The vaunted 2018 running back draft class wasted little time making an impact in the league. Headlined by former Penn State standout Saquon Barkley, this class hit the ground running (pun intended) during the first 10 weeks of the season, with a bevy of members already playing key roles for their new teams.
But draft order hasn’t correlated exactly with the strongest rookie running back performances. From Barkley, who went second overall, to Phillip Lindsay, an undrafted free agent phenom, the 2018 class has had obvious producers and breakout stars. As we head into the stretch run of the season, now’s a good time to check the tape, and the numbers, to rank this year’s rookie running backs.
1. Saquon Barkley, Giants
Pick: First round, second pick; second overall
Stats: 131 rushes, 586 yards, 4.5 YPC, five touchdowns; 62 receptions, 530 yards, two touchdowns
Barkley hasn’t transformed the Giants offense in the way GM Dave Gettleman apparently believed he would, but the former Nittany Lion certainly has been outstanding on an individual level. As the foundation of the team’s ground attack and a major factor in the passing game, Barkley ranks third among all players in total yards from scrimmage (1,116), trailing only Rams superstar Todd Gurley and Steelers breakout James Conner (and Gurley has played an additional game). The rookie playmaker has posted 100-plus scrimmage yards in eight of his first nine career games, tied for most all time with Hall of Fame running back Eric Dickerson.
Barkley’s broken 19 tackles on his rushes, per Pro Football Focus (tied for 13th among running backs), has seven rushes of 20-plus yards (tied for third), and is a threat to take it to the house every time he takes a handoff. I’d still love to see the rookie back used more as a de facto receiver lining up in the slot or on the wing, but despite the fact New York mostly asks him to run traditional running back routes out of the backfield, he makes the most of those dump-offs and swing passes. Barkley has racked up 25 avoided tackles on receptions, per PFF, first among running backs and far more than any other rookie at the position (none of whom crack the top 10).
He’s a force in the open field and possesses a combination of power, agility, explosiveness, and vision. It’s hard to choose which of his runs this year has been my favorite, but a few stand out as illustrative of his prowess as a runner and all-around athlete: Against the Panthers in Week 5, Barkley took a handoff, saw linebacker Luke Kuechly filling in the run lane, and spun to his left, juking another couple of defenders to get outside and pick up chunk yards.
He did something similar in Week 1 against the Jaguars when he ran through a trio of arm tackles before bouncing outside and leaping over another diving tackle attempt, then finding pay dirt.
Of course, not all of Barkley’s most impressive runs and catches go for big gains. He seems to regularly take what should be a tackle for a loss (the Giants’ blocking isn’t always helping him out), and instead is able to stiff-arm, hurdle, or spin away from defenders just to get back to the line of scrimmage. This relatively nondescript 9-yard pickup from Week 6 might be his most impressive run all year.
There are times when Barkley tries to do too much, and the combination of a poor run-blocking offensive line and his penchant to bounce runs to the outside means that he’s tied for just 45th in run success rate (37 percent) this year among running backs with 40-plus carries, per Sharp Football Stats. He may need to learn to take what the defense is giving him and get downhill a little more often, but that’s a minor quibble for a player who’s emerged as the runaway favorite for the Offensive Rookie of the Year award. Barkley has elite talent and looks like one of the centerpiece players for the Giants franchise for the next five years and beyond.
2. Nick Chubb, Browns
Pick: Second round, third pick; 35th overall
Stats: 94 rushes, 579 yards, 6.2 YPC, five touchdowns; six receptions, 48 yards, one touchdown
If Chubb had gotten more playing time early in the season, he’d likely have a pretty good shot at the top spot on this list. Despite accumulating just 16 carries in his first six games, he’s nipping at Barkley’s heels in rushing yards, is the first player with three touchdown runs of more than 40 yards in a single season since Adrian Peterson in 2015, has already racked up 348 rush yards after initial contact (fourth most in the NFL), and has broken 24 tackles (seventh leaguewide and most among rookies). His 5.28 yards after contact per carry average is first, by a long shot, per PFF, as is his elusive rating (131.9). He’s second among all qualifying backs with 6.2 yards per carry (behind only Aaron Jones).
Chubb combines nifty footwork and incredible lateral agility with vision, creativity, and pure speed in the open field. In Week 4 against the Raiders, he broke off a long touchdown run when he avoided two tackles in the backfield, then two more once through the line, and then juked an Oakland defender off his feet before running to daylight.
Against the Falcons last week, Chubb showed off an almost slalom-type running style, weaving through defenders before finishing the run with bruising power.
It’s no wonder the Browns felt comfortable parting with running back Carlos Hyde: Chubb is a future superstar.
3. Phillip Lindsay, Broncos
Pick: Undrafted free agent
Stats: 110 rushes, 591 yards, 5.4 YPC, three touchdowns; 20 receptions, 160 yards, one touchdown
It was incredibly difficult to choose between Lindsay and Kerryon Johnson at this no. 3 spot. The two rookie runners have eerily identical numbers and mirror each other in scrimmage yards (Lindsay has 751, Johnson has 757), yards per rush (both average 5.4), total touchdowns (four to three), and broken tackles (Lindsay 19, Johnson 23). Lindsay is second in Football Outsiders DVOA (value per play) and sixth in DYAR (total value), while Johnson ranks just behind him in both, third and seventh, respectively. Both have five runs of 20-plus yards (tied for ninth most), and both run with ferocity, explosiveness, and balance. They’re both effective between the tackles and as pass catchers. They’re basically the same player.
I had to rate one higher, and chose Lindsay—if for no other reason than the fact he came out of nowhere as an undersized, unheralded, and undrafted free agent. Broncos coach Vance Joseph summed Lindsay up perfectly this week: “He’s a shifty runner. … He’s a durable guy, he’s got great flexibility, he doesn’t take direct contact, he runs behind his pads, he’s a really, really good inside runner. It’s been two months, it’s not a fluke.’’
I’ll add another descriptor: He’s slippery too. On this touchdown run against the Cardinals, Lindsay shrugged off a pair of arm-tackle attempts at the line to get out into the open field before sliding off a few more tackles en route to the end zone.
Lindsay runs with an intriguing combination of power and grace. He seems to glide at times, accelerating through the hole while picking the perfect line without slowing down.
As Joseph said, the Broncos rookie runner has shaken off any doubts that his early-season breakout was a flash in the pan. Lindsay is the real deal.
4. Kerryon Johnson, Lions
Pick: Second round, 11th pick; 43rd overall
Stats: 103 rushes, 554 yards, 5.4 YPC, two touchdowns; 30 receptions, 203 yards, one touchdown
Johnson sure doesn’t run like a 206-pound back. The former Auburn Tiger has shrugged off concerns about a lack of size while showcasing a slashing yet bruising style for the Lions. He’s broken out as the team’s dynamic bell-cow back, and has thus far shown he’s capable of handling a heavy load, both on the ground and through the air. Johnson’s open-field acceleration shows up immediately on tape; that was apparent Week 7 when he ripped off a pair of long runs, the first going for 24 yards ...
... and the second going for 71 yards.
Johnson also has the ability to “get skinny” through the hole, a crucial talent for any foundation back. Against the Cowboys in Week 4, he somehow found daylight on this run, first spotting, and then sneaking through a small gap in the defensive line before breaking to the outside for a big gain.
Johnson’s upside is limitless, and he looks like the feature back the Lions have sought for years. Even if he does nothing else, though, Johnson will at least live on forever in bar trivia lore: His 101-yard performance in Week 3 snapped the team’s 70-game drought without a 100-yard rusher.
5. Sony Michel, Patriots
Pick: First round, 31st pick; 31st overall
Stats: 106 rushes, 453 yards, 4.3 YPC, four touchdowns; four receptions, 31 yards
Michel shook off a preseason knee injury and a slow start to emerge as the Patriots’ reliable between-the-tackles back. He racked up 316 yards and four touchdowns from weeks 4 through 6, a three-game stretch in which Michel showed off some of the burst and physicality that helped make him a star at Georgia and a first-round pick. Against the Colts in Week 5, he exploded downhill, burst through the line, and got an angle on defensive back Matthias Farley, administering a stiff-arm to break away down the sideline.
On the team’s thrilling 43-40 win against the Chiefs, Michel showed off some of his lateral agility as well, juking cornerback Steven Nelson out of his shoes before picking up big yardage.
Michel suffered another injury setback in Week 7—a sprained MCL forced him to miss the next two games—and he had trouble getting going on Sunday against the Titans (11 carries for 31 yards). Still, the first-rounder is third among rookies in rushing yards per game (64.7) behind only Lindsay and Barkley, is tied for third among rookies in touchdowns, and is tied for 15th among all running backs (minimum 40 carries) in rushing success rate (50 percent). Once healthy, Michel has real breakout potential, and New England is still just scratching the surface with what he can do in the passing attack.
6. Royce Freeman, Broncos
Pick: Third round, seventh pick; 71st overall
Stats: 71 rushes, 309 yards, 4.4 YPC, four touchdowns; four receptions, 21 yards
Lindsay beat out Freeman for the majority of the team’s touches, but Denver has leaned on its third-round pick plenty and is using the bruising former Duck in a complementary role.
While Lindsay’s enjoyed eight-plus defenders in the box in the box on just 17 percent of his rush attempts, Freeman has seen a stacked box on a league-high 55 percent of his runs. Undeterred, the rookie is breaking through the brick walls that defenses put up: Despite the obvious numerical blocking disadvantage, he’s tied for second among all running backs in yards after contact per carry (3.69), per PFF, and has somehow managed to rank 15th at the position in success rate (50 percent). With a combination of balance, power, and surprising agility, the big 238-pounder has shown the ability to bowl over a defender that steps up into the hole …
... or simply slice through a mess of opponents with deft footwork and vision.
After missing weeks 8 and 9 due to a high ankle sprain, Freeman is set to return to the lineup this Sunday. He may not be the nominal lead runner in Denver’s backfield, but he’s served as a very effective thunder element to Lindsay’s lightning.
7. Nyheim Hines, Colts
Pick: Fourth round, fourth pick; 104th overall
Stats: 55 rushes, 241 yards, 4.4 YPC, one touchdown; 37 receptions, 206 yards, two touchdowns
Hines saw his role in the Colts offense diminish when Marlon Mack returned in Week 6 from a lingering hamstring injury, but the rookie out of NC State has played well when given opportunities. He’s got upside as a playmaker both in the run game and as a receiver, and this touchdown catch in Week 4 against the Texans showed how natural Hines is when running routes and going up to catch the ball.
That versatility should serve Hines well as the league continues to spread out and utilize running backs in the passing game. He’s still firmly behind Mack in the Indy backfield pecking order, but his future looks bright.
8. Rashaad Penny, Seahawks
Pick: First round, 27th pick; 27th overall
Stats: 54 rushes, 254 yards, 4.7 YPC, one touchdown; nine receptions, 75 yards
It’d be an understatement to say that the start of Penny’s career has been disappointing. After missing most of the preseason with a broken finger, the Seahawks’ rookie first-rounder began the year well down the depth chart behind both Chris Carson and Mike Davis, and got mostly spot duty during the team’s first eight games. Carson’s injury last week opened the door to more opportunities, though, and a 12-carry, 108-yard performance on Sunday against the Rams has Penny trending in the right direction.
Penny showed some open-field elusiveness on this big gain midway through the first quarter …
... and showed vision and decisiveness as a runner on two read-option plays later in the game.
The Seahawks leaned on those types of shotgun, zone-read looks when Marshawn Lynch was still with the team, and Russell Wilson remains one of the most dangerous running quarterbacks in the league (he picked up 92 yards on Sunday). If Penny can prove that he’s consistently effective running the ball on those types of plays, he could earn a bigger piece of the pie going forward.
9. Ito Smith, Falcons
Pick: Fourth round, 26th pick; 126th overall
Stats: 53 rushes, 189 yards, 3.6 YPC, four touchdowns; 17 receptions, 114 yards
Smith inherited a bigger role in the Falcons offense when Devonta Freeman went to the IR with a groin injury, and he’s acquitted himself well playing backup to Tevin Coleman. The former Southern Miss runner has already found pay dirt four times, including this impressive run in which he hurdled a defender then powered his way into the end zone.
Smith’s proved elusive—he’s racked up 14 broken tackles on 70 touches, per PFF—and his style as a runner could earn him more red zone touches down the stretch.
10. Jordan Wilkins, Colts
Pick: Fifth round, 32nd pick; 169th overall
Stats: 53 rushes, 288 yards, 5.4 YPC; 10 receptions, 42 yards
Wilkins isn’t as flashy as his rookie backfield mate, Hines, but he’s been quietly effective when given touches in the Indy offense. He’s averaging a robust 5.4 yards per carry and has the athleticism to rip off a big play with a little bit of blocking. In the team’s win over the Jaguars on Sunday, he picked up some chunk yardage on this third-down toss play, nearly taking it to the house.
11. Josh Adams, Eagles
Pick: Undrafted free agent
Stats: 27 rushes, 154 yards, 5.7 YPC; one reception, 6 yards
Neither Wendell Smallwood nor Corey Clement has stood out in his attempts to secure the lead running back job since Jay Ajayi tore his ACL in early October, and Adams is already nipping at their heels in the backfield rotation—making the rookie a sleeper breakout candidate for the second half of the year. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound former Golden Domer brings a physical element that the team’s been missing and has racked up nine broken tackles on just 27 rush attempts this year.
Josh Adams has forced one missed tackle every three rushing attempts this season.— Pat Thorman (@Pat_Thorman) November 13, 2018
Wendell Smallwood has one every 4.8 attempts.
Jay Ajayi had one every 5.6 attempts.
Corey Clement has one every 27.5 attempts.
Adams is big, but he can get downhill in a hurry. We saw that Week 8 against the Jaguars:
And again last week against the Cowboys:
It’s not going to be surprising if Adams climbs up this list before the season is done.
12. Ronald Jones II, Buccaneers
Pick: Second round, sixth pick; 38th overall
Stats: 19 rushes, 42 yards, 2.2 YPC, one touchdown; six receptions, 34 yards
There just isn’t much to say with Jones so far. His preseason ineffectiveness and drops caused him to fall down the team’s running back depth chart before the start the year. The former Trojan was active for just four games and now he’s battling a hamstring injury. It’s increasingly looking like a lost rookie campaign for Jones.