Everyone knows at this point that I have had running back thirst since the beginning of time for this football team.
The Eagles (who won the Super Bowl in case you missed it) made a move early in the 2017 season to add Jay Ajayi to their backfield. Ajayi worked in with LeGarrette Blount and Corey Clement to give the Eagles a formidable backfield that helped balance their offense take some pressure off of Carson Wentz. Ajayi looks poised to take the reins of the backfield going into next season, but Blount left a lot of touches to be filled when he departed for the Lions.
With Wentz’ status uncertain for the beginning of the season; the team will need to lean on its running game, most likely, to help win some football games. While Ajayi is an exciting short-term option, the team is likely weighing his health history as he goes into a contract year.
This running back class, similar to last year’s group, is incredibly deep. The Eagles could and should consider adding another back to the roster who can compliment Ajayi’s grinding style.
Here are the ten best backs and it doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of how deep this class is!
10. Josh Adams, Notre Dame
Josh Adams feels very underrated this draft cycle which is surprising given the skill set he brings to the table. At 6’2” and 213 pounds, Josh Adams looks more like a linebacker than a running back and he plays like one too. Adams is an aggressive, hard hitting runner who batters defense. Don’t let his style pigeonhole him into a “pure power back” archetype, however. Adams has some impressive wiggle for his size and his long speed will out run any defender. He is patient, with good vision. It is unfortunate Adams came out this year; purely because in any other class he would be be held in much higher regard. Also, he’s from Warrington, PA and his touchdown celebration included throwing up the “Two-One-Five”.
Key Stat: Forced 43 Missed Tackles on only 206 Carries (CFB Film Room)
Pro Comparison: Karlos Williams, Formerly of the Buffalo Bills
9. John Kelly, Tennessee
John Kelly was understandably overshadowed by Alvin Kamara in 2016 even though he out-carried him in the Tennessee offense. Kelly continued to fly under the radar this season as Tennessee football completely fell off the map. Kelly’s stats don’t impressive, but his tape shows some bright spots. At 5’9” and 217 pounds, Kelly is a thick, low to the ground back with a lot of power. He is an average athlete, but gets by with a tough running style that never loses energy. Teams will need to do their homework on his character, but Kelly could be a late round steal with workhorse upside.
Key Stat: 49% of his yards came after contact (CFB Film Room)
Pro Comparison: Chris Ivory, Buffalo Bills
8. Royce Freeman, Oregon
Royce Freeman has been an institution at Oregon since his freshman year when he helped carry the Duck’s to a National Title appearance. Freeman rushed for over 1,000 yards in all but one of his four college seasons; falling just short in a junior year when the entire Ducks team struggled. Freeman is an impressive athlete at 5’11”, 230 pounds and he showed it off with a 4.52 forty yard dash and near 10 foot broad jump. Both are great numbers for his size and that lower body power is evident as he ran guys over and outran defenses for four years. Freeman is a really solid player and while he has no dominant traits like a lot of top backs this year; he should be able to immediately emerge as a difference maker in an NFL backfield.
Key Stat: 60 Career Rushing Touchdowns
Pro Comparison: Carlos Hyde, Cleveland Browns
7. Sony Michel, Georgia
Sony Michel played second fiddle to Nick Chubb his whole career at Georgia, but he could have started on basically any other team in the country with his talent. He is a shifty back who can create yardage in tight spaces and break off big plays on any touch. He has gotten more powerful during his time at Georgia and his ability to catch the ball out of the backfield makes him all the more valuable. His combine performance was only okay but Michel is clearly a player who thrives not just with athleticism, but also savvy that includes great vision, anticipation and leg drive. Michel will likely outperform his draft position.
Key Stat: Averaged 2.8 Yards After Contact on every attempt. (College Football Film Room)
NFL Comparison: DeAngelo Williams, Carolina Panthers.
6. Nick Chubb, Georgia
Th second half to the dynamic Georgia duo seems like one of the easiest evaluations in this class. Chubb was incredibly productive during his time at Georgia and has rebounded incredibly from a scary knee injury back in 2016. There is concern among NFL people that Chubb lost some juice after his knee injury but a 10’8” broad jump, 38.5” vertical jump and 4.52 forty yard dash at 5’10” and 227 pounds proves he is still a very special athlete. If his knee checks out, it is hard to find something not to like about Chubb; he has a very well rounded game and proved early in his career he can be effective catching the football.
Key Stat: 2475 Rushing Yards, 5.53 Yards Per Carry, 23 Rushing Touchdowns since returning from a knee injury in 2016.
Pro Comparison: Jordan Howard, Chicago Bears
5. Kerryon Johnson, Auburn
Kerryon Johnson was splitting carries in 2016 and still managed to get over 900 yards on the ground. However, Johnson garnered All-SEC honors in 2017 when he took over in the Tigers backfield and rushed for almost 1,400 yards and 18 touchdowns. The 5’11”, 213 pound back has a lot of speed and explosiveness while flashing some power. He is a freakish athlete with a 40 inch vertical and a 10’6” broad jump. He is a bit raw in terms of his ability to anticipate holes opening and does not consistently lower his pads on contact; taking away his ability to power through tackles he has the ability to break. However, teams are getting an explosive player in Johnson who could improve into an all-around back.
Key Stat: Forced 43 Missed Tackles on 263 Carries (College Football Film Room)
NFL Comparison: Tevin Coleman, Atlanta Falcons
4. Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
After Donnel Pumphrey left for the NFL and ended up in Philadelphia; Rashaad Penny took over at SDSU and turned in one of the more dominant statistical seasons in college football history. Besides having over 2,200 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns on the ground, Penny also scored twice as a pass catcher and two more times returning kicks. Penny is a well built 5’11” and 220 pounds and impressed at the combine with 4.46 speed and a 10 foot broad jump. Penny’s speed was quite dominant in the Mountain West but he also has a good deal of power, great vision and can make guys miss in space. He can run upright at times and lacks elite traits but his combination of speed, size and savvy make him a very dangerous player on a team. Not to mention he has eight combined career return touchdowns (seven on kickoffs and one on a punt return), so teams can get immediate impact from Penny as a special team player.
Key Stat: According to Pro Football Focus, Penny draft eligible running backs in 2017 missed tackles (80) and missed tackle rate (Forced a missed tackle on over 27% of his carries).
NFL Comparison: Jay Ajayi, Philadelphia Eagles
3. Ronald Jones, USC
One of my favorite players in the class last year; Ronald Jones is a lightning bolt of a player. Jones underwhelmed at the combine due to still nursing a lower body injury, but don’t let that take away from the explosive ability he has shown on tape for the last three years. The 5’11”, 205 pound player may not be built like a prototypical NFL running back; but he has breakaway speed, open field agility and runs with the toughness of someone 20 pounds heavier than him. His size, lack of career catches and injury history might negatively impact his draft board; but he could instantly add a home run threat to whatever team drafts him!
Key Stat: 46.1% of his runs in 2017 went for 15 yards or more. (Pro Football Focus)
NFL Comparison: Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
2. Derrius Guice, LSU
Derrius Guide would be the number one back in basically any other draft class. Guice broke onto the scene in 2016 when Leonard Fournette was nursing injuries. The sophomore back had 1,390 yards and 15 touchdowns on only 183 carries. When Fournette left for the NFL; everyone anticipated a massive final season for Guice at LSU. While the junior runner did not have a bad season; injuries certainly put a damper on a lot of high expectations. However, Guice finished with a very respectable 1,259 yards and 11 touchdowns on 238 carries. Guice is a legit power back who carries 224 pounds extremely well on his 5’10” frame. He has sub 4.5 speed to pair with his violent, powerful running style and has some wiggle to complement his skill set. Guice is relatively unproven as a receiver, but showed well at the NFL combine and maximized the catches he did get in LSU’s abysmal passing offense. Guice, if healthy, will immediately be a star for an NFL team.
Key Stat: Forced 52 Missed tackles in 2016 on only 183 Carries (College Football Film Room)
NFL Comparison: Marshawn Lynch, Seattle Seahawks version
1. Saquon Barkley, Penn State
Somehow, someway, people are underrating Saquon Barkley. I don’t know if its overthinking or he has been good for so long that some folks are just bored, but there is little doubt that Barkley is a special talent. Barkley dominated at Penn State for three seasons; rushing for 1,000 yards every season he played and put up 32 touchdowns on the ground in the last two seasons. On top of that, Barkley is a dominant receiver who has had over 600 receiving yards this season which is pretty unheard of for a college back. Barkley, on top of all that production, is an otherworldly athlete. He ran 4.4, jumped 41” in the vertical and threw 225 pounds up 29 times on the bench at 233 pounds. Unreal. Barkley’s explosive ability is evident and his best trait. He can turn any touch into a score with his stop/start speed and instantaneous acceleration. Barkley is more agile than most 233 pound backs should be and that shows behind the line and in the open field. Barkley’s weakness is that he does not play behind his pads as much as you’d want a big guy like him to. He is muscled up beyond belief and is a weight room warrior, so it should be an expectation that he is running over more defenders than he has. However, the only 21 year old back has gotten positive reviews off the field from everyone for his character and almost pathological work ethic. There is plenty of reason to believe Barkley can improve his game given his physical tools. Even as he improves his ability to power through tackles, Barkley will make an immediate impact in the NFL as a deadly weapon in the passing game and someone who can score on any carry, even without getting into a rhythm. Barkley is a truly elite prospect.
Key Stat: Averaged 6.5 Yards a touch on 773 career offensive touches and scored 51 touchdowns.
NFL Comparison: David Johnson, Arizona Cardinals
Who are your top 10 running backs?