2018 NFL Draft Rankings: Top 5 Running Backs

Saquon Barkley, Derrius Guice top Athlon Sports' list of ball carriers

The 2018 NFL Draft is set for April 26-28, so you still have time to get ready with the Athlon Sports 2018 Draft Guide. With 526 players ranked and needs outlined for every NFL team, it has everything you need.

 

Here's a sneak peek at our top five running backs in this year's NFL Draft: 

 

1. Saquon Barkley

COLLEGE: Penn State

CLASS: Jr. HEIGHT: 5’11” WEIGHT: 230

 

STRONG POINTS: Barkley is the prototype for the modern game, a big back with a three-down skill set. Like Leonard Fournette, he moves in ways that a 230-pounder shouldn’t be able to. Barkley has the straight-line speed to hit home runs, but he moves better laterally than Fournette and arguably any of the big backs to come out in recent years. His explosiveness moving through the hole is as good as it gets; like Ezekiel Elliott in Dallas, if Barkley isn’t hit in the backfield, it’s almost guaranteed to be a minimum 4-yard run. His balance and power will allow him to break tackles at the second level with regularity. He has the skill set to thrive on third downs, with the hands to catch the ball away from his body without having to gather himself, and the size and willingness to stand up in blitz pick-up.

 

WEAK POINTS: His production as a junior was underwhelming considering his skill set — though also understandable with the stacked boxes of opposing defenses. He’s still a work in progress as a receiver; he’ll certainly be a weapon in space, in the screen game and on swing passes, but he’s not yet a Le’Veon Bell-caliber weapon splitting wide or playing the slot (though, no one really is).

 

SUMMARY: He is arguably the best overall prospect in this draft class. The Elliott comparisons are appropriate, and Barkley probably is slightly better at this stage of his career than Elliott was. He likely won’t have the same success as Elliott early since he won’t have a historically great line blocking for him, but Barkley has the skill set to be the foundational piece of an offense, a difference-maker as a runner and a budding matchup nightmare in the passing game.

 

FINAL GRADE: 1st round

 

2. Derrius Guice

COLLEGE: LSU

CLASS: Jr. HEIGHT: 5’11” WEIGHT: 220

 

STRONG POINTS: As a pure runner, Guice is in the conversation for best in this draft class. He’s a big back with explosive athleticism — he can grind out yards between the tackles but also has the quickness to create on the perimeter. He’s a slashing runner who packs a ton of violence in traffic, capable of breaking multiple tackles on runs. Marshawn Lynch is a reasonable comp for his skill set and style. Guice also has the balance, leg drive and tenacity to push the pile; he consistently keeps his legs churning through contact. He faced loaded boxes at LSU and showed raw ability and creativity to create yardage. He has the straight-line speed to hit the home run once he’s through the second level. He also has the raw skills to be a third-down contributor, with the ability to anchor and hold up as a pass protector.

 

WEAK POINTS: He’s still a work in progress in the passing game, where he just didn’t get many opportunities at LSU. He flashes good hands and the ability to catch away from his body, but he has limited experience on anything other than dump-offs and the occasional screen. His medicals will get a close look after a leg injury slowed him early last season, which is especially concerning considering how much he thrives on contact.

 

SUMMARY: He was overshadowed by Leonard Fournette at LSU, and overshadowed by Saquon Barkley during this draft process, but Guice is talented enough to warrant a first-round pick and could develop into a foundational back for a team building a run-heavy offense. He’s a talented, versatile runner; the question is whether or not he can develop into a three-down option.

 

FINAL GRADE: 1st/2nd round

 

3. Kerryon Johnson

COLLEGE: Auburn

CLASS: Jr. HEIGHT: 6’0” WEIGHT: 220

 

STRONG POINTS: Johnson is a unique big back. He’s exceptionally patient in feeling out his blocks and shows great vision. And he has the twitchy athleticism to create once he sees his opening, getting to the second level quickly. He’s a creative runner, but he also has the ability to lower his shoulder and power through traffic; he’s a force in short-yardage situations and consistently falls forward. His speed is very good, especially at his size. He can create in space as well, and he showed improvement as a receiver over his three seasons at Auburn; he is a screen-game weapon. He also has the size and strength to hold up in blitz pick-up. He’ll earn high marks for intangibles and a willingness to play through pain; he rolled up 104 yards on 30 carries while playing through a shoulder injury in a heroic Iron Bowl performance, fueling the Tigers’ upset of Alabama.

 

WEAK POINTS: He can be slow getting to the line of scrimmage — too patient at times — and that’s a problem that can be exacerbated behind a subpar offensive line. He’s relatively limited in the passing game, and his receiving skills will have to be developed at the next level. His medicals will be key; he played through a series of ailments last season (shoulder, ribs). He’ll also be coming off an enormous workload as a junior, as one of only eight backs in FBS with 300-plus touches.

 

SUMMARY: He needs some polish in the passing game, but Johnson is an exciting prospect even if you’re only considering his early-down skill set. He’s a perennial Pro Bowler if he’s running behind a serviceable offensive line. And if he develops as a receiver (the raw skills are there), you’re looking at a foundational back.

 

FINAL GRADE: 1st/2nd round

 

4. Sony Michel

COLLEGE: Georgia

CLASS: Sr. HEIGHT: 5’11” WEIGHT: 210

 

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STRONG POINTS: Michel was hugely productive as the 1B back for Georgia, improving significantly over the past three seasons. And he finished his career with two monster postseason games (222 yards and four TDs on just 15 touches against Oklahoma, 98 yards on 14 carries against Alabama). He’s an explosive, slashing runner who shows tremendous burst through the line of scrimmage. That initial burst combined with his long speed makes him a home-run threat. He can get a bit upright at times, but he runs with impressive power and violence for his size, and he can be used between the tackles. While he wasn’t used often as a receiver, he showed good hands and the ability to make plays in space when involved. He’s also a willing pass protector. Teams will like the fact that he comes into the NFL with less wear and tear than most high-end backs.

 

WEAK POINTS: Michel can be a bit straight-line-ish as a runner. He’s much more of a one-cut back than a creative, power runner. He too often goes low and tries to cut as a pass protector, which is much less effective in the NFL than it is at the collegiate level. While he’s willing, he’s something of a question mark when it comes to blitz pick-up. After fewer than 175 touches in each of the last two seasons, he’s unlikely to last 16 games as a workhorse early in his NFL career.

 

SUMMARY: He fits best in a one-cut, zone-blocking scheme, and he’s probably better off starting his career in a committee situation from a workload standpoint. But Michel has the explosiveness to be a bigger star in the NFL than he was at the collegiate level.

 

FINAL GRADE: 1st/2nd round

 

5. Ronald Jones II

COLLEGE: USC

CLASS: Jr. HEIGHT: 6’0” WEIGHT: 200

 

STRONG POINTS: Jones’ game is built around speed and elusiveness. He’s fast on a straight line, but he’s also incredibly quick when cutting and shows exceptional agility. His best asset is his ability to maintain near-top speed when changing directions. He’s very quick moving through the line of scrimmage and getting to the second level; he also showed the vision to get small and pick up yards between the tackles, consistently leaning and falling forward. He’s a nightmare in space and could be developed into a major screen-game weapon for the way he’s able to transition upfield smoothly and quickly.

 

WEAK POINTS: Even after adding weight last offseason, his frame is on the slight side; he might never be a true workhorse back. He’s more slippery than powerful when running between the tackles, and he doesn’t pack the kind of leg drive to push the pile. He was also not a big part of the passing game, despite an intriguing skill set. He did a little work in the screen game, but not much else.

 

SUMMARY: Jones will have to become more well rounded in the passing game, but his explosiveness and home-run ability could make him a star.

 

FINAL GRADE: 1st/2nd round

 

Other running backs that could get drafted: Nick Chubb, Georgia; Rashaad Penny, San Diego State; Nyheim Hines, NC State; Akrum Wadley, Iowa; Royce Freeman, Oregon; Josh Adams, Notre Dame; Mark Walton, Miami; Kalen Ballage, Arizona State; Bo Scarbrough, Alabama; Ito Smith, Southern Miss; Jordan Wilkins, Ole Miss; Justin Jackson, Northwestern; John Kelly, Tennessee; Chase Edmonds, Fordham; Kamryn Pettway, Auburn

Event Date: 
Wednesday, December 6, 2017 - 10:45

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