Comparing the 2018 RB Class to the 2017 RB Class
The running back position is back in vogue as the last 3 draft classes have given us dynamic stars that have brought immediate success to their respective teams. The talk of the devaluation of the running back position to me really means the specialization on how teams utilize their running backs. The workhorse back that you needed to have on your team 10 years ago has turned into acquiring 2 or 3 backs with certain/different skill-sets that complement each other well. It’s a passing league but running the football effectively is still a vital part in creating balance, helping your quarterback with easier reads, team success and ultimately winning football games. This past season the two teams in the Super Bowl, the New England Patriots and Philadelphia Eagles showcased exactly where the NFL has gone in recent years in terms of the specialization of the position.
New England Patriots
“Never trust a Belichick back,” is the mantra in the fantasy community as the Patriots had 4 backs on their depth chart that contributed throughout the 2017 season. They predominately utilized Dion Lewis as the 1st and 2nd down runner, James White as the pass catching back, Rex Burkhead as the pass catching back that spelled Lewis on 1st and 2nd and Mike Gillisleee as the goal line/short yardage back until replacing him full-time with Lewis in the middle of the season. It didn’t matter which back got the call as they were all ready to contribute and were cross-trained to fill any role.
Then you have the Philadelphia Eagles, who came into the season with Darren Sproles, Wendell Smallwood, LeGarrette Blount, Donnel Pumphrey and Corey Clement and ended up finishing the year with Jay Ajayi, Blount and Clement as their three-headed monster. The Eagles clearly wanted the position to be a competition and still wasn’t completely satisfied with their backfield as they traded for Ajayi at the trade deadline to solidify the group. Blount was their power back, Ajayi their slasher and Clement played the third down/passing back role.
We all know this is a copycat league and many other teams have already been on-board or will now implement the idea of not drafting a running back in the 1st round of the NFL Draft with hopes of finding backs later on in the draft with different skill-sets like the Eagles and Patriots. None of the backs on the Patriots or Eagles roster were drafted in the first 3 rounds. Lewis 5th round pick, White 4th round pick, Burkhead 6th round pick, Gillislee 5th round pick, Sproles 4th round pick, Smallwood 5th round pick, Blount undrafted, Pumphrey 4th round pick, Clement undrafted and Ajayi 5th round pick. This begs the question, if you were the GM of a football team do you select Todd Gurley in the Top 10? Ezekiel Elliot in the Top 5? Leonard Fournette and Christian McCaffrey in the Top 10? Or Saquon Barkley in the Top 5? These are exceptional backs in their own right but if you have more imperative positions to address on your football team then I don’t think it is wise for teams to get backs this early in the draft. With all that said, I will take a look at some of this year’s backs and compare them to the feeling I felt from last year’s running back class.
2018 RB Class / 2017 RB Class
SAQuoN BARKLEY IS MY DALVIN COOK
Translation…Plain and simple Barkley is my RB1 just like Cook was last year. Barkley is a featured back that will more than likely go in the first 5 picks of the NFL Draft. The team willing to take him that early might be scrutinized due to going against the philosophy above, however he is a difference maker in the backfield much like Cook. These two guys remind me of each other due to their explosive nature and the vision they showcase while creating huge chunks of yardage at any given moment. They do it in different ways as Cook is a more north/south decisive runner while Barkley has that LeSean McCoy wiggle to him. My answer to the question on if Barkley should be selected in the top 5, it depends on what team drafts him. Yes, Barkley is a top 3 talent in this year’s draft but we’ve seen many backs burst onto the scene in Day 2 and 3 of the draft. If I’m the Browns, I have way more pressing needs. If I’m the Giants, I need to get Bradley Chubb or Quenton Nelson on my roster. The best team that can afford to select Barkley in the top 10 is probably the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as they have their quarterback in place and have addressed the defensive side of the ball in free agency. This pick will come full circle for the Bucs as I strongly believe that they should’ve drafted Cook last season instead of O.J. Howard.
DERRIUS GUICE IS MY LEONARD FOURNETTE
Translation…Guice is a physical runner from LSU with questionable vision and injury concern just like Fournette last season. Some may call me a “Guice hater” but comparing him to Fournette who was my RB2 last year is high praise. Fournette was pretty much an unstoppable force of nature early in his rookie season rushing for 596 yards and 6 touchdowns in the first 6 games of his career. However, as expected, Fournette battled some foot issues in the middle of the season which caused him to miss some games and never quite regained his early season prowess. Enter Guice that rushes with the same kind of physicality and power, if not more, but with a slighter frame as he measures roughly 15 pounds less than Fournette. The violent runner is fun to watch on tape with his Beast Mode running style but the NFL has grown men and he has already battled ailments in 2017 for the Tigers. Guice strikes me as one of those committee backs that will need a running mate that can spell him. If he gets to the right team that will help lighten his load, then he can have long term success at the next level.
RONALD JONES II IS MY ALVIN KAMARA
Translation…Jones is a dynamic back that many are questioning his ability to handle a full work load much like Kamara last season. Jones more than likely will not get the opportunity to play for Sean Payton and the Saints running back friendly offense but he is excellent in space similarly to Kamara. The team that draft Jones needs to take a page from the Eagles and Patriots playbook and pair him with other backs on the roster to maximize his full potential. Jones is an explosive cutter, has vision in the open field and burst to boot that will drive NFL defensive coordinators crazy. His size is a question as he measured in at 205 pounds at the combine but the NFL is different and it’s all about matchups and specialization which fits Jones style to a “T”.
SONY MICHEL IS MY CHRISTIAN MCCAFFERY
Translation…Michel is a really good player that is getting too much hype just like I thought McCaffrey was getting leading up to the 2017 NFL Draft. I dubbed McCaffrey “They Love Him” as social media and fans across the board spoke like this man was going to revolutionize the running back position. Yes, he is a great route runner that translates well in this new age of football but he had legitimate questions (to me) as a bell cow and inability to consistently make NFL defenders miss in the open-field. If you are drafting a back in the top 10, I believe he should be able to stay on the field in all circumstances, which McCaffrey did not do in his rookie season. Michel’s game translates well to the way teams use their running backs as he excels in pass protection and catching the ball out of the backfield but the hype as RB3 is a bit overblown in my opinion. On tape Michel is a North/South runner that bursts through the line with physicality but I question his creativity as it seemed like the offensive line of Georgia opened up huge holes to run through and he got what was blocked for him. I’m not knocking this trait as it is important to be able to get through the hole effectively but I just don’t see anything special about Michel. In the National Championship Game against Alabama, Michel left a lasting impression rushing for 98 yards on 14 carries while thoroughly outplaying Nick Chubb and this may be a reason why the love of Michel has elevated him to a place where I don’t think he belongs.
JOHN KELLY IS MY KAREEM HUNT
Translation…Sleeper Alert! I will continue to tell the story of the first time I put on Kareem Hunt’s tape at the University of Toledo. It was one of the top 5 prospects I watched at any position in the 2018 draft class. Hunt was a lesser known prospect that didn’t get the national buzz like the other running backs in the 2017 class until we all saw what he did in the Senior Bowl. My partner Drew put it best he likened Hunt’s running style to a “slippery bar or soap through the hole.” After leading the league in rushing in his rookie season there is no doubt that Hunt should’ve been put in the same class with Cook, Fournette, Mixon, McCaffrey and Kamara. I say all that to say, the same feeling I got from Hunt as a lesser known prospect is the same feeling I get when I watch John Kelly’s tape. Some folks are tired of comparisons to Hunt or Kamara as what they did in their rookie season was astonishing but don’t forget we were looking for the next Jordan Howard is last year’s class and found Hunt. All I am trying to convey is that Kelly can be a third round or later back that excels in the league immediately. Kelly is a dual threat back with nice feet in the hole that punishes defenders with his physicality and his nasty stiff arm. Whichever team that drafts Kelly will be very happy they invested in him.