The 2018 NFL Scouting Combine wraps up the first day with the offensive lineman and the running backs. Running backs have proven to be a dime a dozen in the league but in recent years, running backs have dominated the discussion. Todd Gurley, Leonard Fournette, and Ezekiel Elliot have proven that taking a running back in the top 10 is no longer a bad thing. Then again, would Jacksonville be better if they had taken Deshaun Watson and Alvin Kamara instead of Leonard Fournette? Would Dallas be better if they had taken Jalen Ramsey and Jordan Howard instead of Ezekiel Elliot?
This year seems no different. There is one running back that stands above the rest but it is an extremely deep class. Could there be a starter in the 5th and 6th round in 2018? Yes, it’s that deep of a class. From watching the 2018 NFL Scouting Combine, what running back stood out for better or worse?
A lot of the verbiage in this section may be difficult to understand but I will simplify it as best I can. When watching the offensive lineman during the on the field drills I take a different approach than more draft experts would. For backs, I trust the college game tape a lot more than the on the field drills. By that, I am not as concerned with production. I watch for whether or not a player dances too much around the scrimmage and how quick are his instincts in and out of breaks.
*Apologies for the lack of highlight videos. I lost the ability to record them losing power for an extended period of time.
The Cream Of The Crop
What more can you say about Saquon Barkley? The Penn State running back proved that he is an absolute freak. A 4.41 – 40-yard dash time at 233 pounds is unbelievable. People his size aren’t supposed to move like that. It’s that simple. The 41 inch vertical proves that his lower body explosion is also a super rare skill set. His 40 time was better than Ezekiel Elliott, Leonard Fournette, Christian McCaffrey and Alvin Kamara.
Penn State RB Saquon Barkley put on a show at the #NFLCombine ????
— San Francisco 49ers (@49ers) March 3, 2018
It’s hard to put into words how good Barkley was. He showed incredible balance, vision, cutting ability, elusiveness, and power. Hell, he even benched 225 for 29 reps. What more do you want! There hasn’t been a combine performance this impressive from a height/weight standpoint since Vernon Davis. Below are some of his highlights from the combine. Just look at how explosive he is in and out of his cuts. It’s probably unlikely that he falls any lower than 4th where Ezekiel Elliot and Leonard Fournette have been selected the past two years.
The Next Kareem Hunt?
Remember when Kareem Hunt was taken in the third round and became a stud? Hunt lit up the Senior Bowl a year ago and found himself as a third-round steal. Every year whether it’s Hunt, Alvin Kamara, or Jordan Howard, there’s always a running back who you can find in the later rounds who can be productive in the NFL. This year one running back really fits that Kareem Hunt mold to a tee, Kalen Ballage of Arizona State.
At 6-foot-1, 228, Ballage ran a 4.46 which is very comparable to Saquon Barkley. If Ballage is .05 seconds slower and 5 pounds less, isn’t it possible that Ballage is 85 percent of Barkley? If you can land a guy like this in the middle rounds, that’s where general managers make their money. Ballage is uber-athletic and cuts really well for a big back. Ballage showed excellent footwork in his cuts and could be poised to be that under the radar back that shines on Sundays.
That Next Tier
Pick your poison, backs are a dime a dozen. This year there’s a ton of good ones to choose from. Well, maybe not on Barkley’s tier but slightly below him. That group includes Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Derrius Guice, and Royce Freeman. I would also put Ronald Jones in this tier but he pulled a hammy and was unable to workout.
Chubb and Michel both hail from Georgia making up one of the best collegiate duos in 2017. This is your classic example of thunder and lightning. Chubb is the thunder but oddly enough posted a better 40 time than his smaller teammate. Chubb notched a 4.52 while Michel was slightly behind at 4.54. Chubb comes in at 227 and benched 225 for 29 times. Michel came in at 214 and repped 22 times.
You can see the disparity in those numbers. As for the on-field aspect, Chubb excelled on the runs inside the tackles while Michel was an outside runner. Depending on the scheme, it’s really dependent on who you prefer. Michel could be a better fit for today’s NFL because he is the superior pass catcher out of the backfield. Alvin Kamara’s stock surged because of his pass catching ability. Remember, Chubb pushed Todd Gurley for carries as a freshman but Michel definitely hit the home run a ton this past year. Is Chubb fully recovered from that knee injury he suffered a few years ago? You can see that my mind is going a million miles an hour because this debate is such a fun one to discuss.
Barkley. And Guice. And Michel. And Chubb. And…
— NFL (@NFL) March 3, 2018
I thought Guice had an above average day. His 4.49 time was about what I expected. He’s not as twitchy as Leonard Fournette but this guy is just so smooth. His vertical of 31.5 wasn’t anything to get excited about either. The thing that stood out with Guice though is you can see his patience and vision when he runs. His movement skills were great. The LSU back will probably land in the 2nd round and will give you solid production.
Freeman really had an excellent day. A 4.55 is an excellent time considering he is 230. Yes, he doesn’t have that rare athleticism that Barkley has but that time is more than fine. Freeman is a powerful back and comes runs much quicker than he is fast. His 3-cone drill of 6.90 was second best in the class. His short area quickness really stands out and can really shuffle his feet in the hole. The college production is also there. He is the all-time leading rusher in the Pac 12. That’s coming from a very pass-happy Oregon offense too. However, Freeman resembles the Jonathan Stewart mold rather than the undersized back which is a positive. Don’t worry about the red zone either, Freeman will punch it in through the red area.
The Bad And Ugly
There are some running backs that I simply do not like. The first is Kerryon Johnson of Auburn. He played well in the SEC but didn’t have that second burst in my opinion. Then, we may have raised that red flag that I was concerned about. He declined to run which clarifies my concern. Remember his production comes from a gimmick offense. Gus Malzahn’s offense is a curious one to translate from and Johnson doesn’t really run through the tackles the way you want from your primary running back.
The other is Akrum Wadley. At 194, running a 4.54 isn’t nearly good enough. He also stunk at the Senior Bowl and couldn’t block to save his life. I’m not sure where this guy fits in an NFL offense.
If you want a guy that can convert a third and short, then look no further than Bo Scarbrough and Kamryn Pettway. Scarbrough is your typical Alabama bruiser. Some have worked out (Mark Ingram and maybe Derrick Henry), others certainly have not (Eddie Lacy and Trent Richardson). Scarbrough is eerily similar. A 4.52 40-time is more than fine for a guy his size. The 40 inch vert also shows his crazy athletcism. The question when scouting the Alabama guys is do defenders bounce off him or do defenders get punished when they hit Scarbrough? That’s for you to decide. Pettway lost his job to Johnson at Auburn but started the season with solid production. His 22 reps is good but the 4.74 time is a concern. Both players are over 6-foot tall and you have to wonder whether they have leverage issue in short yardage.
*Ronald Jones suffered a hamstring injury during his 40-yard dash run. He is one of my favorite running backs in the entire draft class. Unfortunate for him to not be able to workout.