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2018 Rookie Running Backs: Pre-Draft Rankings

With the NFL Draft less than a week away, we’ll soon discover the landing spots of the 2018 running back class. These landing spots will play a major role in shaping the fantasy value that each back carries into his career.

Nonetheless, it’s important to understand each back’s skillset and potential independently of his landing spot. This will help us to round out our expectations and evaluate the situation that each back finds himself in.

Leading up to the NFL Draft, RotoViz writers have been contributing to our composite dynasty rookie rankings. I’ve yet to develop a full set of rankings for each position, but wanted to share my thoughts on this year’s talented group of RBs as well as the process that I employed while evaluating each prospect. I based my rankings on the potential for NFL success.

Process

I developed my rankings via a three-step process

  1. Reviewed athletic measurables — evaluating requisite athleticism for NFL success and identifying any major strengths or weaknesses
  2. Reviewed college production — considering age, consistency, body of work and team situation
  3. Watched film — contextualizing how a player accumulated NCAA production, watching for skills that will translate to NFL

As you’d expect from a RotoViz writer, the measurables and production were weighted much more heavily when building my rankings. I don’t in any way consider myself a tape grinder, but I do think that there is some value in understanding how a player was used in his college offense and getting a feel for the things he does well that could be used by NFL offense.

Rankings

1. SAQUON BARKLEY – PENN STATE, 6-0, 233

Barkley won the RotoViz RB Sweet 16 in the easiest of fashions. He’s likely the strongest RB prospect of the last decade. Boasting tremendous production as a rusher and a receiver, Barkley impressed from the moment he stepped on the field at Penn State. At 233 pounds, he has the build of a workhorse and is equipped with elite athleticism. In fact, his measurables eclipsed the 95th percentile for every event he participated in at the Combine.1 If I were ranking every prospect from the last 20 RB classes, there’s a good chance that Barkley would hold on to the No. 1 ranking.

2. DERRIUS GUICE – LSU, 5-10, 224

Originally, I was lower on Guice than most analysts. After digging in deeper, I’ve realized that I was way off. In most classes, Guice would be my top-ranked prospect. Though he played a minor role in the LSU offense as a freshman, it’s important to note that he was playing behind Leonard Fournette. Guice has the build and athleticism required to be an every-down back at the next level. His speed score of 109 is impressive and while he doesn’t project as one of the top pass catchers in the class, he has demonstrated the requisite ability to play a role in an NFL passing game. As a kick returner, he accumulated 695 yards, averaging 22.4 yards on 31 returned kicks. His success on special teams shouldn’t come as a surprise. Guice is electric. Only Rashaad Penny and Josh Adams matched his percentage of 40-yard runs.2

3. NICK CHUBB – GEORGIA, 5-10, 227

Chubb is one of my favorite prospects of the entire 2018 class. He was marvelous as a freshman, gaining 1,760 total yards with 16 touchdowns despite sharing the field with Todd Gurley, Sony Michel, and Keith Marshall. From there he didn’t look back — undeterred by a significant injury as a sophomore he reprised his role as Georgia’s top back in his junior and senior seasons.

Consider this: Chubb produced 5,130 total yards and 48 touchdowns while on a depth chart that produced three other NFL RBs.3 In addition to being precocious and productive, the guy is an athletic freak. He boasts a speed score of 109, did 29 reps on the bench press and has a 91st percentile burst score. He’s also explosive, recording more rushes of 20 and 30 or more yards than any other back in the class over his career.

The two major knocks on Chubb are the injury he suffered as a sophomore and his lack of receiving ability. I think it’s safe to say that the 2,591 yards and 24 touchdowns he produced after his injury, in addition to his top of the class measurables, are enough to dismiss any concerns about lingering issues.

While I can’t argue that he is the best receiver, he did catch 18 passes as a rookie. His career reception percentage is above 75 percent. When asked to be a receiver, he delivered.4

More importantly, I don’t think it matters. Bill Belichick has often expressed that he doesn’t like to focus on player’s weaknesses. Rather, he places emphasis on what they can do well. Chubb is a dominant rusher. Even if he doesn’t get used on third down, there are a number of teams that could provide him with ample opportunity to produce on first and second. In my opinion, Chubb has one of the highest floors of the class and I’ll be pumped if he falls to me in rookie drafts.

4. RASHAAD PENNY – SAN DIEGO STATE, 5-11, 220

Penny is arguably the most exciting prospect of the class and a player with tremendous upside. However, I can’t in good conscience rank him higher than four. The body of work just isn’t there. Not to mention, I think that much of the hype surrounding Penny is due to the David Johnson effect. Johnson was a similar prospect with great athleticism, well-rounded skills, and a small-school background. This, however, doesn’t guarantee Penny NFL success. Johnson was a superior athlete. Let’s not forget that in addition posting a speed score of 109, Johnson produced a better than 95th percentile burst score, an agility score of 11.09 and did 25 reps on the bench.5

Penny played behind Donnell Pumphrey for the majority of his college career. Like Penny, Pumphrey also eclipsed 2,300 total yards in his senior season. It’s likely that Penny could have replicated this line if given the opportunity earlier in his career, but I have to imagine that backs like Guice, Michel, Ronald Jones, and Royce Freeman could have as well if playing at San Diego State. I say this not to discredit Penny — his 4.46 40-yard dash and 111 speed score speak to his ability — but to remind us that his odds of success may not be commensurate with the hype he’s received.

With that disclaimer out of the way, I do think that Penny has more upside than any back in the class other than Barkley. He’s got sneaky ability as a receiver and was heavily utilized on special teams. Penny returned seven kickoffs and one punt for touchdowns as an Aztec. He dominated his competition, averaging 7.5 yards per attempt. He did everything that was asked of him and should be used as an all-purpose RB.

5. SONY MICHEL – GEORGIA, 5-10, 214

Like Chubb, Michel deserves credit for being a productive back despite sharing the field with a number of talented players. Many in the film-watching community have Michel ranked as high as two based on his receiving ability and profile that translates to an every-down back. Michel caught 64 passes as a Bulldog and averaged 6.1 yards per rushing attempt. His versatility should allow for him to find playing time, but he does have some red flags that keep him from moving up my board: he was outplayed by Chubb in college, doesn’t have Chubb’s measurables, and lost receiving work to D’Andre Swift in his final season. I expect Michel to find NFL success and have a productive career. He’s deserving of a top-five rank but doesn’t have as much potential of being a home run as the higher-ranked backs.

6. ROYCE FREEMAN – OREGON, 5-11, 229

Freeman produced one of the best all-around college resumes of the entire class. He scored 19 touchdowns in each of his first two seasons at Oregon while accumulating 3,707 total yards, producing as a rusher and a receiver. Many scouts have unfairly knocked Freeman for a knee injury suffered in his junior season, incorrectly asserting that his explosiveness disappeared after the injury. As we’ve discussed before, this assertion is patently false. He remains an explosive runner with a versatile skill set, posting the second strongest first-year Workhorse Score of the entire class. With a 4.54 40-yard dash, speed score of 108, and agility score of 11.1, he profiles as a three-down back. If not for the injury, he’d likely be ranked higher by other analysts.

7. RONALD JONES – USC, 5-11, 205

I get the Ronald Jones love. His tape is exciting, he looks fast in USC cardinal and gold, and the aesthetics do conjure images of Jamaal Charles. He’s a solid player, and the youngest RB in the 2018 class. While I don’t expect him to be a failure, he’s far from a guaranteed success.

To be fair, Jones was explosive as a Trojan and posted strong breakaway rush percentages. A former sprinter, he’s also fast. But it remains to be seen if he’s fast enough to remain electric and elusive in the pros while weighing less than 210 pounds. Jones tweaked his hamstring at the Combine and posted an abysmal 40-yard dash of 4.65. He improved upon this time at his pro day, posting a 4.48.6 His broad jump of nine feet and six inches left a lot to be desired. While his 36.5″ vertical at the Combine was good, it’s not ultra-impressive for a prospect whose scouting profile revolves around his athleticism.

Jones was responsible for 49 percent of USC’s backfield receiving yards. Of the 32 backs that Blair Andrews reviewed while developing the Backfield Dominator Rating, this was just 18th best. It’s understandable that Chubb would cede his share to Michel and the rest of his talented depth chart, but it’s harder to reconcile Jones’ share as a Trojan. It doesn’t mean that he lacks the ability, but it does give me pause. At the end of the day, there’s just not enough evidence for me to move Jones into my top five.

8. KERRYON JOHNSON – AUBURN, 5-11, 213

Johnson lacks early career production but is one of the youngest backs in the class and accounted for 68 percent of Auburn’s backfield receiving yards. Of prospects from Power Five schools, only John Kelly, Phillip Lindsay, and Barkley posted higher College Dominator Ratings. As a junior, Johnson produced the fourth highest workhorse score of the 2018 RB class while displaying a penchant for the end zone. He isn’t the fastest back but has great burst and given his youth, the former  SEC Offensive Player of the Year has room for growth.

9. NYHEIM HINES – NORTH CAROLINA STATE, 5-8, 198

Hines is the fastest back in the class with 4.38 speed, which should help him carve out a role at the next level. He caught 89 passes during his career at NC State and figures to be used in a manner similar to Tarik Cohen. While expecting a Darren Sproles type of career from Hines is unreasonable, his unique profile increases his odds of finding a niche in an NFL offense. A cause for concern is his agility of score of 11.53. For some perspective, Sproles’ was 10.92 and small-back extraordinaire Danny Woodhead recorded an 11.23 coming out of school.7 A number of backs that will go unranked in this list have higher ceilings than Hines, but a path toward a season or two of fantasy production appears to be there.

10. Kalen Ballage – Arizona STATE, 6-2, 228

As was the case with Hines, Ballage is not as complete a back as a number of the RBs I’m placing him ahead of. However, he differentiates himself through an impressive mixture of size and speed. Only Barkley, who scored a ridiculous 124, beat Ballage’s speed score of 115. His sub 11.3 agility score also speaks to his athletic ability. While at ASU, he was never asked to shoulder a significant workload as a rusher, and the majority of his collegiate production came through the air. He did demonstrate ability as a receiver, recording 82 receptions while also taking snaps in the slot. His odds of flaming out of the league early may be high, but he possesses significant upside if his game were to translate.

  1. Per PlayerProfiler.  (back)
  2. All gained at least 40 yards on three percent of their rushing attempts.  (back)
  3. You could argue that this means it’s the school and not the player, but Gurley’s success is a valid counterpoint.  (back)
  4. It makes sense that Georgia would want to get Michel involved. Both backs are extremely talented and defending both was challenging for opposing defenses. Michel is the better receiver and Chubb the better rusher. The team let each back play to his strengths.  (back)
  5. Penny boasts an unimpressive 32nd percentile burst score and mustered only 13 reps on the bench press.  (back)
  6. He was reportedly still less than 100 percent healthy at his pro day.  (back)
  7. Cohen, it should be noted, managed to compile an almost-as-disappointing 11.49 agility score at his pro day. And of course, Hines is faster than any of these backs.  (back)

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