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PFW NFL Draft newsletter sample: Deep dive on the most explosive RBs

March 22, 2018 GMT

Marcus Mosher recently went on a deep dive in our free NFL draft newsletter exploring this class’ most explosive backs. We’re sharing a sample with you today, but the only way to get these kinds of draft analysis pieces in your inbox bright and early every weekday morning is by signing up for free.Anyone who has watched football over the past several years knows that the NFL is now a passing league. Long gone are the days with your traditional fullbacks, I-formations and tight splits (unless you are the Jacksonville Jaguars, of course). For many teams, the pass-run ratio is nearly 70-30. Although teams may not run the ball as frequently as they did 20 years ago, it is still a vital part of the NFL game.

Entering the 2018 season, most teams are looking for a different type of running back than they did even a few years ago. They are looking for runners who can create big plays on the ground and in the passing game, rather than players who just churn out consistent yards. The Panthers are a great example of this as they selected a “receiving back” with the eighth-overall pick in the 2017 draft in Christian McCaffrey. Another example from that same draft class is the NFL’s leading rusher in Kareem Hunt, who averaged a 15-yard run or more on nearly 7 percent of his carries. With NFL teams craving those big plays in the running game, they are starting to draft players that can provide explosive plays at a moment’s notice.

Without further ado, here are a handful of the top running backs in the 2018 NFL draft and how frequently they created big plays. Listed below are the number of runs of at least 15 and 20 yards (percentage of total carries in the parenthesis) and the number of runs that lost yardage for just their 2017 season. That last number is important because it helps show which running backs can rip off big runs without constantly losing yardage.

Sony Michel, Georgia

21 carries over 15 yards (13.5%)

14 carries over 20 yards (8.97%)

7 carries that lost yardage (4.49%)

If a team is looking for the next game-breaking running back in the mold of Alvin Kamara, look no further than Sony Michel from Georgia. No player in the class had a higher percentage of runs of at least 15 yards (13.5 percent) than Michel. Aside from his ridiculous efficiency, Michel also was able to limit his number of negative runs to just seven. In the Bulldogs’ last seven games of the 2017 season, Michel had just one carry that lost yardage. In comparison, his running mate Nick Chubb had 13.

Michel doesn’t have elite speed or a ton of experience in the passing game, but his balance, vision and quickness allow him to break off big gains with ease. After the success of Kamara last season, don’t be surprised if Michel sneaks his way into the bottom of the first round. He is the best “satellite back” in the class and is exactly the type of player that NFL teams are going to love.

Rashaad Penny, San Diego State

35 carries of over 15 yards (12.11%)

29 carries over 20 yards (10.03%)

21 carries that lost yardage (7.27%)

Michel had the highest percentage of 15-plus yard runs, but no one had more than Rashaad Penny of San Diego State. His 35 runs of 15 or more yards led the nation, and he also had 29 carries of at least 20 yards (no other player in the country had more than 20). At 5-foot-11, 220 pounds, Penny has the ideal size to handle a big workload in the NFL but also has the speed to threaten defenses down the field.

His biggest concern will be his ability to pass protect at the next level and limit his negative runs. In one game against Boise State, Penny lost yardage on five different runs. Will his running style need to change at the next level? Possibly. But he has the size, speed and burst to be a problem for defenses if he lands with the right NFL team.

Nick Chubb, Georgia

24 carries over 15 yards (10.8%)

19 carries over 20 yards (8.52%)

22 carries that lost yardage (9.87%)

While at Georgia, Nick Chubb was thought of as the “thunder” to Sony Michel’s “lightning”. However, that might not have been quite accurate. Chubb was one of the most explosive running backs in the country, averaging a run of over 15 yards on more than 10 percent of his carries. He showcased his athleticism at the NFL scouting combine as he ran a 4.52 40-yard dash at 227 pounds.

Chubb may not look like an explosive, big-play threat, but get him in the open field and he can be as dangerous as any running back in this class. One thing that is concerning, however, is the number of negative runs for Chubb. Against a fast defense like Alabama, Chubb had five runs that lost yardage. His average quickness may limit his big-play ability some, but his explosiveness, power and size should allow him to get by.

Ronald Jones, USC

24 carries over 15 yards (9.20%)

16 carries over 20 yards (6.13%)

18 carries that lost yardage (6.89%)

One player who will create a lot of discussion over the next several weeks is Ronald Jones of USC. At just 5-foot-11, 205 pounds, Jones doesn’t have the prototypical size to be an elite every-down back in the NFL. Instead, he will likely have to be a part of a committee in which he is expected to provide the speed and big plays rather consistently. However, that may be easier said than done.

Jones broke off a respectable amount of runs of over 15 yards (especially in the second half of the season when he had 19 runs of at least 15 yards in the team’s final eight games), but that doesn’t quite tell the whole story. Jones saw, on average, just 6.42 defenders in the box. The reason for the relatively low number is that quarterback Sam Darnold was so good that teams were forced to back off the run. Although Jones took advantage of light boxes, that may not be the case in the NFL. With Jones’ limited receiving ability and underwhelming size, there will likely be similar types of running backs available in later rounds.

Royce Freeman, Oregon

22 carries over 15 yards (9.02%)

16 carries over 20 yards (6.56%)

11 carries that lost yardage (4.51%)

The most productive back in the class comes in at No.5 in terms of big-play ability. Royce Freeman racked up over 6,000 yards from scrimmage in his four-year career at Oregon. Despite a massive workload, Freeman was able to produce big runs at an impressive clip, all while limiting the number of negative runs. Freeman doesn’t have great speed — he ran a 4.54 40-yard dash at the combine — but he has the power to run through arm-tackles and the patience to let blocks develop before stepping on the gas pedal. Freeman isn’t your typical “space-back”, but he has shown that he can make defenses pay if they aren’t disciplined. Freeman should be an excellent value pick anywhere after the top-100 selections.

Saquon Barkley, Penn State

19 carries of over 15 yards (8.76%)

14 carries of over 20 yards (6.45%)

38 carries that lost yardage (17.5%)

Surprisingly, the top running back in this class has some concerns in regards to his big-play ability. We have all seen the amazing highlights of Barkley’s big runs, but those didn’t happen as frequently as we want to believe. What is the most concerning is the staggeringly high number of negative runs. Barkley was always looking to hit a big play — and that often resulted in big losses.

Anytime numbers like these are presented against Barkley, the response that comes back is that Penn State’s offensive line played poorly this season. That may be true, but many of these other running backs played behind weak offensive lines as well. Barkley also had the benefit of playing against light fronts as he had just an average of 6.29 defenders in the box, the fewest in the class.

Truth be told, Barkley is a boom-or-bust runner who relies on his athleticism to beat defenses. He will always be a threat in the receiving game to create big plays, but his resume as a big-play runner leaves a lot to be desired.

John Kelly, Tennessee

13 carries over 15 yards (6.88%)

7 carries over 20 yards (3.7%)

24 carries that lost yardage (12.7%)

John Kelly is a running back who has gotten some love over the last several weeks from talent evaluators — and for good reason. Kelly is a punishing runner who has the potential to be a three-down player in the NFL. However, he is just an average athlete who doesn’t have the long speed or quickness to make plays at the second level very often. His skill-set will likely get him on the field early, but he just doesn’t have the explosiveness to keep defensive coordinators up at night. He can be an adequate role player in the NFL, but just don’t expect him to be used in the same way as his former teammate, Alvin Kamara.

Kerryon Johnson, Auburn

17 carries of over 15 yards (5.96%)

9 carries over 20 yards (3.16%)

22 carries that lost yardage (7.72%)

How Auburn’s Kerryon Johnson will translate to the NFL will be fascinating to watch. In 2017, he carried the ball 285 times for nearly 1,400 yards. Despite nearly averaging five yards per carry, Johnson didn’t break off as many big runs as you would expect for a player who averaged more than 115 rushing yards per game.

He had just nine carries of at least 20 yards — which was the worst percentage among draft-eligible running backs. However, he is somewhat of an enigma because his body type suggests that he should be a slasher who can beat defenses with speed, but his play on the field shows that he is more of a “hammer” who thrives on contact. How the NFL decides to use Johnson will likely depend on where he lands, but expect him to be part of a committee that will pair him with a smaller, more explosive runner.

Derrius Guice, LSU

13 carries of over 15 yards (5.49%)

9 carries of over 20 yards (3.80%)

12 carries that lost yardage (5.06%)

Not surprisingly, Derrius Guice struggled to create big plays in LSU’s archaic offense. Guice averaged 7.25 defenders in the box in 2017, more than any other running back in the class. With his team’s poor QB play and subpar offensive line, Guice rarely saw enough daylight to make defenses pay. Although it’s fair to be concerned about Guice’s limited big-play production, his ability to avoid negative plays was extremely impressive. Guice lost yardage on just 12 runs this year, most of which were just one-yard losses.

Fortunately for Guice, teams won’t be drafting him for his speed. Instead, they will be selecting him to the be their “hammer,” similarly to what the Dallas Cowboys did with Ezekiel Elliott and the Jacksonville Jaguars did with Leonard Fournette. Guice will do just fine in the NFL, even if he doesn’t create big chunk plays.

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