Potentially no other position at the NFL Scouting Combine will be under a stronger microscope than the running back group. Considered the “most talented” position in the 2018 NFL Draft, in terms of first to last round value, a whopping 31 running backs will be performing in the “Underwear Olympics”. With that being said, I will give a detailed display of eight RB Combine participants, and elaborate on how they will make their mark not only in Indy, but in their upcoming professional football careers.
Cream of the Crop
Even though 31 running backs will be participants at the Combine, everyone will rightfully have their eyes and ears peeled for the test results of the potential first round prospects.
Essentially the consensus RB1, everyone will have their the spotlights focused on the phenom talent out of Penn State. Barkley weighed in at 6’0”, 233 pounds on Wednesday afternoon. Already starting the week strong, Barkley will seek to continue looking like an alien athlete on Friday. There aren’t many departments that Barkley struggles or is even average in, but he will be expected to show off his explosion and short area quickness. Drills that will be beneficial to Barkley on Friday are the 40 yard dash, and the bag reaction drill. With the 40; Barkley will be under deep evaluation in both his 10-yard split and his actual 40 yard dash. I’m expecting him to post a 40 time under 4.41, and a 10 yard split under 1.55. If he is able to exceed both those test times, he will have surpassed Adrian Peterson’s Combine results from 2007, confirming his “freak” athletic ability given his ideal build. With the on-field bag drills, Barkley will have the opportunity to prove his sharp reaction skills inside the close quarters and show off his change of direction. Barkley’s most common knock is his inconsistency to hit inside landmarks on running plays, instead searching for the “home-run” bounce outside. While the Combine cannot fully debunk that notion, Saquon will still able to prove he can be a north-south runner. Teams such as the New York Giants, New York Jets, and Tampa Bay Buccaneers are teams I expect to be keeping tabs on Barkley and would be great scheme fits for him inside the Top 10 of the Draft (even though he can play for all 32 teams).
RONALD JONES III
Someone who has continued to steadily rise up draft boards is Ronald Jones III. A borderline top 5 running back prospect prior to the 2017 season, Jones has since cemented himself as either the second or third best running back amongst most parties. The reason being: his natural cutting ability, precision, burst, and finish of carries. While some scouts will be concerned with him posting below average hand size (8 3/4”), it be would fairly absurd to dock his value a significant amount due to that. He is still a back who, despite that hand size, doesn’t typically fumble the football or have a consistent problem with dropped receptions in the passing game. With the “Texas Tesla” weighing in at 205, up 5 pounds since the regular season, he’ll be expected to maintain his speed and elusiveness. Being a “Jamaal Charles” clone, I don’t expect Jones to break a sub 4.4, which Charles ran at the 2008 Combine (4.39). However, running below a 4.48 would bode very well for him and should make him a lock around the league as a top 40 selection. At times, Jones was improperly utilized in USC offense, being used largely as a downhill runner or RPO diversion. At the next level, using him in B gap and out running plays such as outside zones, counters, and tosses will optimize his full running prowess given that he’s such an elusive ball carrier. Teams with a complete playbook of running back creativity – such as the Philadelphia Eagles, Tennessee Titans, or New York Jets – would be ideal scheme fits for Jones III.
Guice has had an interesting fluctuation of draft stock value throughout the early parts of the process. Ranging anywhere from a top 15 to a mid 2nd round pick, Guice has shown on film that he’s arguably the best pure runner in the draft class. Guice has a fiery combination of size, athleticism, burst, and power that you can’t help but gets excited about when you put on the game tape. When you consider how smooth of a ball carrier he is, given his 224 pound weigh in, it is to hard to imagine why people could be remotely low on him. Of the three players mentioned so far, Guice will easily need to have the most impressive performance. Obviously, he’ll need a 40 yard dash time that clocks in more or less around a 4.5 flat, but he’ll need to test favorably in the broad and vertical jumps to show off his explosiveness and lower body force. The most important drill Guice this weekend, could very well be the route running segments. Not touted as a natural receiver due to his lack of receiving production, Guice has the opportunity to show smoothness and nuance catching out of the backfield. If Guice wants to reemerge as a first round prospect amongst all draft circles, he’ll need to electrify Indy with his performance. Teams such as the Indianapolis Colts, Detroit Lions, and Miami Dolphins all intrigue me as Guice destinations if he were to slip into Round 2. All three teams hold some dynamicness currently in the running back committee, but having such a great pure running back like Guice in their offense would present more offensive opportunities for these teams with well-established signal callers.
In homage to one of the greatest wrestlers to ever grace the earth, Shawn Michaels. Michaels electrified any grand stage, such as Wrestlemania, with his ability to grasp the audience’s attention to steal the show. Regardless of his popularity at the time or his place on the event’s card, the Heartbreak Kid always sought to leave with people talking about him. Here are a few guys who could elevate themselves with their Combine performance, and “stop” the show.
If I were to place my money on any offensive prospect to record the fastest time in the 40 yard dash, my entire investment would be put towards Nyheim Hines attempt. A former track star, Hines will be expected to run fast, posting a 6.7 60 meter dash. Whew. When I attempted to compute and convert Hines’ 60 meters into 40 yards, I came away with a 4.31 second approximated result. While it could be very unlikely for Hines’ to come close to a sub 4.3, about a 4.35 would still be faster than any any running back at the Combine last year. When watching tape on Hines, you could evidently see him trying to get a full grasp of the position, as he was essentially a receiver his first seasons at North Carolina State. That position experience would very well play into Hines’ benefit, as he’ll be considered a dual threat as a running back. NC State managed to still flex him out as an F-slot during his junior season, seeing several jet sweeps and quick passes in the RPO game. That versatility might enable a team during Day 2 to take a chance on him, and add some dynamic ability to their running back group.
On a smaller scale, Kelly has seen his hype fluctuate much like Guice’s did throughout the early stages of the draft process. Underappreciated during his time in Knoxville, Kelly made the most of his opportunities despite never seeing the an abundance of carries until Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd moved on from the program. The Vols back proved his worth during the early part of the 2017 season, posting 112.5 yards per game the first weeks of the season. Unfortunately, Kelly became slightly underutilized in the offense and never surpassed 80 rushing yards in a game the remainder of the season. Kelly is a stout runner; with significant power, leg drive, and burst in each carry. Weighing in right below 5’10” and 216 pounds, Kelly shares nearly identical measurables with Kansas City Chiefs running back Kareem Hunt. Unlike Hunt, Kelly will probably be most appropriately suited as a pure RB2, change of pace compliment, who can carry the load of a running game if ever needed to step in short term. A team like the Pittsburgh Steelers or the Dallas Cowboys would be ideal landing spots for Kelly. Both teams have Pro-Bowl talents in the backfield, but in the past have had to scramble for a replacement due to injury or suspension. Kelly could find a 8-10 carry role on either team, and provide support to an already lethal run game.
Throughout my draft evaluations since about the mid way point of the 2017 season, there isn’t a running back prospect I’ve had a more “roller coaster” feeling about than Kalen Ballage. A specimen of the position, weighing in at 6’2” and 228 pounds, Ballage will be an athletic marvel. Lance Zierlein of NFL.com reported that a NFC Director of College Scouting expects Ballage to “Lift well, run well, and jump out of the stadium” during Friday’s workouts. While “out of the stadium” might be a stretch; Ballage could very well end up with an approximate stat line of a 4.45 in the 40, a 37” vertical, an 11’ broad, and 22+ reps on the bench press. Given Ballage’s sculpted height/weight, that type of testing results would some some scouts drooling from the mouth. Having those type of numbers would more or less imitate another big and athletic freak show at the position, Latavius Murray. With that being said, I continually see the Oakland Raiders as a perfect marriage situation for Ballage. Once Marshawn Lynch decides to rehang his cleats on the cable wires, Ballage could strive to replicate the Pro Bowl production that Murray left behind from the 2015 season.
Every year, there’s that prospect who is labeled as a guy who doesn’t have what other top prospects might. They tend to fall in the draft and being criminally underrated due to size, lack of production, or concerns with talent level competition. Despite those doubts, they feed off of the energy of events such as the Combine, and use that chip on their shoulder as fuel. These two underrated running backs aren’t talked about in-depth within draft circles, but could use the Combine’s platform to change that notion.
Racean “Roc” Thomas is arguably my top sleeper in a running back class that’s filled with talent and depth. Thomas, a standout player for FCS powerhouse Jacksonville State during his two playing seasons, earned FCS All-American honors his senior season. The former 4-star high school recruit started his career at Auburn, but transferred after the 2015 season in order to seek more opportunities. That decision proved to pay well, as he appeared on many occasions to be a “man amongst boys” for the Gamecocks. Where he impressed the most was his suddenness, quickness, and his elusive reaction skills while carrying the football. Thomas is “quicker than fast”, so expect him to tally impressive numbers in short area drills such as the three-cone, short shuttle, and in his 10 yard split. For what it’s worth, Thomas has one of the savviest spin moves I’ve ever seen in a player, it almost appears as an generated animation from the Madden video game. Thomas will be questioned about his “lack” of competition at the D1-AA level, but his natural abilities should elevate his stock and garner him some major interest as a Top 100 draft selection.
Unless you’re deeply fluent in NFL Draft talk or a proud alumnus of Oregon State, you’ve more than likely haven’t heard much of anything regarding Ryan Nall as an NFL prospect. Well, that could very well change if he shocks folks with his testing results. Expected to run in the low 4.5s, the 6’2”, 232 pound back would force scouts to return to his tape. Nall understandably wasn’t the most fluid runner, but is certainly someone that has the capability to pound the rock downfield and break a “home run” play at any given moment. Nall’s pro projection will be difficult to assess, since he will likely not be a full time running back at the next level. I can see him mirroring someone such as former Raider great Marcel Reece. High praise, but Reece was also a phenomenal athlete for his size, but was knocked for being a tweener; being “too large” for a running back, but “too small” to be a tight end. Fortunately for Nall, the emergence of more H-Back types in offensive schemes could earn him long term residence in the league.
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