It feels like distant memory when people were saying running backs in the first round were a thing of the past. After no backs were selected on day one in the 2013 and 2014 drafts, whispers grew about the diminishing value of the running back position. In what people stressed was becoming a quarterback league, running backs were viewed as a dime a dozen and the franchise, bell cow back was becoming an alien term. While the league is still very much dominated by quarterbacks, running backs are experiencing an ever-growing renaissance the last few years. In the last three drafts, four running backs were taken in the first round with three of them being top ten picks and five more backs were taken in the second round during that time frame. While those aren't jaw dropping numbers comparable to running back relevance even 15 years ago, it shows that the league is still willing to spend big on running backs in the draft when the talent or need is right.
It feels like the college game is producing skill players at a dizzying rate and the 2018 draft class looks to continue that trend. The landscape of college football is overflowing with running back talent that will eventually flow over into the NFL. While it feels a bit early in the process to rank any of these players, there are a few names to get excited about heading into the 2017 college football season. Especially considering how the Eagles will likely be in the market for a running back next spring.
Player: Derrius Guice
Measurement: 5-11, 212 Pounds
2016 Stats: 183 Carries, 1390 Yards, 15 Rushing TDs, 9 Catches, 106 Yards, 1 TD
Signature Stat: On only 183 carries, Guice forced 52 missed tackles. (CFB Film Room)
Derrius Guice is one of two running backs who will likely carry the most hype through next season. Guice exploded in 2016, taking carries from a top five pick in Leonard Fournette to be LSU’s leading rusher. While Fournette is a very good back in his own way, Guice looks to be a better all around player. Guice is a powerful, athletic runner with homerun speed and agility. While the physical tools are all there, teams will likely question his third down ability given that LSU’s offense does not showcase it. Regardless, seeing Guice with an expanded role will be incredibly exciting.
NFL Comparison: Jay Ajayi, Miami Dolphins
Player: Saquon Barkley
School: Penn State
Measurements: 5-11, 223 Pounds
2016 Stats: 272 Carries, 1496 Yards, 18 Rushing Touchdowns, 28 Catches, 402 Yards, 4 Touchdowns
Signature Stat: Averaged 6.3 yards per carry on 120 carries against ranked opponents in 2016.
If I had to take my shot in the summer of 2017, I would say Barkley will be the best of the bunch in this upcoming running back class. The athletic, thickly built rising junior has everything a team could possibly want from a running back. Barkley has the speed, power and agility of a top level back but also has the polish to maximize his physical tools. On top of his pro-ready running style, he is also a gifted receiving back. Barkley and Guice will probably contend for being the top back taken in 2017, but Barkley looks to have the leg up heading into the season.
NFL Comparison: Ezekiel Elliott, Dallas Cowboys
Player: Nick Chubb
Measurements: 5-10, 228 Pounds
2016 Stats: 224 Carries, 1130 Yards, 8 Rushing Touchdowns, 5 Catches, 86 Yards, 1 Touchdown
Signature Stats: 942 of his rushing yards came against power five teams.
Nick Chubb’s career was off to a promising start before he suffered a knee injury during his sophomore year that hampered his development. While he produced in the subsequent season, it still looked like he wasn’t back to his full self. He still flashed the same footwork and power that made him such a good back to begin with, but the juice did not look to be fully there. Hopefully he continues his recovery and looks to be his full self for his senior season because at full strength he is just as good as any back in the country.
NFL Comparison: Jonathan Stewart, Carolina Panthers
Player: Sony Michel
Measurements: 5-11, 222 Pounds
2016 Stats: 152 Carries, 840 Yards, 4 Touchdowns, 22 Catches, 149 Yards, 1 Touchdown
Signature Stats: Over 500 rushing yards came against the SEC.
Sony Michel has gotten run in the last few years in spell of Nick Chubb. While Michel might not be the same back in terms of power, he is a quicker player who creates yardage as a shifty player. While he has been a bit injury prone, as has Chubb, he has also shown he can be a game changer with the ball in his hands.
NFL Comparison: Shane Vereen, New York Giants
Player: Royce Freeman
Measurements: 5-11, 231 Pounds
2016 Stats: 147 Carries, 841 Yards, 9 Touchdowns, 20 Catches, 111 Yards, 1 Touchdown
Signature Stats: Forced 84 Missed tackles in 2015.
Royce Freeman experienced a bit of a down year last year, dealing with injuries and a lack of talent around him on offense. However, at his best he looks like a game changing back with a agility, power and break away speed. Freeman could have a great senior season with a new coaching staff in the fold and if he’s healthy, he could contend for a high selection come next year.
NFL Comparison: DeMarco Murray, Tennessee Titans
Player: Ronald Jones
Measurements: 6-1, 195 Pounds
2016 Stats: 177 Carries, 1082 Yards, 12 Touchdowns, 11 Catches, 76 Yards, 1 TD
Signature Stats: Scored 66% of USC’s Rushing touchdowns in 2016.
Ronald Jones does not get the due he deserves in part because he’s on the same team as national darling Sam Darnold but he is a star in his own right. While he is not a big back or overly powerful, he has some of the best breakaway speed in the country. With USC losing some receiving talent in last year’s draft, Jones will likely see a bigger workload on every down and could turn in his best season.
NFL Comparison: Lamar Miller, Houston Texans
Player: Kalen Ballage
Measurements: 6-2, 227 Pounds
2016 Stats: 126 Carries, 536 Yards, 14 Touchdowns, 44 Catches, 469 Yards, 1 touchdown.
Signature Stats: Scored a Touchdown on 11% of his carries.
Kalen Ballage is an enigma because his usage, or lack thereof, at ASU is a bit head scratching considering his talent when he touches the ball. Ballage has immense physical gifts with rare speed for a back his size and flashes incredible ability. Hopefully Ballage will get a bigger workload and ideally you want to see a back gain more than 4.3 yards a carry in the Pac-12, but Ballage has a very high ceiling.
NFL Comparison: Latavius Murray
Player: LJ Scott
School: Michigan State
Measurements: 6-1, 230 Pounds
2016 Stats: 184 Carries, 994 Yards, 6 Touchdowns, 10 Catches, 147 Yards, 1 Touchdown
Signature Stats: In four ranked games, Scott averaged almost six yards per carry.
Scott is another back who shined on a less than great year. The Spartans regressed after a few years of success but Scott was still flashing lead back ability. He is a well-built back who runs tough and has speed to break a game open. Hopefully the Spartans take another step forward and Scott sees a bigger workload to show off his ability.
NFL Comparison: Ryan Mathews, Philadelphia Eagles
Other names to keep an eye on:
Player: Mike Weber
School: Ohio State
Measurements: 5-9, 215 Pounds
2016 Stats: 180 Carries, 1098 Yards, 9 Touchdowns, 24 Catches, 269 Yards, 2 Touchdowns
Player: Damien Harris
Measurements: 5-11, 216 Pounds
2016 Stats: 145 Carries, 1029 Yards, 2 Touchdowns, 13 Catches, 106 Yards, 2 Touchdowns
Player: Bo Scarbrough
Measurements: 6-2, 231 Pounds
2016 Stats: 125 Carries, 814 Yards, 11 Touchdowns, 4 Catches, 22 Yards
Player: Myles Gaskin
Measurements: 5-10, 192 Pounds
2016 Stats: 237 Carries, 1373 Yards, 10 Touchdowns, 19 Catches, 137 Yards, 1 TD
Player: Akrum Wadley
Measurements: 5-11, 191 Pounds
2016 Stats: 168 Carries, 1081 Yards, 10 Touchdowns, 36 Catches, 315 Yards, 3 Touchdowns
Player: Kamryn Pettaway
Measurements: 6-0, 240 Pounds
2016 Stats: 209 Carries, 1224 Yards, 7 Touchdowns, 2 Catches, 14 Yards
Player: Ty Johnson
Measurements: 5-10, 205 Pounds
2016 Stats: 110 Carries, 1004 Yards, 6 Touchdowns, 16 Catches, 206 Yards, 1 Touchdown