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NFL Draft Prospects: Running Back Rankings

Written by Jason Feiner

The Super Bowl featured two great teams in a thrilling matchup. It was exciting from the beginning to the end, and for Patriots fans, it ended in despair. A phenomenal and timely play by the Eagles premiere pass rusher, Brandon Graham, sealed the game for the Eagles. His heroics stopped Brady and New England’s offense (who had previously scored on all three of their previous possessions) from a final two-minute drill that football fans have seen all too often. With last year’s comeback in the minds of each player and fan, Graham came up with the biggest play of his career. He stopped a last second comeback attempt and lifted the Eagles to glory with their first Super Bowl victory.

With the Philadelphia Eagles defeat over the New England Patriots, teams have officially shifted their attention to upcoming prospects that have declared for the 2018 NFL draft. As Bill Belichick said last year, the Eagles and Patriots are “four weeks behind” everyone else. They certainly have sleepless nights ahead in an attempt to “catch up.”

The 2018 NFL draft is littered with elite athletes and potential franchise running backs. The talent pool includes a projected top five pick and other first round prospects. The running back was thought to be a dying position only a few years ago, but after the addition of Todd Gurley (Los Angeles Rams) and Melvin Gordon (Los Angeles Chargers) both drafted in the top fifteen of the 2015 NFL draft, it didn’t take long for teams to regain confidence in the feature back role. It is crunch time, as we are weeks away from the NFL combine and just three short months from the draft. Time will tell who the number one overall pick is. This is an electric running back class, most of which, having the potential to be three-down backs at the next level.

Does your team need a workhorse back to kill the clock?

1. Saquon Barkley: Penn State University

Height: 5’11”

Weight: 230

Career Stats: 38 Games Played

Attempts: 671

Rushing Yards: 3843

Yards Per Rush: 5.7

Rushing Touchdowns: 43

Fumbles: 4

Receptions: 102

Receiving yards: 1195

Yards Per Reception: 11.7

Receiving Touchdowns: 8

Saquon Barkley has led the Penn State offense over the past three seasons. He earned immediate playing time as a true freshman, recording 115 yards and a touchdown in his second career game. Barkley split carries in his freshman season; however, he has since become the featured back in the Lions system. He has greatly improved since his freshman year and has become one of the most dynamic running backs to enter the draft in the last decade. He led the Penn State offense to the tune of 1271 yards on 5.8 yards per carry, recording 18 touchdowns on the ground. He was also active in the receiving game, as he caught 54 passes for 632 yards and 3 touchdowns. Barkley has been a consistent force in Penn State’s backfield. He was the primary contributor to the Lions’ 11–2 record and their Fiesta Bowl win over Washington (ranked 16). Penn State finished the season ranked 8th in the nation off the legs of their star running back.

Barkley has incredible balance and agility. He is a powerful runner that can make defenders miss both in the hole and in the second or third levels. He possesses excellent short area quickness and lateral burst, that when combined with his awareness and vision give him the ability to explode through creases and cutback lanes.

He has great patience, as he does a great job of pressing the line and waiting for his blocks to develop before bursting through the opening. Barkley has the ability to power through tacklers, often dragging them with him for additional yards; however, he runs with a high pad level and relies heavily on his lower body strength rather than technique and flexibility. He possesses elite home run speed and can avoid defenders without slowing. Barkley has elite athleticism and is a hard runner with great drive and leadership capability.

Barkley has shown versatility throughout his career at Penn State. He is a true three down back with the capability to run receiver routes and split out wide or in the slot. He is very reliable in pass protection. He displays great awareness and a willingness to step in front of the free rusher. He can diagnose a blitz and locate the defender across field. Barkley has occasionally lost in one-on-one situations and can become flat footed when blocking in space; but despite these small deficiencies, he has the potential to be a gifted three down specialist.

Barkley excels in each area of the game. He does, however, need to work on his flexibility and keep his pad level down to consistently power through defenders, as he heavily relies on his lower leg drive rather than quality technique. It will be harder to gain yards after contact without correct form at the next level. Barkley is incredibly tough and has a passion for the sport. He is a leader in the offense and a respected team player. He does everything asked of him and has the potential to contribute in all three phases of the game. Barkley was unstoppable at the beginning of the season and seemed destined to hold the Heisman trophy before his production slowed midseason. He was able to regain his form before the final game and lead Penn State to a Fiesta Bowl win with 137 yards and two touchdowns with 7.2 yards per carry. He also added 38 yards on 7 receptions.

Teams love Barkley’s athleticism, competitiveness, versatility and toughness. He will be an immediate impact player at the next level. He is thought to be a 230-pound speed back with the power and strength to handle a heavy workload. He has the potential and ability to be a featured back during his rookie campaign, and command 20 to 25 touches per game. Barkley is poised to challenge some of the league’s most talented at the position early in his career. He is a near lock to go in the top five of the 2018 NFL draft.

Projected Round: 1

Team Fits: Browns, Colts, Giants, Buccaneers

NFL Comparison: Todd Gurley

2. Derrius Guice: Louisiana State University

Height: 5’11”

Weight: 218

Career Stats: 36 Games Played

Attempts: 471

Rushing Yards: 3074

Yards Per Rush: 6.5

Rushing Touchdowns: 29

Fumbles: 5

Receptions: 32

Receiving Yards: 250

Yards Per Reception: 7.8

Receiving Touchdowns: 3

Derrius Guice had the responsibility to fill the shoes of fourth overall pick Leonard Fournette. During the 2016 season, Guice was sensational in relief of Fournette after he went down midway through the season with an ankle injury. With a larger workload than originally expected, Guice led the Tigers with 1387 yards, 15 touchdowns and an outstanding 7.5 yards per carry for a breakout sophomore season. This gave him full control of LSU’s prestigious backfield in 2017. He took full advantage of the opportunity rushing for 1251 yards, 11 touchdowns, and a healthy 5.2 yards per carry. He was a consistent presence in the passing game, where he acted as the safety net for their senior quarterback, Danny Etling. He caught 18 passes for 124 yards and three touchdowns, helping to lead LSU to nine wins and the national rank of 18th.

Throughout the 2017 season, Guice showed his physicality and power as a runner. He is quick, agile and possesses excellent balance. He has great burst and explosion as he drives to the hole with outstanding patience to stop and let his blocks develop. Guice displays a violent running style, as he has excellent pad level and lowers his shoulder on contact; he often seeks out defenders in the second and third levels. He has great contact balance, as he can bounce off defenders in the open field and regain his feet. He possesses outstanding short area and lateral quickness and the ability to bounce the ball outside and beat opposing players to the corner. He excels when acting as the hammer on inside runs.

Guice has displayed adequate ball skills with his limited opportunities in LSU’s high-powered offense. He has soft hands and has shown the ability to catch the ball away from his body smoothly. He is an excellent pass protector due to his violent nature. Guice can consistently pick up the blitz and free rushers to buy time for his quarterback; however, he can overextend occasionally when blocking in space. Guice is a daunting runner with the ability to contribute on all three downs.

Guice actively searches for contact and has the ability to power through would-be tacklers. He is at his best when asked to run between the tackles, as he can occasionally get caught before turning the corner on stretch runs. He doesn’t possess elite speed or great elusiveness in the open field. He loves to initiate contact rather than attempt to avoid a tackle. Although his short area burst helps to avoid defenders, he loves running through tackles. Guice’s durability is a concern as he thrives on collisions. He suffered a knee injury in week five against Troy and he lost a step as a result. He began to regain form late in the season but never got back to full speed. He is a tough runner with three-down potential, but how long can he withstand a severe injury utilizing such a physical play style?

Possessing the build, talent, and athleticism to be a three-down back at the next level, Guice is built to handle a featured back role. He is a very instinctive player, and was a leader in LSU’s pro-style offense. Guice is extremely tough and a hardworking athlete with the versatility to be an every down starter in an NFL offense. He will excel in goal line situations and has the tools to be an effective workhorse at the next level.

Projected Round: 1–2

Team Fits: Buccaneers, Giants, Lions, Colts

NFL Comparison: Marshawn Lynch

3. Ronald Jones II: University of Southern California

Height: 6’0”

Weight: 201

Career Stats: 40 Games Played

Attempts: 591

Rushing Yards: 3619

Yards Per Rush: 6.1

Rushing Touchdowns: 39

Fumbles: 2

Receptions: 32

Receiving Yards: 302

Yards Per Reception: 9.4

Receiving Touchdowns: 3

Although Ronald Jones II may not have been the star of USC’s offense, or even the focal point with Sam Darnold at the helm, he certainly contributed to their success. USC ranked 12th in the nation and finished with an 11–3 record. With Jones at the forefront of the offensive success throughout the season, he finished the year with 1,550 yards rushing at an average of 5.9 yards per carry. He accrued 19 touchdowns on the ground while piling on 187 yards on 14 receptions and a receiving touchdown through the air. He was utilized as the feature back in USC’s 13th ranked offense opening passing lanes for their star quarterback.

Ronald Jones is one of the most explosive players in this draft class. He has outstanding balance, agility and quick feet. He has the ability to avoid defenders in close quarters or in the open field. Jones is dangerous in open space, as he can regain his balance or avoid the contact all together. He is very elusive and possesses excellent short area and lateral burst. He is very aggressive on inside runs and displays great vision in and out of the hole. He utilizes a jump cut to avoid defenders at and beyond the line of scrimmage. Jones displays elite breakaway speed with home run potential; he is a threat to score each time he touches the ball. Jones also has outstanding ball security. In 623 career touches, Jones has committed a total of two fumbles. He didn’t fumble once in 275 total touches this past season.

Jones is an extremely versatile back. He demonstrates smooth ball skills, and the ability to gain separation and run crisp routes. Jones is very elusive and a lethal weapon in the screen game. He is aware in pass protection; however, he is tentative and can be pushed back on his heels. He also overextends occasionally when blocking free rushers in open space along the edge. Although Jones gained weight this past year, his size is still a concern. He has a powerful leg drive that allows him to power through tackles; however, he may need to gain weight in order to handle a full workload at the next level. He also needs to consistently lower his pad level upon contact, which would help him gain additional yards after contact and could possibly prevent future injuries due to his size.

Jones is an electric runner that has the skill set to be an every down back. He is extremely elusive and utilizes his quickness and balance to avoid defenders in the hole and once he gets to the second and third levels. As one of the most explosive players in the draft, he does a nice job of driving to the open space and powering through avoiding contact in close space. Jones’ playing style is reminiscent of Jamaal Charles, as he possesses the elusiveness and versatility to play in all phases of the game. He will be an impact player at the next level.

Projected Round: 1–2

Team Fits: Colts, 49ers, Lions, Patriots

NFL Comparison: Jamaal Charles

4. Sony Michel: University of Georgia

Height: 5’11”

Weight: 216

Career Stats: 47 Games Played

Attempts: 591

Rushing Yards: 3638

Yards Per Rush: 6.1

Rushing Touchdowns: 33

Fumbles: 12

Receptions: 64

Receiving Yards: 621

Yards Per Reception: 9.7

Receiving Touchdowns: 6

Sony Michel was a consistent presence in Georgia’s backfield splitting touches with highly regarded running back Nick Chubb. Together, the two backs led Georgia to the National Championship game where they fell just short of glory when Alabama freshman quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, stole the game in the closing seconds of overtime. Sony Michel rushed for 1227 yards, 16 touchdowns while averaging an unprecedented 7.9 yards per carry on the year. He added 9 receptions for 96 yards and a touchdown to an already impressive season. Although Michel has never been the workhorse in Georgia’s crowded backfield, he would have been a three-down starter at most other schools in the country.

Michel is a powerful runner with a good blend of quickness, balance and elusiveness. He runs with ideal pad level dropping his shoulder on contact. He possesses excellent short area and lateral quickness, as he is very slithery when running in between the tackles. Michel has enough speed to get to the sideline on stretch plays and turn up field, often beating defenders to the corner. He has the ability to create space when there isn’t any available. He has shown the talent to avoid defenders in the hole and in the second and third levels. Michel utilizes his quickness and balance to avoid defenders and keep his feet after contact.

Georgia has a stable of running backs to which they spread touches. Georgia loves to utilize their backs in one-on-one matchups against linebackers in the passing game. Michel has had plenty of opportunity in each phase of the game, and he has shown the capability to be a quality three down back. Michel has demonstrated excellent vision, instincts and hands. He has shown the ability to catch the ball smoothly away from his body while running crisp routes in the passing game. He is very stout and aware in pass protection, often finding the free rusher or picking up the blitz. He can mirror the defender and push him off his spot; Michel can overextend in space, but he usually doesn’t let the defender by without disrupting his path.

Michel isn’t the most explosive player in this draft. He doesn’t show off great burst, and doesn’t possess home-run speed; however, he rarely gets caught from behind and utilizes his short area quickness to avoid defenders in each area of the field. Michel’s biggest issue lies with his ball protection. He has had trouble holding onto the ball throughout his career, as he often holds the ball with one arm away from his body similarly to Shady Mccoy or Adrian Peterson. Michel has fumbled 12 times over 655 career touches. He will need to protect the ball to be an effective back at the next level.

Although Michel did not receive more than 16 carries in any one game this season, he has the potential and talent to command a backfield at the next level. He is a versatile athlete with good balance quickness and power. He has the ability to contribute as a three down back and become an impact player early in his career.

Projected Round: 2

Projected Team Fits: Buccaneers, Bills, Lions, Titans

NFL Comparison: Kareem Hunt

5. Kerryon Johnson: Auburn University

Height: 6’0”

Weight: 212

Career Stats: 37 Games Played

Attempts: 519

Rushing Yards: 2494

Yards Per Rush: 4.8

Rushing Touchdowns: 32

Fumbles: 3

Receptions: 55

Receiving Yards: 478

Yards Per Reception: 8.6

Receiving Touchdowns: 2

Kerryon Johnson carried Auburn to wins over the two top ranked teams, Alabama and Georgia, late in the 2017 season. Unfortunately, Auburn could not win the rematch and lost the SEC championship to Georgia. Kerryon Johnson was the leader of the offense and the feature back. He led the Tigers with a respectable 4.9 yards per carry for 1391 yards and 18 touchdowns. He also contributed in the passing game with 24 receptions for 194 yards and 2 more scores. He was the team’s engine that ignited Auburn’s second half surge, after two early losses to Clemson and LSU.

Kerryon Johnson is a very patient runner who lets his blocks develop before exploding through the hole. He uses excellent vision to find creases between the tackles and cutback lanes inside or out. He is dangerous in the open field, where his agility and balance help him to avoid contact, gain extra yards while stumbling, or regaining his feet before going to the ground. Johnson has exceptional short area and lateral quickness. He has the ability to drive to the hole and stop to wait for a crease to open. Johnson utilizes a very slick jump cut to avoid defenders in the hole and in open space. He runs with good pad level and lowers his shoulder before initiating contact. He is a powerful runner that can break through tackles at the second and third levels.

Johnson has been a consistent presence in Auburn’s backfield, as he has been outstanding in all three phases of the game. Johnson excels in the passing game. He displays soft hands with the ability to snatch the ball out of the air away from his body. He has averaged 18 receptions over the past three seasons with 24 coming this past year. He is a mismatch coming out of the backfield and is a crisp route runner. He is very smooth and doesn’t waste too much motion. He’s a very consistent pass protector as well. He stays square and is very aware in each situation. He has the ability to mirror opposing rushers and can read the blitz. When protecting the edge, he can become tentative and get pushed onto his heels by faster and more physical defensive players. As good as Johnson is at exploding through the hole, his patient running can occasionally backfire. He has shown indecision, and as a result, gets hit in the backfield occasionally. He doesn’t have the top end speed desired by some teams, but his short area quickness and burst help him avoid contact and get to the edge on stretch attempts. He has enough juice to outrun defenders in the open field, and he doesn’t often get caught from behind.

Johnson has been the backbone of Auburn’s offense and a three-down workhorse this past season. He has had an excellent career in Auburn’s system and possesses all the tools to contribute in each phase of the game. He averaged 25 yards per kick return on special teams, and has excellent ball skills to contribute in passing situations. His play style is similar to Le’veon Bell’s, as he is more of a patient runner with short area quickness and burst rather than top end speed. He has excellent hands and has shown the ability to pass protect in crucial moments. He has the size, leadership ability and toughness to carry a heavy workload at the next level. Johnson has the talent and versatility to contribute in multiple offensive schemes. He has a chance to contribute right out of the gate for his drafting team.

Projected round: 2–3

Team Fits: Colts, Jets, 49ers, Dolphins, Steelers

NFL Comparison: Le’veon Bell

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