By Matt Citak
With the college football season officially over, it’s time to start taking a look at where some of the top collegiate players will land next season. This year’s NFL Draft is deep at running back, despite the fact that two of the nation’s most talented runners have decided to return to school for their senior seasons. Stanford’s Bryce Love, a Heisman finalist, would have likely been the second running back off the board in April. Instead, the young back will look to build on his junior-year performance that saw him average an all-time FBS-record 8.1 yards per carry on his way to 2,1118 rushing yards. Alabama’s Damien Harris, who was projected to be a second-round pick, will return to Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide after a very strong junior season in which he cracked 1,000 yards for the second consecutive year.
As we saw this past season, a rookie running back selected in the second- or third-round could end up being a big difference-maker at the next level. Dalvin Cook, selected with the 41st overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft, looked unstoppable in his first four NFL games before tearing his ACL. Alvin Kamara, a third-round pick taken with the 67th overall selection, is likely going to win Offensive Rookie of the Year after racking up over 1,500 yards from scrimmage to go with his 14 touchdowns. Kareem Hunt was a late third-round pick (No. 86th overall), yet finished his rookie season with almost 1,800 total yards and 11 touchdowns.
Penn State’s Saquon Barkley is going to garner the most attention leading up to April 26th, which he deserves after his phenomenal three-year college career. But don’t think for a second that you can’t find value at the running back position on Day 2.
Saquon Barkley, Penn State – Cleveland, No. 4
Barkley might be the best player in this entire class, and a case could be made for him being taken with any of the first three picks of the draft. In fact, if Cleveland ends up signing a veteran quarterback like Alex Smith or Kirk Cousins in free agency, Barkley could easily end up being the first player selected. But chances are the first two players taken will be quarterbacks, whether it’s the Browns and Giants making those picks or other teams trading up for a QB. The Colts will be tempted to select the talented running back at No. 3, but will instead opt to get Andrew Luck some protection on the offensive line. That would pave the way for Cleveland to get the guy they wanted all along at No. 4.
Barkley has all of the characteristics of a bell-cow back, and might be the best running back prospect to come out of college since Adrian Peterson. Don’t look now but if they were to add Barkley and a veteran QB, the Browns would all of a sudden have a very dangerous offense in 2018. The rookie back out of Penn State would join the ranks of Josh Gordon, Corey Coleman, Duke Johnson and David Njoku, with an offensive line that ranked as one of the strongest in the NFL heading into the 2017 season. Cleveland taking Barkley with one of their top 4 picks makes too much sense for it not to happen.
Sony Michel, Georgia – New York Giants, No. 34
The Giants would love to take Barkley with the No. 2 pick, and there is still a chance GM Dave Gettleman decides to go that route come April 26th. But assuming Gettleman either drafts a QB or trades down in the first round (maybe for an offensive lineman), New York might pounce on one of the several running backs projected to go towards the beginning of the second round. Orleans Darkwa and Shane Vereen are set to be free agents, and while Darkwa could return, a reunion with Vereen is improbable. That leaves the Giants with just two running backs on the roster- Clemson’s Wayne Gallman, who was taken in the fourth round of the 2017 draft, and UCLA’s Paul Perkins, selected in the fifth round of the 2016 draft. While Gallman showed some promise towards the end of the season and should play a role in Big Blue’s future, Perkins’ window to prove he can be a valuable back has likely come and gone. New York has an obvious need at running back, and due to their high draft position, could luck out and find Sony Michel sitting there for them at the beginning of the second round.
Both of the Georgia running backs should be taken towards the beginning of the second round, but Michel’s performance in the CFP National Championship earns him the nod over teammate Nick Chubb. Michel carried the ball 14 times for 98 yards (7.0 yards per carry) against an Alabama defense that finished the season ranked third in the country in rushing yards allowed per game (94.1). On the season, the 5-foot-11 back ran for 1,227 yards and 16 touchdowns on just 156 carries, giving him an average of 7.9 yards per carry. Michel finished his Georgia career with 3,638 yards on the ground, good for third-most in school history (trailing only Chubb and Herschel Walker). The Giants have not had a 1,000-yard rusher since Ahmad Bradshaw ran for 1,015 yards in 2012. Michel’s physicality, along with his explosive burst and abilities in pass protection, make him an ideal fit for New York. Drafting Michel, who would join an offense that includes Odell Beckham Jr., Sterling Shepard, and Evan Engram, could quickly fix one of New York’s biggest weaknesses.
Derrius Guice, LSU – Indianapolis Colts, No. 36
As previously mentioned, the Colts are another team that will seriously consider selecting Barkley at the top of the first round. Similar to the Giants, Indianapolis has a lot of holes to fill, and will instead choose to snag a running back in the second round. Frank Gore’s contract is up, and while the soon-to-be 35-year-old has made it known that he does plan on playing next year, chances are it will not be in Indianapolis. Marlon Mack did show some promise during his rookie season, but seems better suited for a chance-of-pace role, rather than being the team’s primary ball carrier. New York’s selection of Michel with the second pick of the second round will start a run of teams selecting backs in the 30-40 range, and will lead to Derrius Guice ending up in Indianapolis.
Many people see similarities between Barkley and Guice. The running back out of LSU has almost as impressive power, vision, and cutting ability as the former Nittany Lion, but simply does not have the same breakaway speed as the Penn State star. Guice’s all-around talent was put on display during LSU’s 21-17 loss to Notre Dame in the Citrus Bowl. In that game, the 5-foot-11, 212-pound back carried the ball 21 times for 98 yards (4.7 yards per carry), while adding three receptions for 24 yards and two touchdowns. His ability to break tackles, along with the capability of being a workhorse back, will make Guice a very appealing option for the Colts (and any other team looking for a running back in the second round). With the return of a healthy Luck, along with the addition of a top offensive lineman in the first round and Guice in the second, the Colts could quickly put their 2017 troubles behind them and revert back to being a top 10 offense in 2018.
Ronald Jones II, USC – New York Jets, No. 37
The Jets are another team that would jump at the chance to take Barkley at No. 6. But with Cleveland taking him at No. 4, look for Gang Green to take advantage of the surplus of running backs projected to be taken in the first half of the second round. Jets GM Mike Maccagnan will have some important roster decisions to make this offseason, including the future of running backs Matt Forte and Bilal Powell with the team. Forte recently turned 32, and injuries throughout this past season limited the veteran to just 103 carries. His expected release will save New York $3 million against the cap. Powell was certainly more effective in 2017, but it’s unclear if the Jets consider him a starting running back. Cutting Powell would save them an additional $4 million, and would clear the way for Ronald Jones to take over as the club’s primary rusher, with Elijah McGuire serving as the change-of-pace back.
Jones is an incredible talent that, depending on his performance over the next few months, could sneak up many teams’ draft boards. The junior averaged between 5.9 and 6.5 yards per carry in each of his three seasons at USC, culminating in his 2017 performance that saw him take 261 carries for 1,550 yards (5.9 YPC) and 19 touchdowns. Jones comes in at 6-feet and 200 pounds, but possesses tremendous speed, evidenced by his time of 10.37 seconds in the 100-meter dash in high school. The talented back would give the Jets the tough, between-the-tackles runner with home-run hitting ability that they’ve been missing for years, and would immediately provide a boost for New York’s 19th-ranked rushing offense. The Jets are going to have to infuse some new talent to their running back group this offseason, and Jones would be a great addition.
Nick Chubb, Georgia – Tampa Bay Buccaneers, No. 38
2017 was an incredibly disappointing season for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. The offense was able to average just 20.9 points per game, due in large part to the lack of a rushing attack. Tampa Bay ranked 27th in the league in rushing yards per game with just 90.6. A lot of the blame falls on Doug Martin, who averaged a mere 2.9 yards per carry on 138 rush attempts this season, finishing the year with only 406 yards on the ground. In fact, Martin didn’t even lead the team in rushing this season, as Peyton Barber ended 2017 with 423 yards on 108 carries (3.9 yards per carry). There’s no denying how bad the Buccaneers running game was this past season, and in an offense that features Jameis Winston, Mike Evans, DeSean Jackson, O.J. Howard and Cameron Brate, a good rushing offense would go a long way. Tampa Bay is desperate to add some new talent at running back, and would be thrilled if they have the opportunity to select Nick Chubb with the 38th overall pick in the draft.
Chubb is an absolute stud. The 5-10, 225-pound back played four seasons at Georgia, sharing the backfield with Michel for each of those campaigns. While both backs found plenty of success during their time with the Bulldogs, it was Chubb that finished his college career as Georgia’s second all-time leading rusher in yards (4,769) and touchdowns (44), trailing just Herschel Walker in both statistics. Chubb’s struggles in the National Championship game, where he was able to gain only 25 yards on 18 carries (1.4 yards per carry), might cause him to drop a few spots in the draft, but the senior back is too talented to drop much further than here. He is a powerful back who thrives as a downhill runner between the tackles. Chubb would provide the Buccaneers with a workhorse back, capable of playing all three downs as he contains a well-rounded skill set.
Matt Citak is a producer for CBS Local Sports and a proud Vanderbilt alum. Follow him on Twitter or send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.