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2018 NFL Pre-Draft Top 10 Rookie Running Backs

With the Super Bowl in the rear-view, most eyes are on the NFL Free Agency period which will kick off in March. As a dynasty owner, the FA period is all well and good, but much of that noise will already be on rosters and only available through trade. To our dynasty teams, most of the weight comes from the NFL Draft. We’ve had years to analyze these players and hope we can predict what they’ll do at the next level. We’ve seen the Senior Bowl, we’ll watch their pro days, and anything else we can just to whet the appetite for what’s to come. Running backs are starting to return to the forefront of the NFL. We have seen that a young running back who can run and catch the ball, can completely change the outlook of an offense. The past three NFL drafts have shown that running backs are once again worthy of top pick consideration.

For this article, we are going to evaluate the top of the running back class. I will split this into three articles, article one will be the Top 10 running backs. While article two will contain RB 11-20, the last article will contain RB 21-30. I will dive into their college stats. I will also do my best to compare them to each other and show you draft gems like David Johnson and Kareem Hunt have been the last two years. Of course, make sure to check in all off-season as some of these guys will move up and down the list, and always you can hit me up on twitter for any other questions. @SportsFanaticMB

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  1. Saquon Barkley Penn State

  • Junior
  • 5’11 233 lbs.
  • Projected 40 time: 4.45
  • Rushing Yards: 3,843
  • Receiving Yards: 1,195
  • Combined TD’s: 51

Barkley is by far the bell of the ball. Barkley is considered by many pro scouts as a generational talent. Though it seems those are coming out about every 5 years now, the last being Ezekiel Elliot. Barkley averaged 3.45 yards an attempt rushing/passing behind a poor offensive line. Penn state offensive line was ranked 89th out of 128 qualified schools. While it may not matter for fantasy one of Barkley’s biggest attributes is his pass blocking, because he’s so good at that he will be on the field for most plays. Barkley was rated among the top 5 in college running backs taking 9.8% of his rushes for more than 15 yards. One of the knocks you could place on him, is when he plays against an elite defense he has struggled to run the ball. I feel that’s more a product of his offensive line as he has still put up receiving yards in those games. Barkley is also the best receiver out of the backfield coming into the draft. Barkley in my opinion can go to any team in the NFL and make an immediate impact. Barkley is expected to be the first RB drafted, and should go anywhere from a top five pick to somewhere in the first round.

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  1. Derrius Guice LSU

  • Junior
  • 5‘11 212 lbs.
  • Projected 40 time: 4.50
  • Rushing yards: 3,074
  • Receiving yards: 250
  • Combined TD’s: 32

Derrius Guice and Saquon Barkley will be compared and looked at as the top two backs of this draft. Guice could just as easily end up as rookie of the year next year if drafted by the right team. He has shown great play ability when he was behind Fournette and when given the starter role. Derrius Guice to me has proven he can be just as good as Saquon Barkley, though many believe Barkley is heads above everyone else. Guice played behind arguably one of the best offensive lines in college football this year, he averaged 5.3 yards a carry. He has shown the ability to run through defenders, while also showing great short area quickness. Guice had more big plays than Barkley, runs of 15 or more yards coming in at 12.9%. Guice will have two questions on him during the draft process. Guice has struggled with injuries the past two years, and in the NFL availability is a huge asset. Guice has also improved on catching the ball out of the backfield but hasn’t done it as much as others in his class. With his limited receiving skills or at least what has been shown in college could hurt Guice, especially if he goes to a team with an established passing down back. If that does happen it could limit Guice to 1st and 2nd downs until he improves. Derrius Guice for me is the same as Saquon Barkley he can be drafted by any NFL team and make an immediate impact. Guice could jump into the first round of the draft, but likely will go in the second.

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  1. Ronald Jones II USC

  • Junior
  • 6’0 200 lbs.
  • Projected 40 time: 4.51
  • Rushing yards: 3,619
  • Receiving yards: 280
  • Combined TD’s: 42

Ronald Jones II for me is one of the most underrated running back prospects in this draft. I have him firmly slotted in third behind Barkley and Guice. Much like JuJu Smith-Schuster last year due to USC somewhat down year, Jones is constantly being overlooked. Ronald Jones is possibly the best breakaway threat in this class. Jones on 212 carries caused 48 missed tackles, on top of that he had 21 carries go for 15 or more yards. USC had an average offensive line this year but that didn’t stop Jones from averaging 5.9 yards a carry. He also averaged 3.50 yards after contact. Jones one short coming compared to the top two backs is his receiving work. His first two years in college were bad, getting only seven receptions in 2015 and just eleven in 2016. In 2017 he only received thirteen receptions which he turned into 165 yards, all three years though he only caught one touchdown each year. While I don’t see it as a weakness for Jones, it is not a strength like Barkley and Guice. Regardless of where he gets drafted I feel Jones can improve his receiving ability, and already has the upside of being the most explosive back in the draft. Jones is coming into the NFL very hot, 2017 was his lone season as the USC starter, and with the 1,550 yards and 19 touchdowns he looks primed to be a top back. If Jones can have a good combine, he could easily jump into the first round and possibly even be taken before Guice.

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  1. Sony Michel Georgia

  • Senior
  • 5’11 212 lbs
  • Projected 40 time: 4.50
  • Rushing yards: 3,613
  • Receiving yards: 621
  • Combined TD’s: 39

Sony Michel may have improved his stock more than any other running back this year. While many people believe Nick Chubb was the better back at Georgia, Sony Michel changed a lot of minds this season. Michel has shown great versatility in his four-year college career. This past year he averaged 7.9 yards rushing and 10.7 receiving yards. Michel has done a much better job rushing this year, he hit holes with velocity and created a lot of big plays. Although his passing usage went down some this year he still caused 31 missed tackles on 63 career receptions. This was by far Michel’s best year rushing, and gashing the Alabama defense in national championship for 96 yards. Showing how good of a runner he can be will sure pique the interest of NFL general managers, as for the past couple years he was known mainly for his receiving ability. Sony Michel has the ability to be a great receiving back threat or a 3rd down back. Michel showed how quickly he can hit the edge and turn and burn up field. His balance and receiving ability will likely depending on where he’s drafted, mean hell have a shot at being the number one in any backfield. If Michel has a good combine and pro day, he has a legitimate shot of being a 1st round pick.

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  1. Kerryon Johnson Auburn 

  • Junior
  • 6’0 212 lbs
  • Projected 40 time: 4.55
  • Rushing yards: 2,494
  • Receiving yards: 478
  • Combined TD’s: 34

Kerryon Johnson was one of the bright spots in the Auburn offense this year. Kerryon had a great year in 2017 leading the SEC in rushing with 1,391 yards. Kerryon averaged 4.9 yards a carry, and 8.1 yards receiving. Kerryon’s versatility has been of full display the past three years. Playing in the SEC has shown what Kerryon can do against some of the better college defenses in the game. While that doesn’t translate exactly to what he could do in the NFL, it does help knowing he’s played elite defenders. Over his college career Kerryon has shown great play ability out of the backfield as a receiver. However, this year he increased his snap percentage to 62%, with that came more rushes, over one hundred more rush attempts this year alone. He has shown great patience and waiting for an opening and hitting the hole as soon as it appears. After coming off a career year and being compared to Le’Veon Bell, Kerryon is the last back in this draft I could see possibly going in the first round. If Johnson can have a big combine and or pro day, he could easily be considered in the late first or early second.

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  1. Royce Freeman Oregon

  • Senior
  • 5’11 231 lbs
  • Projected 40 time: 4.57
  • Rushing Yards: 5,621
  • Receiving Yards: 814
  • Combined TD’s: 64

Royce Freeman has been the bell cow for the Oregon Ducks for about 3 years now, and he has not disappointed. Freeman has been one of the more difficult running backs to evaluate in this draft class. Playing for Oregon he has been playing in multiple wide open offensive concepts, so he wasn’t making many runs into defensive boxes. Evaluators believe it will be hard to predict his NFL talent because of this and he’ll possibly drop in the draft. Freeman’s best year was 2015 where he rushed for 1,836 yards and even had 348 receiving yards. In 2016 Freeman battled injuries so much he ended up getting demoted falling just short of 1,000 yards. Enter 2017 where Freeman reinserted himself as a stud, averaging 6.0 yards a carry and 11.7 yards receiving his 2nd best year in college. Freeman continued to show his ability to be patient and bounce it to the outside and get positive yardage, which has been a knock on him. Freeman is one of the most elusive backs in this draft, which makes him very intriguing because of his size speed combination. If Freeman can have a good pro day and combine he’s my dark horse running back candidate to jump up to the number three spot in our ranks. Since most evaluators are not sure how to rate him, he will likely be a 3rd round pick.

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  1. Rashaad Penny San Diego State

  • Senior
  • 5’11 220 lbs
  • Projected 40 time: 4.51
  • Rushing yards: 3,656
  • Receiving yards: 479
  • Combined TD’s: 44

Rashaad Penny went from relevant unknown in 2016 to leading College football in rushing yards in 2017. Penny was stuck behind Donnel Pumphrey, who was drafted last year. Penny has the best breakaway speed in the class. He also forced 74 missed tackles on 277 rushing attempts, this past year. Penny has played in what has been known to be a very friendly running back offense, however he eclipsed 1,000 yards in just 7 games this season. He was able to prove he can be a workhorse this year, getting over 200 carries and averaging 4.26 yards after contact. Penny has also proven to be a good special team’s player, he has returned a kickoff touchdown in the past 3 seasons. Although Penny was more involved in the passing game this year, he still didn’t produce like the top backs of this class have. Showing the ability to produce and make difficult catches out of the backfield, will be a key for Penny during the combine and his pro day. Penny does seem to be one of the most explosive runners and it could help him being drafted by a team with an established passing down back. Penny should be a 2nd or 3rd round pick but could burst onto the scene in 2018 much like Kareem Hunt did this year.

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  1. Mark Walton Miami

  • Junior
  • 5’9 205 lbs
  • Projected 40 time: 4.56
  • Rushing yards: 2,006
  • Receiving yards: 624
  • Combind TD’s: 28

Mark Walton had a great 2016 rushing for 1,117 yards, averaging 5.3 yards a carry. However, the overall team didn’t have a great year he was able to get 200 carries and 14 touchdowns. Walton was moving up in his sophomore year and looked prime for an even better and breakout 2017 season. However, in their 5th game against Florida State his sprained ankle got so bad he had to have season ending surgery. In his 5 games of 2017 he rushed for 468 yards on 56 attempts with 3 touchdowns. While being, a little undersized and coming off an injury, Walton looks poised to be a good back in the NFL. Walton has shown quick cut ability while also willingness to run on the inside. Walton has also shown great receiving ability as well. While Walton has proven, he can be a good runner on the inside and getting to the edge, Walton’s biggest asset is his ability in the passing game. Walton has only 2 drops in his college career. Although only playing in the 5 games he averaged 13.0 yards a catch in 2017. Walton should be able to improve his draft stock with good showings in the combine and his pro day. As of now Walton looks poised to be an end of the 2nd early 3rd round draft pick.

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  1. Akrum Wadley Iowa

  • Senior
  • 5’11 195 lbs
  • Projected 40 time: 4.50
  • Rushing yards: 2,872
  • Receiving yards: 761
  • Combined TD’s: 35

Akrum Wadley may be one of the most underrated prospects in the draft. Wadley’s past two years have been outstanding at Iowa, yet he’s usually rated toward the middle of the draft class. Wadley has shown great short area speed and quick feet. Wadley is a tad undersized to possibly be considered a full 3 down back, though I think he can transition to that. However, his advantage coming into the NFL is his ability to catch and create in the passing game. Wadley was especially effective in the screen game in college, being able to make quick moves and create yards out of nothing, averaging 12.6 yards a catch in his senior season. Wadley has shown in his senior year to be shifty in getting to the hole, and making multiple highlight plays against good defenses. Wadley is my sleeper of the class as of now he’s getting some comparisons to WSH running back Chris Thompson, though I think if he adds some weight could profile close to a Frank Gore type. Wadley is expected to be drafted somewhere in round 3 even if he has a good showing in his pro day and the combine. However, whatever team he goes to I think he’ll impress early and could be a fantasy contributor early and often in 2018.

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  1. Josh Adams Notre Dame

  • Junior
  • 6’2 225
  • Projected 40 time: 4.55
  • Rushing Yards: 3,201
  • Receiving Yards: 336
  • Combined TD’s: 22

Josh Adams and a tumultuous 2017 season. While he had his best college season statically, he suffered through multiple ankle injuries, and a concussion. For most of the early part of the season he was in the talks as the top running back in College being mentioned frequently with Saquon Barkley. While injuries slowed him down some, Adams was a bruiser all year long. Adams doesn’t possess the breakaway speed, but he doesn’t need it as he has no qualms with running everyone over. Adams averaged 5.89 yards after contact, he ranked among the top 10 in running backs in 2017. Adams showed good receiving ability out of the backfield as well this year, though he did regress some from 2016 he still averaged 7.8 yards a catch. While Adams was healthy he showed, he has small area quickness hitting smaller holes, and has shown some homerun burst. While I don’t think, Adams will focus on just trying to run people over in the NFL, it’s good to see he won’t shy away from contact. Adams must prove he can stay healthy in the NFL, that being really his biggest detraction from his 2017 season. Adams will be an interesting candidate to watch, on his pro day and during the combine. If he has good showings he’s proven he can be at the top of the class, though it’s more likely he’s taken somewhere in the 3rd round.

 

That’s it for my first article on our Top 10 rookie running backs. Check back soon for the remainder of the rookie class. Also, be sure to check back frequently as we will have up more information after the combine and pro days. Once we start getting closer to the draft we will go through and start pairing running backs with teams that are good fits and bad fits. Until next time guys have a great day.

The Author

Matthew Bruening

Matthew Bruening

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