News & Analysis

Ranking the top fantasy running backs in the 2018 draft class

By Jeff Ratcliffe
Apr 16, 2018

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Jan 8, 2018; Atlanta, GA, USA; Georgia Bulldogs running back Sony Michel (1) runs the ball against Alabama Crimson Tide defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick (29) during the first quarter in the 2018 CFP national championship college football game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

With the NFL draft just 10 days away, it’s time to put the finishing touches on our pre-draft 2018 fantasy football rookie rankings. Today, it’s time for the running backs. This year’s class is headlined by one of the most highly touted prospects in recent memory, but there’s a lot talent in this group.

Remember, ranking players is a process that continuously changes as we get new pieces of information. The biggest piece won’t come until late April when the player is either drafted, signed as an undrafted free agent, or passed over by the 32 NFL teams. For now, all the incoming players exist in a vacuum without a team and can be compared on even ground.

1. Saquon Barkley, Penn St — Arguably the best skill position player in this year’s draft, Barkley racked up 5,038 scrimmage yards and 51 combined scores in three seasons at Penn State. Extremely elusive and quick, he averaged 3.43 yards after contact per attempt and racked up 30 forced missed tackles on 176 attempts against Power 5 competition in 2017. A strong receiver out of the backfield, he ranked fifth in the nation last season with 65 targets and finished with 54 catches for 644 yards and three scores. For fantasy purposes, Barkley is the complete package. He’s a true three-down back with immediate elite fantasy potential.

2. Derrius Guice, LSU — Powerful runner. Burst onto the scene in 2016 when filling in for an injured Leonard Fournette. Guice exploded for 1,387 yards and 15 scores on just 183 carries. Injuries hampered his 2017 campaign, but he still managed to average 5.3 yards per carry. In 2016, Guise averaged 3.97 yards after contact per attempt and notched 42 forced missed tackles as a runner. Perhaps the biggest question mark in his game is as a receiver. Guice wasn’t asked to do much in that area with just 32 catches in his three years at LSU. That said, Guice’s power and physicality give him a fantasy comp to Marshawn Lynch, which means he could be an immediate factor for fantasy football.

3. Sony Michel, Georgia — Athletic and muscular, Michel is a four-year player at the college level. Averaged a solid 6.1 yards per carry over his career, but especially excelled in 2017 where he racked up 1,227 yards on 156 carries. That’s a healthy 7.9 yards per clip. Michel had 20-plus catches in 2015 and 2016, but only managed nine receptions last year. Though not the most elusive back, Michel averaged 3.95 yards after contact versus Power 5 schools in 2017, which ranked third among draft eligible backs. He also posted 21 runs of 15-plus yards against Power 5 competition. While he may not be much of a fantasy producer in the passing game, Michel’s north-south ability bodes positively for future fantasy success.

4. Rashaad Penny, San Diego St — Former teammate of Donnel Pumphrey, but don’t confuse Penny with Pumphrey. He has prototype size (5-11, 220) and posted an impressive 4.46 40 time at the combine. Led the nation with 2,248 rushing yards and racked up 23 touchdowns in the ground. Effective after contact, he forced 80 missed tackles, which led all FBS running backs. Also racked up 30 runs of 15-plus yards. Wasn’t used heavily as a receiver with just 15 catches in 2016 and 19 catches last season. Also struggled in pass protection with two sacks and seven hurries allowed on 66 pass-blocking snaps. Penny has the power and speed to be a very effective early-down runner at the NFL level, which makes him a good bet to be a solid fantasy option.

5. Ronald Jones II, USC — A dynamic slasher with home-run ability, Jones led all draft-eligible backs with 22 runs of 15-plus yards. Jones topped 1,000 yards on the ground in each of the last two years and averaged 6.1 yards per carry over his career. He also found the end zone 39 times as a runner, with 19 scores coming in 2017. The major knock on Jones is his size. At 5-11, 200 pounds, he doesn’t necessarily profile as a true every-down back at the NFL level. He also was lightly used as a receiver with just 32 catches over the last three years. Still, comps to Jamaal Charles are very appealing for fantasy purposes, as Charles didn’t need 20-plus touches to put up big-time fantasy numbers.

6. Nick Chubb, Georgia — Got off to an impressive start to his college career with 1,547 yards and 14 rushing scores with an average of 7.1 yards per carry in his freshman year. That production continued through his sophomore campaign (8.1 yards per carry) until a knee injury ended his season. Chubb wasn’t the same player in 2016, but he seemed to return to form last year with 1,345 yards and 15 scores on the ground. Had no fumbles on 227 touches. Not a burner, but did run 4.52 at the combine along with putting up 29 bench reps, jumping 38.5 in the vert, and 10-8 in the broad jump. Lightly used as a receiver with just 31 catches on 37 targets in his four years at Georgia. Projects more as a two-down option, but Chubb is still likely to surface on the fantasy radar at the pro level sooner rather than later.

7. Kerryon Johnson, Auburn — A physical and quick player who doesn’t quite look like a prototype back due to his angular frame at 6-0, 212 pounds. Johnson assumed lead-back duties in 2017, posting 1,391 yards and 18 scores on the ground along with 24 catches for 194 yards and two scores as a receiver. His 4.9 yards per carry is a tad low, but he did post the third-most forced missed tackles (38) among draft-eligible backs against Power 5 competition. Johnson has similarities to Tevin Coleman, which makes him intriguing for fantasy purposes. He profiles as a player with high weekly upside, but one who could also be stuck in a complementary role in the wrong landing spot.

8. Royce Freeman, Oregon — Thickly built (5-11, 234) back who finished as the all-time leading rusher at Oregon. Racked up 5,621 yards and 60 scores on the ground. Performed well after contact with 51 forced missed tackles and an average of 3.4 yards after contact per attempt last season. Enters the pro level with a lot of mileage. Touched the ball 1,026 times in college. Capable receiver with 80 catches on 89 targets over the last four years. Though he doesn’t quite play like a big back, Freeman has the skill set to be a productive back at the pro level and is likely to be a fantasy asset in short order.

9. John Kelly, Tennessee — He’s slightly undersized, but stout (5-9, 205). Only one season of full-time work thanks to a loaded Tennessee depth chart earlier in his college career. In 2017, Kelly was relatively effective after contact with 37 forced missed tackles as a runner, but his average of 4.1 yards per carry leaves something to be desired. Showed well as a receiver last season with 37 catches on 45 targets. Only played 791 snaps in college. While he isn’t the most dynamic back, Kelly’s ability as a receiver is appealing and could lead to some fantasy value.

10. Josh Adams, Notre Dame — Size isn’t an issue with Adams, who checks in at 6-2, 220. Racked up 1,430 yards at a clip of 6.9 yards per carry to go along with nine touchdowns in 2017. Of course, he also had the luxury of running behind a very good offensive line that boasts two of this year’s top draft prospects. Had 17 runs of 15-plus and led the nation with a massive 5.20 yards after contact per attempt. Did very little as a receiver with just 41 catches in his three years at Notre Dame. Adams doesn’t project to be the most elusive back at the pro level, but his size and breakaway speed make him a sneaky bet to surface as a fantasy option if he lands in the right system/situation.

11. Mark Walton, Miami (Fla.) — A short and stout back (5-10, 188) who was very productive both as a runner and receiver at Miami. Missed most of 2017 with an ankle injury, but averaged an impressive 7.6 yards per carry in the four games he played. Very effective in the pass game with 56 catches in just over two seasons played at the college level. Also excelled after contact with 71 forced missed tackles on 394 career carries. Can rip off big plays, with runs of 80-plus yards in each of the last two seasons. Has three-down potential, but his combine weigh-in at just 188 pounds doesn’t bode well for early-down work. Profiles similarly to James White for fantasy purposes, which makes him more likely to be a PPR asset.

12. Kalen Ballage, Arizona St — Big (6-1, 227) and athletic, Ballage ran a fast 4.46 40-yard dash at the combine. His numbers don’t tell the whole story at the college level because he split touches with Demario Richard. Strong receiver out of the backfield with 64 catches over the last two seasons. Career averages of 4.4 yards per carry and 2.7 yards after contact per attempt are somewhat uninspiring. Accomplished the Al Bundy-like feat of scoring eight touchdowns in a single game in 2016. Has the versatility to contribute in a number of ways, but the question remains whether he can be more than a committee back at the pro level. That puts a damper on his long-term fantasy outlook.

13. Justin Jackson, Northwestern — Prolific in high school with over 6,500 rushing yards and 85 scores, and that productivity carried over to the college level. Topped 1,000 rushing yards in all four of his years at Northwestern — just the ninth player in NCAA history to do so — with a career total of 5,440. He also racked up 122 catches. Of course, this meant heavy usage, with 1,264 touches. His career 4.8 yards per carry doesn’t stand out, nor does his 2.48 yards after contact per attempt in 2017. Slight build (6-0, 199). Jackson’s productivity isn’t likely to translate to the NFL level, where he profiles more as a backup option who is unlikely to have significant long-term fantasy value.

14. Nyheim Hines, NC St — Blazing fast (4.38 40 time) and versatile player with a background in track and field as a sprinter. Started his college career out as a receiver, but was a full-time back in 2017 with 197 carries for 1,112 yards and 12 scores on the ground. He also chipped in 23 catches after catching 43 balls in 2016. Has ability as a returner. Hines has an intriguing skill set as a dual-threat option, but his lack of size (5-8, 197) makes him a slight longshot to make a fantasy impact in the NFL.

15. Chase Edmonds, Fordham — A small-schooler who was wildly productive with 5,862 rushing yards at an average of 6.2 yards per carry. Topped 20 rushing scores in each of his first two years at Fordham and finished with 67 rushing touchdowns. Compact frame (5-9, 205) with respectable speed (4.55 40-yard dash time). Dealt with injury in 2017. Has the potential to be a poor man’s Devonta Freeman for fantasy purposes if everything breaks his way.

16. Akrum Wadley, Iowa — An athletic back who lacks a prototypical NFL running back build at just 5-10, 191 pounds. Productive over the last two years, he topped 1,000 yards and double-digit touchdowns in both seasons. Elusive in space, he forced 38 missed tackles as a runner in 2017. Solid receiver out of the backfield with 64 catches over the last two years. Has potential as a third-down back, but his frame makes an every-down role unlikely. Despite his dynamic upside, Wadley best shot as a fantasy option will be as a PPR back.

17. Jordan Wilkins, Ole Miss — Looks the part of an NFL back at 6-1, 217. Missed 2016 due to academic ineligibility, but returned last season to rack up 1,011 yards on 155 attempts (6.5 yards per carry) to go along with nine scores. Averaged an impressive 6.3 yards per carry over the course of his career. Strong after contact, he averaged 3.32 yards after contact per attempt in 2017, which tied for 11th among draft eligible backs. Also flashed ability as a receiver with 26 catches for 241 yards. While he’s unlikely to ever be an elite fantasy option, Wilkins certain has the potential of surfacing on the fantasy radar.

18. Bo Scarbrough, Alabama — Massive back (6-1, 232) who flashed good speed and explosion at the combine with 4.52 in the 40-yard dash and a 40-inch vertical jump. Old school back who has some parallels with follow Alabama back Derrick Henry, but unlike Henry, Scarbrough wasn’t heavily used at the college level with just 267 carries over the last three years. Effective after contact for much of his career with 3.9 yards after contact per attempt, though that number was just 2.9 in 2017. Struggled as a pass-blocker with four pressures allowed in just 43 pass-blocking snaps last season, and also wasn’t asked to do much as a receiver with only 21 catches in college (17 in 2017). Scarbrough looks the part of an NFL back, but his deficiencies in the passing game make him likely to be an early-down back, which limits his long-term fantasy upside.

19. Ito Smith, Southern Mississippi — Very productive back who posted 1,000-plus yards and double-digit touchdowns in each of the last three years. Scored a combined 49 touchdowns and racked up 960 touches in four years at Southern Miss. Undersized at 5-9, 195 pounds, but very elusive. Forced a massive 188 tackles on 829 career carries. Capable in pass protection, not allowing a sack on 88 pass-blocking snaps. Strong receiver with 40-plus catches in each of the last three seasons. His lack of size bodes poorly for an early-down role, but Smith could surface as a pass-catching PPR option.

20. Roc Thomas, Jacksonville St — A former five-star recruit who is athletic, but is slightly undersized at 5-11, 193 pounds. Started his career out at Auburn, but transferred to Jacksonville St. after his sophomore year due to his role being limited on offense. Served as the lead back last season, topping 1,000 yards and scoring 13 times on 178 carries. Also showed the ability to catch the ball with 21 receptions. Intriguing athleticism, but Thomas isn’t likely to be a fantasy asset.

21. Darrel Williams, LSU — A big bruiser of a back who checks in at 6-1, 229 pounds. Buried on the depth chart behind Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice, but did see 145 carries with Guice banged up in 2017. Averaged a solid 5.7 yards per carry, but his 2.98 yards after contact per attempt was on the lower side of the spectrum. Showed the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield with 34 receptions last season. Has ideal size for the NFL level, but he’s a bit of a longshot to surface as a viable fantasy option.

22. Jarvion Franklin, Western Michigan — Powerfully built back who racked topped 1,000 yards in three of his four season at Western Michigan, scoring an impressive 52 rushing touchdowns. Not particularly fast, running 4.63 in the 40 at the combine, and he didn’t prove to be the most elusive back with just 2.9 yards after contact per attempt. Has NFL size (6-0, 225), but may be limited to a two-down role. He could offer modest fantasy value in the right landing spot.

23. Boston Scott, Louisiana Tech — Undersized (5-7, 203), but very efficient back who is coming off a 1,000-yard season and averaged 6.4 yards per carry over his college career. Averaged a massive 4.2 yards after contact. Last season, Scott had 17 runs of 15-plus yards. He also caught 20 balls out of the backfield. Ran 4.40 in the 40 and jumped 38.5 in the vert at his pro day. Scott lacks prototype size, but his dynamic athleticism bodes well for Scott surfacing on the fantasy radar at some point in his pro career.

24. Phillip Lindsay, Colorado — A productive runner who topped 1,000 yards in each of the last two seasons with a combined 30 rushing scores over that span. He racked up 545 carries over that stretch, to go along with 76 catches. Undersized at 5-8, 190. Ran 273 pass routes last season, seventh in the nation. Explosive upside with 15 runs of 15 yards or more in 2017. His ability as a receiver is a plus, but Lindsey’s size makes him more of a third-down option in the NFL. A bit of a long shot to surface on the fantasy radar.

25. Dontrell Hilliard, Tulane — A two-year starter who is coming off 1,091 yards and 12 scores on 210 carries last season. Fumbled just once in 465 carries. Racked up 75 targets over his first two years, but his role in the passing game decreased over the last two seasons with just 17 targets. Posted a fast 4.44 40 time at his pro day, but lacks an NFL build at 5-11, 202 pounds. His ability as a receiver makes Hilliard a dark horse candidate with three-down potential. He’s a deep name to know for fantasy.

26. Ryan Green, Florida St — Leaves college with a thin resume but flashed major athleticism with a 4.42 40-yard dash and a 38-inch vert at his pro day. Slightly undersized at 5-10, 204 pounds. Only touched the ball 66 times in four years, but did play in a loaded backfield. However, he flashed upside any time he got his hands on the ball with a career averaged of 6.3 yards per carry and five total touchdowns. Also has ability as a returner. Lacks experience, but has the athletic traits to possibly surface on an NFL roster.

27. Martez Carter, Grambling St — Dynamic back with big-play upside. Topped 800 rushing yards in each of the last three seasons with 29 rushing scores and an averaged 6.7 yards per carry. He also had 73 catches over that span. Has the ability to return kicks and punts. Undersized (5-7, 210). Ran 4.56 in the 40 at his pro day. Has similarities with Tarik Cohen in terms of highlight-reel ability. His athleticism and dynamic ability make Carter a sleeper candidate to surface on the fantasy radar.

28. Demario Richard, Arizona St — A physical back who is built like a brick house (5-10, 219), but also saw his playing time decrease over the last two seasons splitting time with Kalen Ballage. Topped 1,000 rushing yards in 2015 and 2017 and scored 12 times last season. Showed ability as a receiver in 2015 with 31 catches, but his work in the passing game was minimal over the last two seasons. More of a bruiser who wasn’t particularly effective after contact with just 2.8 yards after contact per attempt. Projects more as a two-down option if he’s able to land a roster spot.

29. Jeffery Wilson, North Texas — A four-year player whose production increased every season. Was especially effective at finding the end zone, scoring 14 times as a runner in 2016 and 16 times in 2017. Also averaged 6.5 yards per carry. Lacks prototype size (5-11, 194). Didn’t test in most of the events at the combine due to a foot injury, but ran 4.56 at his pro day. Capable receiver with 53 catches over the last two seasons. There are things to like about Wilson’s game, but his size and overall lack of explosive ability don’t bode well for him surfacing on the fantasy radar.

30. Justin Crawford, West Virginia — Very athletic slasher type with a lean build (6-0, 202). Played at the junior college level, then topped 1,000 yards in each of his two seasons with West Virginia. Finished with a yards-per-carry average of 6.3. Wasn’t especially effective independent of his blocking with an average of 3.1 yards after contact per attempt. Didn’t do much as a receiver with only 22 catches over his two seasons at WVU. Ran 4.64 in the 40 at the combine. Isn’t a good bet for future fantasy success.

31. Mike Boone, Cincinnati — An athletic and stout (5-9, 208) back who posted off-the-charts testing numbers with a 42-inch vert, 11-foot-7 broad jump, and a 4.44 40-yard dash. Hampered by a foot injures over the past few seasons causing his yards per carry numbers to drop off a cliff from 6.8 over his first two seasons to just under 4.0 over the last two years. Capable of catching the ball out of the backfield with 44 catches in his last two seasons. For fantasy purposes, Boone’s athleticism is worth noting. He’s a bit of a longshot, but if things play out the right way, he could be a bit of a poor man’s Kareem Hunt.

32. Keith Ford, Texas A&M — Possesses prototype size (5-11, 215) and tested well at his pro day with a 4.54 40 time and a 39-inch vert. Posted a lackluster 3.9 yards per carry in 2017, but did score 12 rushing touchdowns. Not particularly elusive, with just 2.2 yards after contact per attempt and only 16 forced missed tackles in 2017. Started his career out at Oklahoma and transferred after two seasons. Has the size to be an NFL back, but his resume doesn’t inspire confidence in Ford ever emerging as a future fantasy option.

33. Chris Warren III, Texas — Built like a Mack truck at 6-4, 250 pounds. Decided to declare for the draft after Texas wanted to move him to H-back. Didn’t carry a big load with just 71 carries this past season and 204 over his three years at Texas. Lacks speed (4.69 40-yard dash), but is very strong with 25 reps on the bench at the combine. His father was a Pro Bowl running back. Warren has size you can’t teach, but may be destined for more of a hybrid fullback role at the pro level.

34. Ryan Nall, Oregon State— A big-bodied back at 6-2, 234 pounds who put up some solid testing numbers at the combine including a 4.58 40 time. Averaged 4.0 yards after contact over his college career. Has experience as an H-back and is a good receiver out of the backfield with 49 catches and four receiving scores over the last two seasons. Isn’t likely to make a fantasy impact as a running back, but Nall is someone to keep an eye on if he gets converted over to H-back.

35. Ralph Webb, Vanderbilt — A productive four-year back who leaves college with 4,178 yards and 32 scores on the ground. Broke Zac Stacy’s rushing record at Vanderbilt. Averaged a lackluster 4.4 yards per carry and managed just 2.3 yards after contact per attempt. Comes from a track and field background, twice winning the Florida state long jump championship in high school. Ran 4.48 in the 40 and put up 27 reps on the bench at his pro day. Despite the impressive testing numbers, Webb’s lack of dynamic ability bodes poorly for his long-term fantasy outlook.

36. Lavon Coleman, Washington — Regressed after a promising 2016 season where he averaged 7.5 yards per carry and scored seven times. Efficiency dipped to just 4.6 yards per carry last year. He also dropped from 3.9 yards after contact per attempt to just 2.9. Wasn’t used heavily as a receiver with just 31 catches in four years. While Coleman is built like an NFL running back (5-11, 223), his dip in production and inability to make defenders miss don’t suggest future fantasy value.

37. Larry Rose III, New Mexico St — An undersized slasher who checks in at 5-11, 190 pounds. Very productive with 4,558 yards and 37 scores on 770 carries, though his numbers declined over his final two seasons. Heavily used as a receiver. Had 133 career catches and racked up 55 receptions last season. Has ability as a returner. Capable back in space who can make plays, but Rose’s lack of size will limit what he can do at the pro level. Not likely to be fantasy relevant.

38. Dalyn Dawkins, Colorado St — A small scat back at 5-8, 173 pounds. Posted big numbers in 2017 with 1,399 yards and eight sores on 226 carries. Has ability as a receiver with 20-plus catches in each of the last three seasons. Has some mismatch potential, but more than likely will have to play in the slot at the pro level.

39. Kyle Hicks, TCU — A four-year player who carried the ball 444 times at TCU. Numbers declined from 1,042 yards and 12 scores on the ground in 2016 to 637 yards and four scores last season. Yards per carry dipped from 5.1 to 4.6. Managed just 2.6 yards after contact per attempt. Heavily used as a receiver with 77 catches over the last two years, which could be where we see his contributions if he makes an NFL roster.

40. Jordan Chunn, Troy — Mike Tolbert 2.0 at 6-1, 231 pounds. Notched 1,288 yards and 16 scores on 279 carries in 2016. Dealt with a leg injury in 2017. A battering ram type who may surface at times as a short-yardage back, but that won’t be enough to give him fantasy value.

41. Dimitri Flowers, Oklahoma — Flowers is more of a fullback with massive size (6-2, 245). Strong receiver. Caught 26 balls for 464 yards and dive scores in 2017. Only had 14 rushing attempts, but scored on four of them. So short-yardage could be an area he’s used at the pro level. Comes from an NFL pedigree. His father, Erik Flowers, is a former first-round pick at defensive end. Fullbacks rarely produce viable fantasy numbers, so Flowers isn’t a good bet to ever surface as a fantasy option.

42. Nick Bawden, San Diego St — Big and physical at 6-3, 245 pounds. Entered college as a quarterback prospect, but then moved to fullback and served as the lead blocker for Donnel Pumphrey and Rashaad Penny. Showed the ability to catch the ball out of the backfield with 15 catches in each of the last two years. May catch a few balls at the pro level, but isn’t likely to consistently see touches at the pro level.

43. Kamryn Pettway, Auburn — A big, bruising short-yardage back who checks in at 6-0, 233 pounds. Ran for over 1,200 yards in 2016, but managed just 305 yards and six scores on 76 carries last season. Dealt with a shoulder injury and was suspended for a violation of team rules in 2017. One-dimensional player who won’t be fantasy relevant.

44. D’Ernest Johnson, South Florida — A workman back who racked up 496 touches over his four years at USF. Scored a combined 28 times as a runner and receiver, but managed a lackluster 4.3 yards per carry and just 2.6 yards after contact per attempt. Won’t be a fantasy option.

45. Donnie Ernsberger, Western Michigan — Massive (6-3, 255) fullback with very good hands as a receiver. Dropped just two balls on 52 targets in 2017. Racked up 395 yards and four scores on 35 catches. Won’t be a fantasy option.

 

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