It’s time to admit the truth. Run-heavy offenses are a thing of the past. Or, at least, they are for most teams. Just a few years ago, running backs that could take pressure off the quarterback and rack up yards (and points) with no end in sight were more valuable than slot receivers. Many of today’s most successful teams have adopted a throw-first, run-second mentality, and the era of running back greats like Emmitt Smith, Barry Sanders, and even Adrian Peterson seem all but gone.
Or are they? These trends are certainly shifting, but the Dallas Cowboys with Ezekiel Elliott and the Buffalo Bills with LeSean McCoy have proven running backs still have a lot to say in today’s league. When paired with the right offensive system, there’s almost nothing they can’t do.
So what does that mean for the 2018 NFL draft? As teams line up their prospects, we’re going to take a closer look at names you need to know. From Penn State’s Saquon Barkley to USC’s Ronald Jones and everyone in between to help prime you for draft season. Are you curious how some of the new recruits could compare to Bell, Elliott, Hunt, or Gordon? Read on as we break down these gridiron goliaths.
Before the introduction of the rookie wage scale in 2011 that put a cap on how much new players could be paid by their team, getting drafted in the first round meant a payday would soon ensue. In some cases, first-round picks earned more in their rookie contracts than any other players on a team. Today, where you’re drafted is more a matter of your projected skill on the field than how much you’re destined to earn.
When it comes to running backs, many of these star-studded players are projected to go between the first and third rounds. Only one, Saquon Barkley, is expected not to slip past the first 32 picks. This 6-foot running back out of Penn State has been compared to NFL legend Barry Sanders, and as one NFL general manager said, “This guy is special. Any concerns you file on him just feels like nitpicking to fill out the report.” His speed on the field combined with his strength and passion in the weight room suggest Barkley is a prize not to miss. Projected landing spots for the first-round hopeful include the Broncos, Giants, and Browns.
Which round you’re drafted might not mean much to positions like quarterback (Tom Brady was notoriously drafted in the sixth round), but the same isn’t necessarily true for running backs. Only two of the league’s Top 10 running backs in the 2017-18 season (Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara) managed to fall to the third round of their prospective drafts.
Translating Combine Results
There’s no denying the impressive speed behind Saquon Barkley’s 40-yard dash, a combine exercise every running back wants to ace. With a 4.40-second finish, Barkley ranks above fellow combine hopefuls Derrius Guice and Sony Michel.
Barkley wasn’t the only player to rake in stellar stats at the combine this year. Both he and Rashaad Penny, the 5-foot, 11-inch running back out of San Diego State posted times faster than Ezekiel Elliott’s 4.47-second dash. And if Le’Veon Bell were competing in the 2018 draft, instead of 2013, he would have been outrun by four out of the top five prospects from this year’s draft class.
The 40-yard dash isn’t the only stat running backs are posting in the hopes of going pro. Saquon Barkley was able to complete 29 reps at 225 pounds (the standard weight for all participants). The only draft candidate who came close to Barkley’s bench press was Sony Michel out of Georgia with 22 reps.
When it comes to ranking NFL draft candidates, their stats at the combine aren’t the only figures to take into account. How they played during college – and especially in their last full year as collegiate athletes – provides some insight into how they’ll stack up against the professionals playing the game today.
Saquon Barkley’s results at the combine have been impressive enough to catapult him to the top of most expert’s charts. Those rankings aren’t yet carved in stone, and he’s up against some players who posted better numbers in their final years than he did.
Compared to Barkley’s 1,271 total rushing yards (3,843 across his entire collegiate career) and 18 touchdowns, he was outperformed by two fellow draft contenders on both fronts. Ronald Jones II out of USC scored 19 touchdowns on 1,550 rushing yards, while Rashaad Penny scored a whopping 23 touchdowns (the same as Ezekiel Elliott in his last year before the draft) on a record 2,248 yards. Of the top five NFL running backs from the 2017-18 season, no player outpaced Penny (who rushed for 3,646 yards total) in their final college year, and some didn’t rush for even half the yards he managed to post at San Diego State.
The Pick is In
Draft analysts don’t always get it right when it comes to ranking the players teams will take first. And to be honest, that’s part of what makes watching the draft so exhilarating. We surveyed over 300 NFL fans to get their perspective on who they’d most want to see on their team given the choice.
The consensus was clear. More than half of fans (57 percent) would draft Saquon Barkley if it was up to them. Considering the New York Giants (second overall pick) and Tampa Bay Buccaneers (seventh overall) both have needs at the running back position, it’s unlikely Barkley will fall very far before one lucky team manages to snatch him up.
Seize the Future
No matter what position your team will be on the clock this year, the draft represents the same thing for everyone. Hope for the future. Whether your team finished at the bottom of their division last year or made it all the way to the playoffs (or beyond), everyone starts fresh with the NFL draft. And whether your team takes a quarterback, running back, or defensive superstar, Fanatics will have their jerseys ready for the season opener.