1. Saquon Barkley, Penn State
Barkley is one of the most dynamic athletes at any position. His outstanding Combine testing validated what showed on film during his career at Penn State; he’s capable of turning any mundane play into a big one. As a runner he’s explosive and shifty but can be overly patient or too intent on his initial read. He makes up for the minor questions in the run game with exceptional skills in the passing game. He has legitimate starting wideout potential and can also pass protect better than average. While they are stylistically different, and Barkley is bigger and not quite as nifty afoot, I compare his NFL role to how the Rams used Marshall Faulk in his heyday as an all-around dynamic threat. Worthy of a top-10 overall pick, though as strictly a runner he’s not the best in this class in my eyes.
2. Ronald Jones, USC
Instant acceleration to a top speed few NFL backs can match is the biggest selling point for Jones. Lighter than ideal at 199 – Jones himself said at the Combine he wants to get to at least 205 – he isn’t afraid of contact and can drive with his legs for extra yards. Has the ability to blow past tacklers who have an angle. Might have fastest feet in class. Protects the ball and shows reliable hands, if rudimentary routes, in the passing game. Carries himself in high regard. Might be too fast and twitchy for slower-developing plays. Jones compares himself to Jamaal Charles and it’s easy to see why, and he might even be a little faster.
3. Derrius Guice, LSU
Aggressive, decisive inside-out rusher with home-run hitting potential. Wastes little time or motion with excellent body control. Guice can take a hit and keep moving forward, but also has enough juice and litheness to make tacklers miss in space. Doesn’t always choose the best path and takes a lot more big hits than his peers, doesn’t naturally sink his weight or drop his shoulder for contact. More inexperienced in the passing game than others. Initial vision is average but he opens it up nicely after his first read. Was better in ’16 than ’17 thanks to injury and sharing the load with Leonard Fournette. Might need to share with a power-oriented back to stay on the field longer at the next level. There are whispers about some off-field issues but his public character appears to be exemplary from afar. Worthy first-round talent as long as the head is in the game.
4. Sony Michel, Georgia
Well-built 220-pound rolling sack of hammers as a runner. Michel is very difficult to get to the ground on initial contact or with arm tackles, as he possesses excellent balance and power through contact. Consistently maximizes yardage on inside runs and has a good feel for setting up blocks. Not someone who avoids contact easily and appears tight in both the hips and ankles, won’t make tacklers miss in space. Not utilized much in the passing game and has always been part of backfield-by-committee. Could be lethal in a one-cut zone scheme or read-option base offense but might also be more dependent upon quality blocking to achieve his production than any other back in the top 10 in this class. Would have been RB1 in last year’s class and is worthy of being drafted in the 20s.
5. Nick Chubb, Georgia
Former freshman phenom recovered from devastating knee injury in 2016 and finally got back to looking close to his old self in ’18. Optimal build at 5-11 and 228 with muscle throughout. Runs with powerful lower body strength and burst, and Chubb can stop/start effectively. Has good initial burst but it doesn’t sustain like pre-injury. Can run through arm tackles and dodge dives at his feet with impressive balance. Will miss seeing cutback lanes and seems content to take the 3-yard run instead of trying for the 20-yarder inside. Limited work in passing game, did not show much in pass protection. Strikes me as a higher-ceiling Carlos Hyde and should be drafted in the same range (middle of second round)
6. Kerryon Johnson, Auburn
Versatile back who can handle returns, catch the ball out of the backfield and even operate as a Wildcat QB—his high school role. Explosive athlete in terms of burst, cuts and pop but he’s not top-end fast. Shows vision and ability to string together moves when he gets a little space. Very popular with teammates, and opponents consistently talked him up more than the crowded SEC media did. Lower ceiling, higher floor than most of this class, which will appeal to some teams a lot more than others. Should be a reliable, versatile cog in a shared backfield but does have some Matt Forte to his game. Worthy second-rounder.
7. Nyheim Hines, North Carolina State
Big plays punctuate what the blazing speedster in the small package (he’s 5-8/198) offers. Instant acceleration and he has the rare “chase” gear in the open field to run away from guys with the same timed speed. Does have some power to his game that can catch unaware defenders off guard. He forgets it at times too and just tries to sprint to green grass. Excellent return man. Does not have reliable hands as a receiver and his routes are rudimentary, very underdeveloped out of the backfield. High ceiling talent but is farther from attaining it than any other back in the top 10 in this class. A team that has an established starter should love Hines in the late second-early third rounds. He reminds me of Eric Metcalf without the receiving skills.
8. Royce Freeman, Oregon
Consistent churner of yards with big frame (5-11/228) and lower body strength. Thrives in one-cut zone runs where he can use his quick feet and forward lean to get through the crease. Excellent outlet receiver who transitions quickly to runner after the catch. Changes speeds adeptly despite not having a high top-end gear; his 4.54 Combine 40 time was expected. Has carried a major workload and might not have as much to offer beyond his first contract. Not someone who can make defenders miss in the backfield, will absorb TFLs behind lesser OL play. Played through a knee injury in ’17 and if he doesn’t recover the wiggle and speed he’s nowhere near as good as this ranking. 3rd round.
9. Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
High-effort power back with quick feet and a feel for the timing of the block and cut. Decent acceleration but doesn’t hurry and his top-end speed is average. Has a barrage of head, shoulder and knee fakes that he instinctively understands when to deploy and can embarrass tacklers who come in too hot. Exceptional return man and should make an impactful splash right away on special teams, which is nice insurance for his all-around RB game. Often runs stiff and tall, lacks balance through contact and doesn’t protect himself well. Abysmal in pass protection and is raw as a receiver. Shouldn’t be higher than an early Day Three pick but has the potential to make that projection look very conservative.
10. Justin Jackson, Northwestern
Slippery inside-out runner with solid interior vision and determination to get everything out of every rep. Varies stride length and foot frequency effectively as his go-to moves. Can explode through the hole but doesn’t do so consistently. Very good receiver who has enough skills to line up in the slot. Has over 1,100 career touches, the most of any back who will be drafted. Has a history of being streaky from drive to drive. 4th-5th round.
11. Mark Walton, Miami FL
12. John Kelly, Tennessee
13. Kalen Ballage, Arizona State
14. Ito Smith, Southern Miss
15. Roc Thomas, Jacksonville State
16. Jarvion Franklin, Western Michigan
17. Trenton Cannon, Virginia State
18. Phillip Lindsay, Colorado
19. Josh Adams, Notre Dame
20. Akrum Wadley, Iowa
21. Bo Scarbrough, Alabama
22. Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt
23. Terry Swanson, Toledo
24. Ryan Nall, Oregon State
25. Mike Boone, Cincinnati
Walton, Kelly and Franklin would all be higher if they were faster, notably Walton. Ballage reminds me a great deal of current Detroit Lions 3rd stringer Dwayne Washington, an exceptional athlete without a lot of tangible football acumen. Cannon is a speedy late sleeper from the D-II level. The draftable grades end with Lindsay, one of the toughest SOBs in the draft regardless of position.