The resurgence of the running back position in the NFL Draft continued in 2017 with two runners selected in the top 10 and four in the top 50. Last year, Ezekiel Elliott was drafted No. 4 overall, and in 2015 both Todd Gurley and Melvin Gordon heard their names called in Round 1.
The 2018 NFL Draft is expected to have a handful of first-round worthy running backs too, led by Penn State’s Saquon Barkley. One NFC scout described him as ‘special’ to NFL.com’s Bucky Brooks, who expanded on Barkley’s game:
“After studying the game tape, I believe Barkley is a blue-collar runner with a unique game that mixes power with finesse. He has the speed, quickness and burst to turn the corner on any defense, yet he is a nasty downhill runner with enough thump to run through contact at the point of attack. He repeatedly breaks tackles in the hole by lowering his shoulder into the defender, and he will follow it up with a subtle wiggle to avoid the next tackler. Barkley’s uncanny ability to shift from power to finesse is uncommon, which is why running back coaches will salivate over his game at the next level.”
Brooks’s assessment of Barkley’s game is spot on. He’s the ultimate blend of traits and could be what everyone wanted Trent Richardson to become on the next level. In fact, I’d be willing to bet some of Barkley’s critics will compare him to Richardson in an effort to caution against his ability to thrive as an NFL running back.
Barkley has been on my radar since he was a freshman. He’s a rare talent and will be valued along the lines of Elliott and Leonard Fournette by season’s end, assuming he can stay healthy. I expect him to have the best season of his career so far in Happy Valley, with 1,800 rushing yards not out of the question.
Much of Barkley’s final draft value will be determined — unfairly — by the continued success of recent first-round backs. Gordon took the throne as the Los Angeles Chargers’ most important offensive weapon last season, and Elliott’s year for the Dallas Cowboys was one of the best for a rookie running back in NFL history. Fournette and Christian McCaffrey should be offensive centerpieces in 2017.
Gurley is arguably the only question mark of the group. He had a bad year in 2016 by any standard. His offensive line was brutal last season, but that excuse can only last so long for a player who’s supposed to be blessed with blue-chip talent. 2017 will be a huge year for his career trajectory.
For Barkley, a healthy 2017 college football season should result in him becoming a top-10 prospect by the time the 2018 NFL Combine rolls around.