Make no mistake, the running back class of the 2018 NFL Draft is the deepest of any position group and has something for everyone. Whether you are looking for an every-down bell cow, skilled pass catcher, third down change of pace or talented pass protector, this group has it all.
Rewind just three years and recruitment conversation in the NFL surrounded the devaluation and ultimate death of the running back. The explosion of the ‘pass happy league’ was thought to be a bleak portent of things to come. However, it is at the high school and collegiate level where footballing trends are dictated and those of us who follow the amateur game closely knew with the quality of talent emerging that the NFL would in fact be going back to the future where the tailback would once again be king.
The change has been swift, with newly crowned Super Bowl Champions Philadelphia, AFC runners up Jacksonville Jaguars and playoff newcomers Tennessee’s success founded on the back of strong running games that both complemented and protected solid passing attacks. So much has been the extent of the rebirth that the long held narrative that you cannot be successful without a so called ‘elite’ quarterback has all but been rendered redundant.
The newly crowned champions of Philadelphia, without their diverse and dependable running would not have engineered their route to the big game nor seamlessly overcome the loss of outstanding quarterback Carson Wentz. Without the band aid provided by the Eagles’ deep stable of rushers bringing ensuring a balanced offence, allowed Nick Foles to have succeeded through the playoffs and the perfect platform to grow considerably in confidence as a passer, but in fact thrive in a way the majority of us could have predicted.
The stock placed in the tailback has not been higher for many years. Watch for the NFL to attempt to catch up fast with the blueprint laid down amongst the ticker tape in Minneapolis by head coach Doug Peterson this offseason.
Here we introduce you to a flavour of what is an extremely deep class for the second consecutive year.
The Do Everything:
Saquon Barkey, Penn State
Simply, there is nothing the former Nittany Lion and the first team, All-American standout cannot do. Blessed with power, strength, speed and vision, he boasts the complete skill set in this class. Having wowed as a true sophomore with a breakout 1,496 yards from scrimmage and 18 touchdowns, his game developed even further in this past season, his junior campaign, his improvement catching the eye from the opening week of the campaign. Such was his excellence and all-round, fully developed game, he surprisingly was overlooked at times despite elevating his production once again
(1,217 yards/18 touchdowns), averaging an outstanding 5.9 yards per attempt.
Blessed with eye catching size and power he is able to manufacture his own yards, getting skinny to weave through the tightest of openings and forcing an excellent 32 missed tackles (tied 18th in FBS), a key indicator of next level success by our grading system. Simply bounces off would-be tacklers who routinely needs to be gang tackled to bring him to the ground. Similarly destructive in the passing game, where he runs routes akin to that of a technically savvy wide receiver, to the tune of an additional 632 yards and 3 scores, particularly dangerous on hook routes and catching the ball in the flat along the sideline.
The Coplay, Pennsylvania native, if I were to be picky, needs to show a little more patience at times. The next great NFL running back is just months away from picking apart NFL defences across the league. Without doubt the best player in the entire 2018 NFL Draft class.
The LeVeon Bell:
Kerryon Johnson, Auburn
The number two ranked athlete coming out go high school in the 2015 high school class, junior Kerryon Johnson was something of a major coup for head coach Gus Malzahn. The Tigers tailback plays with the patience, vision and feel for the game of an NFL veteran despite his young years. At the handoff, time simply seems to stand still for him, trusting and staying behind his blockers backed by his high football intelligence to simply ghost through opposing defences. Adept as making defenders miss, this season he forced an outstanding 44 missed tackles, his production predicated on yards after initial contact.
He proved his prowess with an outstanding performance in taking down the previously undefeated, number one ranked nationally Georgia and their outstanding defence. His toughest matchup of the season, facing a Bulldogs defence loaded with starting NFL talent powered the Tigers to an upset loss. An extremely likeable and bubbly character, Johnson plays the game with the love and enthusiasm he has for the sport and it really shines through on a play by play basis. He could be the most successful in this class when all is said and done.
Janarvion Franklin, Western Michigan
A consistently tough prospect to bring to ground with his impressive physique, power and brute strength. productive back who has experience, reliability ever since his freshman year. Productive, experienced tailback who amassed an eye catching 1,353 yards and 12 scores a year ago as a junior and a further 1,228 scrimmage yards alongside 11 scores this. Impressed by his willingness and discipline as a pass protector, something he does on many occasions throughout games, proving his team-first attitude in putting his body on the line for the sake of his team. A comfortable pass catcher, who runs his routes with a crispness, especially effective when sliding out into the flat as a reliable insurance policy for his quarterback.
He catches the ball well and shows a head of power and quickness, laying big hits on would be tacklers as he does in the run game. A north-south runner who brings his head of steam and power through the hole and impressive quickness, agility and ankle flexibility given his size and muscular physique. A standout in the often forgotten Mid American Conference, is an intriguing sleeper in a deep class who will be a latter round steal.
The Pass Catcher:
Ito Smith, Southern Mississippi
An experienced, diminutive, ultra productive four-year starter recruited out of Mobile, Alabama. Smith has been a key, extremely productive tailback at the head of a strong running attack in Hattiesburg. One of the best at his position in the Group of Five conferences and a highly dependable, outstandingly quick offensive weapon for the Eagles, who during his career has been one of the most productive in school history behind school great Damion Fletcher. Such has been his impressive play for the Golden Eagles, he was thrilled to have been invited to take part ion the Senior Bowl this past January, back in his home town of Mobile, where he put in an impressive week of practice. A key factor in the passing game, where his reliable hands and ability to catch and transition to amassing yards after the catch have seen him consistently average 10 yards per reception.
In whichever manner Smith has the ball in his hands he possesses eye catching vision and awareness to avoid would-be tacklers, which is an ability that also provides promise for him to offer a dangerous kick and punt return value to his game. The senior running back breached the 1,000 yard mark the past three consecutive seasons, nearing almost 2,000 yards all-purpose as a junior, a level of production an on-field display that he followed up this past season. Another sleeper talent who may fall through the NFL Draft cracks, but make his mark as a rookie on Sundays.
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