Road to the Draft

O'HARA'S 2018 DRAFT PREVIEW: Running backs

Posted Apr 14, 2018

The 2017 RB class made a statement that the position should not be undervalued in the draft, and an exclamation point could be added by the 2018 class that could be at least as good as last year’s.

The 2017 running back class made a statement that the position should not be undervalued in the draft, and an exclamation point could be added by the 2018 class that could be at least as good as last year’s.

That’s good news for teams like the Detroit Lions, who are looking to upgrade their running game.

“It’s a deep class,” Lions general manager Bob Quinn said at the Combine. “It’s guys that have different skillsets ... guys that can carry the ball, guys that can catch it.”

This year’s projected depth – with Saquon Barkley of Penn State clearly No. 1 at the position -- is similar to last year, when third-round pick Kareem Hunt of the Chiefs led the league in rushing.

Leonard Fournette of the Jaguars, Alvin Kamara of the Saints, Christian McCaffrey of the Panthers and Hunt played major roles on playoff teams.

Other rookies showed promise, and contributions did not end with draft picks. Corey Clement made the Eagles’ roster as an undrafted free agent and scored a touchdown in their Super Bowl LII win over the Patriots.

Following includes how the Lions stand at running back going into the draft, the depth chart, key stats, top 5 prospects at the position and others, and the spotlight on Rashaad Penny of San Diego State:

2017 rushing stats – room for improvement: The Lions ranked last in the league in average yards per game (76.3) and per attempt (3.4).

In short-yardage situations of third and fourth and two or less, they were 31st with a conversion rate of 48.7 on rushing attempts, with a league low of eight first downs. The league averages were a 68.7 conversion rate and 17 first downs.

Lions RB depth chart: Returning – Ameer Abdullah (team rushing leader, 552 yards); Theo Riddick; Zach Zenner; Tion Green; Dwayne Washington.

Addition: LeGarrette Blount, signed as an unrestricted free agent.

RB draft priority: High, along with front seven on defense.

GM Bob Quinn’s RB draft record: Washington, a seventh-round pick in 2016, is the only running back he has drafted in two years.

Top 5 running backs, plus one fullback

1, Saquon Barkley, Penn State: Unanimously the No. 1 back, and rated by many No. 1 at any position. He can be another franchise-changer – like recent first-round running backs Todd Gurley of the Rams and Ezekiel Elliott of the Cowboys.

Bio/stats: A three-year player, Barkley rushed for 1,271 yards, 18 TDs and a 5.9-yard average per carry in what was considered a slightly down 2017 season – for him – because of how teams focused on him. Barkley added 54 receptions for 632 yards and 3 TDs. In 38 games at Penn State he had 3,843 yards rushing and 1,195 receiving. There are no holes in his game, or his character.

2. Derrius Guice, LSU: Good size for a running back at 5-10, 224, Guice runs tough with excellent quickness, agility and determination. In that regard he is similar to former LSU star receiver Jarvis Landry, who plays the game like it means something to him – because it does.

Bio/stats: A three-year player and two-year starter, Guice took over the running load in 2016 when Leonard Fournette went out with an injury. Guice responded by leading the SEC in rushing yards (1,387) and scored 15 rushing TDs, tops among SEC running backs.

Stat to note: Guice averaged 157 carries per season for three years, with a high of 237 in 2017. He should be fresh for the NFL.

3. Sony Michel, Georgia: One of two Georgia backs, along with Nick Chubb, who rank in the top five or six at the position depending on your style preference. Michel’s multi-skillset should fit a variety of schemes.

Bio/stats: Michel shares company with some big names in Georgia’s football history. In 2017 he won the Charley Trippi Award as the offense’s most versatile player. With 3,638 career rushing yards, he passed Todd Gurley and Garrison Hearst to rank third on the school’s career list. A four-year player, he hit it big in 2017 – 1,227 rushing yards, 16 TDs and 7.9 yards per carry.

4. Ronald Jones, Southern Cal: Comparisons to Jamaal Charles are legit – including wearing the same jersey number (25). A 4.65 Combine time in the 40 was not an indication of how Jones was able to break big plays for the Trojans.

Bio/stats: Arrived at USC from McKinney, Texas, with a reputation for busting the seams in any defense. A three-year player, the way he closed out his 2017 season left something to remember. In his last five regular-season games, he had rushing totals of 216, 194, 142, 122, and 140 yards and 10 rushing TDs.

Next stop: NFL end zone.

5. Nick Chubb, Georgia: Chubb left no question about his power, determination and resilience in four seasons with the Bulldogs. He fought back from a severe knee injury that put him out for the rest of the year midway through the 2015 season and was able to start on opening day of 2016. A little bigger than teammate Sony Michel but with almost an identical 40 time, Chubb runs best inside, where his balance lets him get yards after contact.

Bio/stats: A career total of 4,769 yards left him behind only Herschel Walker for the most in Georgia and SEC history. Chubb had a big game against Oklahoma in the NCAA championship semifinal with 145 yards rushing but was held to 25 on 18 attempts by Alabama in the championship game. Michel ran 14 times for 98 yards vs. Alabama after shredding Oklahoma for 181 on 11 carries.

Other backs: Kerryon Johnson, Auburn (sleeper choice); Royce Freeman, Oregon; Bo Scarbrough, Alabama; Mark Walton, Miami (Fla.); Kalen Ballage, Arizona State; Nyheim Hines, North Carolina State; Dimitri Flowers, Oklahoma; John Kelly, Tennessee.

Fullback: The position’s value has been diminished in recent seasons as teams have turned to using players at other positions to take limited snaps at fullback. The Lions are an example of that. They did not carry a fullback last season. Linebacker Nick Bellore was used often in short-yardage situations. He caught a TD pass against the Ravens.

Nick Bawden of San Diego State is the top-rated fullback this year. He played more than 500 offensive snaps last year, primarily as a lead blocker for Rashaad Penny. Bawden had 15 catches for 103 yards and a TD, but did not have a carry from scrimmage.

Spotlight -- Rashaad Penny, San Diego State: Penny did not get shortchanged when he got the ball as the lead back for the first time in 2017.

He did not get many opportunities playing behind Donnel Pumphrey for three years but still managed 1,016 yards and 11 TDs on only 136 carries in 2016 before taking over the load as a senior.

Big stats don’t always lead to a high draft position, but Penny’s 2017 production is hard to ignore. Penny stepped up on his own as a true fourth-year senior to lead the NCAA with 2,248 rushing yards with 23 rushing TDs.

Patience was a virtue for Penny in biding his time. It’s also part of his running style.

“I’m just a patient runner,” Penny said at the Combine earlier this year. “I see whatever that’s open, and I just go and hit it. That’s how most guys say they see me.

“I think that’s what makes every great running back. Sometimes, you’re not going to have the best look, but they create their own.”