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April 10, 2018

Eagles 2018 NFL Draft preview: Running back

Over the next couple of weeks, we'll be taking a look at each of the Philadelphia Eagles' positional groups. We'll determine if the Eagles are likely to select a player at that position with one of their six picks in the 2018 NFL Draft, as well as note some players who make sense.

Yesterday we started with the quarterback position. Today we'll cover running back, which is a position of high need.

After losing LeGarrette Blount to the Detroit Lions, the Eagles' depth chart at running back now looks like this:

RB1 RB2 RB3  RB4
Jay Ajayi Corey Clement Donnel Pumphrey Wendell Smallwood 

The Eagles are left with just two running backs who are certain to be on the roster in 2018, in Jay Ajayi and Corey Clement. While the Eagles have not yet given up on Donnel Pumphrey or Wendell Smallwood, they also cannot be counted on for any kind of meaningful role until they prove they deserve one. Not listed above is Darren Sproles, who remains a free agent, though Doug Pederson said he would love to have Sproles back.

Ajayi is now in the final year of his deal in 2018, and the Eagles have openly acknowledged his knee issues. Will the Eagles let him walk in free agency next offseason? It's very possible he won't be on the team in 2019. That leaves Clement as the only sure-fire long-term back on the roster, and so, the Eagles would be wise to draft one now who can be a long-term answer at the position, while also potentially becoming an immediate contributor.

The 2018 NFL Draft is loaded with compelling running backs, just as it was in 2017. The Eagles (probably) whiffed on their running back selection a year ago when they traded up in the fourth round for Pumphrey, but they'll get another crack at it in this year's draft.

10 running backs who could interest the Eagles

Derrius Guice, RB, LSU (5'10, 212)

For the second straight year in 2018, LSU might have a running back taken in the first round, as Guice could follow in the footsteps of Leonard Fournette, who went fourth overall to the Jacksonville Jaguars. Because Guice was Fournette's backup at LSU prior to 2017, he has low mileage:

Derrius Guice Rush Yards YPC TD 
2015 51 436 8.5 
2016 183 1387 7.6 15 
2017 237 1251 5.3 11 
 TOTAL471 3074 6.5 29 

Guice averaged 7.8 yards per carry during his freshman and sophomore seasons. Obviously, that is excellent. His 5.3 yards per carry average in 2017? Not nearly as impressive, though Guice battled through some injuries. Additionally, in three seasons, Guice has just 32 career receptions, although that could be a symptom of LSU not using their backs much in the passing game.

A highlight reel: 

Guice is similar to Fournette to a small degree in that he will occasionally dish out punishment to defenders when finishing runs, but not to the level that Fournette did. Where Guice stands out is his quick feet and cutting ability in the hole, as well as his balance and change of direction at top speed.

Guice was reportedly one of the Eagles' 30 allotted pre-draft visits.

Projected round: 1

Ronald Jones, RB, USC (5'11, 200)

At the running back position, the Eagles have a bigger, bruising back with some explosion in Ajayi, as well as something of a well-rounded back in Clement. What they lack is a home run threat, which is what Ronald Jones can be in Philly's offense.

A highlight reel:

Jones put up good numbers all three years at USC: 

Ronald Jones Rush Yards YPC TD 
 2015153 987 6.5 
 2016177 1082 6.1 12 
 2017261 1550 5.9 19 

He would give the Eagles an added dimension at running back that they don't presently have.

Projected Round: 1-2

Sony Michel, RB, Georgia (5'11, 220)

In his college career, Michel's numbers weren't what they could have been because he had to split time with Nick Chubb at Georgia. Despite splitting carries, Michel still finished with more than 1,220 rushing yards in 2017. A quick look:

Sony Michel Rush Yards YPC TD 
 201464 410 6.4 
 2015219 1161 5.3 
 2016152 840 5.5 
 2017156 1227 7.9 16 

Here's a highlight reel from Michel's 2015 season, when Chubb went down:

While not a burner, Michel is a complete back, with the ability to run inside, run outside, be a weapon in the passing game, and pass protect.

Projected round: 2

Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia (5'11, 227)

When Georgia lost Todd Gurley for the season in 2014, Chubb came in and the Bulldogs' run game didn't suffer all that much. In his first five games in 2014, playing second fiddle to Gurley, Chubb only had 31 carries for 224 yards and 2 TDs. As the starter, Chubb lit it up in the final eight games, carrying the ball 219 times for 1547 yards and 14 TDs.

In 2015, he picked up where he left off the previous season, rushing 92 times for 747 yards (for a ridiculous 8.1 ypc) and 7 TDs in his first five games. And then he suffered a grotesque injury in his sixth game against Tennessee.

His numbers at Georgia:

Nick Chubb Rush Yards YPC TD 
 2014219 1547 7.1 14 
 201592 747 8.1 
 2016224 1130 5.0 
 2017223 1345 6.0 15 

Chubb has a low center of gravity, running with good power and vision. However, his explosive cutting ability and home run potential last season wasn't quite what it used to be before he shredded his knee in 2015. A highlight reel, post-injury:

As you can see from Chubb's numbers above, his yards per carry went down after his injury. As a result, he made the correct decision to stay in school for his senior season. In 2017, Chubb looked to be a little closer to what he once was, a year removed from his injury.

Another concern would be Chubb's receiving numbers, as he had just 31 receptions in four years at Georgia.

Projected round: 2

Rashaad Penny, RB, San Diego State (5'11, 220)

In 2016, playing behind Pumphrey at SDSU, Penny ran for 1005 yards and 11 TDs on 135 carries, for an average yards per carry of 7.4. In 2017, as the lead back, he built on those numbers, carrying 289 times for a ridiculous 2248 yards (7.8 YPC) and 23 TDs. Impressive.

Like Pumphrey, Penny is tore up his competition in college. Unlike Pumphrey, Penny has legitimate NFL size, at 5'11, 220. A highlight reel:

As you can see in the above video, Penny has good speed, despite carrying 220 pounds. At the Combine, he ran a 4.46.

Penny also has special teams appeal. Over his career at San Diego State, Penny averaged an outstanding 30.2 yards per kick return, and brought 7 back for touchdowns. That tied an NCAA record. 

Penny was reportedly one of the Eagles' 30 allotted pre-draft visits.

Projected round: 2-3

Royce Freeman, RB, Oregon (6'0, 229)

Though he does not have the speed or elusiveness of, say, a guy like Saquon Barkley, Freeman is a big back at 229 pounds who moves faster than you would expect. Over his career at Oregon, Freeman put up huge numbers, though he has a lot of mileage on his legs.

Royce Freeman Rush Yards YPC TD 
 2014252 1365 5.4 18 
 2015283 1836 6.5 17 
 2016168 945 5.6 
2017244 1475 6.016 
 TOTAL947 5621 5.9 60 

Freeman also has receiving skills. Over his career at Oregon, Freeman has 79 catches for 814 yards (10.3 YPC) and 4 TDs. His highlight reel:

Projected round: 2-3

Kalen Ballage, RB, Arizona State (6'2, 227)

At 6'2, 227, Ballage is a big back, and as you might expect, he breaks a lot of arm tackles. He is perhaps best known for tying the FBS single-game touchdown record, when he scored eight of them against Texas Tech, shown at the end of this highlight reel:

Ballage's rushing numbers are concerning, however, because of a mediocre yards per carry average:

 Kalen BallageRush Yards YPC TD 
 201442 126 3.0 
 2015125 653 5.2 
 2016126 536 4.3 14 
 2017157 669 4.3 
 TOTAL450 1984 4.4 27 

Ballage also has odd receiving numbers. In 2016, he caught 44 passes for 469 yards and a TD, which is good. In 2017, he had 20 catches for only 91 yards (4.6 yards per catch!) and a long reception of 10 yards, which is obviously bad.

Part of the reason for Ballage's low yards per carry and yards per catch numbers were because his offensive line stunk. From a tools perspective, however, he's big, he has impressive speed/athleticism, he runs hard, he's thought of as good in pass protection, and he can catch a little bit, so he should be of interest to the Eagles.

Projected round: 3

Kerryon Johnson, RB, Auburn (6'0, 212)

In 2017, Johnson was a workhorse back, carrying 285 times for 1391 yards and 18 TDs. He has also chipped in 24 receptions for 194 yards and 2 TDs. A highlight reel:

Johnson reminds me a little of former Clemson running back Wayne Gallman, but with more burst. Johnson is a tall, skinny-ish back who doesn't have elite speed, but ran hard and was a factor in the passing game, like Gallman, who was selected in the fourth round of the 2017 NFL Draft. 

Projected round: 3

Nyheim Hines, RB, North Carolina State (5'8, 197)

Like Ronald Jones above, Hines can be a home run threat when he has the ball in his hands. A highlight reel:

As you can see in the above video, Hines has great speed. At the Combine, he ran a 4.38 – that's best in the class among running backs. By comparison, Ajayi ran a 4.57, while Clement ran a 4.68. As you can also see in the video, Hines has return ability, which is an underrated need area for the Eagles this offseason.

Hines is a former receiver who transitioned to running back while at North Carolina State. He is a player the Eagles can move around the formation to create mismatches, like they did with Darren Sproles before he was lost for the year with a torn ACL.

Projected Round: 3-4

Jaylen Samuels, RB/WR/TE, North Carolina State (5'11, 223)

Samuels is sometimes listed as a tight end, and sometimes he lines up as one, but that's not what I would call him. I also wouldn't necessarily call him a fullback or a running back or a wide receiver, either. He some sort of hybrid of the four, and a very talented, versatile player with good receiving ability.

Since 2015, Samuels had 195 receptions, although many of them come on shovel passes and screens, thus leading to a low yards per catch average:

Jaylen Samuels Rec Yards YPC TD 
 201565 597 9.2 
 201655 565 10.3 
 201775 593 7.9 

He also got carries as a runner, and was productive when given opportunities:

Jaylen Samuels Rush Yards YPC TD 
 201556 368 6.6 
 201633 189 5.7 
 201778 407 5.2 12 

Since 2015, Samuels has 27 touchdowns on 167 carries, which is obviously kind of ridiculous.

A highlight reel from Samuels' sophomore year in 2015:

If teams around the league view Samuels as "just" a versatile player who doesn't excel at any one thing, he could fall into the mid-to-late rounds. I think he would be a versatile player in the same mold as Trey Burton, but with a focus at the running back position as opposed to tight end.

Projected round: 4

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