The 2017 season has long past. The NFL Combine has come and gone. That means we are officially in the home stretch before draft day arrives. What better way to get prepared than a full-on analysis of this year’s running back crop provided by yours truly! I ranked my top-20 running back prospects from this class. Yesterday I released the bottom half of my top-20 rookie running back rankings in what is shaping up to be historically stacked class at the position. Today, we’ll examine the cream of the crop- the top-10!
1. Saquon Barkley, Penn St.
The Skinny: Simply Special. I’ve thought of every way to describe Saquon. Ultimately, that’s the phrase I keep coming back to. An absolute physical specimen, Barkley is the top running back prospect I’ve ever evaluated. Combining jaw-dropping athleticism with blink and you’ll miss it home run ability, what separates Saquon from the rest of the field is his pass-catching capabilities. After seeing what Todd Gurley did this year, Barkley has the potential to do twice that much damage in the right system. A better route-runner than Christian McCaffrey? Please, for the love of god, don’t overthink this evaluation. Yes, he tries to do too much. Yes, he’ll lose a yard trying to make the big play. But Barkley is a genuinely rare prospect, and that’s a fact not even the harshest of critics can deny.
Player Comparison: LaDanian Tomlinson, Retired
2. Derrius Guice, LSU.
The Skinny: Although Barkley gets all of the attention, Guice is a lot closer as a prospect to him than most think. A superior inside runner, Guice is a darn good athlete in his own right and possesses the type of physicality and leg drive I haven’t seen since Marshawn Lynch. Being a massive Seahawk fan, I hate to compare anyone to Lynch, given his unique, one-of-a-kind style, but Derrius is truly the closest I’ve seen. Better than fellow LSU Tiger Leonard Fournette last year, Guice won’t go as high, but don’t let that fool you. He is a top-10 player in this class and a 3-down player from day 1.
Player Comparison: Marshawn Lynch, Oakland Raiders
3. Kerryon Johnson, Auburn
The Skinny: This where I begin to stray from typical groupthink. Kerryon isn’t near the top of most RB lists but deserves far more recognition than he is currently getting. A unique body type with the best patience in this class, Johnson took over games for Auburn this past season. His skills were on display during his monstrous performances to beat both Georgia and Alabama last year. A punishing runner, his stiff arm, and leg drive are also near the top of the class. Combined with an extremely underrated pass-catching game, Kerryon can be the 3-down back every team craves. No, he’s not the fastest or quickest, nor will he wow you with his deep speed. However, Johnson’s patience, lateral agility, and pass-catching make even the loftiest comparisons, such as Le’Veon Bell, very appropriate. No, I am not saying he’ll become a player anywhere near Le’Veon, but coming out of college the two are nearly identical. That’s how highly I think of the former Tiger.
Player Comparison: Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
4. Sony Michel, Georgia
The Skinny: If you are looking for a poor man’s Saquon Barkley at a better value, Sony Michel is your guy. Electric with the football, Michel made fellow backfield mate Nick Chubb look incredibly ordinary at times, which is no small task to achieve. A quick-footed 3-down back, Sony is a bit undersized but more then makes up for it with his surprisingly powerful style of play. Nimble in every sense of the word, Michel’s jukes and cuts can leave defenders left grabbing for their ankles, making his highlight reels a joy to watch. He didn’t test like the world’s greatest athlete at the combine, which has some up in arms, but it doesn’t concern me in the slightest. Ultimately, a Devonta Freeman type role at the next level is a definite possibility.
Player Comparison: Devonta Freeman, Atlanta Falcons
5. Ronald Jones, USC
The Skinny: The 3rd highest ranking back on many boards, the pre-draft process has not been kind to Ronald Jones. Not able to show off his electric speed at the combine after pulling his hamstring at the event, and apparently botching team interviews, Jones’ may prove to be a draft day steal if his slide continues. With god-given burst, Jones ability to reach the corner is the best in this class, and his natural talent as a whole may be right up there just behind Barkley. On an uber-skilled USC team this past season, Jones was the best player on offense game in and game out, which is certainly no easy task to achieve. However, that doesn’t mean he is still without his faults. A finesse runner, I want to see more power in his game and given he’s not a natural hands-catcher, it’s fair to wonder exactly how he’ll fit in at the next level. In the end, I think a Melvin Gordon like role with a gritty pass-catcher behind him is best.
Player Comparison: Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
6. Mark Walton, Miami
The Skinny: The 2nd real surprise on this list, Walton may be the most underrated back in this class. Unfortunately hurt for most of the year, Walton wasn’t able to get the national attention he deserved, but the draft community is extremely excited for his pro future. Right behind Barkley for the most creative runner in this class, Walton will be caught for a loss trying to do too much every once in awhile but produces long gains on a consistent basis. Despite 4.6-40 speed, Walton excels in every other area that it makes his lack of long speed a non-issue. Shifty, nimble, and a great pass-catcher, Walton’s low center of gravity and thick compact frame make it hard not to envision Kareem Hunt when plugging in the tape.
Player Comparison: Kareem Hunt, Kansas City Chiefs
7. Nick Chubb, Georgia
The Skinny: A player even the most casual fans have likely heard of, Chubb replaced Todd Gurley at Georgia and produced in the national limelight from the very get-go. Setting all sorts of records, Chubb’s thick compact frame and balance make him the perfect early-down back for a team like New England or Green Bay. After suffering a gruesome knee injury two years ago, Chubb’s recovery has been nothing short of remarkable, and he tested off-the-charts at the combine. A freak of nature, Chubb is an absolute load to tackle, and showed that consistently at the collegiate level. Although not necessarily a full-fledged 3-down back due to a lacking outside ability, Chubb’s game may be different from where the league is heading but is still very much in demand nonetheless. For what it’s worth, he’s also a much better pass-catcher then most suggest.
Player Comparison: Frank Gore, Miami Dolphins
8. John Kelly, Tennessee
The Skinny: Arguably my favorite back in this class, John Kelly is the exact type of ball-carrier that is becoming a trend in today’s NFL. Fluid beyond belief, Kelly’s smooth game combines with a slipperiness that creates a Jerrick McKinnon-esque vibe. Frustratingly used during his time with the Vols, Kelly still made the most of every snap and should have extremely fresh legs entering the next level. Also much more physical then his frame suggests, Kelly’s balance and determination are right up there at the top of the class. Pure fun on every snap, Kelly isn’t necessarily a 3-down back, but in the right pass-catching system his fantasy and real-life value for that matter could be massive.
Player Comparison: Jerrick McKinnon, San Francisco 49ers
9. Nyheim Hines, North Carolina St.
The Skinny: The fastest back in this class, having posted a 4.38 forty at the combine, Hines is an absolute burner. Versatile in every sense of the word, whether it be on kickoff returns or in the pass-game, Hines physicality and pass-protection is extremely advanced for such a small back. Because of his size, he’ll never be mistaken for a 3-down back, but Hines is one of the safest RB’s available, and ready to contribute right from Day 1. This ranking may be a tad high, but I’m confident in his abilities.
Player Comparison: Dion Lewis, Tennessee Titans
10. Rashaad Penny, San Diego St.
The Skinny: The first player I’m much lower on than most, I don’t want people to get the impression I don’t like Penny. As my 10th back, there is still plenty to love. After all, his upside, long speed, production, and size are all near the top of the class. Ultimately, however, I still see many flaws in his game. First and foremost, for such a big back, I don’t see the tenacity and physicality his size suggests he plays with. A soft mentality will not get it done at the next level, so this is a significant concern. Additionally, despite shrugging off a lot of contact at the collegiate level, he is a very upright runner and will be subject to punishing hits in the NFL against much bigger opponents if he doesn’t change his play style. Combine these concerns, and Penny becomes a very risky proposition. Yes, he’s got massive 3-down back potential, but I feel a ranking around here is certainly justifiable, considering his boom or bust qualities.
Player Comparison: D’Onta Foreman, Houston Texans
That’s all, folks! Hope you enjoyed my rundown of the top-10 running backs and be on the lookout for wide receiver rankings in the not too distant future.
*Just missed the top-20 cut:
Josh Adams, Notre Dame
Akrum Wadley, Iowa
Justin Jackson, Northwestern
Martez Carter, Grambling St.
Kamryn Pettway, Auburn
Darrell Williams, LSU.
Justin Crawford, West Virginia
* Have yet to evaluate:
Trenton Cannon, Virginia St.
Jeffery Wilson, North Texas, etc.
*Note: I view NC State prospect Jaylen Samuels’ best position at the next level as TE. Therefore he did not qualify for the list.