You’re out of the playoffs, your season is over and there’s little left to do but wait for this agonizing year to end and then find some way, any way, to endure another off-season of boasts from the coach in your league who has won it all. God forbid if he (or she) has won in back-to-back years! What is really left to be done?
We’ve all lived through it and we all know the answer. You don’t need to be a seasoned dynasty player to understand what comes next. In fact, in all likelihood, you’re already engrossed in preparation for 2018. Hey, give yourself credit, you’re here, reading this now – putting in the work. Or, you’re hopelessly addicted to football. Either way, we understand you and are here for you.
When it all comes down to it, only one team can win in a given year and it takes a special blend of skillful roster construction, match-up management during the season and a lot of luck. There’s simply no way to remove luck from the game, nor would we want to. But, those that do their homework earn a greater amount of luck. Whether that truly is or is not the case, I choose to believe it is.
DLF members expect coverage that gives them get a leg up, an advantage and an edge for winning. The NFL season is, believe it or not, our low-period for activity. Things begin picking up in December as dynasty players, mostly super-fans, begin the process of building for next year. Trades, draft research, free agency and waiver wire additions all play important roles in the building of a dynasty team. Heck, many of us play dynasty not just for the challenge, but also as an excuse to stay immersed in the game year-round. I don’t blame a single one of you. DLF exists for this same reason – for you!
Many of you have followed me for close to a decade. You know that my calling card is draft research. I don’t use group-think or others’ work to determine my rankings or thoughts on a player or players. Sure, I use all resources toward helping fill the pool so to speak and generate initial assessments, but that is when my work really begins. Being a draft/player analyst means that you’re going to have amazing hits and epic misses. I’m accountable to every one. I’m not afraid to go against the grain and be the lone wolf sounding the alarm on a high profile player (Trent Richardson, Eddie Lacy, Doug Martin and Johnny Manziel) or stand alone in singing the praises of under-the-radar players (Dak Prescott, Alex Collins, Greg Jennings and Jimmy Graham). And, of course, I learn from every miss (David Johnson, RGIII, James Starks and Michael Thomas).
My first entry to the 2018 class can be found here. It’s my quick overview of the incoming group and a very basic top-ten. Now we go deeper, beginning with the running backs. As is always the case, my rankings and thoughts on players will change as I watch more tape, not just highlights. You can’t judge how a running back pass protects from a highlight tape, nor can you necessarily assess his hands. Most of all, you can’t rate character, leadership or intangibles from watching a video review of his top plays. For those things, an analyst much go much, much deeper. You must watch the boring videos, the “touch-tape”, as I call them, that goes well beyond just highlights.
Lastly, you don’t need to spend huge sums of money, read hundreds of pages or climb the tallest mountains in Tibet to find the best information. If we thought that is what it takes to give you an advantage, we’d be doing just that. What you need, more than anything, are trusted resources. We know from the work we put in that DLF is just that, a trusted resource. You hold us to a higher standard and expect greater accuracy, and we’re very happy to attempt to clear that bar each and every year. But there are many good analysts out there. Find ones that earn your trust! I’ve read the longest guides and the shortest and I can tell you with great confidence that volume does not equal quality, nor does price. Passion and good ol’ research are what we offer you and what we believe you should seek in others.
Let’s get cookin’ here and have some fun as we begin to march our way to NFL draft declaration day, the NFL Combine and, finally, the NFL Draft.
Once again, please remember that my rankings and assessments will change over time so don’t take offense if your player is rated poorly or hasn’t made my list. It’s still early and there’s a LOT of research still to be done Here are my top ten running backs for the 2018 NFL Draft:
1. Saquon Barkley, Penn State
Weight: 223 Lbs.
I just don’t need to spend much time on highlighting Barkley’s game or how he projects to the NFL. I’m as excited about him at the next level as I was Adrian Peterson and Todd Gurley. He’s got a thick and wide base with a low center of gravity. Very agile for his size with a devastating jump-cut and angular burst off a head-fake, especially to his right. He runs with patience and and is a a tackle-breaking machine. Combine those qualities with excellent patience behind the line of scrimmage, sneaky-fast acceleration once he squares his shoulders to a hole, adept hands out of the backfield and a passable grade on pass protection and the only mystery left will be how high he goes in the draft and to who. He’s certain to be a top-seven selection.
Barkley will remain alone in my first tier and I’ll be surprised to see his name at 1.02 in any fantasy draft in 2018. He’s that good.
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2. Derrius Guice, LSU
Weight: 212 Lbs.
Truth be told, I believe Guice may be a better pound-for-pound runner than is Barkley. Watching Guice with the ball in his hands is much like watching a rivulet of water roll downhill as it encounters obstructions in its way. Guice flows effortlessly into space showing smooth hips, plus-level acceleration and hip-swivel which allows him to absorb hits below his waste while maintaining his balance. He’s gifted in the areas of torque and flow. He also displays natural ball intelligence as he anticipates contact.
Pass protection is not a strength but should develop at the next level. His hands appear to be satisfactory but he wasn’t called on often in this regard. He’s not the pure three-down back that is Barkley in my opinion nor does he have that prototypical power-set combination that separates Barkley from the rest of the field. Drafted situation is a bigger concern for me with Guice but he’ll still be my clear 1.02 in this draft without much chance for him slipping to a lower peg. I do have primary concern with Guice relating to the violence of his jump-cuts. While many backs, including Barkley, fall more to a slide-step, Guice employs a vicious jump-cut that, while very effective, could increase the chances of a serious knee tendon injury. It’s not enough for me to downgrade him on this observation as I haven’t seen any research to support this possibility, but it’s an observation either way.
See below for a combo tape on both Barkley and Guice below provided by Rocket Mixes. I offer to combo tape as I think side-by-side comparison of these two top backs is necessary.
3. Damien Harris, Alabama
Weight: 216 Lbs.
Bo Scarbrough gets most of the attention but if the choice is mine, I’ll take Harris at the next level. This is far more a function of size and strength into what is needed in the NFL. Harris runs very compact for his size and is best suited, in my opinion, within a zone-blocking scheme. He has natural vision and the patience to allow seams to present themselves.
A surprising facet of Harris’ style that I never picked up on during games is his surprisingly long strides for a player of his size. Even after receiving a hand-off, Harris often has a wide base and plus acceleration that quickly ends up with long strides that create difficulty for trailing defenders near the line of scrimmage. This trait could be seen as a deficit at hand-off, as it should limit lateral agility, but he seems to overcome this aspect with his plus-vision into space. Long speed will be a question but the NFL seems to favor a style closer to Harris for early-down work while giving way to more elusiveness in down-and-distance situations. This fact could limit Harris’ upside in fantasy if not drafted into a high-functioning offense.
Harris also doesn’t get much work as a receiver out of the backfield and has never amassed more than 145 totes in a season. For this reason, he could be seen as somewhat untested but his tape should remedy any lingering concerns in that area. His long speed will be my primary interest as my perceptions is that he plays faster than his timed speed will indicate.
The Harris Highlights video below will provide evidence to some of the things I have mentioned here:
4. Ronald Jones II, USC
Weight: 200 Lbs.
Truth be told, after Barkley and Guice, the running back position gets very murky. It’s also the deepest of the skill positions in 2018 and there’s going to be fine value to be had at the end of the first round and into the second round in fantasy drafts.
My early ranking of Jones at the RB4 is predicated on the hope that he’ll add no less than 12-15 lbs. at the next level, of strength on a frame that should support it. He needs a thicker base greater lower body strength to withstand injury and provide greater yardage after contact. I have yet to spend much time looking at pass protection skills and while Jones hasn’t been used extensively in the passing game, his hands do seem passable, enough so to not be a deficit.
Jones averaged 6.1 ypc. over the past two years, checking a box that I like to see, especially out of the PAC-12. He attacks the line of scrimmage with good angular speed but doesn’t appear to be overly patient. He could also do a much job running behind his pads as I’ve noted a propensity for losing his center of gravity which plays against his size. More patience and additional weight will serve him well as long as it doesn’t come at the expense of agility or speed. I’m a fan of Jones’ running style and, while not similarly sized, he has a loping style that reminded me a bit of Adrian Peterson. I’m not making a noteworthy comparison here, just notating a style similarity. There’s also a Kenyan Drake similarity, although with less physicality through the line of scrimmage.
Forecasting Jones II at the next level is going to be a function of developability into his drafted situation, with specific emphasis on his offensive line. There’s a lot of upside to like.
5. Nick Chubb, Georgia
Weight: 225 Lbs.
One has to consider where Chubb’s draft stock would be if not for a gruesome left knee injury in October, 2015. In his freshman year and as a backup to Todd Gurley, following Gurley’s suspension, Chubb started eight games but tallied an incredible 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns on 219 carries. All eyes were upon Chubb for his sophomore season. But in October, his stock would take a major blow as he fell to an ACL. Prior to the injury, Chubb was ahead of his 2014 production pace and his ypc. average was lifted to a gaudy 8.1, albeit on only 92 carries.
As would be expected, Chubb’s production and efficiency dropped in his junior year, his ypc. averge falling to a pedestrian 5.0 while only seeing a total of eight touchdowns. I gave him a pass in 2016 as few runners return to be more productive following the year-long recovery, both mental and physical, required by a torn ACL.
In 2017, Chubb shared the backfield with Sony Michel, an exciting player in his own right, but improved over that of 216 though still short of pre-injury form and production. Chubb finished his senior year amassing 1,175 yards and 13 touchdowns on 191 attempts, good for a 6.2 ypc. average. Not elite but solid and with many of the running traits I saw in his freshman year.
Chubb is a bigger player with the thick base I like in my running backs. He creates a tremendous amount of torque in his lower body and he never stops churning his legs. Long speed is likely average but his game isn’t dependent on it and because of his squat base, faster trailing defenders often still aren’t successful in bringing him down. Chubb shows good patience at the line of scrimmage and is quick to square up and attack developing seams. He’s not overly elusive laterally but this will be seen as a positive trait from those many rookies that look to “bounce” runs. He has lost some of his quickness seen prior to his injury, but what he’s gained in return is a higher running I.Q.
My belief is that many in fantasy will be sleeping on Chubb which may present a fine value opportunity late in the first round of rookie drafts.
6. Bryce Love, Stanford
Weight: 196 Lbs.
Playing behind Christian McCaffrey as a sophomore at Stanford, Love did see 112 carries but didn’t get a chance to really show what he could do as a full time runner until 2017. What followed was a clinic on production as a rusher as he tallied 1,973 yards and 17 touchdowns on 237 totes. For those of you not considered math wizards, that’s a healthy 8.3 ypc. average.
Every rookie draft has a headlining ‘human joystick’ player and Love is absolutely that. Many already have Love vying for 1.02 with LSU’s Derrius Guice but you won’t find that level of affection from this analyst. Don’t get me wrong, Love is fun to watch and and can eat up yardage at a rate arguably faster than any other prospect in this year’s draft but he hasn’t been productive as a receiver and, primarily, doesn’t have the size to command a carry-the-load role at the next level. Furthermore, I don’t think his frame is going to carry a significant amount of additional bulk that would provide for a greater workload.
Unlike McCaffrey, who was ultra-productive in the passing attack and carries better size, Love only reeled in 14 receptions over his past two years. This deficit plays poorly for Love’s next level performance unless he can develop quickly, which is possible but won’t raise his value in fantasy on draft day. His running style and even his physique/build reminds me a lot of former pro Carnell ‘Cadillac’ Williams, though love doesn’t have the same lower body torque or power generation.
Watching love, he shows good patience to the line of scrimmage but even better decision-making and burst into the second level. Watch any Love tape and you’ll phenomenal angular burst and strength, shedding tacklers that approach from an inferior angle. As is standard with Love, note his long gains almost always show open lanes to the second level with angular momentum and would-be tacklers failing to convert due to position. He does a fine job of running behind his pads and maximizes his center of gravity. Love rarely has the strength to overcome squared-up opposition. On the plus side, Love’s run-style and usage is much more as a prototypical two-down back, often times in between the tackles. But for this reason, he’s also a bit mismatched for the next level and I’ll be surprised if he’s productive without developing his hands out of the backfield.
Pass protection will be another deficit for Love as his size will work against him in that role in the NFL. It’s very possible that he’ll fall further in my rankings and I’m sure to receive hate mail due to this ranking as is, but I’ll stand by my assessment until I see something that pulls me off it.
7. Royce Freeman, Oregon
Weight: 231 Lbs.
Oregon’s Royce Freeman is a tough prospect to assess. I could see him ascend to just above Bryce Love or falling out of my top-ten altogether.
I have about as much excitement for Freeman as I did Eddie Lacy when he entered the draft. On Freeman shows the power, leg drive and even patience that I like to see in my bigger backs. I’m most excited about his hands in the passing game as he hauled in 37 over his past two years. As a sophomore (2015), I believed Freeman was a sure-fire first round selection with more burst and long speed than he shows present day. 2016 saw Freeman suffer multiple injuries as shown by his lower production above. His first two years as a Duck, in comparison, he amassed 3,200 yards and 35 touchdowns. The question is, now, who is the ‘real’ Royce Freeman?
Watch the tape below, from 2016, and compare that with any 2017 film and you’ll see what appears to two different backs. Whether injuries took their toll on his burst and agility or by some other explanation, there’s a marked difference. His junior tape shows a much greater dynamic, speed and physique combination that translates to the NFL. 2017, in contrast, shows a back who often seems to be running in mud, lacking dynamic and agility. Still present is the vision and the speed to get to space, but the manner by which he finishes the runs is markedly different than previous years.
Freeman has never been a speed-demon and I’ll be surprised if he cracks the 4.5s in his forty. That is acceptable for a back of his size with good feet but which back will show at the Combine? It remains to be seen. I have much more tape review to perform on Freeman and had every hope that I’d see the top-five back I expected. Instead, I’m struggling to keep him at the RB7. Stay tuned ….
8. Sony Michel, Georgia
Weight: 215 Lbs.
Michel’s running matured in 2017 and he finished 2017 with a career-best ypc. average of 7.2, a noteworthy metric that I look for when evaluating potential at the next level. Michel’s rush attempts did fall as fellow backfield mate Nick Chubb saw a greater workload but this won’t affect his draft stock as less miles on the tires is never a bad thing, especially when you’ve already shown next-level ability.
Michel is a bit of a tweener and difficult to project ahead of knowing his drafted situation. Listed at 215 lbs., I’ll be interested to see his Combine weigh-in as I think he’s more in the 205-208 range. That said, he has a frame that can add weight in the NFL and he was a perfect match for Chubb’s more physical running style. Michel has good hands out of the backfield and although he wasn’t a prolific receiver, he did manage 60 receptions over his four years at Georgia.
Best of all, I love Michel’s character and work ethic. These two traits, when combined with his NFL skill-set provides for a high upside player that could manage a career well above his drafted round. 2017 is a deep year for running backs and Michel could well be drafted in the third round ahead of some of the other backs on this list. He doesn’t carry the size to be a consistent performer between the tackles at this point in his development, but his natural agility, jump-step and angular acceleration have a place in the NFL. He carries the size to to develop in any way he’s committed to.
I have more film work to perform with Michel and it’s not out of the question that he could jump into my top six on potential and a well-rounded skill-set. Below is a combo video on Michel that highlights some of the traits I’ve highlighted here. Apologies for the advertisement and the relatively weak backing track.
9. Josh Adams, Notre Dame
Weight: 225 Lbs.
Adams has seen a rise in his stock in the past four weeks and after watching more film on the Notre Dame junior, I can’t say that I see enough intrigue to rank him much higher than the RB9 on this list.
Another downhill one-cut, zone scheme, runner who carries NFL size to punish defenders at first contact or early at the second level, but he doesn’t do so consistently enough. Has a decent level of lateral agility for a player of his size, but not until he reaches the second level. Attacking the line of scrimmage, he tends to chop his feet which plays into his average acceleration. This acceleration, when not contacted is, actually, pretty good but he’s not adept at shedding contact. His ‘rolling’ style of acceleration will be a deficit at the next level as he seems to lack multiple gears. For a back of his size, I expect to see greater use of strength and that isn’t evident in Adams’ runs. He’s a larger back that needs a clean channel to churn out yardage and, in the NFL, those backs don’t last long.
As would be expected, aside from USC, Adams has failed to produce against better opponents foretelling a future that isn’t lined with gold in fantasy or the NFL. But at Adams’ listed size and coming from Notre Dame, he’ll get a chance likely as a late round prospect. On my list, however, he’s the type of back that will fail to hold onto this ranking as I begin favoring smaller-school prospects with NFL skill-sets.
10. Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
Weight: 220 Lbs.
Rashaad Penny was a beast for San Diego State in 2017 and showed well in 2016 as well. But questions about his size, speed and style will likely limit his draft stock.
There’s no questioning Penny’s lower-leg drive or generated power at the line of scrimmage, but there are plenty of questions about how he uses his strength and, especially, the level of competition against which he generated his FBS-leading rushing yardage. Penny piled up yardage including finishing his senior year with four 200+ rushing yard performances, but again, against Hawaii, San Jose St., Nevada and New Mexico.
Penny a pure zone runner at best and doesn’t use his size particularly well. He also appears to be a soft 220 lbs. and it will not surprise me if he tips the scales at or above 230. He does possess a powerful lower body but is sloppy with his run-mechanics including, pad level, posture and patience. He bounces far too many runs outside of the tackles, not using his size as would be expected. He has displayed adequate hands and his speed will be a key metric to observe during the Combine.
Preparation for the NFL Combine will be key for Penny as he should focus on becoming more lean in order to pass the eyeball test and increase agility and speed. The film below shows everything you need to know about Penny. Of particular interest is a display of leg-drive at 4:37.
As mentioned previously, the 2018 NFL Draft is relatively deep at the running back position. That doesn’t necessarily equate to being a highly-skilled pool of backs but there does exist enough intrigue to provide value and opportunity through the second round in fantasy. Much like 2017, a gem or two will be found outside the top eight or ten selections. Due to the weakness and risk at other positions outside of quarterback in fantasy, you can expect the higher tier running backs will be over-weighted as owners look for the 2018 version of Kareem Hunt or Alvin Kamara.
Those of you that follow me know that I advocate selling high on draft picks just prior to the NFL draft when value is at its peak, especially for those picks outside of the wheelhouse of that year’s draft. The din of excitement between the NFL Combine and the NFL Draft always creates a pocket of inflated value which can be leveraged by those holding late first round selections. The real story of these selections is that, in most cases, they are held by those that finished highly in the rankings and, thus, normally have greater team strength. These teams are well equipped to sell these picks and acquire players with known value and production and far less risk or, if so desired, wait for value to fall as needy teams chase what they believe to be better drafted situations higher in the fantasy draft. Winning teams have the benefit of being able to be much more patient while they wait out the development cycle of their rookies.
A lot of research and film review still remains so please don’t fret if your favorite runner isn’t listed. Feel free to drop me a note and I’ll take a look. Every year there are small school backs or under-the-radar players like David Johnson that slip through.
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You can find Jeff on Twitter at @dlf_jeff