The last few running back classes have contained stars, both at the top of the draft and in the later rounds. The talent is there for more of the same from the 2018 group of prospects. Here, we take a closer look at some of the top names at the position for the upcoming NFL draft. See the rest of the position rankings series here.
Rec = Receptions. KR = Kick Returns. PR = Punt Returns. YPR = Yards per rush/reception/return.
1. Saquon Barkley, Penn State. Grade: 1st Round
6’0”, 233lbs. Junior. 2017: 217 rush, 1271 yards (5.86 YPR), 18 TDs. 54 rec, 632 yards (11.70 YPR), 3 TDs. 1 passing TD. 15 KR, 426 yards (28.40 YPR), 2 TDs.
As with all top draft prospects, his game will get nit-picked, but Barkley is as clean a prospect as he is elite. He had some lesser performances in 2017, but teams gameplanned against him, stacked the box, and the frequency with which first contact arrived immediately in the backfield as a result of a less than impressive offensive line, it was inevitable that he would have his moments of limited production; it’s hard to imagine any back doing much more under the same circumstances.
He has everything desired in a pro running back: size and athletic combo, working both inside and outside, as a receiver out of the backfield, a capable pass protector (though not without some poor examples, very much a work-in-progress), and the effort and physicality to finish and maximize most of his runs/touches. While his stock had no room to increase further, his Combine showing was perfectly executed in every test and field drill to hammer home every check mark.
Barkley is a smart, high-character, down-to-earth, humble guy without an ego. A hard worker off the field, he asks questions, studies, is committed in the weight-room and in his conditioning. He is highly motivated to succeed and be great.
Barkley has the combination of power, build and balance to bounce off defenders, break tackles, create yards after contact. He has highly impressive footwork, change of direction and cutting ability to be elusive. He bounces outside well and has the acceleration to succeed on the edges. There’s a fast mental process and reactions to the action in front of him post-snap; instinctive with the ball in his hands.
The Nittany Lion prospect is quick to spot the holes and burst through them, recognizes and anticipates running lanes as they are developing, allowing him to hit with ideal timing. Impressive one-cut-and go ability. He can create in space and on the second level just as well as in traffic up the middle, and has the speed to finish.
He looks the part running routes and working space, tracking the ball well and shows good hands; very natural in the passing game, nothing is forced. With a nose for the end zone, he has scored 46 times over the past two seasons in a variety of ways, including as a kick returner. Barkley is a legit focal point of his offense, a true playmaker and difference maker that warrants a high draft pick, with the versatility to contribute and excel in any scheme.
2. Derrius Guice, LSU. Grade: 1st Round
5’10”, 224lbs. Junior. 2017: 237 rush, 1251 yards (5.28 YPR), 11 TDs. 18 rec, 124 yards (6.89 YPR), 2 TDs.
It’s been an interesting college career for Guice that involved flashing behind Leonard Fournette, and suffering frustrating injuries during his lone season to take the lead role, but he may be the best of the rest behind the consensus top back in this draft class.
The former Tiger has good NFL level measurables featuring a well built, toned frame. That combines with top end speed; he can break big plays and outrun defenders once free from the line of scrimmage. There’s a lot to love regarding his work ethic and effort on every run, always finishes, always battles to break tackles, to fall forward and work for every yard. You know you will get Guise’s best effort on every touch, often accompanied by a mean stiff arm.
The concern is that his style might result in getting banged up more often than some, inviting a lot of punishment. While his angry attitude as a runner is part of what makes him who he is as a football player, and leads to success through the tackles, the short-term knocks and long-term durability might lead to pause in investing too highly.
There’s plenty of evidence of a developing game that isn’t fully consistent as yet. Plays that demonstrate excellent vision and patience to set up his blocks are followed by examples of running into his lineman before the hole has developed. Outstanding lateral cuts and evasive moves are followed by poor footwork and missed opportunities to break a bigger play from the open field. While the top end speed is impressive, at times Guice’s burst is very average in the initial phase around the line.
Some of the above can lead to uncertainty in his grading early in the process, but he’s a guy who grows on you the more you break down his film. While he has his moments, the overall vision and positional IQ is outstanding. He’s productive, gets in the end zone, regularly delivers against top opposition, and the effort level is unmatched. He’s a useful target out of the backfield to complete the skill set. Pass protection is iffy, but the effort again is there and hopefully will improve.
3. Sony Michel, Georgia Grade: 1st-2nd Round
5’11”, 214lbs. Senior. 2017: 156 rush, 1227 yards (7.87 YPR), 16 TDs. 9 rec, 96 yards (10.67 YPR), 1 TD.
It doesn’t take long when going through the film work to hear the name Alvin Kamara yelling out from the back of your mind, and the comparison between the two has indeed become one of the more frequent media mentions every time his name is raised, but is no less valid. Teams will want to find their own version of the star rookie out of Tennessee and Michel won’t mind that as the Bulldog prospect with the similar build and skill set will be highly desirable on draft weekend.
Michel has had to share time throughout his college career, including Todd Gurley early on, but primarily with fellow class recruit Nick Chubb, but has always flashed a combination of tough, efficient running mixed with dynamic big-play ability, and played his best football yet as a senior for the National Championship runners up.
While his production level as the primary back during Chubb’s mostly lost 2015 season wasn’t overly notable, the offensive line was a significant weakness at that time, not close to the level of the 2017 version led by Isaiah Wynn, and the passing game offered little help that year. His efforts were still worthy of being named the team’s offensive MVP.
Michel has a toned, well-distributed frame and fantastic athletic traits. His footwork stands out with a spring in his step. His lower body explosion is reflected in the highly effective jump cuts and shifts that regularly flat-foot and floor would-be tacklers. There’s a slipperiness to his work in congested areas that sees him emerge from traffic around the line to burst through onto the second level. His balance is a key trait for his running style, and he’s got that ability to bounce off contact.
While he has the athleticism to succeed through his natural abilities, there’s clear evidence of improvement in his patience and awareness, that sometimes was lacking from Michel in previous years. The mental side of his game is still improving, a good sign going forward. In addition, while much of his description reads like that of a finesse runner, there’s no doubting that Michel can play tough through contact and take hits.
As wanted, Michel has good skills in the receiving game, with solid hands and becomes a threat immediately in space once the ball is secure in his hands. However, speaking of ball security, fumbles have been a significant issue and far too regular an occurrence, one of the key areas of improvement required in order to be trusted with carries at the NFL level. In terms of trust, he does offer reliable pass protection, with a nice combination of recognition and technical execution.
4. Ronald Jones II, Southern California. Grade: 2nd Round
5’11”, 205lbs. Junior. 2017: 261 rush, 1550 yards (5.94 YPR), 19 TDs. 14 rec, 187 yards (13.36 YPR), 1 TD.
The signs were good early on in 2017 for the player known as RoJo, putting up the most yards in a season opener by a USC running back since 2001. One of the better athletic prospects at the position in this class, Jones has rare burst and plenty of big play ability to make something happen potential on any given touch. He has quick feet and change of direction, suddenness in his movements and instant acceleration.
However, as good as the athletic traits unquestionably are, he relied on them for much of his success at the college level, showing some lack of development in his instincts and the overall mental side of the game. There’s often a tendency to charge forward with a lack of patience and attempting to adjust. While that still often worked, helped by his short-area quickness to redirect, he can also regularly run into traffic, miss holes and the overall vision is unimpressive.
Jones has a relatively slim frame and in addition tends to run fairly upright, not always with the best pad level and leverage. While he can make defenders miss, arm tackles and dives at his ankles often are successful in bringing him down relatively early, sometimes under first contact.
There’s been a number of names thrown out as comparisons, but the one that instantly stood out to me but haven’t seen used elsewhere, is Melvin Gordon, who had similar explosion, athleticism, relatively lean frame, and some issues with patience and vision when exiting college.
An area that RoJo hasn’t shown a great deal in over his three seasons with the Trojans has been in the passing game. His modest 14 catches in 2017 were a career high, after just 11 and seven the previous two years. A hamstring injury suffered at the Combine in his first dash attempt took away an opportunity to showcase his skills in the passing game during the workout, and it remains a bit of a question mark in his game, especially given his build and running style, projecting to his role at the next level.
There’s no doubting though that when he gets it right, he can juke his way through the middle of the field, bounce out successfully to the edge and beat the angles, and hit the home run play with the ball in his hands in space. Few in this class move as well as he does in short spaces and laterally. He also brings an intriguing on-field attitude, expressing a lot of flair and personality, regularly fired up, particularly after hitting the end zone, a very regular occurrence over the past few years.
5. Kerryon Johnson, Auburn. Grade: 2nd Round
5’11”, 213lbs. Junior. 2017: 285 rush, 1391 yards (4.88 YPR), 18 TDs. 24 rec, 194 yards (8.08 YPR), 2 TDs. 1 passing TD.
There was almost an expectation on my part, to see Johnson weigh in at the Combine a bit heavier than his listed 212lbs, yet he measured in around the same range. It certainly appeared on film in 2017 as if the punishing back was playing at a bigger size with the manner in which he regularly delivered hits to defenders rather than the other way around, bullying and bruising his way to leading the SEC in rushing this past season.
Johnson didn’t run at the Combine but showed off the impressive lower body explosion with some of the best broad and vertical jumps among those in attendance, along with a good cone time that reflects agility and short area quickness. The former is particularly translatable to his game film with power and drive in his legs that adds to his ability to churn out yards. He satisfied scouts at his recent pro day by running in the mid-4.5s, a solid mark for him.
It can sometimes take a couple games of film when watching Kerryon, to begin to fully appreciate what makes him such a good running back prospect. He can look fairly functional, not always that flashy, and just grinding out the tough yards in an efficient manner. The further progressing through his games though, the excellent patience, vision, timing and ability to finish really start to come into full focus and clarity.
For fans of highlight packages, you can build an appealing one from Johnson’s archive, with some of the angriest on record this past season, with some punishing hits and devastating stiff arms to the ground. Ultra-physical, he drives well for maximum yardage. He’s generally going to make positive plays, falls forward, very tough to stop for a loss of yardage. He’s NFL-ready and built for the pros now.
A big check mark is earned by Johnson’s name for his work in the passing game. While he may not by the most dynamic, explosive of backs, who is going to use suddenness in route breaks as a receiver, he’s technically polished as a pass catcher with highly impressive hands, that has included bringing in one handed grabs; more ammunition for that highlight reel.
When it comes to questions or negatives, durability is a concern. While he was wise to leave after his junior year rather than accumulate another season of punishing running, he has taken a fair number of hits, a natural consequence of his running style. Throughout his college career, and indeed going back through his high school days, he’s regularly been banged up, has had multiple shoulder issues, and various ailments with his knees and ankles.
6. Rashaad Penny, San Diego State. Grade: 2nd Round
5’11”, 220lbs. Senior. 2017: 289 rush, 2248 yards (7.78 YPR), 23 TDs. 19 rec, 132 yards (6.95 YPR), 2 TDs. 17 KR, 521 yards (30.65 YPR), 2 TDs. 2 PR, 70 yards, 1 TD.
Penny is short but stout, with an appealing combination of quickness, power, physicality, and effort, all backed up by the sensational production to match, regardless of doing so against some relatively lesser competition at times. He’s a smart, efficient runner who doesn’t waste time in getting upfield and importantly can break tackles for extra yardage.
The Aztecs run a lot of pro concepts that will aid his transition to the next level. He excels in the two-back outside zone play, thriving when asked to make one cut and go, using great vision and timing. He’s shiftier than many backs his size, capable of lateral moves and to make the first man miss.
He finishes his runs, often delivering blows as well as absorbing them, driving his legs for yards after contact. Though he finished many long breakaway runs, he receives questions about his ability to finish and avoid being caught from behind at the NFL level. His quick dash time at the Combine helped his cause in that respect. As efficient as he is on film, he showed a little wasted motion and unnecessary steps going through drills in Indy, not the cleanest of performances.
Penny’s phenomenal production extends to special teams, where he has taken seven kick returns to the house over his career, along with one punt return touchdown. The team that drafts him will have the option of continuing to use him in that capacity where his excellent eyes and reactions sees him find the right holes to exploit.
Penny hasn’t totaled a great deal of receptions and has had some ups and downs when trying to prove his ability there during the pre-draft process, at the Senior Bowl and the Combine. His hands are trusted on special teams though, a good sign, and the Aztecs did occasionally line him up as a receiver. Pass protection is rather inconsistent and has examples where he’s whiffed bad on film. Still, he has the size and physical play to improve.
Far from a one-season wonder, Penny managed to top 1,000 yards on the ground in a backup role to Donnel Pumphrey the previous season, and this season surpassed Pumphrey’s massive total from 2016. Regardless though, the senior has the game and measurables that should translate better to the pros than his former teammate’s.
7. Nick Chubb, Georgia. Grade: 2nd-3rd Round
5’11”, 227lbs. Senior. 2017: 223 rush, 1345 yards (6.03 YPR), 15 TDs. 4 rec, 30 yards (7.50 YPR).
Though he surprised some with his decision to return for a senior season, it proved a wise one that saw him produce far better than his junior year and stayed healthy, a further year removed from that terrible knee injury in 2015, in addition to being a key contributor in Georgia’s run to the title game.
Chubb isn’t an explosive runner. His game is more based around excellent vision and patience, timing, then followed by power, breaking tackles, and his overall physical game. He can be relied on to take full advantage of good blocking in front, and to make the right decisions consistently.
The athletic abilities on film are average and does apply some limitations on what he can run. In addition to not being overly quick-twitch, his change of direction isn’t going to shake many pro defenders. He needs to build up some momentum, and will have issues when making reactionary lateral shifts.
In fairness, he performed a little better than expected at the Combine, running a good dash time, demonstrating his strength and weight room work with an impressive bench press, and looking smooth through positional drills.
Chubb plays with good technique, coordination and form. He offers a polished, reliable game, will play with effective pad level and is going to run tough each carry. He generally falls forward to finish runs and can drive for additional yardage.
What might hold him back a little during the draft, is a lack of that extra dynamic trait to sell himself on. Consistency is not to be knocked, but might underwhelm if a team invests in him too early. While he looked better as a senior than in 2016, his best years certainly came prior to the serious knee injury, and hasn’t been quite the same since. The medical evaluation will of course factor in to his final grade as well.
8. Mark Walton, Miami (FL). Grade: 3rd-4th Round
5’10”, 202lbs. Junior. 2017 (in 4 games): 56 rush, 428 yards (7.64 YPR), 3 TDs. 7 rec, 91 yards (13.00 YPR). 2016: 209 rush, 1117 yards (5.34 YPR), 14 TDs. 27 rec, 240 yards (8.89 YPR), 1 TD.
Only able to play in four games this past season due to a season-ending ankle injury and resulting surgery, Walton none-the-less is a popular prospect with many, based primarily off his 2016 film. A strong Combine would have helped his case for a Day 2 selection though, but that did not come to pass, as one of the bigger disappointments in the position group.
Taking his rustiness on return from injury into account, he still ran slower than expected, then went on to struggle through positional drills. He had troubles catching the ball with several drops and double clutches, a concern given that making plays out of the backfield is projected to be a role for him at the next level. He did impress with his effort in the bench press. His 2016 film remains enticing, and over his brief time on the field for the Hurricanes, was outstandingly productive overall.
Walton has a dynamic game that fits well within the current style of back desired at the NFL level. He has a short but solid build for his frame, and in spite of the Combine, shows himself to be an exciting athlete on film with burst and impressive acceleration, getting up to speed so quickly and proving deadly in space in the open field. Walton runs with impressive balance that aids him in the open field, bouncing off contact and breaking through tackle attempts at his feet.
The footwork also stands out, that results in successful jump cuts, plant and go’s, flat-footing shifts and shakes. He finds results bouncing plays outside when the middle is congested and generally works well to the edges. Despite his Combine issues, he shows solid hands and overall work out of the backfield as a receiver, and of course provides a big threat in space once the ball is in his hands.
He’s not all about quickness, and will throw out a useful stiff arm. He brings some physicality to his play and gives great effort when driving into contact. He also shows up in pass protection despite some varied results, using decent technique and that same effort level despite the size limitations, and will get extension and lock out. The talented athlete has some kick return experience in his past, and could offer more in the NFL.
9. Royce Freeman, Oregon. Grade: 3rd-4th Round
5’11”, 229lbs. Senior. 2017: 244 rush, 1475 yards (6.05 YPR), 16 TDs. 14 rec, 164 yards (11.71 YPR).
There’s ideal size, a career of solid production, and as he proved during a good Combine workout, Freeman can move with a nice dash time and showed short-area agility with a quick three-cone while easing his way through each field drill. As a result, some question why most don’t grade him higher.
The answers are there in the film. Freeman generally doesn’t play to his size. He’s tentative, doesn’t lead into contact or drive through, and braces for hits. He doesn’t break as many initial tackles as might be expected from him, going down regularly on first contact. Overall, there’s a little bit of a low energy to his playing style that is highly underwhelming in large parts.
He can take advantage of sizable holes opened by his offensive line but isn’t overly creative when the holes aren’t there. His lateral moves are fairly fluid but not dynamic and won’t fool many quality run defenders to miss. Limitations in space show up at times in the pass game and is unlikely to provide significant contributions in that area.
There’s no denying the plus parts to his game and potential though, and does warrant a solid grade. While he takes some hits and has been banged up, he didn’t actually miss much playing time and has the build to take on a relatively heavy workload in the pros if asked. There’s a consistency about his play, the vision is reliable, and he tends to find the most advantageous lane to hit.
10. Nyheim Hines, NC State. Grade: 3rd-4th Round
5’8”, 198lbs. Junior. 2017: 197 rush, 1112 yards (5.64 YPR), 12 TDs. 26 rec, 152 yards (5.85 YPR). 21 KR, 469 yards (22.33 YPR). 11 PR, 135 yards (12.27 YPR), 1 TD.
Hines has flipped between being listed as a wide receiver and a running back during his time with the Wolfpack, but while the latter has become the final official designation, it’s not really too important, regardless. Simply get the ball in his hands in a variety of ways and let the dynamic playmaker work, be it as a runner, receiver or returner on special teams.
The speedster and former track athlete makes some fantastic shifts, spin moves and bursts of acceleration to eat up the open field. While short and relatively undersized, Hines is a tough runner with a toned build on his frame, and who plays bigger than he is, challenging tacklers on contact.
While his explosiveness is his biggest asset, he shows smart play on film. He takes his time, uses his eyes, locates where the space will develop, and can react mid-play to redirect and work back against the grain. The evidence is there of intelligent decision making and overall instincts.
While he plays with enough physicality, running up the middle is indeed rather hit and miss, and though the vision is good overall, can find himself charging into traffic and being shut down when playing between the tackles. Still, put him in positions to succeed, and the results should be there. That includes on special teams where he is a legit danger to take kicks back to the house.
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