We’re almost, almost at the start of college football season (Stanford/Rice in Australia doesn’t count) and NFL fans are already eyeing up prospects for the 2018 NFL Draft. Last week, I looked at the top quarterbacks, now it’s time to put the spotlight on the top running backs and sort out who will be coming off the board first.
Running backs haven’t been getting the love they used to in the NFL Draft. It’s been 22 years since Ki-Jana Carter was selected with the #1 pick in the 1995 draft. In that time, 14 quarterbacks — and no running backs — have been picked #1. Teach your kids to throw, I guess?
Saquon Barkley, Penn State
As of right now, Barkley is more or less the consensus #1 running back in his class. He plays with power, has good a good stature for the NFL, and the same combination of patience and burst that makes Le’Veon Bell so effective. His cuts are enviable, and the only thing that gets more traffic than the video of his 79-yard run against USC is the video of him power cleaning one-fifth of a ton.
A big theme this year is hybrid backs who can help in the passing game. Barkley is certainly in that group, hauling in 28 catches for 402 yards and four touchdowns last year. He’s performed against top defenses on big stages, and has brought a certain electricity to every game he’s played. His pairing with a quarterback who’s more than happy to throw the deep ball should you load the box is one of the best in college football, and recreating it at the NFL level could be hugely productive.
Odds Barkley is the the #1 RB selected in the 2018 NFL Draft: 3/1
Bo Scarbrough, Alabama
Alabama running backs have a pretty clear path to the NFL; there’s been at least one Crimson Tide running back selected in six of the last nine years. Scouts salivate over the thought of pre-“China food” Eddie Lacy, Mark Ingram’s 32 touchdowns, and Derrick Henry giving DeMarco Murray a run for his job despite costing a tenth of the salary.
For his part, Scarbrough is a terrifying feature back. He’s the kind of player that is very fortunate to have discovered football, because this sort of thing isn’t considered acceptable in any other professional pursuit. He’s got size, speed, a surprisingly well-developed cut for someone his size, and the physicality that’s worth a couple extra yards. If Alabama leans on him like they did at points last year (and they very well might, considering the loss of a big chunk of their receivers) Scarbrough will be one of the most prominent players in the country, and have a good shot for the Heisman.
Odds Scarborough is the the #1 RB selected in the 2018 NFL Draft: 4/1
Derrius Guice, LSU
Backing up Leonard Fournette is the kind of job nobody wants. As the old show-biz saying goes, don’t follow dogs, children, Ray Lewis, or Leonard Fournette.
Derrius Guice was thus placed in a tough spot as LSU’s back-up running back when Fournette got injured last year. But he proved more of a Stephen Colbert than a Trevor Noah, running for 1,387 yards, 15 touchdowns, and 7.6 yards per attempt, and he appears ready to take Fournette’s place as the SEC’s top running back in 2017. He has potential to contribute as a receiver as well, and when you combine that with the addition of Matt Canada as LSU’s offensive coordinator, things start to look really good for Guice.
Odds Guice is the the #1 RB selected in the 2018 NFL Draft: 5/1
Nick Chubb, Georgia
Nick Chubb has been the bright spot on a mostly disappointing Georgia team for three years now. In 2014, he rushed for 14 touchdowns and 7.1 yards per carry; in 2015, he tied Herschel Walker’s record for consecutive 100-yard games (13) and was injured before being able to extend the record; his 2016 was good but not spectacular, and therefore he decided to return to Georgia for his senior season instead of heading off to the NFL draft.
If everything comes together for Georgia, this could be a great season, and one that shows NFL scouts why Chubb has been carrying the “next-Herschel” moniker around his neck for his entire adult life.
At his best, Chubb is that rare running back who evokes images of a loaded shopping cart careening down a steep hill. He’s been somewhat diminished since his 2015 knee injury, but with another year of recovery, it’s plausible that we’ll get to see the SEC’s most painful runner return.
Odds Chubb is the the #1 RB selected in the 2018 NFL Draft: 9/1
Ronald Jones II, USC
Ronald Jones II has the unique privilege of sharing a backfield with Sam Darnold, one of the country’s most dangerous quarterbacks, and all the space on the inside which that affords a running back. He also has the privilege of being a really, really good running back on his own, rushing for 6.5 yards per carry before Darnold took over.
Right now, RJII (and let’s pray that nickname doesn’t stick) is projected to go somewhere in the second or third round, but with the season USC is projected to have, he could climb that draft board. It’s an outside shot, but one that could become a reality if the USC hype-train actually arrives on schedule.
Odds Jones is the the #1 RB selected in the 2018 NFL Draft: 14/1