Before the NFL Draft there were several tiers for running backs and the average draft position for rookie running backs was fairly set. The first four were nearly universally set at Saquon Barkley, Derrius Guice, Nick Chubb, and Sony Michel- some had Chubb and Michel flipped but all four were defined. The next three were thought to be Ronald Jones, Rashaad Penny, and Royce Freeman- some would even put Kerryon Johnson were in the mix to make it another tier of four rookie running backs.
The draft threw a wrench in the rankings, several running backs had favorable landing spots and spots where they will get opportunity to make their mark. The top tier is Saquon Barkley and Derrius Guice although some are not drafting Guice as the second running back- the opportunity of some of the top RBs are affecting draft position. In rookie mock drafts and actual drafts, the five running backs of Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Ronald Jones, Rashaad Penny, and Royce Freeman are being drafted anywhere from pick 2 to pick 12. The opinions vary immensely and I want to break down each running back and outline pros and cons as well as an estimated stat line for 2018.
Nick Chubb, drafted at Pick 35 by the Cleveland Browns
I thought that Nick Chubb was in the conversation for the second running back to be drafted in fantasy rookie drafts- he rebounded well from a serious leg injury and showed well at the combine. Early in his time at Georgia he looked like a generational talent, and he still could be if he can fully regain that burst and explosion. Nick landed in a backfield that has some talent, I have seen him drafted last amongst this group and I have seen him drafted at pick 2.
Upside- Nick lands on a team exploding with offensive firepower and talent at all the skill positions. The offensive line lost Joe Thomas but as a whole was solid in 2017, Cleveland RBs averaged 1.81 yards before contact which was the 8th most. Nick lands in a situation where he doesn’t have to be ‘the man’ but is clearly the most talented back. He will work his way in slowly and take over the bulk of first and second down work and should be an even stronger option year 2 and beyond. Carlos Hyde can be moved on from fairly inexpensively after 2018. The Browns look to be an offensive juggernaut in the making and Chubb will be a focal point in the attack.
Downside- Cleveland has not been a stable organization for years and Hue Jackson does not have a long leash. If the offense falters and doesn’t meet expectations, I could see offensive system instability for years. Carlos Hyde could be effective and split the backfield with Nick Chubb for several years and Duke Johnson could always be the third down back, limiting Chubb’s chances at being a complete back. I could see a scenario where, despite the talent, Nick could never be the main back in Cleveland.
Verdict- I believe in the talent, and Nick Chubb has it. He’s got great vision and power, he runs through tackles and is difficult to bring down. Just because he hasn’t caught passes doesn’t mean he can’t. I see Nick taking over the backfield but not in 2018 entirely.
2018 Prediction: 140 carries for 660 yards, 10 catches for 96 yards, 6 TDs
Sony Michel, drafted at Pick 31 by the New England Patriots
Sony went absolutely ham during the Bowl Championship Series and thrust his name into the limelight- he was a sleeper to most before then and he woke up everyone in early January. He played second fiddle to Nick Chubb but outshone him on many occasions- rushing for over 1,200 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2017. Sony has the size and power to be a three down back, he is patient and has solid pass blocking skills as well. Showed ability to catch passes and the only knock on Sony was a high fumble rate which had improved as his career progressed.
Upside- I don’t want to hear about how long it had been since the Patriots have drafted a RB in the first round, the Patriots addressed a need and one of their weaknesses. Sony Michel can stay on the field every down and situation and add an unpredictable element from the running back position. The Pats offense will be extremely difficult to game plan and Sony will take some pressure off Tom Brady. The Patriots offense line did loss Nate Solder but had the third best line according to Pro Football Focus. Bill Belichick will find a way to maximize the talents of Sony Michel.
Downside- I can’t predict anything the Patriots do. Nobody can. Sony could be a piece and could be taken out in goal line situations, he could have games that he gets five touches because of a game plan. If he fumbles, he will have a long uphill slog to attempt to take over that backfield. The uncertainty is always the detraction I hear.
Verdict- The Patriots use Sony Michel and he is on the field substantially more than any back. He will have games that he is not used much and he will likely lose some goal line touches. He shows versatility and pass catching ability and becomes a better, stronger version of Dion Lewis.
2018 Prediction: 190 carries for 910 yards, 35 catches for 220 yards, 8 TDs
Rashaad Penny, drafted at Pick 27 by the Seattle Seahawks
Rashaad Penny enjoyed a highly productive 2017 campaign for the San Diego State Aztecs and Seattle shocked everyone by making him the first running back chosen. Rashaad has ideal size and power, displays good patience, and is a great outside runner. Seattle has been searching for a running back since Marshawn Lynch’s departure and took a chance here. He will definitely get the chance and I have seen him drafted 2nd in more than one draft, he was likely a late first rookie round pick before the draft but many are banking on the opportunity.
Upside- Rashaad Penny will get one of the heaviest workloads and the chance to produce early and often. Another running back that didn’t catch many passes but he will need to catch in order to stay on the field more, his pass blocking is a liability. Rashaad will produce and adding that element will help the Seahawks offense overall and in turn help the offensive line which is a big team weakness. Penny is a strong, sound running back that will not ‘wow’ but definitely shore up the running game.
Downside- The weaknesses and liabilities above bite them in the tail. Rashaad is hit early and often as has been the case for Seahawks backs for some time. His vision isn’t top notch and his poor pass blocking leads to Russell Wilson running for his life as he has for the past few years. Rashaad will have rookie struggles and never really grab the reins.
Verdict- I believe it will be somewhere in between. There will be quarters and halves of games that it works and some that it doesn’t. Rashaad Penny is going to get fed and he will get the opportunity, I think he will be a solid back but the first season may be a little rough.
2018 Prediction: 230 carries for 990 yards, 25 catches for 270 yards, 6 TDs
Ronald Jones II, drafted by Tampa Bay Buccaneers at Pick 38
Tampa Bay was the trendy and sexy spot for Saquon Barkley to land but the Giants foiled that- the Bucs grabbed the USC back early in the second round to fill their hole at running back. Ronald is an explosive play making back that lost some ‘shine’ in the draft process but certainly showed big play ability for the Trojans. He has a gear when he accelerates that is sick and is deceptively strong as well. The knock was his size, he is only about 210 pounds and that appears to be all he will be. Ronald didn’t catch passes but was not asked too much. I have seen him drafted as high as 4 and as low as 12- people love him or hate him it seems.
Upside- Ronald Jones II is the man in Tampa Bay, he is going to get the chance to lead the backfield and it should be early. The Bucs had one of the worst yards before contact average on the offensive line but honestly, there wasn’t much of a run game to respect in 2017. Opposing defenses will have to worry about Mike Evans and Jameis Winston- along with other passing options- and RoJo will get opportunity to make plays. He may lose some downs to Peyton Barber due to his size and pass blocking inefficiencies.
Downside- Ronald displayed little patience and vision at times and his explosive ability doesn’t get off the ground if the offensive line doesn’t get any better. Defenses double team Mike Evans and the offense becomes less versatile overall and the quicker NFL players negate RoJo’s acceleration. There are certainly more questions with Ronald Jones, he was breaking tackles and showing more power but the caliber of NFL defenders is obviously different.
Verdict- RoJo will get a healthy amount of touches and be productive but I see Peyton Barber and Charles Sims still getting some work as well. I am not as worried about his size- at 5’11” and 210 he is similar in build to LeVeon Bell but Bell is a technician at avoiding the big hit. I see Ronald Jones being a fine back in Tampa Bay but I don’t see him being a bellcow by any means.
2018 Prediction- 165 touches for 720 yards, 30 catches for 310 yards, 6 TDs
Royce Freeman, drafted at Pick 71 by the Denver Broncos
Royce was one of the most productive backs in the past few years and comes into the NFL with a good amount of usage. Royce is big and strong, has good hands and can catch out of the backfield, and has size to be a good blocker and be a three down back. Royce lost some explosion to a knee injury in 2016 and sometimes doesn’t run true to his size. He also lacks elite speed or burst. All that taken into account, Royce Freeman landed in a great spot and will get a chance early to take the reins for the Broncos.
Upside- Royce regains the explosiveness prior to the injury and majority of the touches in what figures to be a good offense in 2018. The offensive line was a liability at times in 2017 but there was not a run game or much of a passing game for opposing defenses to fear- that changes in 2018. Royce is a decisive runner and good between the tackles and also remains in on passing downs, he makes the offense better overall.
Downside- Basically, Royce never regains the explosiveness and becomes mired in a running back committee with Devontae Booker and De’Angelo Henderson. I still would think he gets the majority but nowhere near what he would get if they commit to him. Case Keenum could regress as well and making the offense one-dimensional obviously would be detrimental for Royce Freeman.
Verdict- I am higher than most on Royce, although I have seen him selected in rookie drafts in the middle of the first round. I think he produces well in 2018 and I see him being a good running back for several years. Royce will get the chance and will produce- although I worry about Case Keenum and the aging wide receiver corps.
2018 Prediction- 240 carries for 1,060 yards, 30 catches for 290 yards, 8 TDs
In closing- some are letting Derrius Guice fall some in rookie drafts and I see a few red flags but they are mostly character and what made him fall in the draft? He was consensus number 2 back before the draft and landed on a team that will use him to his strengths- I have him firmly at number 2 still.
I have also seen Kerryon Johnson drafted amongst those backs, I believe he is a young and intriguing back but I worry about the Detroit Lions situation. He is a strong and patient back, not particularly explosive but has shown pass catching ability and is very decisive. I would not fault anyone at all for taking a chance on Kerryon, I love the talent. But due to the team and their history of running backs since Barry Sanders- I put him in the 8 spot for rookie running backs.
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