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Top 5 running back prospects + sleepers before the 2018 NFL Combine

The Combine is approaching, which means it is time for positional rankings. Today, we rank the best running back prospects, along with a sleeper and others to watch.

NCAA Football: Fiesta Bowl-Penn State vs Washington Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Greetings Faithful! The Super Bowl has been played, the Philadelphia Eagles are world champions and we can now start looking ahead to the offseason and everything that comes with it. This includes the NFL Scouting Combine held in Indianapolis in a couple of weeks, free agency, the draft, numerous private workouts with draft prospects, and the beginning of early workouts, and off-season programs.

The San Francisco 49ers completed their biggest task by far this offseason by locking up quarterback Jimmy Garoppolo to a record setting 5 year deal that will (at the moment) make him the highest paid player in the NFL. Just this signing alone gives the 49ers a tally in the win column this off season. The faithful should be very excited, especially with what we all witnessed from Jimmy in his first five starts. However, as head coach Kyle Shanahan said in the team’s recent press conference, the real hard work begins now, and there is still a lot of work to be done. Nothing is a given in this league, and everything is earned. The 49ers might have won the day by signing their franchise quarterback, but the terrain to reach their biggest goals is still treacherous and will require a massive team effort to reach the promise land. In order to do that, GM John Lynch and Shanahan must now turn towards other pressing needs.

NFL: San Francisco 49ers at Los Angeles Rams Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Our focus today shifts to the running back position. This past year we saw Carlos Hyde maintain his role as the starting back, with Matt Breida serving as a formidable change-of-pace back behind Hyde. Breida was a pleasant surprise for the 49ers coming into a training camp as an un-drafted free agent. The 49ers selected Joe Williams last year in the 4th round out of Utah. Unfortunately, after a rough preseason and an ankle injury, Williams never saw the field again after being placed on the season-ending injured reserve list. Williams’ status is best up-in-the-air and we will see how the team handles him this season. I believe they will not give up on their fourth round selection and hopefully he can make a positive contribution to the team moving forward. Also, on the team was Raheem Mostert.

Free agency is going to be interesting as far as the running back portion is concerned. The biggest question is what the team will decide to do with Carlos Hyde who is due to be an unrestricted free agent this year. All of us have a better chance of hitting the lottery than the team does at slapping Hyde with the franchise tag. It’s simply not going to happen. So, that leaves two options on the table…Sign him or let him walk. Shanahan must decide if Hyde is truly the right fit for his offense. Should the 49ers let him walk, it wont be long till Hyde finds a new home.

Before we get to draft prospects, let’s see some notable free agent running backs (via Rotoworld)

Le’Veon Bell (26)
Dion Lewis (27)
Carlos Hyde (27)
Jerick McKinnon (25)
Isaiah Crowell (25)
Rex Burkhead (27)
Frank Gore (34)
Darren Sproles (34)
Alfred Morris (29)
Charles Sims (27)
Jeremy Hill (25)
Damien Williams (25)

Obviously the big fish in this class is Le’Veon Bell. The 49ers or anyone for that matter would sent shockwaves across the league if they were to sign Bell. The twenty five year old all-pro back is a game changing talent and one of the most dangerous weapons in the NFL. There are red flags though, including an injury history, drug suspensions, and durability (Bell carried the ball over 400 times last season!). If a team can get past those flags, then it will cost them premium money. Bell is expecting to be paid like a running back and receiver. Should the Steelers let him hit the open market grab some popcorn and enjoy the bidding war!

Are there any Free Agent running backs that YOU are interested in? Onto the top running backs to keep a close eye on this draft season!

Saquon Barkley, No. 26 - Penn State

Height: 5’11” - Weight: 229 lbs - Age: 21
40 Time: 4.38
Stats: 1,134 yards averaging 5.7 yards per carry and 16 touchdowns. In addition, Barkley reeled in 47 receptions for 594 yards and 3 touchdowns.

Some, including myself consider Barkley to be the number one overall player in this draft, and for good reason. Barkley has lethal speed, with elite balance, vision, poise, and elusiveness. A power back, that can shift and cut, evading the quickest defenders. His cutting ability is among the best I have ever studied. Barkley is the number one home run threat in this draft class. His solid vision and patience leads to big yardage gains and short field positioning to set up the offense. Barkley’s burst is amongst the best this class has to offer. A dual-threat offensive weapon who is just as dangerous catching the ball as he is carrying it. A special player on special teams who returned two to the house this past season. Between his abilities as a back, receiver, and return specialist on special teams, I believe Barkley is the most valuable player in this draft class. Barkley is truly a special talent, and worthy of a top five selection. It will be a heated debate amongst fans, but Barkely would be a seamless fit in Shanahan’s offense. The question is can the 49ers justify selecting a running back in the first round? The Rams, Cowboys, and Jaguars don’t seem to have any regrets doing so. If they do, then the only question left is will Barkley be there when the 49ers are on the clock? It’s looking less likely with each passing day.

Round Projection: Top 5 Overall Pick

Derrius Guice, No. 5 - LSU

Height: 5’11” - Weight: 212 lbs. - Age: 20
40 Time: 4.49
Stats: 1,251 rushing yards, averaging 5.3 yards per carry, and 11 touchdowns. 18 receptions for 124 yards and 2 touchdowns.

Nothing like trying to replace an elite talent like Leonard Fournette. However, that is exactly what Guice did, and carved out his own story with the LSU Tigers in Baton Rouge. A strong and well-balanced combination of speed, power, and athleticism. Guice has efficient vision and is patient, finding holes and openings through the line. Puts his head down, and isn’t afraid to get hit. Watching his tape, Guice has good form, lowering his shoulders on incoming defenders. Has the ability to run through tackles in the seems, and picks up speed as the play extends. His lower-body power punishes oncoming defenders, especially at the secondary level. Can run along the edge, and has the dual-threat ability to line up as a receiver. Guice is especially dangerous in the open field. Durability will need to monitored, as he dealt with injuries in 2017. He has average burst, and at times can be too patient at the line. Will need to trust his instincts more to not get caught up at the line of scrimmage. I do like his range and ability to cut and be elusive. This and many positive skills that Guide possesses is what Shanahan looks for in his running backs.

Draft Projection: 1st-2nd Round

Sony Michel, No. 1 - Georgia

Height: 5’11” - 216 lbs. - Age: 22
40 Time: 4.47
Stats: 1,227 yards rushing for 16 touchdowns on 7.9 yards per carry.

One of the most elusive and versatile runners in this draft class. Michel was part of a three headed monster in Georgia, and chances are at most schools he would be a three down back. Michel is a disciplined runner with a clean vision for the field on his runs. Has good balance with his upper and lower body. Has a strong foundation in his lower body, and has demonstrated his ability to fight through tackles. Strong value as a blocker in pass protection, and on tape he demonstrated his ability to quickly read blitz packages. Big yardage receiver, who had multiple scores that were beyond fifteen yards. Michel is also a true leader who carried himself very well both on and off the field. Was a team captain his final two seasons in Athens. I would like to see Michel become more of a pass catching running back. He needs to expand on this at the next level. On tape, Michel sometimes would not lower his pads and drop his head prematurely or too quickly into his runs. Still though, there is so much more to like about Michel, and I left wanting to see more…partly because of the crowded backfield in Georgia. Michel could be a valued second round selection for the 49ers.

Draft Projection: 2nd Round

Ronald Jones II, No. 25 - USC

Height: 6’0” - Weight: 200 lbs. - Age: 20
Projected 40: 4.48
Stats: 1,550 yards rushing for 19 touchdowns on 5.9 yards per carry. 14 receptions for 187 yards and 1 touchdown.

Watching his tape, Jones came across as one of the more confident runners that I have studied in this draft class. On tape, Jones consistently followed his blockers in motion, and finding the holes and gaps in open space along the line of scrimmage. Cutting ability is clean, and his shifty maneuvers knock defenders off balance. Jones fights for every yard, and looks to excel on contact. Jones trusts his body when he runs, executing his effective lower-body strength. Has strong and reliable hands, taking care of the football. Rarely will Jones commit a turnover. His physical traits and overall frame leave a little cause for concern. It will be interesting to see how his body takes the punishment at the next level. I sense that Jones may not be a three down back yet at the next level, though that can change overtime. Unlike Barkley and Guice, Jones needs to embrace more patience when carrying the ball, and at times on tape his runs were broken up prematurely at the line. Still though, I love his explosiveness and ability to burst for a home run strike. He is the kind of back that can check into the game and knock a defense off balance. In the pass-friendly NFL those backs are highly valued these days.

Draft Projection: 2nd Round

Royce Freeman, No. 21 - Oregon

Height: 5’11” - Weight: 238 lbs. - Age: 21
Projected 40: 4.53
Stats: 1,475 yards rushing for 14 touchdowns on 6.0 yards per carry. 14 receptions for 164 yards.

One of the strongest running backs in this year’s draft class. Freeman had a magnificent career with the Ducks despite some injuries and coaching changes. A power back with speed and lower-body strength to fight off defenders on the first contact. Often on tape, Freeman demonstrated the ability to shift his body and put himself in prime position in running lanes. Has clean footwork, that can adjust on a dime and helps Freeman knock defenders off balance. While he is still a work in pass protection, he has demonstrated his ability to be a blocker which can lead to opportunities for Freeman to become a three down back at the next level. Freeman was effective as a pass catcher, especially in screen packages. At times on tape, Freeman can be seen running directly into contact, and not being patient enough to find the lane or gaps. Durability is also something to monitor with his injury history (knee) and his volume use. Freeman had over 1,000 touches at Oregon. There are going to be mixed options on Freeman. Some will think he is overvalued and some will feel he is undervalued. At the moment Freeman is looking like a day two selection.

Draft Projection: 2nd-3rd Round

Mid-Round Sleeper

Josh Adams - No. 33 - Notre Dame

Height: 6’2” - Weight: 222 lbs. - Age: 21
Stats: 1,430 yards rushing with 9 touchdowns on 6.9 yards per carry. 13 receptions for 101 yards

It was a season to remember for Josh Adams at Notre Dame. The number one offensive weapon for the Irish was as explosive as they came. Adams had the luxury of playing behind one of the best offensive lines in the country, but still had the vision and ability to consistently find the gaps and holes on his runs. Adams runs with determination, and will shake off defenders on first contact. One of the taller backs in this class, Adams used his body to produce tough yards after contact. Needs to continue to find balance and clean up his footwork. Some will worry about his size for the position, but Adams makes up for it with his speed. He is my mid-round sleeper with an arrow pointing up, so don’t be surprised between now and the draft if his stock climbs.

Draft Projection: 4th-5th Round

More Running Backs To Watch At The Combine

RB - Kerryon Johnson, No. 21 - Auburn
Height: 6’0” - Weight: 220 lbs. - Age: 20
Projected 40: 4.51
Stats: 1,391 yards rushing with 18 touchdowns on 4.9 yards per carry. 24 receptions for 194 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Draft Projection: 2nd-3rd Round

RB - Nick Chubb, No. 27 - Georgia
Height: 5’10” - Weight: 220 lbs - Age:
Projected 40: 4.50
Stats: 1,345 yards with 15 touchdowns on 6.0 yards per carry. 2 receptions for 20 yards.
Draft Projection: 2nd-3rd Round

RB - Rashaad Penny, No. 20 - San Diego State
Height: 5’11” - Weight: 220 lbs. - Age: 22
Projected 40: 4.58
Stats: 2,248 yards rushing for 23 touchdowns, 19 receptions for 135 yards and 2 touchdowns.
Draft Projection: 3rd-4th Round

RB/HB - Jaylen Samuels, No. 1 - N.C. State
Height: 5’11” - 223 lbs. - Age: 22
Projected 40 Time: 4.58
Stats: 403 yards rushing for 12 touchdowns on 4.3 yards per carry. 76 receptions for 597 yards and 4 touchdowns.
Draft Projection: 3rd-4th Round

Final Note

This is a very deep and very special running back class. There are a number of prospects who can become major contributors at the next level. It will certainly be fun to continue to watch and get to know these running back prospects throughout the draft process during the offseason.

What running backs are YOU most excited about this draft season? Please share in the comments below!