his redshirt junior season, rushing for 1,480 yards at 5.8 yards per carry and 18 touchdowns while adding another 198 yards and 5 touchdowns through the air and yet another kick return touchdown. He joined former Titan Chris Johnson and current Panthers star Christian McCaffery as the only players in this millennium to rush for at least 1,400 yards, catch at least 5 touchdown passes, and return a kickoff for a touchdown in the same season.
Similar to Isaiah Wilson, Evans is a unique fit for what the Titans were looking for. He comes from an outside zone based rush offense similar to the one that Tennessee deploys and brings additional value on special teams, where he was one of the top kick returners in the country over his college career. His slashing, one-cut style meshes well with the offense he’s going to be playing in and his breakaway speed means that the Titans have yet another explosive-play-waiting-to-happen type weapon in a growing arsenal of playmakers.
That style, along with his 5’-11”, 203-pound size, has helped him garner comparison’s to another New Smyrna Beach High School alum in 49ers back Raheem Mostert.
“Zone scheme, one hit and go, if you look at Raheem Mostert, what he did in the last few games for the 49ers, to me this is the same kid.”
— NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah
Mostert has averaged over 6.0 yards per carry in the offense that is most similar to the Titans scheme over the past two seasons, the highest per carry number in the NFL over that time frame.
Also similar to Wilson, Evans is a smart player on and off the field. He was named the Sun Belt’s top scholar by college football magazine Street & Smith prior to the start of his final season and carried a 3.34 GPA. He graduated early with a degree in communications and would have added a second minor had he returned for his final season of eligibility in 2020.
“My family was behind me the whole time, whether I stayed in school or came out,” said Evans, who graduated last year with a major in communications studies and a minor in sports science and coaching. “I had a plan both ways. If I went back to school, I was picking up another minor (marketing).”
Inspired by his mother’s battle with endometrial cancer, Evans dedicated his combine performance to the woman who managed to make it nearly every Appalachian State football game over his college career and helped raise thousands of dollars for the Endotrial Cancer Action Network for African-Americans.
Evans’ coaches at Appalachian State describe him as an even-keeled respected leader and good teammate in the locker room.
“I think one of the best things about Darrynton is that he’s a good teammate,” running backs coach Garrett Riley said. “He’s a guy that guys respect, obviously, because of his production and what he does on the field, but he’s about as consistent as they make ‘em. He’s definitely setting a good example for the rest of our players, in our room especially, and I think they look at him that way.”
The Titans’ interest in Evans was evident all along. He was one of just ten players that the team was able to get in for a Top-30 in-person visit before COVID-19 shut down all pre-draft travel. The trip to Nashville left both sides feeling like they’d found a fit.
“[The coaches] are great, very family-oriented,” Evans said. “Nashville is a great place to be and they have a lot of young weapons on the outside and a great offensive line. That’s one thing I definitely love, their offensive line and the way they play. They were one game away from the Super Bowl last year.”
“It’s great because I got a good first impression there, meeting everyone from top to bottom, all the way from the GM to the kitchen lady and seeing how they handle things there. I loved it.”
The Titans made Evans the 9th running back off the board in the 2020 NFL Draft, but if the hard work that took him from a two-star recruit to a day two pick continues at the professional level, they’ll probably be happy with the return.
Evans tested extremely well at the scouting combine, clocking the second fastest 40 time among the running backs in this class at 4.41. He also performed very well in both the broad jump and vertical jump.
Despite the strong performances in speed and explosiveness drills in Indianapolis, Evans felt he could have done even better.
“I actually wasn’t even happy with my workout,” Evans said. “As crazy as it sounds, I was looking to run somewhere in the 4.3s. I was right there knocking on the door but I didn’t hit it, so that’s on me. On the vertical, I was trying to jump 38, 39, so that’s on me. I did good in the field work but I still feel like I could have done better.”
Regardless of the tenths of a second he could have shaved off or the inches he could have added, Evans’ testing simply confirms what is already abundantly clear on tape — that he’s an explosive and dynamic runner who is a threat to score from any spot on a football field.
We touched on the stats a little bit above, but here are his year by year numbers as a rusher, receiver, and a returner.
- 2016: 48 carries for 214 yards (4.5 YPC) with zero rushing touchdowns
- 2018: 179 carries for 1,187 yards (6.7 YPC) with 7 rushing touchdowns
- 2019: 255 carries for 1,480 yards (5.8 YPC) with 18 rushing touchdowns
- 2016: 6 catches for 34 yards and 0 receiving touchdowns
- 2018: 12 catches for 87 yards and 1 receiving touchdown
- 2019: 21 catches for 198 yards and 5 receiving touchdowns
- 2016: 25 returns for 563 yards (22.5 yards per return) and 1 touchdown
- 2018: 15 returns for 490 yards (32.7 yards per return) and 1 touchdown
- 2019: 16 returns for 386 yards (24.1 yards per return) and 1 touchdown
Another important stat for Evans? Zero fumbles in 482 career carries, a school record. He also compiled a whopping 28 carries of 20 or more yards over the last two years which ties him for 3rd in college football over that time frame behind Clemson’s Travis Etienne (43) and Colts draft pick Jonathan Taylor (30).
Runs of 20+ yards the past two season:— Mike Renner (@PFF_Mike) May 6, 2020
1. Travis Etienne (43)
2. Jonathan Taylor (30)
3(t). Chuba Hubbard (28)
3(t). Darrynton Evans (28)
Still can't believe RB1 came back to school pic.twitter.com/75Ujyr17TD
It’s worth noting that Evans’ 28 rushes of 20 or more yards came on nearly 200 fewer carries than Taylor’s 30. If you look at the number of 20-plus yard carries on a per attempt basis, Evans’ 6.5% rate ranks second behind just Etienne in college football since 2018.
Evans is extremely fun to watch from pure entertainment standpoint, and like Isaiah Wilson, he played in a scheme at Appalachian State that gave him a lot reps in an outside zone based offense. We will take a look at his skill set as a rusher, pass blocker, pass catcher, and kick returner.
The first thing that jumps off the screen when watching Evans is his remarkable burst and top end speed. The 4.41 time he turned in at the combine clearly translates to the field.
Evans is an angle eraser at the second level. When given a big hole — like the one in the clip below — he’s capable of turning on the jets and simply outrunning the defense to the end zone.
Here’s another example of his tremendous speed. What starts as a relatively harmless zone run turns into 52 yard touchdown run as Evans bursts through the secondary and obliterates the angles for every defensive back on the field.
It’s not just the long speed though, Evans’ ability to put a foot in the ground and accelerate upfield is perfect for a zone running scheme.
Evans regularly shows excellent vision and a great comfort level making the reads required on outside zone runs like this one. He has a strong sense for when and where to cut runs back, an instinct that has already been sharpened through repetition in this system.
When it comes to breaking tackles, Evans isn’t elite, but he does show good contact balance. Stiff arms like this one are the exception, not the rule with him, but the stepping out of ankle tackles and maintaining his feet are regular occurrences.
Evans’ ability to make defenders miss in space is a plus trait as well, though like Henry — and most backs for that matter — he’s at his best with a full head of steam. Here, he slips an arm tackle and then uses his outstanding start-stop quickness to make a defender whiff on the second level.
Evans shows good effort and balance on runs. I’m still not quite sure how he escaped the first tackle here.
He has a really nice spin move that he’ll break out from time to time as he does in the backfield on this play to break contain after deciding to cut his run back.
Here is the spin move again, using it to elude an initial defender behind the line of scrimmage and turn a loss into a positive play for the offense.
The Titans were tied for 5th in the NFL in 20-plus yard runs last season and now they’re adding a guy who had the highest percentage of his carries go for 20-plus yards (6.5%) in the entire draft class over the past two seasons. Evans’ speed is clearly a weapon, but his ability to make guys miss completely in the hole — as he does here with a well-timed cut — is a huge part of his success in creating explosive plays.
One thing you may have noticed looking at a lot of these long runs is that Evans often ends up running out of bounds at the end of plays after getting corralled rather than trying to plow through a defender for a few extra yards. Old school football types won’t like this, but I think there are two clear positives to this approach:
- Evans went his entire career without fumbling and many fumbles are caused in situations where a player doesn’t know when “the journey is over” as Mike Vrabel likes to say. Extra effort is great, but protecting the football is usually more important than chasing a couple extra yards at the end of a long run.
- There is an element of body preservation to this approach. Evans is just over 200 pounds and he was the bell cow back for App State last year. Taking unnecessary punishment is generally a bad idea for that type of guy in that role.
Some criticisms of Evans as a runner that I had were mostly related to his power. He’s on the smaller side of NFL backs and he’s certainly not going to be a pile mover like Derrick Henry in short yardage situations. When running in heavy traffic between the tackles he has a tendency to stop his feet, which is a no-no and leads to him getting even less after contact than he otherwise should.
He also struggled with negative plays at App State. Now this clip is very clearly a blocking bust, but it’s representative of something that showed up frequently in his tape. Quick penetration into the backfield often seemed to catch Evans by surprise and he was rarely able to make anything happen when defenders showed up behind the line of scrimmage.
Again, that’s true of most backs — it’s even true of Henry — but it’s something that stood out when watching Evans.
The last negative is that too many arm tackles were able to stop him. This is a function of his size/power, but when defenders got an arm around him, he usually went down pretty quickly.
Overall, Evans as a runner is a great fit for what the Titans clearly want their rushing offense to be. He’s an explosive play waiting to happen and his experience and success in an outside zone based offense should help his transition. I have no doubts that he will be capable of spelling Henry from time to time in the short term. The only question for me is what he becomes long term. Is he best suited to be the “lightning” part of a committee for his entire career? Or does he have feature back capabilities? I think that question will largely come down to whether he’s able to improve some of his leg strength and power at the next level to help him get some of those tough yards between the tackles on a consistent basis.
One of the big questions Evans will have to face right away if he wants to play in 2020 is how well he can pass protect. Rookie running backs often enter the league with little to no idea what they’re doing in pass pro and that’s a major hurdle to them getting on the field early, especially on third downs.
That’s even more true for this football team, as the Titans used their backs to pass block more than any other NFL team in 2019.
I've seen some worried about Clyde Edwards-Helaire's pass blocking ability, but the Chiefs were 28th in percentage of passes with an RB pass blocking (13%) last year. Not sure that's going to be a problem at all for CEH. Ke'Shawn Vaughn and Cam Akers will be tested more often. pic.twitter.com/qLRcyXEmao— Hayden Winks (@HaydenWinks) May 15, 2020
The good news is that Evans did get a lot of experience as a pass protector in a relatively pro-style attack at Appalachian State and he showed that he at least knows what he’s doing in this phase of the game. Here, he gives a vicious teaching tape chip to help out his right tackle.
And here he is scanning and picking up the blitz. Evans does an excellent job of getting low and absorbing the blow from the linebacker without ceding too much ground on this snap.
Here, he recognizes the stunts from the North Carolina defensive line and puts himself in perfect position to help his left guard keep the pocket clean.
He was asked to pass block off of play action frequently at App State as well, something he’ll be tasked with frequently in Tennessee. Evans showed the ability to quickly locate the free rusher while carrying out the play fake and does a good job of chopping down the rusher.
However, he’s not perfect by any means. He had a couple moments of bad technique that popped up, including this rep where he fails to get wide enough with his chip block and effectively sets a pick on his own tackle.
And then, of course, there is the same concern that you have with him as a between the tackles runner — is he going to be too “light in the britches” to block NFL linebackers with a head of steam? Here he gets rocked back right into his QB’s lap while picking up the blitzer.
The good news is that Evans certainly shows the aptitude for knowing where he’s supposed to be in pass protection on tape and that’s half the battle. Running back blocks don’t always have to be pretty, they just have to do enough to get in the way. If your scheme calls for a back to block a defensive end for three seconds one on one, then you have a scheme problem, not a running back problem.
Evans wants to be a coach after his playing career is done and prides himself on knowing the jobs of all 11 players for any given snap. That kind of mental approach is perfect for pass protection and he credits his time spent learning defensive schemes for helping him develop that part of his game.
Darrynton Evans on pass protections:— AtoZSports Nashville (@AtoZSports) April 25, 2020
Took time to learn defensive schemes and where pressure is coming from. Took pride in protecting his QB and knowing what all positions have to do. #Titans
For all the struggles Dion Lewis had during his time as a Titan, he was always reliable in pass protection. Even though Evans is pretty advanced in this capacity relative to other rookie backs, I’d still imagine that he’ll have some hiccups along the way. However, this also shouldn’t end up being a major roadblock to him earning the third down role right away.
This is an element that has been completely missing from the Titans backfield since DeMarco Murray’s retirement after the 2017 season. Derrick Henry has just 57 career catches in four NFL seasons, and while he can be dangerous on screens, he simply isn’t the guy that you’re going to send out to run choice routes out of the backfield and he’s certainly not a vertical threat out of the backfield. Lewis had more of that skill set, but in 2019 he had so little juice that he was largely a non-threat even when he did catch the ball.
Evans didn’t put up big pass catching volume numbers at Appalachian State, but that’s more of a function of their offense than a reflection of Evans’ ability as his position coach, Garrett Wiley, told our own Justin Melo.
“No, it was totally due to our system at App State and what we asked him to do. It boils down to what we were good at. We just didn’t really ask him to catch the ball. I certainly think he’s capable of doing that. As a matter of fact, I think that’s a part of his game that’s going to take a big leap at the next level. You’re going to see a big jump from him in that category.”
The tape bears that out despite a limited sample size to study.
Let’s start with the very basics... how are his hands? The first things that jump out are Evans’ comfort level with making catches with his hands away from his frame and his ability to adjust to the ball in the air. While the result of this play isn’t great — through no fault of Evans — you can see those traits here. It’s a poorly thrown ball that requires him to turn all the way around while flaring out of the backfield, but he makes the catch comfortably and away from his frame. It’s not the most difficult catch in the world, but it’s not necessarily as easy as he makes it look there either.
Here he is on a flat route. Again, you can see natural hands catching the ball away from his body.
Evans didn’t run many routes from the backfield, but here is one. It’s a simple pivot route and he does a nice job of finding a soft spot in the coverage to settle down and present a target for his quarterback.
However, here is the stuff that gets me excited about what Evans could bring to the passing game. This is a wheel route out of the backfield that takes advantage of Evans’ elite speed. With the defense in a single high look with man coverage underneath, App State is betting that Evans can outrun the angle of the deep safety (he does). A double slant combo helps force the linebacker responsible for Evans underneath and the result would have been a touchdown if this ball were thrown about a foot shorter. Instead, it glances off his fingertips as a near miss.
Here is a different play design, but it’s another one that uses Evans’ speed out of the backfield as a weapon on the wheel route. The design is great here. Facing a quarters coverage look, App State lines up with twin wide receivers split left and double tight ends right with Evans offset right in the backfield. They use jet motion to hold the linebackers and run three verticals using the tight ends and Evans to the short side of the field, leaving two deep defenders to cover three vertical routes. The result is a wide open Evans for a long touchdown catch.
First, I wouldn’t hate the idea of Arthur Smith “borrowing” a couple of these concepts for the Titans playbook. Quarters is far less common in the NFL than it is in college, but this look could work against multiple coverages.
Back to Evans... you can see his speed at work here and the comfort level making the catch deep down field. I included the end zone angle in the second clip as well so you can get a better look at the catch.
Running backs like Evans who have elite speed can be an absolute menace on these types of routes. Few linebackers in the game can run with a 4.41 back downfield like this, and against slower backers, this type of route can make for some easy chunk plays.
I suspect the Titans will use Evans on screens far more than they did at Appalachian State too. His speed and open field elusiveness make him an ideal candidate to utilize in that capacity.
Evans still requires a bit of projection as a pass catcher due to the low volume, but the traits are there. He’s a confident hands catcher who shows the ability to adjust to the ball in the air with ease and his speed and stop/start quickness give him the chance to develop into a very good route runner out of the backfield if he’s willing to put in a little work. He has the benefit of going to a team where he’ll be coached by Tony Dews, the Titans running backs coach who spent nearly a decade coaching receivers at West Virginia, Michigan, and Arizona before making the move to the backfield in 2017. Dews will be uniquely qualified to help him develop as a pass catcher out of the backfield.
Finally, we get to the final area where Evans may contribute: kick returns. Despite being App State’s leading rusher each of the last two years, he was still used as the team’s primary kick returner, a clear indication of the value the staff saw in his return ability.
Evans returned three kicks for touchdowns during his college career, tied for 10th most for any player since 2016. His first was as a true freshman in App State’s bowl win over Logan Woodside’s Toledo Rockets.
(Yes, that’s Evans... he cut his hair and changed his number between 2016 and 2018.)
The second came in his very next game, the 2018 season opener against Penn State.
Finally, he got his third this past season against Charlotte, though it came on an onside kick.
A quick note... Evans’ presence and position on App State’s “hands team” there shows you exactly what they think about his ability to catch the football.
There is a lot to like about Darrynton Evans as a prospect and especially as a fit with the Titans. He’s close to an ideal complement for Derrick Henry and guarantees that they’ll have a true home run threat lined up in the backfield on every snap this season. That threat will put a lot of stress on opposing defenses this fall.
I would have a hard time seeing a scenario where he doesn’t end up taking over the Dion Lewis role right away as a rookie and my bet is that he ends up getting the first crack at returning kicks as well. The questions surrounding Evans will be how much his pass catching traits translate and whether his size/strength end up limiting him as both a runner and pass protector.
However, Evans fits the mold of the new wave of NFL running backs. He’s very similar in terms of pure size/athleticism to guys like Christian McCaffrey, Raheem Mostert, and Austin Ekeler. Time will tell if he’s able to be as successful as those guys at the NFL level, but there is more than enough to work with in his skill set to eventually become a starter in this league.
In the immediate future, it’s fair to expect Evans to be a far more exciting and explosive version of Dion Lewis who could give them some options to expand the playbook a little bit. A wider menu of passing options out of the backfield and some “WildKing” looks with Evans running the jet sweep action for Derrick Henry are certainly a couple of the possibilities that his presence could open up.
Jon Robinson has found some “small school” gems in the 3rd round during his time as GM with Kevin Byard (MTSU), Jonnu Smith (FIU), and Nate Davis (Charlotte) all either established stars or promising starters early in their careers. Evans could be another one.