Top 10 Rookie Running Backs For 2018: Is There Any Value Beyond The Obvious?

by Eric Stashin (aka The Rotoprofessor)

There’s a clear #1 running back entering the NFL this season, and maybe a few other seemingly useful pieces, but after that things get a little bit murky.  Who has the most upside for the upcoming season?  Who should we be targeting?  Let’s take a look:


1) Saquon Barkley – New York Giants
There’s no questioning the upside and role of Barkley, who will instantly look to solve the Giants’ backfield issues.  The team bypassed a potential franchise quarterback to select him, and there’s a good chance that he proves them right.  You can argue that there’s already a lot of mileage on him, but short-term that’s not a concern.  Just look at the numbers from last season at Penn State:

  • Rushing – 1,271 yards (on 217 carries) and 18 TD
  • Receiving – 54 receptions for 632 yards and 3 TD

Over the past two seasons he’s scored 43 total TD (36 rushing) and should immediately step in as one of the elite running backs in the game.


2) Derrius Guice – Washington Redskins
Chris Thompson is going to maintain his role as third down/pass catching back, but the team had a desperate need for a lead runner.  Enter Guice, who was selected in the second round out of LSU and should immediately step into the role and potentially carry the offense (with Alex Smith replacing Kirk Cousins at QB and an underwhelming wide receiver corps).

Guice has never been much of a pass catcher, but he’s coming off back-to-back seasons with 1,250+ yards and he’s scored 26 TD over the past two seasons (1,251 yards and 11 TD in ’17).  Walter Football compared him to Ray Rice in his prime, which is high praise, saying:

Guice’s game is similar to what Rice’s was, plus they are virtually the same size. Like Rice, Guice features quickness to the hole, shifty running with good pad level, and the toughness to pick up yards after contact. Rice was a second-round pick in the 2008 NFL Draft, and Guice looks likely to be selected in the same round this year. I think Guice is similar to Rice, and I think Guice could be as good as, or better than, Rice was during his strong seasons from 2009-2012.

During that four year stretch Rice averaged 1,266.5 yards per season, including scoring 9+ TD twice.


3) Rashaad Penny – Seattle Seahawks
Drafted out of San Diego State with the 27th pick of the 2018 draft, Penny put up some gaudy numbers in his final college season with 2,248 rushing yards, 135 receiving yards and 25 total TD (23 came on the ground).   Just to give you an idea of the potential upside, Walter Football described as a, “poor man’s” David Johnson and further compared them by saying:

Some team sources have compared Penny to Johnson. It makes sense as both are big, thick running backs who have a surprising burst with the ability to contribute in the passing game.

To call that high praise would be an understatement and goes to show you how big his potential is.  There also is little competition on the current depth chart, with Chris Carson, Mike Davis and C.J. Prosise representing the biggest obstacles to his touches.


4) Ronald Jones – Tampa Bay Buccaneers
With Doug Martin no longer on the roster there’s an obvious need in the backfield for Tampa Bay.  You would think Jones, who was selected in the second round, would have a real opportunity to fill that void.  That said he’s hardly a guarantee to step in, as he’s likely going to lose touches to Charles Simms and could lose lead back duties to Peyton Barber.  He also had a disappointing combine in terms of his 40-yard dash, further calling things into question.  We’ll take a closer look at him in the near future, and while there is upside there also is significant risk.


5) Sony Michel – New England Patriots
We all know that it’s hard to trust a Patriots’ running back, which is why Michel can’t be pushed any higher on these rankings.  He’s coming off a year having averaged 7.9 yards per carry (1,227 yards on 156 carries) and scoring 16 TD, proving that he can produce while sharing touches (he was joined by Nick Chubb in the Georgia backfield).

It’s good that he showed he can produce in that type of role, because the Patriots are going to mix Michel in with Rex Burkhead, Jeremy Hill, Mike Gillislee and James White.  Maybe he emerges by year’s end, but early on he’s a rotation player and more of a bench option.


6) Royce Freeman – Denver Broncos
Devin Booker represents the only competition for Freeman, who excelled over his four years at Oregon.  He rushed for at least 16 TD in three of four years, only falling short in 2016 when he scored 9 TD on 168 carries.  With the size (6’0” and 229 lbs.) and nose for the end zone, at the very least he’s going to be the short yardage/goal line thumper.  Of course he also is coming off a year where he average 6.0 yards/carry, though there are going to be concerns about the number of touches he racked up during his college career.  With a knee injury in ’16 behind him, he has the potential to be a sleeper in ’18.


7) Kerryon Johnson – Detroit Lions
The Lions spent a second round draft pick on Johnson, with an eye towards filling their early down backfield struggles with Theo Riddick maintaining the third down role.  The problem here is that the team also added LeGarrette Blount, meaning that Johnson may play second fiddle early in the season (though seeing him pass Blount by mid-season is very realistic).  Long-term his outlook is significantly higher, though there are questions about his ability to truly carry the load, as said:

Has unusual build for the position with a linear frame and thin hips…  Johnson offers three-down value and could become an early starter, but his frame may not be able to hold up over the long haul if he’s forced into high carry totals.


8) Nick Chubb – Cleveland Browns
You would’ve though Chubb would offer more upside than former teammate Sony Michel, and maybe he ultimately grabs the Browns’ lead role.  However the team didn’t go out and sign Carlos Hyde to have him sit on the bench and Duke Johnson is also going to play a role.  Depending on when the team transitions to Baker Mayfield also will be a factor, with opposing defenses potentially being able to focus on stopping the run.


9) Kalen Ballage – Miami Dolphins
We took an in-depth look at Ballage and his chances to emerge as a sleeper for the Dolphins, which you can read by clicking here.


10) Nyheim Hines – Indianapolis Colts
Marlon Mack is going to get the first chance to grab the lead back duties, especially given Hines’ size (5’8”, 198 lbs.).  He’s not going to be seen as an early down back, though he can catch the football (as many as 43 receptions in a college season) and could take on a role similar to Alvin Kamara if given the opportunity.

Sources – ESPN,, Walter Football

Make sure to check out all of our 2018 preseason rankings:

Date Updated
Running Back09/02/18
Wide Receiver 08/29/18
Tight End08/24/18
2018 Preseason Rankings: Top 15 Tight Ends (Graham Back On The Rise, How Big Of A Risk Is Olsen & More)
2018 Preseason Rankings: Top 50 Wide Receivers: Who Should We Trust?, Where Are The Risks? & More

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