Earlier this month, I pointed out that the 2018 NFL Draft is particularly strong in most of the Colts’ primary position needs. With nine picks to use next weekend, Chris Ballard has an opportunity to make serious change to his roster for the short and long term. It is impossible to foresee just how the draft will breakdown so we will take a look instead at my short list of possible targets who should be available throughout the draft.
Today, we take a look at a deep class of running backs.
Saquon Barkley - Penn State
While it is not likely that Saquon Barkley will fall to the Colts at the sixth overall pick in the draft, if Chris Ballard does have a chance to select him, it will be very difficult to pass him up. There are only so many players in a draft who have the ability to have a major impact on adding wins to a team’s record. While running back does not carry the positional value to warrants early first round picks in most cases, particularly with the modern NFL relying so much on the passing game, true difference-makers in the backfield can provide balance and make life on the quarterback much easier.
Barkely projects to carry the load for any team who selects him, even as a rookie. Pairing him with Marlon Mack would give the Colts tremendous youth and athleticism at the position and all but eliminate it as a positional need for the foreseeable future, barring injury.
Derrius Guice - LSU
While you may see a lot of running backs in this draft running away from players for long gains, you’ll see much more of this from Derrius Guice. He is pushing his way through defenders to score a goal line touchdown. If Marlon Mack is the Colts lightning on the edges, Guice would be the thunder. In many respects, Guice is the type of runner Indianapolis lost when Frank Gore signed a new contract in Miami. I don’t necessarily project him to have the Hall of Fame career that Gore has had, but he is a hard-nosed, punishing runner in between the tackles who come to play every day.
Ronald Jones II - USC
Ronald Jones is the running back I would most like to see the Colts select. He might slip into the second round or even to the top of the third due to his lack of size but he is the kind of running back who could become special. He reminds me quite a bit of a David Johnson or Alvin Kamara type back, although he wasn’t utilized as much as a receiver out of backfield. If he has or can develop hands with practice in a new role, he could be very dangerous.
Jones has enough burst and speed that he can break a long play. He is not afraid of contact and drives through would-be tacklers. He is surprisingly difficult to bring down after first contact for a player his size. He is sudden through the hole and makes hard cuts up-field when he find a crease.
Sony Michel - Georgia
Sony Michel could very easily have been a more highly touted draft prospect if he played for any other team in college. It just so happens that the Georgia Bulldogs carried two early- to mid-round NFL draft picks in their backfield and this reduced the production they might have had as solo acts.
Michel runs hard, can get the edge, and is big enough to be strong up the middle. He has the kind of size and speed combination NFL teams are looking for at the position and a reputation for being coach-able.
No rusher did more to boost their draft value in the back-half of the 2017 college season than Michel. He really started to figure things out and had an impressive run through the college playoff season. The needle is pointing way up for him and he should be a year-one starter.
Rashaad Penny - San Diego State
It was easy to have doubts about Rashaad Penny early in evaluating his game film. San Diego State doesn’t play against the level of competition that some of the other top prospects do and so there tends to be a handicap about what you’re looking at on tape. For some reason, he didn’t strike me as a particularly fast running back and there were too many times he was given huge running lanes to go through and run against air for long touchdowns.
Two things changed my opinion about him after watching his film. First, he had a productive week of Senior Bowl practices and was recognized as co-MVP for the South. Second, he tested better than I expected based on his film at the NFL Combine. A 4.46 40-yard dash at 5’11” and 220 lbs. is impressive. Throw in that his role in the passing game grew each year in college and there is a lot to like.
Kerryon Johnson - Auburn
Going into last year’s NFL Draft, there was a running back who stood out on film as not particularly flashy but just good at picking up yards with the ball in his hands. Kareem Hunt did not test particularly well at the Combine, he is not a particularly fast player, and frankly there isn’t any one thing that you could point to that would blow you away physically or athletically. Yet, somehow he would always gain positive yards and keep his feet moving, he had excellent balance and ended up coming out the other side of messes.
Kerryon Johnson and Kareem Hunt are very different football players. Johnson is thinner in the hips, taller and lankier, and takes long strides. Watching tape on Johnson it looks like he isn’t even playing that hard. Yet, somehow, he was a highly productive player at Auburn, worked hard as a blocker, and clocked a 4.5 40-yard dash at his Pro Day. There’s something about Johnson that could make him surprise people at the NFL level.
Nick Chubb - Georgia
If Nick Chubb hadn’t suffered a major knee injury, he could easily have entered the NFL Draft last year and been one of the top prospects at his position. He isn’t quite as explosive as he was before the injury and he may never regain that part of his game. However, injuries like the one Chubb suffered can take more than a season to fully recover from and get back to new. Can he finally get healthy and turn a corner?
Even if the answer is no, Chubb is a player who will be able to make an impact as an early down back in a rotation. He has flashed an impressive ability to change direction in the hole and get the most out of his runs inside the tackles. If he can become more consistent in that respect and improve as a pass-catcher, he could become a productive NFL rusher.
Royce Freeman - Oregon
My second favorite running back prospect in the draft is Royce Freeman. For my dollar, I’d rather save the draft capital that a team will spend on Derrius Guice in the first round and grab a guy like Freeman who will be a similar runner. He is a smart running back who knows how to identify his running lanes and gets the most out of his opportunities. He is strong, another Gore-like back, who will get yards through contact and shake off tackle attempts in the secondary. He was a confident and productive runner between the tackles and showed the ability to learn multiple systems while he was in college.
Perhaps the biggest potential for Freeman is that earlier in his college career he was also a dynamic game-breaking threat on long runs. If he can improve as a blocker and focus on getting some of that speed back, he could be a mid-round steal that people regret passing on.