Which SEC RB draft picks have the best chance for immediate success in the NFL?
The SEC is well known for producing defensive talent for the NFL Draft, but it also has become quite the running back factory. Those running backs tend to make immediate impacts at the next level, too.
The gold standard is 1,000 rushing yards in a season. Since 2013, four rookie running backs from the SEC have gone over that mark, with Leonard Fournette (1,040) being the latest last season.
Though in today’s NFL game, you need to do more than just run the ball to make a big impact — you have to catch the ball, too. Alvin Kamara was the perfect example, combining for 1,547 rushing and receiving yards, while having an enormous impact on the Saints’ offense.
Which of the SEC rookie running backs will be latest to enjoy a breakout rookie campaign? Here’s a look at who has the best chance to make that kind of impact in 2018, in the order they were drafted.
1. Sony Michel, 1st round, New England Patriots
The Pats’ backfield is very deep as Michel will be the sixth RB under contract, though I’d be surprised if they didn’t cut at least two before next year, if not three. James White and Rex Burkhead are better receivers than runners, and Mike Gillislee and Jeremy Hill are pure power backs who thrive in short yardage. Two of those four will be gone, freeing up more touches for Michel, who is easily the best back on the roster before even taking a professional snap.
Michel comes into a good situation with the Pats because he’s exactly the kind of all-purpose back that typically thrives in their offense, as was the case with Dion Lewis last year. They want backs with good vision and patience between the tackles and the burst to extend the perimeter. But just as importantly, they want backs who can catch the ball out of the backfield and who are willing and able blockers.
The Pats will still use White or Burkhead out wide and they’ll still give either Hill or Gillislee touches in goal line and short yardage situations, but there’s little doubt who will be their feature back. Michel should thrive in this scheme, and while he might not match Kamara’s rookie season in terms of total all-purpose yards, he could have a similar type of impact on this offense.
2. Nick Chubb, 2nd round, Cleveland Browns
Like Michel, Chubb is also entering a full backfield in Cleveland with the presence of Duke Johnson and the recently signed Carlos Hyde. Chubb and Hyde are very similar players in terms of strengths (between the tackles) and weaknesses (less than stellar receivers), but the former offers much higher upside long term, meaning Hyde could find himself back on the market next year.
Chubb will form a good duo with Johnson, who is an excellent receiver but offers little in the ground game. The Browns have a good offensive line, particularly in the middle, and new OC Todd Haley has a flexible offensive scheme designed to capitalize on each players strengths.
Regardless of who wins the quarterback job, Tyrod Taylor or Baker Mayfield, both need a strong rushing attack to take some of the pressure off the passing game. Chubb will get an awful lot of carries on first and second down, and he’ll also get the majority of snaps near the goal line, so I expect him to put up some good numbers in his rookie campaign.
3. Kerryon Johnson, 2nd round, Detroit Lions
It won’t take long for Johnson to become the Lions’ feature back. They have LeGarrette Blount and Theo Riddick on the roster, but the former is almost strictly goal line and short yardage and the latter is practically a receiver at this point. Neither is a three-down back like Johnson, meaning Johnson should become a focal point of the offense sooner rather than later.
It’ll be interesting to see how the offense adapts to Johnson, because they haven’t had a player with his type of skill set in some time. They’ve tried and failed to give QB Matthew Stafford a reliable running back to keep defenses honest, but they haven’t had anyone with Johnson’s ability to run inside and out, in addition to making plays in the passing attack.
The Lions have a powerful offense and Johnson is an electric playmaker who can do it all. He’ll provide them with the type of balance needed for them take another step forward. I expect a solid rookie campaign from Johnson.
4. Derrius Guice, 2nd round, Washington Redskins
Guice is my early pick for Offensive Rookie of the Year because I think he’s going to have a huge season. I was shocked to see him last as long as he did in the draft due to “character concerns” (which I think are overblown), but I think he’ll make many teams regret passing him by.
The Redskins have been starving for a legitimate rushing attack after toiling with lesser talents in recent years, and it’s been one of the things that have been holding them back. Guice is the solution.
With Alex Smith as the new starting QB, expect Washington to run the ball far more often than they have in recent years and show more of a balanced attack. With Guice, they now have a bell cow back who can carry the ball 25 times a game and keep defenses honest, opening up shots downfield in the passing game. I wouldn’t be surprised if Guice finished the year among the league leaders in rushing yards.
5. Jordan Wilkins, 5th round, Indianapolis Colts
I thought Wilkins was one of the more underrated backs in this draft and believe he’ll be an excellent fit in new HC Frank Reich’s offense, which should be zone-heavy. This offense relies on backs to have good vision and patience to let the blocks set up, then have the burst to get up field after one cut.
The problem is that Wilkins will be splitting carries. Marlon Mack showed promise last year as a rookie and the team also added speedster Nyheim Hines in the fourth round of the draft. I think Wilkins will show some flashes in his limited opportunity, but don’t think he’ll have a huge impact.
6. John Kelly, 6th round, Los Angeles Rams
Kelly enters an explosive and high-octane offense in L.A. with an up and coming QB in Jared Goff and wunderkind HC Sean McVay. With the talent already on the roster and the players added via trade and free agency, the Rams are legitimate Super Bowl contenders.
With that said, it’s tough to envision Kelly making much of an impact early on in his career due to the presence of Todd Gurley, arguably the best running back in the league. Gurley had more than four times the carries as their second leading rusher last year, so it’s not like they’re fond of spreading the wealth, either.
7. David Williams, 7th round, Denver Broncos
I’m not going to sugarcoat it – Williams is going to have a tough time making the roster. I like Williams as a prospect and think he has enough talent to be a solid rotational back, but not with the Broncos due to their depth.
The team is very fond of young backs Devontae Booker and De’Angelo Henderson, and they also added Royce Freeman in the third round, meaning Williams will likely have a hard time carving out a role in the offense.
8. Bo Scarbrough, 7th round, Dallas Cowboys
Scarbrough has a chance to make more of an impact than the normal 7th-round pick because of how well he fits into the offense and the never-ending uncertainty with Zeke Elliott, their feature back.
The Cowboys use a physical rushing attack behind a bruising offensive line, and they like their backs to be strong and powerful, which obviously play to the strengths of Scarbrough. Throw in the fact that Elliott is constantly facing suspension for various off-the-field issues, and Scarbrough could have a bigger impact than one would think.