CFB 24/7  


Derrius Guice, Saquon Barkley lead top 10 RBs to watch in 2017


Editor's note: analyst Lance Zierlein will reveal the top college football players to watch in 2017 at each position over the next two weeks, beginning today with running backs.

NFL scouts are always looking to the college ranks to find next-level talent. While we won't speculate about where these potential future NFL stars will go in the draft one day, it's not too soon to take a peek at their game tape and start to stack them as the top players to watch.

The running back spot is top-heavy this season but with just two players adding all the weight. LSU's Derrius Guice and Penn State's Saquon Barkley are getting a lot of love in scouting circles and when you spend any time watching their tape, you understand why. Oregon's Royce Freeman and Alabama's Bo Scarbrough are two big, talented backs. USC's Ronald Jones and Iowa's Akrum Wadley are elusive speedsters with the ability to hit explosive plays, but they lack the size that most teams look for from primary backs.

Of course, there is still plenty of work to be done in evaluating each player during and after this season. Of the running backs I've studied, here are the top 10 to watch.

College Football 24/7 Hot Topics:

10. Chase Edmonds, Fordham

Good luck finding anyone in college football with the type of production at the running back spot that Edmonds has posted. Edmonds has amassed more than 6,000 total yards and 62 rushing touchdowns in just three seasons. Fans might look at the level of competition and shrug off the production, but that would be a mistake. Edmonds has swivel hips to shake tacklers and a wide-open stride that helps him eat up yards once he hits the open field. He's a little lacking in ideal size and can run with more decisiveness, but he has legitimate NFL talent.

9. Chris Warren III, Texas

Warren's dad was a three-time Pro Bowl selectee who had four seasons of 1,000-plus yads with the Seattle Seahawks, so Chris III has running back talent in his DNA. While the elder Warren was a big running back, he didn't match up with the size of his son, who checks in at around 6-2 and 255 pounds, according to Texas Longhorn insiders. Warren runs with surprising bend for a runner his size and has the ability to make tacklers miss at the second level. At times, Warren will decelerate rather than accelerate through contact. At his size, it might be in Warren's best interest to embrace a power runner's demeanor to get the most out of his size and strength. Warren missed the final eight games of last season with a knee injury, but he should be ready to crank it up again in 2017.

8. Kalen Ballage, Arizona State

Ballage's build and running style are very similar to David Johnson's when he was coming out of Northern Iowa. I questioned Johnson's willingness to run with physicality matching his size coming into the draft and I feel that way about Ballage. But then again, I was wrong about Johnson and might be wrong here, too. Like Johnson, Ballage is an excellent receiving threat who has the ability to line up in the slot and return kicks if needed. Ballage has the type of size and skill set that could push him way up the draft board if he has a strong 2017 campaign.

7. Nick Chubb, Georgia

Based on last season's tape, Chubb should not be in this spot. However, I'm assuming that Chubb will see some of the burst and speed return that I saw before he suffered the gruesome leg injury in 2015. Chubb has plus field vision and generally makes smart reads when attacking the line of scrimmage. His contact balance and ability to run with pop behind his pads was unchanged in his return to the field last season. This season, he needs to prove he's in shape and his burst has returned in order to push his way up the 2018 draft board.

6. Akrum Wadley, Iowa

Wadley's tape was some of the most entertaining of the entire group outside of Saquon Barkley and Derrius Guice. Wadley is listed at just 191 pounds, which is below the marker of what NFL teams usually look for from starting running backs, but I could see a team getting excited about Wadley as part of a committee approach. Wadley uses sudden jump cuts and spin moves to elude tacklers who are right on top of him and he has dynamic potential on the ground or as a pass-catcher.

5. Royce Freeman, Oregon

Freeman is an impressive physical specimen who immediately checks the boxes for height (5-11), weight (231), speed, and production (4,148 yards rushing and 44 rushing TDs in three seasons). He has benefitted from a space-based offense that has allowed him opportunities to run at some light defensive fronts from a numbers standpoint and there are times he doesn't run as physically as you might expect from a player his size. However, he does have natural power and the ability to out-race linebackers around the corner. Big backs with big-play speed and an ability to help on third downs are a rarity that's usually coveted in NFL circles.

4. Ronald Jones II, USC

Jones' showed in the second half of the 2016 season what he's capable of heading into 2017. Jones' eyes, feet and hips are all synched up perfectly to allow for late juke-and-go cuts that open explosive opportunities. When he's in a rhythm, he can dice up defenses with his ability to stack his moves and elude defenders on all three levels. His agility and athletic ability are obviously huge pluses, but his ball security is something that will make the running back coaches at the next level happy as well. He needs to add some muscle to his frame to improve his ability to run through contact and he has a tendency to leave some yardage on the field with suspect lane choices at times.

3. Bo Scarbrough, Alabama

If Scarbrough isn't able to stay healthy for the entirety of the 2017 season, there is no way NFL scouts will stick him this high on their running back lists. Scarbrough has struggled with durability dating back to high school and the ability to stay on the field is a major factor when it comes to grading prospects. Purely from a talent perspective, Scarbrough will wow you. I wasn't all that impressed with Scarbrough's tape last summer, but what I saw from him during the 2016 season was exciting. He has true one-cut ability that is rare for a runner his size. His ability to batter tacklers and fall forward for additional yardage is similar to Derrick Henry's. Scarbrough is very talented, but he needs to stay healthy.

2. Saquon Barkley, Penn State

I feel like "urgent" is an important word when it comes to describing Barkley because it has a unique way of capturing his style and overall play demeanor. Barkley is a "buffet" back who seems to thrive with the heavier workload. His feet are in constant motion and he rarely gears down to make his cuts. In terms of creating yardage and opportunities for himself, he has used his fluid hips to create more misses than any other running back over the last two seasons. With his start-stop quickness and ability to rocket around the corner, the entire field is Barkley's playground on any snap. He's not going to be a monster tackle-breaker and he has to fight the urge to bounce certain runs to the edge, but he is a three-down running back who is a better overall prospect than any of the RBs drafted in 2017.

1. Derrius Guice, LSU

It's basically a coin flip between Guice and Saquon Barkley, as both are worthy of this spot. However, for the second consecutive year, an LSU RB occupies the top spot on this list (Leonard Fournette in 2016). Guice possesses a winning combination of speed, power and balance. His highlight reel is filled with runs that should have ended early but kept going due to his elite body control through contact. He powers through initial contact and makes life miserable for defenders. Guice has averaged almost 8 yards per touch over his first two seasons and had 24 carries of 15-plus yards in 2016. He has occasional runs where he shows some indecision when the running lane is slow to open, but there aren't too many areas of improvement to go over right now.



The previous element was an advertisement.

NFL Shop