2018 NFL Draft: Previewing the Running Backs

NFL Draft
Sep 23, 2017; Iowa City, IA, USA; Penn State Nittany Lions running back Saquon Barkley (26) runs the ball during the third quarter against the Iowa Hawkeyes at Kinnick Stadium. Penn State won 21-19. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Becker-USA TODAY Sports

One of the biggest strengths of the 2017 NFL Draft was its talented running backs. Eight backs went in the first two days of the draft, which was double the amount of the previous year. Given the amount of talent that the 2018 draft class appears to have, they may be able to give that total a run for its money.

From All-Pro talents in the making to bruising tailbacks to explosive dynamos, this group has just about everything a scout could hope for. Without further ado, let’s take a look at what this class has to offer.

Most Potential: Saquon Barkley, Penn State

After no running backs went in the first round in both the 2013 and 2014 NFL Drafts, some people began to think that teams were done drafting them early. Certainly, in today’s passing game, a running back who was worthy of being picked in the first round was going to be much more rare to find from that point onward.

Then Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon came along. The year after that, Ezekiel Elliott. Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey followed suit in 2017. And now, Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is among a select few who looks likely to join them.

Both Elliott and Fournette were selected in the top five of their respective drafts, and wouldn’t be surprising to see Barkley do the same. After all, he is the total package. He’s an athletic, powerful and smart runner. He has great ball-carrier vision, and does a great job exploiting holes. He’s strong enough to run downhill in power his way through defenders, and he’s fast enough to run outside the tackles.

Barkley is also a solid receiver and a very good blocker. He also has some experience on special teams, although most teams likely won’t use him in that role. Simply put, the Penn State product is a star in the making. Most teams that will be picking in the top five – likely the Jets, Browns, 49ers and possibly the Giants – should give him a look.

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Wild Card: Nick Chubb, Georgia

When I composed my running back rankings for the 2017 NFL Draft last September, I actually had Nick Chubb above Christian McCaffrey in my rankings. While McCaffrey would eventually prove me wrong and pass him up on my board, Chubb still remained pretty high on my list until he decided to stay at Georgia for another year. Now he finds himself in a strange situation.

A lot of people have forgotten about Chubb. With the aforementioned Saquon Barkley and LSU’s Derrius Guice dominating the headlines, the Georgia back has slipped into the background for the time being. Despite that, he has still been very productive. Four games into the season, he has run for 371 yards and six touchdowns on 59 total attempts.

Chubb is a powerful runner. He has a strong lower body, and he fights hard for every yard. He excels the most as a downhill runner, but he has great vision and solid athleticism to do well on outside runs, too.

He has a handful of issues, though. In October of 2015, Chubb suffered a gruesome knee injury which caused him to miss the rest of the year. He also had ankle problems for a stretch during the last season. His freshman year was fantastic, but he hasn’t been able to top his performance quite yet. With Sony Michel also in Georgia’s backfield, it seems unlikely that Chubb will.

Chubb is probably going to end up getting picked on Day 2, either late in the second round or early in the third round. Teams like the Lions, Buccaneers and the Redskins should give him a look.

Sleeper: Kalen Ballage, Arizona State

Kalen Ballage has been a favorite of mine for several months now. Why? After all, he’s in a running back-by-committee system at Arizona State, and his production isn’t all that great.

Two words: physical traits. It honestly isn’t an exaggeration when I say that Ballage has shades of David Johnson in his game. They are both big, bruising running backs with superb athleticism (Ballage is even two inches taller than Johnson). They’re both patient runners, they’re both powerful backs with strong lower bodies, and they’re both good receivers out of the backfield.

I talked more about Ballage in a piece I published this summer. Simply put, he has all of the tools to be a dangerous, three-down back in the NFL. Some teams may not be as high on him as I am, though. Teams like the Eagles, Ravens, Lions and Packers could probably snatch him up on Day 2.

Top 10 Running Backs

  1. Saquon Barkley, Penn State
  2. Derrius Guice, LSU
  3. Kalen Ballage, Arizona State
  4. Bo Scarbrough, Alabama
  5. Royce Freeman, Oregon
  6. Nick Chubb, Georgia
  7. Akrum Wadley, Iowa
  8. Kamryn Pettway, Auburn
  9. Damien Harris, Alabama
  10. Myles Gaskin, Washington
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