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May 15, 2017

A sneak preview of the 2018 RB draft class

It's a little early to start looking forward to the 2018 NFL Draft, however, one of the recent topics of discussion among Eagles fans has been the Birds' incomplete running back situation, both in 2017 and beyond.

MORE ON THE EAGLES: An updated look at the Eagles' depth chart | Mel Kiper's undrafted free agent to watch list includes an Eagles signing | Cowboys will try to lure 2018 NFL draft away from Philly | What they’re saying: The Eagles don’t need a ‘big’ running back | Mailbag: How far away are the Eagles from being Super Bowl contenders?

By all appearances, the Eagles will head into the 2017 season with a "running back by committee" approach, which can be effective as long as the committee isn't just a collection of scrubs. I do believe the Eagles have talent at running back, but it's a position they are certainly going to have to build on. The Eagles' depth chart at running back looks something like this at the moment:

Darren Sproles Wendell Smallwood Donnel Pumphrey (R) Corey Clement (R) Ryan Mathews (inj) 

With Sproles likely to retire after the 2017 season and Mathews soon to be cut once he passes his physical, the only two backs reasonably likely to be on the 2018 roster are Smallwood and Pumphrey. (It's a little too early to include Clement among that group, although he'll have a decent chance of making the roster as an undrafted free agent.)

Thus, running back is likely to be on the Eagles' radar again in the 2018 draft, as it was a few weeks ago. Last year around this time, we took a sneak preview of the 2017 running back class, which was thought to be among the strongest in recent history. While the 2018 class isn't as impressive or deep as the 2017 class, it should still be strong as well. A sneak preview:

Saquon Barkley, Junior, Penn State (5'11, 223)

Barkley is as elusive a runner as you'll find for a guy with his size at 5'11, 223. He has the ability to make tacklers miss with his impressive speed and lateral quickness, but he also can run with power behind his thick frame. In his first two seasons at Penn State, he has racked up over 2500 yards, to go along with 25 rushing touchdowns:

 Saquon BarkleyRush Yards YPC TD 
 2015182 1076 5.9 
 2016272 1496 5.5 18 
 TOTAL454 2572 5.7 25 

As an added bonus, Barkley is weapon out of the backfield as a receiver. His receiving numbers as a freshman and sophomore:

 Saquon BarkleyRec Yards YPC TD 
 201520 161 8.1 
 201628 402 14.4 
 TOTAL48 563 11.7 

At the NFL Annual Meetings in March, Doug Pederson talked about the need for do-it-all backs in the NFL.

"There’s so much versatility in backs nowadays from again, those empty formations, out of the backfield, spreading the field, those are the things that we want to see," he said. "(In terms of) physical traits, can they run between the tackles? Are they physical enough to run between the tackles? Can they stretch the field in outside zone? Every run game plan every week changes. Sometimes you’re going to be more inside the tackles, and then the next week you might be outside the tackles, so you have to have the versatility to do that. So those are things we look for in these backs."

Barkley fits all of the above. He can run inside with power, he can get to the edge with his speed, and he's a quality weapon in the passing game. He is a true "three-down back." A highlight reel:

The one area of Barkley's game that could use some work is pass protection, but again, at 5'11, 223 pounds, he has the bulk to be able to take on pass rushers. The other potential concern I might have is heavy usage in college. In 2016, Barkley had 300 touches. How much will James Franklin ride Barkley in 2017 knowing that it will almost certainly be his last year at Penn State?

Derrius Guice, Junior, LSU (5'11, 222)

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 has been Fournette's backup at LSU, he has low mileage:

Derrius Guice Rush Yards YPC TD 
2015 51 436 8.5 
2016 183 1387 7.6 15 
 TOTAL234 1823 7.8 18 

Obviously, a career yards per carry average of 7.8 is excellent. In two seasons, however, Guice has just 14 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 sudden burst when he sees some daylight. His balance and change of direction at top speed is extraordinary.

As a runner, I believe there's an argument that Guice may have an edge over Barkley, though Barkley has to be considered more complete player because of his proven receiving ability. But don't be shocked if Guice overtakes Barkley this season as the top dog at RB.

Ronald Jones, Junior, USC (6'0, 195)

Jones' game is all about speed. His career numbers at USC:

Ronald Jones Rush Yards YPC TD 
 2015153 987 6.5 
 2016177 1082 6.1 12 
 TOTAL330 2069 6.3 20 

In 2016, Jones started slowly, but he turned it on big-time at the tail end of the season. In his first seven games as a sophomore, he had 62 carries for just 285 yards and 2 TDs. In his last six games, he had 115 carries for 797 yards and 10 TDs. A highlight reel:

While Jones is an intriguing back that many teams will like, I'm not sure he would offer the Eagles much diversity from what they already have in their backfield.

Royce Freeman, Senior, Oregon (5'11, 230)

Freeman is a big back at 230 pounds who moves faster than you would expect, but does not have Barkley's speed or elusiveness. Over his first two seasons at Oregon, Freeman put up huge numbers, though they fell off some in his junior season partly due to leg and chest injuries.

Royce Freeman Rush Yards YPC TD 
 2014252 1365 5.4 18 
 2015283 1836 6.5 17 
 2016168 945 5.6 
 TOTAL703 4146 5.9 44 

Freeman also has receiving skills. Over his career at Oregon, Freeman has 65 catches for 650 yards (10.0 YPC) and 4 TDs. His highlight reel:

Freeman would make a lot of sense for the Eagles' present running back rotation, as he would be a bigger complement to the Eagles' stable of smaller backs.

Bo Scarbrough, Junior (redshirt), Alabama (6'2, 228)

Alabama is a running back factory, and Scarbrough is the latest Crimson Tide back likely to be drafted into the NFL. He also has low mileage on his legs, as he sat behind Derrick Henry in 2015 and shared the load with fellow junior Damien Harris in 2016. However, he broke a bone in his lower right leg in the National Championship Game against Clemson, though Nick Saban has stated that he will be ready for the season. His career numbers:

Bo Scarbrough Rush Yards YPC TD 
 201518 104 5.8 
 2016125 812 6.5 11 
 TOTAL143 916 6.4 12 

In 2016, Scarbrough did the bulk of his damage in the playoffs, carrying 46 times for 364 yards and 6 TDs in his three games against Florida (SEC Championship), Washington (Peach Bowl playoff game), and Clemson (National Championship Game). A highlight reel:

On the downside, Scarbrough has a grand total of four career receptions, with a long of reception of nine yards, so my guess would be that the Eagles (along with many other teams) would like to see some evidence of receiving ability before they'd ever consider him in the early rounds of the draft.

Nick Chubb, Senior, Georgia (5'10, 220)

When Georgia lost Todd Gurley for the season in 2014, Chubb came in and the Bulldogs' run game didn't suffer all that much. Insert Chubb, and everything was fine. 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 188 times for 1323 yards and 12 TDs. 

In 2015, he picked up where he left off the previous season, rushing 91 times for 745 yards (for a ridiculous 8.2 ypc) and 7 TDs in his first five games. And then he suffered a grotesque injury in his sixth game against Tennessee.

His numbers over two and a half seasons:

Nick Chubb Rush Yards YPC TD 
 2014219 1547 7.1 14 
 201592 747 8.1 
 2016224 1130 5.0 
 TOTAL535 3424 7.4 21 

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.

As you can see from Chubb's numbers above, his yards per carry plummeted after his injury. As a result, he made the correct decision to stay in school for his senior season. To be determined if he can regain his form being another year removed from his injury.


Myles Gaskin, Junior, Washington (5'10, 195): In two seasons at Washington, Gaskin has 464 carries for 2675 yards (5.8 YPC) and 24 TDs.

Justin Jackson, Senior, Northwestern (5'11, 190): High usage (933 career touches) and low YPC (4.8), but a quality receiver out of the backfield (78 career receptions).

• Damien Harris, Junior, Alabama (5'11, 214): He's the lesser known of Bama's backs, but he outproduced Scarbrough last year, needing only 145 carries to gain 1040 yards (7.2 YPC), though Scarbrough got the goal line chances, as Harris scored just 2 TDs.

• Kamryn "Bubba" Pettway, Junior, Auburn (6'0, 240): Pettway is a downhill runner (as you might expect from a 240-pound back) whose style reminds me a bit of Christian Okoye, in that there's no mystery in what he's going to do. He's a north-south runner, who is most effectively used in clock-killing, mash-it-out situations in the second half of games.

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