The 2018 NFL draft class had several solid running back prospects in it. When considering whether to draft some of these rookie runners, you really need to pay attention to the preseason games and training camp to make sure these guys are good in pass protection, because if you can’t pass protect in the NFL, you usually don’t play. Another item to monitor when considering which rookie running back to draft is opportunity. Sometimes the best prospect isn’t always the highest producing running back as a rookie. In some cases, opportunity and the surrounding cast may outweigh talent. That being said, Nick Chubb is a fantastic talent out of Georgia, but you really need to wonder how he’s going to be involved with Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson in the same Cleveland backfield. On the opposite spectrum, you have Jordan Wilkins on the Colts roster who isn’t the greatest or most notable running back prospect, but he has a path to immediate playing time, making him viable.
1. Saquon Barkley – RB – NY Giants – 21 years old – 5’11” 230 pounds – During the pre-draft process Saquon Barkley was touted as the best running back prospect since Adrian Peterson but in reality, he could be and should be better than Adrian Peterson because of his attributes in the passing game, a department AP offered very little in. The Giants did add Jonathan Stewart to the backfield this offseason in free agency, but he hasn’t averaged over 4.0 yards per carry since 2015. If anything, Stewart will be able to spell Barkley when he’s tired and provide a presence at the goal line as he’s scored 15 rushing touchdowns over the last two seasons. The Giants have solid options in the passing game, mainly Odell Beckham Jr. and Eli Manning throwing the ball, so Barkley is extremely unlikely to see stacked boxes. Finally, the Giants added Nate Solder in free agency and Will Hernandez in the draft which will provide a major boost to the Giants offensive line. Watch for the Giants’ running game to be a presence for the first time since the earth, wind and fire days of Brandon Jacobs, Derrick Ward and Ahmad Bradshaw. Barkley will push to be a first round pick this year, and if he has a solid preseason, look for his draft stock to blast into the top half of the first round. You need to consider which running backs you would rather draft over Barkley. I would take guys like Todd Gurley, Le’Veon Bell, Ezekiel Elliott, David Johnson, Kareem Hunt and possibly Alvin Kamara over Barkley because they are young, they play in good offenses and they’ve done it before. Once you get past those guys, however, you need to consider whether you would take Barkley over guys like Leonard Fournette (one dimensional), Dalvin Cook (ACL), Melvin Gordon (Grinder) and LeSean McCoy (30+ years old). I would take Barkley over all those guys, he needs to be drafted as an RB1.
2. Rashaad Penny – RB – Seattle Seahawks – 22 years old – 5’11” 220 pounds – Running backs don’t get drafted in the first round unless the team drafting them has an immediate plan for them. That is, unless you are Cedric Benson, arriving to the Chicago Bears with a massive ego, only to remain #2 on the depth chart behind Thomas Jones. Penny will compete for time with Chris Carson and Mike Davis who are hardly world beaters and neither can stay healthy. Penny is a solid all around back with solid pass catching skills and for the first time in years, the Seahawks actually have a decent offensive line heading into the season. The Seahawks’ projected starting five at the offensive line will be Duane Brown, Ethan Pocic, Justin Britt, DJ Fluker and Germain Ifedi. When you consider that the Seahawks have a much improved offensive line, the fact that Russell Wilson creates huge matchup problems for defenses, and that Penny has the opportunity to play right away, Rashaad Penny is looking like an immediate RB2 as long as there isn’t a full-blown timeshare in Seattle.
3. Derrius Guice – RB – Washington Redskins – 21 years old at the start of the season – 5’11” 218 pounds – Samaje Perine is one-dimensional and Rob Kelley isn’t very athletic by standards for NFL running backs. That being said, Derrius Guice has a clear path to the starting job in Washington, although his upside may be somewhat capped by the presence of Chris Thompson. The Redskins will have Trent Williams back healthy at left tackle this year which will be a huge boost to the running game, and the acquisition of Paul Richardson should limit the number of stacked boxes Guice sees. After Samaje Perine averaged just 3.4 yards per carry in 2017 and Rob Kelley averaged an even worse 3.1 yards per attempt, Guice should provide a shot in the arm to the Redskins rushing attack. During the pre-draft process scouts likened Guice to Marshawn Lynch, somebody who runs violently with excellent pad level and contact balance. If that’s the case, watch out for this guy, the Redskins got a steal. Guice should be drafted as a back-end RB2 around the 4th or 5th round as he’s likely to lose passing down work to Chris Thompson which limits his upside.
4. Ronald Jones – RB – Tampa Bay Buccaneers – 21 years old at the start of the season – 6’0” 200 pounds – The Buccaneers backfield is filled with unexciting players. Peyton Barber is ok in the running and passing game, just ok, but he’s not explosive. Jacquizz Rodgers can catch the ball out of the backfield, but he offers very little in the running game, he’s almost a zero in that department and the same can almost be said for Charles Sims. Ronald Jones has a fairly lean frame, weighing only 200 pounds but his contact balance is alright, he runs with good pad level and always falls forward. The one knock on Jones is that sometimes he gets lost while running between the tackles. It will be interesting to see how Ronald Jones pans out. It’s possible that he could be a young Jamaal Charles circa 2008 when he split time with Thomas Jones in Kansas City, or used similarly to the way Alvin Kamara was last year in New Orleans, but let’s be clear: expecting Alvin Kamara 2017 production may be a bit of a stretch. Jones has some serious upside but we need to wait and see what he does in the preseason before we consider an ADP that can be taken seriously. If Jones doesn’t perform well in the preseason he could go undrafted, or, if he has a solid preseason, it could elevate his draft stock up to the 6th or 7th round.
5. Royce Freeman – RB – Denver Broncos – 22 years old – 6’0” 238 pounds – Royce Freeman may not be the fastest running back in the league but he can definitely shoulder a full workload. Devontae Booker and De’Angelo Henderson aren’t the answer in Denver, and Freeman has a clear path to the starting job if he can take care of his business. Freeman is a capable pass receiver out of the backfield which means he won’t necessarily need to come off the field in clear passing situations. Freeman isn’t the most explosive back out there so he won’t be touted as the high upside guy that you feel the need to have, but he may offer Jordan Howard-like production if everything goes well for him. You need to really pay attention to preseason reports before committing a draft pick to this guy, but he definitely has the opportunity to be the guy in the Denver backfield which makes him a really appealing draft pick, possibly a 6th to 7th round draft pick.
6. Kerryon Johnson – RB – Detroit Lions – 21 years old at the start of the season – 6’0” 212 pounds – The Lions haven’t had a decent running game since….I can’t even remember, maybe the Barry Sanders day. Ameer Abdullah is like El Nino, the storm that never came, and Theo Riddick CANNOT do anything besides catch the ball. It seems like every time he’s given more than 5 carries in a game he comes up hurt. That being said, Kerryon Johnson has a huge opportunity to earn the lead back role in Detroit, competing with the aging LeGarrette Blount who signed with Detroit as a free agent this offseason. The Lions will get Taylor Decker back from injury at left tackle, and will actually have a fairly strong starting five up front, especially after the addition of Frank Ragnow at center in the draft. Two of the knocks on Johnson during the pre-draft process were that he doesn’t always see running lanes develop and he runs too upright. Those two things aren’t a good combination when you’re trying to avoid NFL linebackers, but after all, Johnson did compete in the SEC which is not short on NFL caliber talent on the defensive side of the ball. Johnson is only 20 right now and turns 21 right before the season starts so he still has room to grow and learn. If Johnson can’t beat out Blount for the starting job early, he’s a name to keep an eye on down the road and definitely for dynasty leagues.
7. Sony Michel – RB – New England Patriots – 23 years old – 5’11” 215 pounds – The last time the Patriots selected a running back in the first round of the draft was in 2005 when they selected Laurence Maroney out of Minnesota. When the Patriots drafted Michel, they added to an already deep stable of running backs in Rex Burkhead, James White, Jeremy Hill and Mike Gillislee. It will be interesting to see how this backfield situation plays out, they almost certainly need to move one off their roster unless he is willing to play special teams. Normally, when a team invests a first round pick in a player, that player will contribute immediately. It is likely that Michel could assume a Dion Lewis-like role for the Patriots but then again, it is the Patriots, so you never know what will happen on a week to week basis. Michel is a little old for a rookie at 23 years old, so it’s likely he is what he is and he’s likely near his ceiling already. I am staying away from Sony Michel unless he hits it out of the park during the preseason and earns a clear role in the Patriots’ offense. I understand Sony Michel is a great prospect and will be playing in a great offense, but we need to wait and see how the Patriots backfield plays out in the preseason before we crown this guy.
8. Jordan Wilkins – RB – Indianapolis Colts – 23 years old – 6’1” 217 pounds – Marlon Mack is not an every down back; he tries to bounce everything to the outside. Jordan Wilkins may have fallen into a spot where he could make an immediate impact due to the lack of competition at the running back position on the Colts’ roster. Robert Turbin can’t stay healthy, Christine Michael is a plus athlete who simply can’t hold a roster spot down and although Nyheim Hines was drafted ahead of Wilkins, he’s more of a scat back type. Wilkins isn’t the best inside runner in the world, but he may be the best the Colts have on their current roster. Wilkins runs with decent balance and is dangerous in open space, but he’s not a between the tackle pounder by any means. I will likely take Wilkins in the final round of drafts this summer, assuming he doesn’t run away with the running back competition in training camp and shoot up draft boards. Wilkins has a prime opportunity to get early down work for the Colts this year.
9. Nick Chubb – RB – Cleveland Browns – 22 years old – 5’10” 225 pounds – With Carlos Hyde and Duke Johnson already on the roster, you really need to wonder when Chubb is going to get his chance to shine in Cleveland. Carlos Hyde does have a lengthy history of nagging injuries, but if his carries are limited by the presence of Duke Johnson in the passing game, Hyde won’t see as much wear and tear over the duration of the season and is less likely to break down. Chubb is an excellent prospect playing behind a solid offensive line with great play makers alongside him (Josh Gordon, Jarvis Landry, David Njoku, Corey Coleman), but the opportunity simply may not be there for him in 2018. We really need to monitor the Browns’ backfield battle this summer to determine where Chubb should be drafted. If you draft Carlos Hyde as an RB2, you almost need to draft Chubb as his handcuff.
10. Kalen Ballage – RB – Miami Dolphins – 6’3” 230 pounds – Ballage looks the part and has the physical traits to succeed in the NFL but he enters the season behind Kenyan Drake and Frank Gore on the depth chart. Although Gore is now 34 years old, he just keeps hanging around. Although Ballage checks all the boxes physically, his physical traits may not translate to the field in the NFL. Ballage is a plus NFL athlete but he doesn’t have the best vision, he runs upright, he misses running lanes, he seems like a big, strong, fast athlete that got by on his athletic ability in college. That’s not likely to translate to NFL success. Still, I may still take a flier on him late in drafts because Frank Gore is aging, and Kenyan Drake has not demonstrated he can stay healthy for an entire NFL season as “the guy.” Moreover, Kenyan Drake added weight this offseason. When has adding weight ever worked out well for an NFL running back? I recall that didn’t work well for Steve Slaton ahead of his 2009 sophomore campaign in Houston. That being said, Ballage may be worth a roster spot as long as he doesn’t bomb in the preseason.
Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio Show: Join host Brian Roach, Jr, and Cole Freel live on Sunday May 6th, 2018 from 8-9:30pm EST for episode #119 of Major League Fantasy Baseball Radio. We are a live broadcast that will take callers at 323-870-4395. Press 1 to speak with the host. We will discuss the latest information in the world of fantasy baseball.
Our guest this week is Kyle Klinker. Kyle has been an owner in MLFS baseball, and basketball leagues for over 5 years. He also has a couple of championships under his belt over that span in some tough leagues. We loving refer to him as “The Red Rocket.”