This is, to me and to most, a very solid (if not enthralling) class. The available backs are middle-heavy, with a clear-cut stud atop the board and a bevy of intriguing workhorse option throughout the first few rounds. To sift through all of the moving pieces, let’s take a look at the prominent prospects in the key areas of their respective resumes:
How productive was he? Maybe dominant? I want to know how dominant he was in school, relative to his teammates and then to his peers. Backs who took an especially hefty stake in their college offenses simply project better to do the same on the NFL level. Generally speaking, for a back expected to compete as an NFL starter, I like to see him claim at least 50-55% of his team’s non-quarterback rushing yardage over the course of his career. More importantly, I want to see the general shape of his college career, as well as how he progressed/regressed in his make-or-break year. I like seeing that rate spike over the course of that career, and if he lands north of 65% in his final year I’ll call him a workhorse.
How fast is he, considering his size? The 40-yard dash is no longer the draft community’s catch-all measurement, which is nice. It’s a number with so little variance and such misleading information that it’s all but useless – unless we’re factoring in size. A 4.41 dash tells us little on its own, but we learn a lot by first noting whether the runner weighs 185 pounds or 240. Speed score is a tidy and widely agreed-upon method of leveraging size and speed, giving us a picture of breakaway speed potential. It’s not perfect, but we can generally expect a speed score above 110 to suggest elite speed, and a score under 97-98 to point to a lumbering, one-gear type. Still, I wish we had more and/or better combine metrics to test agility. I love a back who can move in a phone booth, and the short shuttle and three-cone tests are great metrics to view that skill, but backs routinely opt out of those at the combine. Of my 14 tested prospects, only 5 participated in both drills, and 8 held out of both altogether. Thus, I’ll take some satisfaction in measuring breakaway speed potential.
Did he generate yardage? Of course, I’m interested in his yardage per rush, as it helps to build a profile. A 2,000-yard season is made far less impressive if the rusher in question needed 400 carries against college defenses to do it.
How involved was he in the passing game? This is a sticking point, more so for some than others, and to varying degrees. Frankly, it’s a measure that stirs up controversy and arguments every draft season. “Player X caught 50 passes in his last year of college! Marshall Faulk much?” “So what if Player Y only caught 10 balls in 3 years? That was just the scheme!” Honestly, this isn’t a measure that will definitively tell us, on its own, whether a guy is destined to be a dual threat. We have to factor in his college offense, of course, as well as his backfield competition, injuries, etc. As a result, I’m only paying attention to the extremes, the top and bottom receiving numbers in the class. But a guy who catches a boatload of college passes probably comes into the league with extended experience in pass blocking and option routes, which can get him onto the NFL field faster. Conversely, a guy who was rarely thrown to in school might face a steeper learning curve once he’s a pro, keeping him “redshirted” longer.
Was he utilized in the return game? Versatility is great, of course, but it goes further than that. Heavily-used college returners often possess strong pure speed (kickoffs) and/or agility (punts), and we’ve seen numerous recent examples of running backs and receiver who simply play faster than they’re timed. College coaches tend to notice that, so if a player looks ho-hum in agility testing but spent years returning punts effectively in school, I’m inclined to believe he deserves at least a tiny bump in evaluation.
Here is my data for the (particularly relevant) 2018 class of running backs:
Saquon Barkley, Penn State
Barkley won’t escape the NFL Draft’s top four picks undrafted, and in fact looks likely to go first overall. That, of course, shuffles him into the same category of prospect as recent high picks Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott, and Leonard Fournette: offensive cornerstones to construct an identity around. And there are legitimate reasons to project Barkley either above or below the success levels of those predecessors. So, exactly which kind of cornerstone is he, ideally?
With Barkley, it’s a matter of good news and not-quite-as-good news, and the good is simply through the roof. Frankly speaking, it’s hard to find a true ceiling here. Like Elliott and Fournette (and almost certainly Gurley, had he run at his combine), Barkley enters the league boasting a top-tier 124.3 speed score, which adjusts a prospect’s timed speed for his weight. Dating back to 2013, we’ve only seen 4 backs hit 116.0: Knile Davis (124.4), Barkley, Derrick Henry (116.3), and Fournette (116.0). (Again, Gurley probably would’ve made this a list of five.) Barkley boasts such a blend of top-gear speed and open-area quickness that he cracks an offense wide open in breathless ways. And he keeps a defense honest, that’s for sure.
Are defenses concerned with Saquon Barkley? Can't tell pic.twitter.com/zKx954fLKr— Ryan Smith (@PFF_Smith) October 25, 2017
He’s a truly elite creator, and the most elusive prospect to weigh over 215 or so in years; to some, on an all-time level. NFL.com’s Lance Zierlein, who generally doesn’t go wild with his player comparisons, has actually affixed a Barry Sanders tag. And he’s produced beautifully as well. A true backfield dominator in school, Barkley’s 76.1% share of Penn State’s non-quarterback rushing – it actually boosted to 81.4% in 2017 – ranked best among this group.
But I don’t quite see Barkley as a cut-and-dried volume dominator in the Elliott/Fournette vein. I adore his tools, and there’s certainly a bucketload of explosiveness in his NFL future. But unlike Elliott or Fournette, Barkley doesn’t project as an immediate 25-carry grinder. It’s shocking to know of Barkley’s 233 pounds (and 29 bench press reps) when watching him run; Barkley’s game is almost devoid of a power or driving element. It’s anyone’s guess as to whether he’ll be a world-beater behind a shaky line or create the cliched “tough yardage.” It might not even matter, of course: He’s tremendously adept at extending runs, and he can never be counted out of a play unless he’s buried in opposing jerseys. He’s not Ameer Abdullah – he’s special. But he’s also not an inside-game lynchpin, which is made even more glaring by that tantalizing size.
Still, this is anything but an “Only Fournettes Accepted” league, and there are plenty of creative paths to success for an extraordinary talent like Barkley. He offers mouthwatering possibilities for 32 of 32 offenses, and he looks like a mortal lock to open his career as the 21-year-old lynchpin of one of them. I have no real concerns over Barkley’s early-NFL productivity, and if he lands somewhere that already has a stout run-blocking line in place, I’ll likely inch him ahead of Gurley as dynasty’s top back.
Derrius Guice, LSU
Sony Michel, Georgia
Nick Chubb, Georgia
Ronald Jones II, Southern Cal
These four look like borderline first-round options, though I tend to doubt any of them will make that cut. Late-picking teams have historically taken liberal fliers on dynamic runners, but we actually haven’t seen a back go late in the first since 2012. I do think Guice has a fighter’s chance, though: He at least looks (and runs) like an NFL bell cow, with a thick, sturdy frame for a 212-pounder. Of course, he never dominated his backfield, even after Fournette left, and was never the lead receiver in the stable either. Guice isn’t an open-field demon, and he’s more of a build-up guy in terms of his long speed. But he still projects solidly as the lead dog in an NFL backfield. He’s not an easy tackle, with a driving, fall-forward mentality and great run-finishing skills (including a devastating stiff-arm). There’s palpable Marshawn Lynch upside in play – remember, Lynch checked in at 215 pounds at his own combine – and there’s real first-round value in that kind of contribution, though I don’t love Guice in the top 32.
Michel looks similar as a runner, decisive and violent and always working forward. And like Barkley and Guice, he boasts a great set of eyes that are always working horizontally and seeking a crease. He didn’t take on a hefty share of Georgia’s attack (just 34.2% of non-QB yards last year), but I’m comfortable in assuming he’d have been just as productive over a fuller stake. What keeps him from the top rung is suboptimal lower-body quickness; he runs with tight hips and isn’t especially quick into his cuts, which hurts him both in traffic and in the open field. Some of that is mitigated by his fighting, fall-forward style, but it dings his overall upside– Michel may well land a bell cow gig, but I don’t project him as a situation-independent stud.
Chubb looks less impressive to me; that gruesome 2015 leg injury was truly devastating. It’s hard not to like his decisive, north-south style, as he’s retained virtually of the lower-body power of his pre-injury form. That 38.5-inch vertical leap in Indianapolis attested to that. But there’s very little speed or wiggle to be found here, despite his impressive 4.25 short shuttle. On tape, Chubb struggles to switch gears or direction quickly, and keyed-upon runs of his tend to break down off the bat. Chubb moved plenty of piles in college, he doesn’t look like a major NFL mismatch in that regard. With his quickness and speed not where we’d like to see, Chubb would be a more enticing prospect as a 240-pound bruiser.
Jones had an outside shot at Round 1 before his shaky combine. He aggravated a hamstring injury during his 40-yard dash and couldn’t participate in drills. NFL scouts have openly wondered about his ability to be effective with his relatively slim makeup, and his 205-pound measurement didn’t silence that. He’s got to keep building himself, but I don’t see this as a major issue right now. Jones’ USC usage skyrocketed in 2017, driving up to 275 touches over 13 games and locking down a robust 67.7% of the Trojans’ non-quarterback rushing yards. And his effectiveness didn’t wane with the added responsibility; his yards-per-play actually nosed up from 6.2 to 6.3. It was especially encouraging to see USC hand him 25-30 rushes in 4 straight crucial Pac-12 games down the stretch, all relatively close contests. (Jones racked up at least 122 yards in all 4.) With the athleticism of a dynamic, dual-threat back, Jones boasts serious upside on a Duke Johnson Jr level. He’s more of a late Round 2 guy, but with strong upside for rookie drafters who miss out on Barkley and Guice.
Royce Freeman, Oregon
Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
Nyheim Hines, North Carolina State
Freeman turned in a generally solid career, though some came away disappointed. The numbers were solid: Freeman locked down a little more than half the Ducks’ ground production overall, and he rebounded nicely as a senior after an iffy 2016, which was nice to see. And he knows his way around pass protection, with a huge body (234 pounds) and a knowledge of technique. He’s just not a particularly special runner in my eyes, with only average burst and explosion. Freeman isn’t devoid of running ability, not by a long shot, but he’s coming from a wide-open offense that rarely faced a heavy box. He’s a sharp runner, but he seems fairly situation-dependent.
Penny doesn’t offer a ton of wiggle; he’s more of a one-gear fireball that explodes through the line, gathers what he’s set up for himself with his elite vision, and drives forward to the ground. He also posted a top-rung speed score (111.2), though I’d like to have seen him in agility drills. Penny isn’t the most powerful runner, but he’s built well and churns right through arm tackles. He doesn’t catch passes, and overall his is a fairly dependent profile of back, but his patient style is so attractive that teams with front lines already assembled and fortified will love him. His final-year 67.4% share of yards was a great indicator of his ability to anchor a ground game. There’s a Jordan Howard ceiling here, and he’ll likely come off the board before the end of Round 3.
We could put Hines into a box, the one where we stash small, explosive, dual-threat talents. But that would be underselling Hines’ truly dynamic tools. You have to love Open-Field Hines, who’s both polished at setting himself up and deadly among arm tacklers:
Nyheim Hines with consecutive single toe loops that won’t earn high marks from the French judge but the American and Canadian judges are impressed. pic.twitter.com/yrZTcgL0ST— Matt Waldman (@MattWaldman) February 26, 2018
At North Carolina State, Hines was a pass-game specialist for 2 years (63 receptions, 61 rushes), and it shows on tape. He plays upfield and actually runs routes, and he’s willing in pass protection, all lovely to see from a literal collegiate track star. Unquestionably, there’s a real place for him in an NFL offense. It’s not a stretch to wonder whether Hines could catch 250 NFL passes. He’s not a Christian McCaffrey type of prospect, though. Hines doesn’t boast much of a rushing resume, though his junior year was impressive, and his build (5’8” and 197 pounds, with just 9 bench press reps) isn’t at all conducive to a lead role. Still, he’s ultra-dynamic, experienced throughout the offense, and only 21 years old. Moderately warm take: at least one NFL team will covet his unique game enough to invest a second-round pick, and that landing spot could launch him into low-first value in rookie drafts. There’s Alvin Kamara upside in play, though Chris Thompson could be the better expectation. He’s one of the more dynamically-valued guys entering the draft.
Kerryon Johnson, Auburn
Kalen Ballage, Arizona State
John Kelly, Tennessee
Like much of this class, Johnson isn’t a particularly elusive creator, boasting just decent athleticism (a ho-hum 7.07 three-cone time at 213 pounds). But he forces plenty of missed tackles (54 in 2017, 12th-most in college football, per Pro Football Focus) as a head-on runner who doesn’t avoid conflict. It was encouraging to see him blow up a rotation and take charge of the Auburn backfield in 2017, claiming 64% of non-QB rushing yardage. Perhaps the biggest wart is his collegiate offense, which functioned largely on delay and deception and manufactured a lot of room Johnson won’t necessarily see going forward. Johnson is a smart runner with some burst, and he’ll always look to maximize everything. But fit will be exceptionally important, as he doesn’t look like much of a dominator in a traditional NFL run game. I don’t see the Le'Veon Bell comparisons at all. Bell’s success comes from a dynamically powerful body – he was a 230-pound tree trunk at his combine – and a patient, in-control style. Johnson is a much lankier guy and not nearly as adept at creating yardage.
Ballage didn’t disappoint at the combine – he checked in shorter than expected at 6’1”, which is generally a good thing for runners, and he excelled in his measurements. Ballage’s 6.91 three-cone drill (fourth-best among backs) was outstanding, especially at 228 pounds, and his enormous hands (9.5 inches) and wingspan (77.1) left mouths watering. Yes, that’s David Johnson country, but Johnson was a college workhorse while Ballage isn’t much more than a dynamism prospect. He took on just 36.3% of Arizona State’s non-QB rushing yards over his 3 full years, never topping 157 carries, and saw both his receiving and touchdown production plummet as a senior. He did impress at the Senior Bowl (57 yards on 10 rushes), and his combine was a confirming force for NFL front offices that have coveted him. But we’ve yet to see him carry an offense, so it’s hard to project him as a featured back.
Kelly looks like a potentially strong mid-round find. Our own Matt Waldman has gushed openly and shamelessly about Kelly’s stiff-arm, which is truly dynamic and shows his ability to be both strong and physical. Kelly comes with warts, of course. He’s not an especially quick or fast athlete (he oddly chose not to run at the combine), and he only posted one college season of major consequence – and it was a wholly unimpressive one (just 4.17 yards per carry). Of course, just last year I questioned a Tennessee back with mediocre production and a ho-hum combine, despite awesome tape, and one Kamara later I’ve got egg on my face. Kelly is a mid-round NFL prospect, but the combination of his tenacious style and a good pass-game resume (37 catches as a junior) make him worthy of a third-round stab in rookie drafts, depending on landing spot.
Bo Scarbrough, Alabama
Josh Adams, Notre Dame
Mark Walton, Miami (FL)
Scarbrough's epic combine was nice - he posted a strong speed score and looked better than expected in agility drills. Still, there's little on his Alabama tape that profiles him as a lead runner. Decisively a one-speed runner who doesn't move well laterally, Scarbrough's limited skillset was borne out in school, where he failed to make much dent in his backfield en route to this cohort's worst market share, one that actually fell in his senior year to a rough 23.3%. It doesn't help that he carries a ton of medical baggage into the NFL (two ACL tears, two leg fractures). Scarbrough muscled his way back into the Day 3 discussion in Indianapolis, but doesn't look like more than a speculative NFL add, and it's unlikely he'll tweak rookie drafts much.
Adams also brings nice power to the table, but not much else. His lack of speed and quickness are apparent when his blocking isn’t perfect, and despite some moderately nimble feet, he doesn’t project to create much NFL yardage on his own. His size (6’2” and 220 pounds) and downhill power make him an open-field terror, but he won’t get much opportunity to display it if he’s not exploding through tight creases. He’s a mid-round stab for power-oriented teams that know they can blow open holes and get him matched on linebackers and safeties.
Walton isn’t a talent I’m too interested in; I don’t think he calls for a pick before the fourth or fifth round. He was never a volume dominator in school, and he’s not a particularly fast or dynamic athlete (a 4.60 40-yard dash) for his size (188 pounds), so it’s hard to find rich deposits of NFL upside. Walton is a tough, decisive runner and a natural receiver, and there’s some situation-dependent James White appeal here, as some have suggested. But in the open field, he’s not as explosive as we’d like to see from a smaller back, with stop-and-start cuts and a stiff-legged style that simply won’t break open as many runs on the next level. His college production, which was modest, was heavily concentrated on cupcake matchups: Walton averaged an anemic 4.13 yards percarryand 52.7 per game against ACC competition.