NFL Draft Analysis: 2018 Running Back Class Projections and Predictions
Welcome back to my mini-series delving into the running backs of the NFL Draft, past, present and future. This second installment is meant to look further into the Class of 2018; the runners who are currently in school and either are projected to, or already have, declared for the NFL Draft this April. I was able to leverage some of the research I used in Part 1 of this NFL Draft Series, which if you missed it, dove into the relationships between college production and future NFL stats, as well as future draft position.
For the balance of this piece, I will break down the projected top 10 running backs to come out of this years class, and this list is as follows according to NFL Draft expert Mel Kiper:
Saquon Barkley, Bryce Love, Derrius Guice, Ronald Jones II, Damien Harris, Nick Chubb, Kerryon Johnson, Rashaad Penny, Royce Freeman, and Sony Michel.
Before diving into the projections, I was able to note a few significant things from this years class. The ’18 runners, on average, produced less per year than their 2013-2017 fellow draftees. The 2013-17 class of runners averaged about 1,100 yards rushing, 195 yards receiving and 13 touchdowns per year, while the ’18 prospects have averaged 1,050 yards rushing, 150 receiving and 12 touchdowns per year. The biggest drop-off comes in the receiving category, and it will be interesting to see if this years crop will improve their skills as receivers much like the previous classes have.
The first step towards establishing my own RB big board was recording each players respective statistics in college, from rushing and receiving yards to total touchdowns scored. Next, I utilized my table of current NFL RBs from the past 5 NFL drafts to see just how our 2018 class of runners compared to the last rounds of highly touted talent. Then I began to let the numbers do the talking, and found the best comparisons from the last 5 NFL drafts to our 2018 class, and used the NFL production of those comparisons to project future NFL stats for the 2018 class.Keep in mind, the comparisons drawn are strictly on a statistics basis, not on play style or draft-ability.
Here is the table of the current NFL runners from the last 5 drafts I used as comparisons, followed by the table of 2018’s RB prospects and their college and projected NFL stats:
To explain those numbers above, here are the most apt comparisons I drew from the 5 years of NFL RB’s for each 2018 prospect:
Royce Freeman: Giovanni Bernard, Christian McCaffery
Saquon Barkley: Giovanni Bernard, Dalvin Cook, Christian McCaffery
Ronald Jones II: Ameer Abdullah, Todd Gurley
Derrius Guice: Carlos Hyde, Melvin Gordon
Nick Chubb: Derrick Henry, TJ Yeldon
Bryce Love: LeVeon Bell, Derrick Henry
Sony Michel: LeVeon Bell, Jeremy Hill
Rashaad Penny: Joe Mixon, Eddie Lacy
Kerryon Johnson: Eddie Lacy, Jeremy Hill
Damien Harris: Christine Michael, Carlos Hyde
You can also see in the above table how the numbers I used projected each prospect to be drafted, and their corresponding Draft Score (63 is the best, 0 is the worst). The NFL projected statistics are for the first 3 years of the prospects pro career, not necessarily for the entirety of their NFL lives. The numbers ranked Royce Freeman, behind his incredibly productive 4 year career at Oregon, as the best RB in this years draft (Alabama RB Damien Harris rounded out the top 10 runners). As a disclosure, I am aware these numbers do not actually tell the story of each player as a prospect, and are wholly dependent on what players I used as comparisons and therefore dependent on my eye for comparing completely independent data points.
So, to account for my disclosure above, and to add a bit of human perspective, I decided to use the numbers from each players college days alongside the projected NFL numbers from a pure comparison standpoint to create my own NFL Draft Big Board of running backs:
As you can see, my projected draft order and NFL statistics do vary quite significantly from the pure numbers projections. Adding in a human element, including personal biases such as enjoying watching a certain player more, also affect this data set and projection. But I do personally believe that this second set of projections will follow much more closely to actual outcomes in the future than those that were derived strictly from data. As stated above, the NFL projected numbers are projections for the first 3 years of the players career at the pro level.
I do not, in almost any circumstance, see all 10 of the prospects being drafted in the first 2 rounds. Especially after considering we are seeing only about 3 RB’s taken in the first 2 rounds since 2013, I decided to adjust my Draft Score system to include a 3rd round, making the scores out of 96 instead of 64 (95 is the best, 0 is the worst). My prediction is we see Saquon Barkley go #4 overall to the Cleveland Browns, and is joined in the first round by late round picks Derrius Guice and Sony Michel from the SEC. I see Bryce Love, Ronald Jones II, and Nick Chubb going earlier in the 2nd round, followed by Kerryon Johnson and Rashaad Penny in the late 2nd. Damien Harris and Royce Freeman round out the top 10 RB’s taken in the draft, with each going in the mid-to-late 3rd round.
In meshing opinion and the numbers from above, I see Saquon Barkley and Sony Michel having the most success early on in their careers. Michel is a very similar type of player to Saints rookie RB Alvin Kamara, and with Michel going in the late first round he has a chance to play in a very good situation from the jump. Despite Royce Freeman’s inflated performance numbers in college, I am not high on him at the next level, which is why you see a dampened down projection on his stat line.
This deep dive into the running back classes of the past decade or so has enlightened me in the position, and given me a broader understanding of what allows a player to be drafted higher and produce more at the next level.
Like my research? Feel free to comment down below or follow my social media accounts and let me know how your predictions differ!
I am a 22 year old college graduate from Connecticut who has been a lifelong sports fan following the Minnesota Vikings as a die-hard fan.
Firm “Numbers Never Lie” believer. Tweet me your hot takes!