The 2017 draft certainly had the makings to be a special class of running backs, and their impact was made immediately. Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara who were both selected in the third round, helped take their teams to new heights. It will be hard for Leonard Fournette to live up to the billing of the fourth overall pick, but the Jaguars seem pleased with his rookie year. That isn’t even accounting for the all-purpose threat of Christian McCaffrey and guys like Dalvin Cook or Joe Mixon whose were limited or had their rookie season cut short due to injury.
While this crop of running backs isn’t as strong, there is certainly plenty of talent to go around. What will continue to be interesting is how teams evaluate the position. The draft is a means for teams to be able to acquire cheap talent, and drafting a running back in the early first round instantly makes him one of the highest paid at the position. Considering the types of players we’ve seen go in the second or third rounds over the years, it wouldn’t be surprising if at least a few backs selected in that range this draft outperform their draft position early on.
1. Saquon Barkley, Penn State: It seems almost yearly we have a guy that’s labeled a “generational” back or the best prospect at the position since Adrian Peterson. That’s up for opinion, but Barkley has the well-rounded game and ridiculous athleticism to be the top prospect in this class. With home run hitting speed and the ability to make defenders miss, he’s a threat to score whenever he touches the ball. Despite those skills, Barkley has a compact build and will be able to handle 20-25 carries when needed. On top of that, Barkley was a very productive receiver during his time at Penn State.
Per Pro Football Focus (PFF), Barkley averaged 1.9 yards per route run in 2017 which is fantastic for a back. In this era that has emphasized running backs as receivers (Barkley also lined up in the slot on occassion as well) and safer throws, that could make him even more valuable. While it can be considered nitpicking, my main concern is on occasion Barkley would try to make a huge play by bouncing runs outside instead of just taking the yards given to him. That is something the team who drafts him will likely want to address that in the offseason. While I’m personally not a fan of taking running backs in the first round, the various ways Barkley can impact an offense will make it hard for teams to pass on him.
2. Derrius Guice, LSU: Like Leonard Fournette who he split carries with at LSU, you have to go back and watch Guice as a sophomore to see what he is truly capable of. Guice (along with Fournette) was hurt the majority of his junior year so the burst he displayed in 2016 wouldn’t be the same. Aside from formerly being college teammates, there are a lot of differences between Guice and last year’s fourth overall pick.
While not a physical freak like Fournette, he runs extremely angry and still has ideal size for the position. Guice is a patient runner and when he finds a seam, he has the ability to make a defense pay. While LSU didn’t feature him in the passing game, Guice showed some upside as a pass catcher so it will be interesting to see how his NFL team utilizes in that regard.
3. Ronald Jones, USC: In what was a monster junior season, Jones displayed the talents that could make a team extremely happy come draft day. The first thing that stood out to me about Jones was that he accelerated quickly to his top speed and paired that with nice vision and the ability to make defenders miss. Jones was hurt during the combine, so his forty time there was uninspiring which could be why there hasn’t been a ton of hype surrounding him in recent months.
Despite being a shiftier back, USC rarely used Jones as a receiver. Assuming he doesn’t have inconsistent hands, you’d have to assume his NFL team will use him more frequently in that regard. On top of that, Jones was also willing to stand in on pass protection downs which could add some value. Even if it’s in a role where he splits touches with another back, Jones could be an immediate impact player at the next level.
4. Rashaad Penny, San Diego State: Penny flashed when behind Donnel Pumphrey at San Diego State, but when Pumphrey moved on, Penny emerged in a big way. He ran for over 2,200 yards in 2017 and showed big play ability with the ability to run between the tackles. One thing that’s for certain with Penny is he can make defenders miss. Between his strength and vision, Penny per PFF forced over 80 missed tackles on running plays this past season, tops among draft eligible backs.
While he ran a 4.46 at the combine, some still seem to have questions regarding Penny’s big play breaking ability at the next level. Penny had some struggles in pass protection while in college and that could limit his snaps initially. Despite not being utilized much as a pass catcher in college, Penny did show some upside in that regard dropping just one of his 24 targets last season. Assuming he works on pass protection early and often with his NFL team, Penny has the ability to contribute in a big way early in his NFL career.
5. Nick Chubb, Georgia: Chubb is one of the most prolific running backs that has ever come through Georgia which is really saying something. He burst onto the national scene almost immediately, but Chubb suffered a gruesome leg injury that prematurely ended his sophomore year. That injury prevented Chubb in 2016 from running with his previous explosion, but fortunately he was able to boost his stock this past season.
Chubb in 2017 per PFF forced 56 missed tackles and averaged nearly four yards per carry after initial contact. This could be due to his low center of gravity as he runs with power and can cutback when needed. Aside from the injury related issues (his quickness and burst have improved since 2016, but may never fully return), Chubb was never really utilized as a receiver at Georgia. Granted, a lot of that could be due to sharing a backfield with Sony Michel but it might lead to him being labeled a two-down back. If Chubb does show he can contribute in the passing game and continues working towards his pre-injury form, he could prove to be an excellent return on investment.
6. Sony Michel, Georgia: In a copycat league, plenty of teams will be searching for “the next Alvin Kamara” and some analysts think that it could be Michel. The big play ability was certainly on display as Michel averaged a ridiculous eight yards a carry this past season. Michel runs decisively and while he can make defenders miss with cuts, the strength is there to run through arm tackles as well.
Michel was used more as a receiver than Nick Chubb at Georgia, but it wasn’t a role he was featured in. The team that drafts him will almost certainly want to utilize Michel there as along with receiving ability, he has shown well as a pass blocker when called upon as well. Michel will likely be used initially in a running back tandem like he was at Georgia, but the potential is there for him to be a lead back when called upon.
7. Mark Walton, Miami (FL): An ankle injury that limited his junior season to four games may lead some to forget about Walton. What he showed before the injury was the type of versatile game that teams are now coveting. Walton is a compact back who can run between the tackles or bounce it outside for a big gain. In his first two seasons, Walton was also used pretty frequently as a receiver which is an advantage over some other backs in this class.
Due to his size/weight, some teams may instantly have Walton as a role player or third down back. He was also rarely asked to be a 20-25 carry a game guy, so durability concerns could arise from that. Despite concerns, his ability to force missed tackles and contribute to an offense in multiple ways could make him a great value in what’s a talented pool of running backs.
8. Kerryon Johnson, Auburn: In a very deep running back class, Johnson can be a polarizing prospect. Some have him much higher on their boards, while others are lower on his future. I have him more towards the middle, and think he’ll be able to contribute with the potential for more at the next level. At times when watching Johnson, he’ll show an ability to almost glide to a hole and runs with physicality to go along with it.
While he can force miss tackles, Johnson isn’t great at adding yards after initial contact. Part of that could be due to his build, which reminds me of Darren McFadden as he runs uptight but has a skinnier lower body. After seeing how McFadden’s career played out, it wouldn’t be surprising if there were durability concerns for Johnson in the pros. He did prove at Auburn he’s able to play all three downs, so the situation Johnson lands in could determine what kind of role he sees throughout his career.
9. Kalen Ballage, Arizona State: Every year there is a running back prospect who fits the “could be a better pro than college player” mold. This year the nominee is Ballage. Checking in at 6’1″ 227, Ballage turned heads running a 4.46 forty at the combine but he’s a versatile player who showcased some intriguing skills at Arizona State.
Ballage’s best asset might be his pass catching where he can catch out of the backfield or line up in the slot. Despite all that, he might be best served early on as a developmental prospect. For his size, Ballage was surprisingly easy to take down and didn’t make defenders miss often enough. In the middle to later parts of day three, he’s worth a team taking a flier on as the potential reward is a valuable offensive chess piece.
10. Boston Scott, Louisiana Tech: I mentioned Ballage being a potential offensive chess piece and that is similar to what Scott can bring to the table. After that however, the similarities end. While Ballage is a size/speed freak, Scott checks in at 5’6″ 203 but with 4.4 speed. Scott is difficult to bring down thanks to his low center of gravity as per PFF he forced 41 missed tackles on 179 carries in 2017. On top of that, Scott has experience in both pass protection and as a receiver. While Scott hasn’t been brought up a ton in terms of his draft prospects, the skills are there for whoever decides to give him a chance.
2018 class grade: A