Perhaps more than any other position in the NFL, running backs have been able to produce from day one even if drafted after the first round. Some examples.
- In 2017, third round rookie Kareem Hunt led the league with 1,327 rushing yards and third-rounder Alvin Kamara was the leader in yards per carry at 6.1 en route to winning Rookie of the Year with 1,554 yards from scrimmage and 13 touchdowns.
- In 2016, Jordan Howard was a fifth round pick and has back-to-back 1,000 yard seasons over that span.
- In 2015, David Johnson was a little known 3rd rounder who took over down the stretch to finish with 1,038 yards from scrimmage (YFS) and 12 touchdowns before having 2,118 yards from scrimmage and 20 scores the following season.
As you can see, there is value to be found at the position. So who can be the next Hunt or Johnson in the 2018 NFL Draft? Here’s a look at three sleepers that could pique your interest this season if they land in the right situation.
Rashaad Penny, San Diego State (5’11”, 220 lbs)
You probably saw Saquon Barkley at Penn State, Ronald Jones at USC, and Derrius Guice, Sony Michel, Nick Chubb and Kerryon Johnson in the SEC all tote the rock with great success. But Penny should be more of a household name after leading the nation with 2,248 rushing yards, the fifth highest total in Sports-Reference.com’s database. We wrote about his glorious campaign during the season, and he's is expected to go in the third round, but could sneak into the second after a strong Senior Bowl and combine. Although he didn’t complete a full workout, a 4.46 40-yard dash and 10’ broad jump at his weight is nothing to scoff at, showing that the explosiveness displayed in games is legitimate. To that point, Pro Football Focus charted him with 30 runs of 15 or more yards, 80 broken tackles, and having over 1,200 of his yards after contact.
PFF did grade Penny as a liability in pass protection, and combined with a career total of just 42 receptions, this might limit him to running downs. However, his low receiving numbers might have just been a result of SDSU’s offense since his 19 receptions and two receiving scores last year were both actually the second most on the team, and he did have make a downfield catch for a 73-yard touchdown at the Senior Bowl. Furthermore, the fact that he was so involved in special teams indicate how much the coaches wanted the ball in his hands, and Penny rewarded them with eight touchdown returns in his career, becoming the first player to be named Mountain West Offensive and Special Teams Player of the Year in the same season. With this combination of size, athleticism and production, I don’t see why he can’t be a workhorse in the NFL like he was in college.
Justin Jackson, Northwestern (5’11⅝”, 199 lbs)
If you want to talk about being a workhorse for a whole career, Jackson basically was the entire offense for the Wildcats during his four years, logging over 1,300 yards from scrimmage each season. He joined Ron Dayne as the only players in Big Ten history to run for 1,000 yards in four different seasons and set his school’s records for career YFS and touchdowns at 6,298 and 42, respectively. Starting with his freshman year, he accounted for 33%, 37%, 34%, and 30% of his team’s total yards to help them go 32-19 overall over the course of four seasons.
PFF also ranked Jackson as one of the better pass-blockers in this class, and increasing his reception totals from 22 and 21 his first two years to 35 and 44 the last two is a good sign for his NFL prospects since his light frame likely means he’ll become part of a committee. His combine results produce a strong athletic profile for a receiving back with Christian McCaffrey as the top comparable on Mockdraftable.com. His 11.06 60-yard shuttle, 4.07 20-yard shuttle, 6.81 3-cone, and 38.5” vertical jump all rank within the 86th percentile or better for running backs, but a 4.52 40 and 10’2” broad jump are all solid results as well. Projected to be drafted on Day 3, Jackson could carve out a role sooner than expected for a team that utilizes threats out of the backfield.
Josh Adams, Notre Dame (6’1⅝”, 213 lbs)
Adams has become something of a forgotten man after racking up 1,169 rushing yards and nine touchdowns over his first eight games (as well as eight runs of 50 or more yards) to gain some Heisman hype with the Fighting Irish’s 7-1 start. However, his bruising style got him banged up throughout the year, including a head injury that knocked him out in the first quarter of a win in their ninth game, and he only registered one 100-yard game with no scores over his last five contests. A foot injury that bothered him during the season also kept him out of the combine workouts and is likely a factor in his current projection as a Day 3 pick, but he was able to impress at his Pro Day a month later. These numbers aren’t nearly as exact, but his 4.48 40, 10’2” broad jump, 6.75 3-cone, and 11.31 60-yard shuttle all would have ranked in the top-five for his position at the combine.
Those are tantalizing results at Adams’ size, and they represent how he becomes such a runaway train once he finds daylight. PFF recorded 45 broken tackles and an average of 5.2 yards per carry after contact, which was the highest figure in this class by almost a yard. Some of that is inflated by his bevy of breakaway runs that were sprung by two lineman expected to be drafted in the 1st round, Quenton Nelson and Mike McGlinchey, but he also showed nice vision to find the right lane. Like Penny, Adams hasn’t shown much in the receiving game in part due to an offense that doesn’t target its backs, resulting in 41 catches over three years. He did grade much closer to Jackson near the top for his pass-blocking, though, so there’s a chance he won’t be limited to early downs. That being said, landing on a team in need of a power ‘back like Indianapolis, Washington or Denver could allow him to take charge of a committee earlier than expected.
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