2018 RB class preview
Since 2008, there have not been more than 8 running backs selected in the top three rounds of the NFL draft. Despite the de-valuation of the RB position in the NFL, that stands to change next year. We’ve graded a staggering twelve draft-eligible RB’s as a 3rd round talent or better in the 2018 RB class.
Now, it’s possible that some junior RB’s previewed in this piece don’t enter the upcoming draft. Regardless, the 2018 RB class appears to be absolutely stacked with high-end prospects.
1. Saquon Barkley – 5’11, 230 lbs – Penn State, JR – Generational talent
With all due respect to Leonard Fournette, Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley – Saquon Barkley is the best RB to come out of college since Adrian Peterson. He possesses an unbelievable combination of talent & athleticism that doesn’t come around very often, at any position. His film against Iowa (above) is the best you’ll see from an RB this year, unless Barkley can outdo himself.
Barkley generated a ton of hype with his freshman and sophomore performances, and he’s taken the NCAA by storm in 2017. He’s currently sitting at 574 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns on 6.7 ypc through five games. In addition to his rushing exploits, he’s also caught 27 balls for 386 yards and 2 TD’s. He also housed the opening kickoff return vs. Indiana this past weekend, and later threw a TD pass.
Come draft season, Barkley is going to blow up the NFL combine like few have before. Here are some of his workout numbers from this summer:
40-time: 4.33, Short shuttle: 4.00, Broad jump: 10’10”, Vertical jump: 38”, Max Squat: 650 lbs, Power clean: 405 lbs (school record), Bench press: 30 reps of 225 lbs.
- Ultimate big play-threat – unparalleled combination of elite size, speed, agility, power & explosion.
- Unique running form with natural forward lean – gives him incredible balance when taking on contact
- Startling ability to both break though tackles & make guys miss – forced 15 missed tackles vs. Iowa.
- Runs with patience, vision, and power between the tackles – never stops running his feet.
- Regularly creates something out of nothing – freaky jump-cuts, burst and elusiveness.
- Tendency to bounce runs outside – a negative for most RB’s, but he’s on another planet athletically.
- Dynamic receiving weapon – excellent route runner with crisp hands & unreal YAC ability.
- Significantly improved pass pro in 2017 – many fine reps either cut-blocking or standing up rushers.
2018 Draft Outlook – Barkley is the Calvin Johnson of running back prospects – unmatched in both skill and athleticism by his peers. An NFL team will be able to build an offense around him, and have success even without an elite QB. He’s got a great shot at winning the Heisman this year and being the first non-QB drafted in 2018.
2. Nick Chubb – 5’10, 225 lbs – Georgia, SR – 1st round talent
Nick Chubb, at his best, was the type of rare RB talent that’s selected very early in the NFL draft.
He was a phenomenal high school athlete, running the 100m in 10.69 seconds and winning a state championship in shot-put. At the 2013 Nike SPARQ combine, Chubb blew away the RB competition with an elite SPARQ score of 144. Highlights include a 4.47 40-time at 217 lbs, a 4.10 short shuttle, and a 41” vertical.
Chubb took over for an injured Todd Gurley as a freshman, and proceeded to dominate the SEC. Unfortunately, he suffered a horrific knee injury midway through his sophomore season, and his junior year production understandably paled in comparison:
Pre-injury – 311 carries, 2294 yards, 7.4 ypc, 24 total TD’s
Junior ‘16 – 224 carries, 1130 yards, 5.0 ypc, 9 total TD’s
The fact that Chubb returned less than 11 months after the injury was impressive. Rushing 32 times for 222 yards and 2 touchdowns in the first game back was downright remarkable. He clearly wasn’t quite the same athlete throughout last season, but the amazing recovery says something about the man.
Now a full two years removed from the devastating injury, Chubb is off to a good start to his senior campaign. He’s rushed for 480 yards on 75 carries (6.4 ypc) and 6 TD’s through 5 games. He may never get all his athleticism back, but Chubb appears more dynamic than he was last season.
- Great size, power & footwork – patiently looks for seams inside & maximizes what’s blocked.
- Excellent burst to turn the corner & elusiveness in the open field – tough to bring down.
- Changes the complexion of an offense – gains tough yards in heavy traffic + big play potential.
- Explosive through contact – the type of RB that wears down defenses with each carry.
- Regained some of his uncommon lateral mobility – agile jump cuts & foot speed for his size.
- Strong, reliable pass blocker. Not utilized as a receiver since his freshman season.
2018 Draft outlook – Chubb is benefitting from Georgia’s RB depth and overall team success this season, keeping his workload light. He could push for a spot in the top half of the 1st round if he continues to stay healthy and productive. Combine medical checks and athletic testing will have a big impact on his stock as well. Chubb has the look of a premium feature back in the NFL.
3. Derrius Guice – 5’11, 220 lbs – LSU, JR – 1st round talent
Derrius Guice was brilliant for LSU in 2016, rushing for 1387 yards (7.6 ypc) and 15 touchdowns. He out-played nicked-up teammate Leonard Fournette, establishing himself as a top RB prospect for 2018.
Guice added to the hype this summer with his weight room exploits, most notably a 650 lbs max squat. He was also timed at 4.49 in the 40-yard dash.
Guice picked up where he left off with excellent performances vs. BYU and Chattanooga to open the season. However, he suffered a minor knee injury in week 3 against Mississippi State and has barely played since.
- Physical north-south runner – decisive one-cut RB with excellent power & explosion.
- Punishes defenders in his path – fights for extra yards and breaks tackles in traffic.
- Solid speed and elusiveness – hard cuts to make defenders miss + quick burst through the hole.
- Almost exclusively runs from under-center in LSU’s offense – can he have the same success from gun?
- Shows promise receiving out of the backfield, but under-utilized at LSU. Capable pass protector.
2018 Draft outlook – Guice’s draft stock will be boosted by the relatively low amount of tread on his tires. He just turned 20 this summer, and had fewer than 250 career touches prior to this season. If he can return to the field and continue his typical production, he’ll likely find a home in the 1st round in 2018. Guice is a very similar player to what we’ve seen from Chris Carson as a rookie, but with more speed & wiggle to his game.
4. Royce Freeman – 6’0, 235 lbs – Oregon, SR – 2nd round talent
Royce Freeman is the most experienced back in this piece, as he’s been Oregon’s bell-cow RB since his freshman year.
He had a phenomenal sophomore season in 2015, where he gained over 100 yards from scrimmage in every game. Freeman rushed for 1836 yards (6.5 ypc) and 17 touchdowns, and caught 26 passes for 348 yards and 2 more TD’s.
He followed that up with a disappointing 2016 junior year, where he struggled with injury and inconsistent play. The loss of star tackle Tyrell Crosby surely didn’t help either. Freeman finished with 945 yards (5.6 ypc) and 10 total TD’s.
He’s off to a great start to his senior year. He’s accumulated 592 rushing yards (5.7 ypc) and 128 receiving through 5 games, and scored a whopping 10 TD’s.
Freeman is no slouch in the athleticism department. He posted a solid SPARQ rating of 121 at the 2013 Nike combine, highlighted by an elite 20-yard shuttle time (4.07) for his size (227 lbs). He also managed to squat 600 lbs with ease this summer.
- Fast & shifty for a 235 lbs back – makes defenders miss with elusiveness & rangy strides/cuts.
- Great size, strength & power – runs his feet & plows through contact with a head of steam.
- Success in Oregon’s shotgun zone running scheme – decisive runner with plus vision.
- Reliable short yardage back – consistently gains the tough yards in traffic with toughness & instincts.
- Capable receiver with excellent hands and + YAC ability. Steady in pass protection.
2018 Draft Outlook – Freeman has the potential to rise up to first round consideration, but there are roadblocks to get there. Workload and injuries are probably the top concerns. Freeman exited last week’s game vs. Cal with an arm/shoulder problem. It’s only considered a short-term issue, but that makes consecutive years with nagging injuries preventing Royce from seeing the field. He’s got a hard running style, and will likely end up with over 1000 touches in his college career. Secondly, Freeman is a solid athlete for his size, but not a spectacular one. The combine will help to reveal if he’s special enough to be a first-round draft pick.
5. Bryce Love – 5’10, 195 lbs – Stanford, JR – 2nd round talent
Christian who? After spending 2016 as the backup to 1st round pick Christian McCaffrey, Bryce Love has literally exploded onto the scene in 2017. Through 5 games for Stanford, he’s rushed for a ridiculous 1088 yards and 8 touchdowns at a 11.1 ypc clip. He’s had a 50+ yard run in 7 straight games going back to 2016.
Stanford has provided Love with fantastic blocking at times this season, however he is unmistakeably a game-breaking talent. Love grades off-the-charts in the most un-coachable skill: speed.
He possesses the type of raw speed to potentially challenge the 40-times of John Ross (4.22) and Chris Johnson (4.24). Love officially ran the 100 metres in 11.64 seconds at age 12, and 10.73s at 14. Both those times are U.S. national records. He was also electronically timed at 4.30 in the 40-yard dash in high-school.
- Makes defenders miss at will – cuts on a dime without breaking his stride or losing speed.
- Patient runner & excellent vision – huge big-play threat with his poise & burst through the hole.
- Posted an electric 3.90 short shuttle and 130 SPARQ score at the 2014 Nike combine.
- Breaks many low tackle attempts with fantastic balance & feet that don’t stop churning.
- Too small to finish through heavy contact, but plays fearless with great footwork between the tackles.
- Barely utilized as a receiver – often taken off the field in obvious passing situations.
- Improved in pass pro, but still doesn’t offer much resistance at his size – also lacks great awareness.
2018 Draft outlook – Love’s speed, skill and rushing production will have scouts salivating. He provides an offense with explosive potential in the running game, which is highly coveted. It’s not unreasonable to compare Love to Chris Johnson, given their size & speed. Since he is undersized and contributes little in the passing game, I’m not yet comfortable grading Love higher than the 2nd round. If he can hold up physically for the full season as Stanford’s feature back, it will do wonders for his draft stock. A Heisman Trophy on his mantle wouldn’t hurt either.
6. Myles Gaskin – 5’10, 195 lbs – Washington, JR – 2nd round talent
Myles Gaskin is the most underrated running back in college football. He’s been Washington’s star lead back since the moment he stepped on campus. Across his freshman and sophomore campaigns, Gaskin rushed for 2675 yards (5.8 ypc) and scored 25 touchdowns.
Gaskin’s production stems from his dynamic talent and exceptional athleticism. He first ran under 11 seconds in the 100m when he was 16 years old. He also posted a 4.45 40-time and 39” vertical jump at the 2017 Husky combine.
Gaskin is on track for another big season in 2017. He’s totalled 468 rushing yards (7.1 ypc) and 98 yards receiving through 5 games, and scored 8 TD’s. He also has the lowest career fumble rate of all the RB’s evaluated for this piece (0.3% of touches).
- Quick acceleration through the hole & excellent speed in the open field.
- Fantastic between the tackles – easily gets skinny & snakes through the smallest of lanes.
- Outstanding footwork, balance and elusiveness – as shifty as they come.
- Unreal patience & stop-start mobility – unique ability to create from a complete standstill.
- Possesses the explosiveness, toughness & low center of gravity to break through contact.
- Undersized but compact runner – angles body to avoid big hits & maximize yardage.
- Plus receiving threat with ball skills & + YAC. Staunch in pass protection despite small frame.
2018 Draft outlook – Gaskin continues to receive little hype despite his exploits on the field. Perhaps his lack of size is an issue for his evaluation. However, Gaskin is the rare undersized RB that can (more than) handle a large workload. He would be a sure-fire 1st round prospect if his abilities were packed into a 215 lbs frame. I love his game, and what he can bring to an NFL offense. If Gaskin falls to day 3 of the draft, he’ll be a massive steal for one lucky team.
7. Rashaad Penny – 5’11, 220 lbs – San Diego State, SR – 3rd round talent
The top rated small-school prospect in this preview plays anything but small for San Diego State. Rashaad Penny has emerged as the Aztecs’ workhorse RB as a senior, after backing up 2017 4th rounder Donnel Pumphrey throughout his college career.
Penny provided glimpses of his all-around talent in 2016, rushing for 1018 yards (7.5 ypc) & 11 touchdowns, and added 224 yards & 3 TD’s through the air. He’s maintained that superb efficiency as a feature back this season. Through 5 games, Penny’s carried the ball 116 times for 823 yards (7.1 ypc), and caught 14 passes for 119 yards. He’s scored 10 total touchdowns (7 rushing, 2 receiving, 1 kick return).
- Good size/speed combo – cuts smoothly with exceptionally quick feet & snakes through traffic.
- Not a powerful runner – but keeps feet churning through contact with terrific balance to max out yardage.
- Versatile receiving weapon – plus hands and YAC-ability. Inconsistent pass pro. Elite kickoff returner.
2018 Draft outlook – Penny has received a lot of hype throughout September, and justifiably so. He appears to have all the traits of a feature back in the NFL. The only real concern at this point is how he translates from the Mountain West to the NFL level. I’d like to see Penny participate in the Senior Bowl or Shrine game this offseason, to see how he stacks up against quality competition. If he performs well compared to his peers (combine included), Penny could potentially find a home in the 2nd round of the 2018 draft.
8. Damien Harris – 5’11, 220 lbs – Alabama, JR – 3rd round talent
Often overshadowed by teammate Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris is an intriguing NFL prospect in his own right.
They have shared backfield duties over the last two seasons, so Harris has very little tread on his tires. He’s been a consistent producer for Alabama when called upon, averaging at least 4 ypc in every game he’s carried the ball 10+ times.
Harris rushed for 1037 yards on 146 carries (7.1 ypc) in 2016. Through 5 games this year, he’s carried the ball 45 times for 376 yards (8.4 ypc) and 6 touchdowns. He also blocked a punt on special teams.
- Feature back upside – tough one-cut & go RB with solid athletic profile & all-around skillset.
- Good size, speed & shiftiness. Displays vision, smooth cuts, balance & power between the tackles.
- Under-utilized as a receiver – plus hands. Reliable pass protector.
2018 Draft Outlook – Harris has really impressed in the Tide’s backfield timeshare to begin this season. It’s tough to gauge his draft stock, but I think he has a great shot of being picked on day 2 in 2018. Harris may not be spectacular in any particular area, but he does everything well. He’s got the size and skills of a lead back in the NFL, and he’ll be a lot fresher than his peers entering the league.
9. John Kelly – 5’9, 205 lbs – Tennessee, JR – 3rd round talent
John Kelly served as a backup to Jalen Hurd and 3rd rounder Alvin Kamara at Tennessee for the past two seasons. He rushed for 630 yards (6.4 ypc) and 5 touchdowns in 2016. As a result, he’s received little hype as a RB prospect for the 2018 draft. However, that’ll soon change based on his impressive play for the Vols this fall.
Kelly has been the Vols’ primary offensive option as the clear lead back. He’s rushed 97 times for 494 yards (5.1 ypc) and 6 TD’s through five games. He’s also leading the team in receiving, having caught 22 balls for 229 yards.
Kelly was clocked at a program record 22 MPH during spring practices, but there is a lot more to his game than just speed.
- Compact, balanced & patient runner with supreme footwork – bounces off would-be tacklers at will.
- Combines toughness with natural elusiveness – Makes D’s miss with jitterbug feet & great burst.
- Slightly undersized – still tough in pass pro. Dangerous receiving weapon with fantastic YAC-ability.
2018 Draft outlook – Kelly’s talent and running style instantly evoke comparisons to Kareem Hunt (who I graded as a 2nd round talent last year). He’s smaller than Hunt, but may be a better athlete. If Kelly continues to impress as a bell-cow RB against SEC competition, he should be drafted on day 2 as well.
10. Bo Scarbrough – 6’2, 235 lbs – Alabama, RS JR – 3rd round talent
Bo Scarbrough made his presence felt with dominant performances in last year’s College Football Playoff. It capped off an excellent 2016 season where he rushed for 812 yards (6.5 ypc) and 11 touchdowns.
Unfortunately, Bo broke his leg in the National Championship game, a year after tearing an ACL in the same leg. He returned trimmed down to start the 2017 season, and has rushed for 239 yards (4.8 ypc) and 4 TD’s through 5 games.
- Tall, fast & powerful RB – in the mold of Derrick Henry. Uncommon quicks & elusiveness at his size.
- Breaks tackles at will with power, explosion & balance – a load to take down with a head of steam.
- Strong pass protector. Not much of a receiver, but more usage in 2017. Issues with ball-security.
2018 Draft Outlook
Scarbrough has looked good in his return from the broken leg, if just a tad more reserved than his pre-injury rushing style. Alabama is keeping him fresh in a deep backfield timeshare, saving him for key situations to get tough first downs. The medical checks on Bo’s right leg will have a huge influence on his stock when he enters the draft.
11. Ronald Jones II – 6’0, 205 lbs – USC, JR – 3rd round talent
Ronald Jones has been a productive rusher for USC since the moment he stepped on campus. He rushed for 2069 yards (6.3 ypc) and 20 touchdowns across his true freshman and sophomore years. Jones made an impact from day 1 with his elite sprinter-speed. He was clocked as fast as 10.37 in the 100m in high school.
Jones put on some needed muscle this offseason and is having success as the clear lead dog in USC’s rushing attack. He’s rushed for 450 yards and 6 TD’s in 4 games (6.2 ypc), despite dealing with a nagging injury.
- Game changing speed – insane acceleration through the hole & burst to turn the corner.
- Explosive one-cut & go RB despite lack of size – twitchy jump-cuts & breaks arm tackles regularly.
- Bulked up to 205 & noticeably stronger through contact in 2017 – still slender for a tall back.
- Little usage in the passing game – some drops issues. Improved pass protector with added weight.
2018 Draft outlook – Jones has recently drawn comparisons to Jamaal Charles, given his speed & style (and probably the hair too). That may be a bit lofty, as Charles is one of the top NFL RB’s of the last decade. Jones isn’t quite as dynamic or versatile, but he’s a fine prospect in his own right. Hopefully he can stay healthy with the increased workload this season. Jones has a great shot at being selected on day 2 if he enters the 2018 draft.
12. Akrum Wadley – 5’11, 195 lbs – Iowa, RS SR – 3rd round talent
Akrum Wadley is a versatile scat back who’s carrying the load in Iowa’s backfield this season.
He rushed for 1081 yards (6.4 ypc) in 2016, and caught 36 balls for 315 yards and 13 total touchdowns. Unfortunately, he hasn’t maintained the same rushing efficiency in a feature back role this fall. He’s sitting at 368 yards on 96 carries (3.8 ypc). Part of the blame goes to Iowa’s shaky blocking since losing OT Ike Boettger to injury, but it’s been a heavy workload for an undersized back.
Wadley has still made a huge impact in the passing game, totalling 244 yards through 5 games.
- Such a natural with the ball in his hands – great combo of speed, quickness, elusiveness & balance.
- Outstanding receiving weapon out of the backfield – makes defenders miss in space.
- Undersized & older prospect with ball security issues. Limited in pass protection.
2018 Draft Outlook – There are parts of Wadley’s game that I love, but he has clear weaknesses as well. He possesses a ton of talent, but may lack the upside of a first or second round pick. There’s a role for dynamic scat-backs in the NFL who create yardage as both a runner and receiver. And Wadley should fill that role very well – he probably won’t be a feature back however.
More 2018 RB prospects of interest:
- Kerryon Johnson, Auburn
- Josh Adams, Notre Dame
- Mark Walton, Miami
- Sony Michel, Georgia
- Ryan Nall, Oregon State
- Lavon Coleman, Washington
- Mike Weber, Ohio State
HawkTalk also recently posted a full rankings of the 2018 offensive tackle class. See the links below for evaluations of the most interesting 2018 OT prospects: