clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

2018 NFL Draft positional rankings: Top 23 running backs

New, comments

The Lions are likely going to have their eye on some of the top running backs in this year’s draft. Here are our rankings.

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Citrus Bowl presented by Overton's - LSU v Notre Dame Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Detroit Lions general manager Bob Quinn made it pretty clear that his intentions were to add a running back in 2018. During the first couple waves of free agency, the Lions did their homework on just about every older running back on the market, possibly giving hint that they would sign one to a short-term deal while also using an early-round-to-mid-round pick in the draft on one of the top running backs to solidify the future at the position.

With LeGarrette Blount now signed to a one-year, incentive driven deal, the next step for Quinn is to find a longer-term option in the draft, and he will have a historically great class of running backs to choose from. Let’s take a look at the best of the best in terms of this year’s crop of running backs.

1. Derrius Guice (LSU) | 5-foot-10 12 , 224 pounds

Guice’s numbers were down last year and his 2017 tape may not look nearly as good as his 2016 tape, though that can somewhat be attributed to him playing through a knee injury for most of the year. What you’re getting with Guice is a very patient runner with elite vision, good burst and the ability to out-will his opponents for extra yards.

Guice was a winner at this year’s combine, finishing with a respectable 7.32 RAS (Relative Athletic Score). He hushed his doubters by running a sub-4.5 40-yard dash, and to me, Guice is a much better prospect than his former teammate, Leonard Fournette, though you won’t see Guice going fourth overall come April.

Fit and Projection

Guice is a perfect fit for the Lions, who desperately need an efficient runner between the tackles, and someone who can run with power. Guice should be on the board when the Lions are selecting 20th overall, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he’s still there in the 30-40 range as well.

2. Saquon Barkley (Penn State) | 6-foot-0, 233 pounds

Some people test out of 11th grade Spanish in high school. Saquon Barkley tests out of this world as an athlete. Despite my distaste for Barkley as a runner, he is arguably the biggest offensive threat in the passing game in a league where throwing the ball has taken over. Barkley is a smooth route runner with good hands and squares up nicely in pass protection (something you can’t say about many RB prospects year-to-year).

Fit and Projection

Boy, it would be nice to have an elite athlete and pass catcher like Barkley standing next to Stafford in shotgun formation, but the Lions already have plenty of options in the passing game (unless, perhaps, they decide to move on from Ameer Abdullah). Barkley’s tendency to bounce a high percentage of his runs to the outside worries me, and he’s going to have a lot of the same struggles that our current running backs have had in the backfield. Regardless, it is very unlikely that he makes it to the Lions’ 20th overall pick.

3. Nick Chubb (Georgia) | 5-foot-10 7/8, 224 pounds

Chubb is a favorite of mine in this star-studded class and one of my favorite fits for the Lions. He caught a lot of flak due to recency bias from his awful performance during the National Championship Game, but if you go back and watch the rest of his film, you’ll see a force of nature with elite athleticism and strength.

A few knocks on Chubb are his very limited amount of snaps in the passing game, with very few snaps in pass protection and only 31 receptions in 47 career games with the Bulldogs. To that, I say, how many running backs are without their faults in the passing game as a receiver and as a pass protector? Not every prospect can be a Saquon Barkley. To Chubb’s credit, he looked solid running routes and catching balls at the combine. Give me a guy that wants to block and that’s half the battle.

Fit and Projection

Chubb is one of the best pure runners in this class and has shown enough to me that he can be a three-down back in this league, given the chance. The Lions could use a back like Chubb who has the vision, leg drive and power to create for himself and earn plenty of yards after contact. I don’t expect him to make it to the third round.

4. Ronald Jones II (USC) | 5-foot-11, 205 pounds

Unfortunately, we were unable to see Ronald Jones run a true 40-yard dash after suffering a hamstring injury during his first run at the NFL Combine, but he still managed to run a 4.65 despite the injury, which is faster than Theo Riddick, and only .05 slower than Ameer Abdullah’s time. Jones improved on that time at his pro day by running a 4.48 on a hamstring that was unlikely to be 100 percent. Jones’ speed would add a whole new element to the Lions’ offense, and while he may look rail-thin at a shade above 200 pounds, he runs a lot tougher than you’d expect, constantly willing his way through defenders for extra yards.

Jones is an electric runner that can break free for a big play at any given moment, but he’s not the type of runner that’s always looking for the home run. He has great patience and is able to press the line of scrimmage and maximize his yardage with his deadly cuts, impressive burst and sneaky power.

Fit and Projection

Close your eyes, take a deep breath, and now imagine Jamal Agnew and Ronald Jones on the field at the same time. That’s a fun thought to have.

Durabilty is the main concern I have with RoJo. If he can stay healthy and add value in the passing game, then he could end up being the best running back to come out from this year’s class. He could go as high as the first round and no later than the second round.

5. Kerryon Johnson (Auburn) | 5-foot-11 12, 213 pounds

Late last year, Kerryon Johnson had been mentioned in the same breath as Le’Veon Bell from NFL.com’s Daniel Jeremiah. While I’m not a big fan of the direct comparison, I see why DJ and others are making the correlation. Johnson is as patient as they come and his basketball background translates well to the field when he finds his opening, exploding through the front seven with his elite burst.

Despite his patience, Johnson’s vision is still very suspect, but once he does find an opening, he wiggles his way through and is almost impossible to bring down in the open field.

Another concern with Johnson is his awkward, upright running style that exposes him to a ton of hits below the waist.

Fit and Projection

Johnson would be an immediate upgrade to the Lions’ rushing attack, but I would have liked to have seen him make better decisions consistently. He’s a three-down back that’s capable of breaking out for some big chunk plays with his glide and slash running style. I expect Johnson to see his named called early on Day 2.

6. Sony Michel (Georgia) | 5-foot-10 5/8, 214 pounds

I am not quite buying Sony Michel as a first-round prospect like some talking heads are, but I do like a lot of what he brings to the table. Michel is one of a few RBs in this class that is technically sound in pass protection and adds loads of value on third down, despite only catching nine passes last year.

My biggest concern with Michel is his ability as a runner. At his size, he has some power, but all of that power and yards after contact comes exclusively when he’s already hit top speed and has a full head of steam. His leg drive is poor, his vision is sub-par and his fumble rate is among the worst of all RBs in this year’s draft.

Fit and Projection

There are worse options, but I really don’t like Sony’s fit for the Lions, unless the plan is to get rid of Ameer Abdullah before training camp. To me, Michel is just a rich man’s Abdullah and doesn’t really add a whole lot to Detroit’s current offense. If the Lions are planning on trading Abdullah on draft day and have long-term plans for Michel, then that’s fine, but I don’t think I’d be overly excited about this one. The Lions would likely have to select Michel with their 51st overall pick, should they be interested.

7. Royce Freeman (Oregon) | 5-foot-11 12, 229 pounds

Royce da 5’11” looked like his old self in 2017 after a very disappointing 2016 season. At 229 pounds, Freeman has the body of a bruising back, but is a much better athlete than you’d expect for his size (8.31 RAS) and fits any scheme with his solid patience, vision, decisiveness and mental processing.

According to Pro Football Focus’ draft guide, Freeman was not tackled upon first contact on 38.7 percent of his runs, good for sixth among all RBs, and broke an astounding 51 tackles on 243 carries in 2017.

Freeman’s Achilles’ heel is his pass blocking, which ranked 59th among qualifying RBs. It’s no surprise that an Oregon skill player is no good in the pass blocking department, but his technique—which mostly consists of catching his blocks or delivering shoulder hits—is a special kind of bad.

Fit and Projection

I think Freeman would make a nice addition to the Lions’ backfield and there’s a decent chance that he could be there with their third-round pick. A backfield consisting of both LeGarrette Blount and Royce Freeman is actually very intimidating.

8. Rashaad Penny (San Diego State) | 5-foot-11, 220 pounds

Penny being this low on my rankings is no indication of me disliking him as a prospect. I am actually very fond of his skillset as a runner, as he is arguably the most efficient pure runner in this draft. His suddenness and ability to shake off tacklers at the line of scrimmage is unparalleled in this year’s crop of RBs.

Penny tested extremely well on the 40-yard dash (4.46), average on explosion drills and decided not to participate in any agility drills at the combine, finishing his RAS card with a respectable 7.22 score.

What scares me about Penny as a prospect is his lack of desire in pass protection. It’s one thing to be a bad pass protector (and boy is he bad). It’s another to simply not want to be out there and block, and that’s exactly what it looks like when he’s out there in passing situations.

Fit and Projection

I think I’m a lot higher on Penny’s fit with Detroit than I am with him as an overall prospect, just due to the fact that the Lions desperately need an efficient runner that can create for themselves and can afford to draft a player that lacks value in the passing game. Still, I don’t think I’d be okay with drafting Penny any higher than the third round for that very reason.

9. John Kelly (Tennessee) | 5-foot-9 7/8, 216 pounds

Kelly has become a mid-round favorite for a lot of Lions fans, and for good reason. I see a lot of Kareem Hunt in Kelly and he may have the best balance of any back in the draft. Kelly is a shorter back, though he has plenty of muscle on his frame and is not afraid to lower his shoulder for some extra yards. He has value on all three downs, proving to be a capable receiving back and pass protector for the Vols.

On tape, Kelly displays great quickness, agility and change of direction. His combine scores don’t quite reflect what you see on tape, however, and he doesn’t have the speed needed to consistently beat defenders to the edge. Kelly isn’t likely to become a lead back in the NFL, but he’s a scheme-diverse runner that can become a nice rotational, change of pace back for some lucky team in the mid-rounds.

Fit and Projection

I’d prefer the Lions to select a running back before the fourth round, which is where I think Kelly will be drafted, and while I think Kelly would make a fine addition to the team, I would be pretty underwhelmed if the Lions waited until Day 3 for a RB. With our current stable of RBs, it’s likely that Blount would see a majority of the first and second down carries, with Kelly and Riddick (maybe Abdullah, too?) battling it out for the rest of the carries, as well as third-down reps in 2018.

10. Ito Smith (Southern Mississippi) | 5-foot-8 5/8, 200 pounds

One word comes to mind when watching Ito Smith with the rock in his hands.

Fun.

Smith was considered one of the biggest snubs to not get invited to the NFL Combine, and although he tested well in some categories at his pro day, he had some abysmal agility scores despite being the shiftiest back in this draft.

At Smith’s size, it’s unlikely that he’ll become a lead back, but he’s a lot tougher than he looks and isn’t an easy target to bring down for defenders. I like him a lot in a Theo Riddick type role and can see him being a big steal in the later rounds.

Fit and Projection

Ito Smith would be a bit of a redundant addition to the Lions, and I don’t really see this pick making a whole lot of sense. Two Theo Riddicks on one team seems kind of unfair and scary, though.

11. Ryan Nall (Oregon State)
12. Kalen Ballage (Arizona State)
13. Akrum Wadley (Iowa)
14. Mark Walton (Miami FL)
15. Nyheim Hines (NC State)
16. Josh Adams (Notre Dame)
17. Justin Jackson (Northwestern)
18. Kyle Hicks (TCU)
19. Bo Scarbrough (Alabama)
20. Ralph Webb (Vanderbilt)
21. Jarvion Franklin (Western Michigan)
22. Lavon Coleman (Washington)
23. Kamryn Pettway (Auburn)