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Ranking the running backs: Plenty of options for Patriots

Pete Davidson
April 24, 2018 - 12:06 pm

Can you feel it? The NFL Draft is just a few short days away. This is the event that really separates the NFL from its competitors. No other major sport has anything in its offseason that even remotely compares to what NFL fans get on draft day. Sorry NBA fans. Your draft is fun, but you know I’m right. The 2018 Draft will be a wild ride and that’s most definitely the case if you root for the Patriots, who hold two selections in both the first and second rounds.

This is my third rankings article in a four part series. If you missed my takes on the quarterbacks or wide receivers you can access them via the links below. I’ll be back tomorrow with a look at the top tight end prospects.

Quarterback Rankings

Wide Receiver Rankings

I’ll also be recording another podcast with my good buddy Jim Hackett and that should be up some time this afternoon. If you want to keep up with all my coverage of the draft and my post draft dynasty content, you can follow me on Twitter.

This year’s crop of runners is one of the best I have ever seen both in terms of high-end talent but also in terms of high-end depth. As you’ll soon see, I have at least ten backs ranked as future NFL starters or at least backs who are of starting caliber. In this era of tandem backfields, there will be a lot of talented backs who share their backfield. Atlanta, New Orleans, Cincinnati and Tennessee are good examples of this paradigm, and I expect to see more of these backfields in the coming seasons. Get used to it. This is the new NFL. Alright, let’s roll up our sleeves and rank some running backs.

Tier One (1)

1 - Saquon Barkley, Penn State, 6’0”, 233

A tier of one. Meet the future of the running back position. Barkley may not check every box exactly how some folks want. His decisiveness on inside runs may not be perfect and he may bounce a few too many outside, but if that’s your focus with Barkley, I think you are missing the boat. As Eliot Crist said on the Fantasy Football Podcast, if Barkley was a receiver, he’d the WR1 in this class. I’ll take that a step further. If he was a tight end, he’d be the TE1. Point being, this guy transcends positional distinctions and is a true offensive weapon — a matchup nightmare of epic proportions. If the team that drafts him uses his full skill set, he’s going to make a huge impact. He’ll be the first pick in all rookie drafts, and for good reason. He’ll also be that rare rookie who goes in the first round of seasonal drafts.

Tier Two (2-4)

2 - Derrius Guice, LSU, 5’10”, 224
3 - Nick Chubb, Georgia, 5’11”, 227
4 - Sony Michel, Georgia, 5’11”, 214

This is where we start to see what an embarrassment of riches we have in this class. These three backs are studs and would all look fine as the RB1 on a typical year. Guice checks all the boxes. He runs with great power and determination, but he also blocks like a seasoned pro and his ability as a receiver is often underestimated. If he lands in a 
favorable situation, he can be a RB1 right out of the box for fantasy owners regardless of your league’s scoring system. Chubb is one of those guys who looks like he was created by a sculptor with a chisel. He’s a monster once he gets loose and he’ll fight for every yard when the running gets tough. He’s also a good enough athlete where his receiving game could develop at the next level. In the right offense, his abilities will lead to great fantasy production. He’s probably the best goal line runner in this class, which is really saying something. Michel, like Chubb, was not used all that frequently as a receiver in the Georgia offense, but I think his receiving game can bloom at the next level. As a runner, he just comes right at you. Sony loves to dictate in a way that is reminiscent of Dalvin Cook but he’s a bit more powerful and in your face. He’s got lead back chops at the next level. Georgia doesn’t churn out soft running backs. These two guys can play on all downs and both can do great things in pass protection. After Barkley, Michel is probably the best back in the class as far as pass protection goes.

Tier Three (5-10)

5 - Royce Freeman, Oregon, 5’11”, 229
6 - Kerryon Johnson, Auburn, 5’11”, 213
7 - Nyheim Hines, NC State, 5’8”, 198
8 - Ronald Jones II, USC, 5’11”, 205
9 - Rashaad Penny, San Diego St., 5’11”, 220
10 - John Kelly, Tennessee, 5’10”, 216

For me, this is the tier that defines this year’s class, because you are still looking at legit NFL starters. How many times have we seen a draft that contains 10 backs who are all starting caliber? It’s just insane. This group is tightly packed with just a tiny sliver separating the top from the bottom. If you wanted to move Kelly up to the top, you’d get no argument from me. Freeman leads the way and for those of you who read my pre-combine ranks, you know it’s not just because he crushed it in Indianapolis. Freeman’s film shows a big bruising back who can do it on all three downs. He’s got great upside in the right landing spot. Johnson has sort of fallen off of the radar in recent months—probably because he didn’t rip it up at the combine and skipped the forty. I do not care. Johnson’s calling card is not his speed anyway, not to mention that if you watch his film, he’s plenty fast enough to be a force in the SEC. That’s good enough for me. Johnson has a three down skill set that will absolutely play at the next level. Count me in on this guy. Hines is another back who can play on all downs and he’s got a nice future. For those of you in PPR leagues, take notice, because Hines has a shot at leading a backfield while getting most of the passing down work. A smart team will rotate him on early downs while giving him all of the work in passing situations. That’s the ideal paradigm for a PPR back. If his landing spot is good, he could be a huge value. Hines can absolutely fly and he’s an excellent receiver, but he also has the toughness to run inside as long as his team doesn’t wear him out. Yes, 198 pounds is on the small side, but he’s bigger (by a pound or two) than Chris Johnson and Jamaal Charles, just for some perspective. Jones is a very interesting back. He’s odd in that some of his skills are raw yet he still manages to produce because he’s a very determined athlete. He’s been killed in some corners for weak pass protection, but I really like his effort and I think he has the potential to be really good in time. As a runner he has a tendency to play too fast and miss holes, but I prefer that to the alternative. If you want to see what I am talking about, go watch some of Mark Walton’s film. Runners who go back to go forward as a general rule will have trouble in the NFL. Jones avoids that trap and if he learns just a bit more patience, he could end up making my ranking look stupid. He’s got the talent end up as one of the best in this stacked class. A look at Jones’ stats shows modest receiving ability, but I think he has the talent to post big numbers as a pro. He got better every year both in terms of catch totals and yards per reception. Additionally, he was hurt the last two seasons by Sam Darnold’s aggression. Darnold loves to push the ball downfield and I saw him pass up an open Jones on many occasions. Jones’ passing down abilities are sort of a sleeping tiger in my estimation. Penny is a big name in some circles. He gets loads of love on social media and he’s in plenty of expert’s top five backs. I’m a pretty big fan myself, but I do have some concerns with him in the passing game. Penny has soft hands but his route work and pass protection leave plenty to be desired. In my mind, this could cost him playing time as a rookie and dynasty GMs want early returns. All that said, he’s a really impressive runner who brings it on every carry. I have little doubt that he can run with authority against NFL defenses. And now for one of my absolute favorites in this class. John Kelly may be a tad undersized and perhaps a step slower than a typical NFL starter, but man oh man can he play. He is as fundamentally sound as a college back gets both as a runner and as a receiver. His routes and hands are top shelf. He can be elusive with a diverse repertoire of moves—including a bodacious stiff arm and a sweet spin move. Kelly also knows how to drop his pads and finish runs and I mean REALLY finish runs. This guy gets low like Mike Tolbert—winning the kinetic battle against bigger players in the SEC. I’m a huge fan and I seriously toyed with the idea of bumping him up a few spots, but this tier is so tight that it doesn’t really matter. Landing spots will have a ton to do with where these players are taken in your dynasty drafts. Kelly could be one of the best values this year. I strongly suggest that you take his game seriously. If you want a player comparison, I have one … Rex Burkhead. Kelly has a very similar bag of tricks. He can do it all, just like Sexy Rexy. He’s a linebacker’s worst nightmare in coverage.

Tier Four (11-16)

11 - Jaylen Samuels, NC State, 5’11”, 225
12 - Mark Walton, Miami, 5’10’, 202
13 - Akrum Wadley, Iowa, 5’10“, 194
14 - Kalen Ballage, Arizona State, 6’1”, 228
15 - Darrel Williams, LSU, 6’0”, 229
15 - Bo Scarbrough, Alabama, 6’1”, 228
16 - Boston Scott, LA Tech, 5’6”, 203

Samuels is one of my favorite players in this year’s draft. Heck he’s one of my favorite players of the last few years. If there’s one guy in this class who I’d want on the Patriots, Samuels is that guy. He could fill the old Blount role and the old Aaron Hernandez role too. Just think about that for a second. This is a tremendously versatile player with outstanding football instincts. The rub, if there is one, is that he’s sort of a man without a position. In my mind, he is a running back, but he’s listed as a tight end in a lot of places and performed as one at the combine. He’ll be in tomorrow’s tight end rankings too. Trust me, this is a player to know about no matter what his new team decides to classify him as. Walton is a player with tantalizing upside—especially as a receiver, where he shows top shelf ability. If he can get a little better as a runner, he could end up being a second round steal in rookie drafts. Wadley is another back I really like. His size will limit him in terms of workload, but be careful not to pigeon hole him too much because he has the heart and ability of an early down runner. He has the patience to run inside and the burst to bounce it. If this kid slips enough in the draft, he could be a  potential Dion Lewis replacement for the Patriots in round six. My gut says he doesn’t last that long. In addition to being an underrated inside runner, Wadley is devastating in space and is a very good receiver. Ballage is one of the backs who keeps me up at night because there’s a temptation to push him up the board due to his freakish athletic traits relative to his massive frame. He’s the rare big back who plays like a small back. He’s got great hands and flashes potentially great ability with his routes. I almost want to say that he’d be better off as a joker tight end. The bottom line is that he has loads of talent that doesn’t always show up on game film. He’s a block of clay but a very intriguing one. Landing spot is huge for him. I want a good coaching staff with a creative approach. If he goes to a team that wants to teach him to be an early down power back, I’m 100  percent out on him. He could be a big mover in both directions in my post draft rankings. Williams is a guy who hid behind Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice throughout his career at LSU. It’s totally understandable that he’s not getting much buzz, but this guy’s film screams NFL. He’s a big dude at nearly 230 pounds but he’s got soft hands and nimble feet. When given the opportunity to carry the load for LSU, he always responded. So you have a big back with ability on all downs and serious goal line chops. He’ll stay on the board until late because it’s a deep class and he wasn’t a college starter, but he’s got the talent to be a starter for the team who is smart enough to steal him. Don’t sleep on this guy if he lands in a favorable spot. He’s a huge fantasy sleeper in deep dynasty formats. I was really happy to see Scarbrough post good numbers at the combine, because he’s a very solid back who is playing in the wrong era for his skill set. In the 80s and 90s, this guy would be a first or, more likely, a second round selection. These days he’ll be an early down runner with some receiving ability but he’s not dynamic enough to play a huge role on a good team. Still, I think he’s underrated and that includes where I had him ranked pre-combine. Boston is a late riser on my board because, quite frankly, he was one of backs whose film I got to late in my process. Better late then never as they say. This kid is a five foot six dynamo. He’s another back who could smash it with the Patriots if he stays on the board until the late rounds, and he certainly could. He’s so small in 
terms of height that he can hide behind his blockers and then shock defenders with his burst and change of direction. I only had a few games of film on him, so I’m slow rolling my love just a bit, but this is a player who could really surprise some people if he gets a shot. In a weak class he’d be a story, but in this year’s class he’s lost in the shuffle. I’d really enjoy hearing the words, “New England hands it off to Boston” in the near future.

Tier Five (18-25)

18 - Phillip Lindsay, Colorado, 5’7”, 190
19 - Kamryn Pettway, Auburn, 6’0”, 235
20 - Ito Smith, Southern Miss, 5’9”, 205
21 - Martez Carter, Grambling State, 5’7”, 210
22 - Josh Adams, Notre Dame, 6’2”, 213
23 - Chris Warren III, Texas, 6’2”, 250
24 - Jordan Wilkins, Ole Miss, 6’1”, 216
25 - Chase Edmonds, Fordham, 5’9”, 205

Tier five is the honorable mention tier and it’s led by one of my favorites in this year’s class. Phillip Lindsay is an absolute ball of fire. He is this year’s version of Austin Ekeler, but he’s even better. If there’s a back who plays with more raw energy, please send me his film. If the Patriots fail to land Samuels, Wadley or Boston, then Lindsay could be a sweet fall back option. Heck, they might just like this kid best. He’s a team leader and he runs a lot bigger than his 190 pound frame suggests. He can run inside. He can score at the stripe, and he can catch the football. He’s not a guy who will carry a heavy workload, but he could thrive as a high-energy member of a committee backfield. Pettway is a big pounder with a nice overall skill set and is similar to Darrel Williams though I like Williams a shade more. Smith and Carter are backs who could find committee roles as passing down specialists. Adams is a pounder who is just a bit too stiff as an athlete for my liking but he’s a really good kid who works his tail off. He could find a home as an early down runner. Warren is a damn good football player who needs to find a position. A conversion to tight end might be in his future. Warren’s father was a fine back for Seattle  back in the 90s who posted four straight thousand yard seasons. Wilkins is a solid back who cut his teeth in the SEC. He can play on all three downs and is fundamentally sound. I think he sticks in the league—perhaps for a long time, but I’m not sure that he’ll ever have a full time job. Edmunds is a good back who was the best player on the field in every game I watched him in at Fordham. He’s probably not starting caliber, but he’s a natural football player and I think he has a chance to stick.

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