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Ten running backs worth pursuing in free agency/2018 NFL Draft

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Over the next several months, the rosters of all 32 teams will begin to take shape for the 2018 season. In this series, NFL.com writers and analysts look at the best players available via free agency or the NFL Draft at the following positions: quarterback, running back, wide receiver, defensive back, pass rusher. Today, Michael Robinson looks at the top 10 running backs worth pursuing.

1) Le'Veon Bell, free agent

Bell has been one of the NFL's best all-around backs over the last several years. He can beat defenders in so many ways, and his patient running style allowed him to earn 1,291 yards and nine TDs on the ground in 2017. Of course, he's also a dynamic player in the passing game -- and a dominant pass protector -- and I agree with him when he says he should be PAID for his major contributions. The star running back recently said he'd contemplate retirement before playing under another franchise tag, and it seems that the Steelers and Bell are in another contract standoff. Buckle up -- we could be here awhile.

2) Saquon Barkley, draft prospect

Y'all know I'm a Penn State guy, and there's no doubt in my mind that Barkley can be a transcendent player in the NFL. At Penn State, he was extremely explosive off each leg, allowing him to have world-class speed and functional power in his lower body. He has exceptional lateral quickness and knee lift, spatial awareness and hands (carrying the ball effectively in both hands). Barkley has the unique ability to turn a corner tight and eliminate defensive angles of pursuit. With his ability to run through tackles and be a home-run hitter on every single snap, Barkley is reminiscent of Bo Jackson and Todd Gurley. The PSU product has tremendous stamina, as he piled up 773 touches and more than 5,000 scrimmage yards during his three-year stay in State College.

On the contrary, he can overthink decisions and is indecisive at times. He's going to learn that running to the outside, which he favors, will likely only work in a player's first two years. Defenses are too good and talented to allow a back to dominate on the outside. Lastly, it looks like Barkley needs a small crack of space to operate, and I wonder if he's a player who can create his own opportunities when the blocks aren't there.

3) Ronald Jones II, draft prospect

Jones has the ability to stop his feet completely and still accelerate through contact by running with a low center of gravity. The USC product has short-area quickness, good knee lift that helps with breaking arm tackles and the ability to move the pile. The 6-foot, 200-pound back has a great feel for cutback runs in zone schemes and his narrow hips cause defenders to miss tackles at times. That said, his ball security needs work, as he only carries the rock in his right hand, and the ball separates from his body on lateral cuts. He could get into some trouble there. And with only 32 career receptions in college, he might not offer a ton of help in the pass game.

4) Carlos Hyde, free agent

Hyde is a natural runner who has great burst into the second level and a knack for being in the right place in zone schemes. Hyde, who's fallen just shy of 1,000 yards rushing in back-to-back seasons, is a perfect runner for Kyle Shanahan's offense. But regardless of where Hyde ends up, he must change his offseason routine to stay healthy. 

5) Dion Lewis, free agent

The 5-8 running back just put up his best performance in seven NFL seasons with 180 carries (almost 120 more than his previous high) for 896 yards and six TDs on the ground in 2017. Lewis did so thanks to his great improvement running between the tackles, having tremendous burst in small spaces and running through arm tackles. Like Bell, Lewis contributed in the passing game -- his receiving figures (32 catches for 214 yards and three scores) lifted him to more than 1,000 scrimmage yards on the season. This is what he can do when he's healthy. He just needs to stay that way.

6) Nick Chubb, draft prospect

I really like Barkley, as most do, but Chubb looks to be the most mature runner in this draft class. He runs with patience and has good knee lift and great balance. The Georgia product is a split-legged runner, meaning he is always in step punch mode, breaking plenty of tackles and having enough speed and burst to go downfield (maybe not 80 yards, but 50). Chubb does a great job of getting his shoulders square, giving him the advantage against defenders.

7) Jerick McKinnon, free agent

With injuries to Minnesota's starting running backs in 2016 (Adrian Peterson) and 2017 (Dalvin Cook), McKinnon was able to strut his stuff in the backfield. He's a great shotgun runner with enough patience to run a gap scheme, as well as a tremendous screen runner and pass protector for his size (5-9, 205 pounds). Entering his fifth NFL season, McKinnon is underrated between the tackles but sometimes gets in trouble when trying to do too much.

8) LeGarrette Blount, free agent

The 6-foot, 250-pound vet has great feet for his size and understands how to take the will out of an opposing defense. From the looks of it, he still has enough juice to be a featured back, yet the offense that gets him should be run-heavy, with another change-up type of back to pair with him. Blount has a championship attitude that is contagious in the locker room, winning a Lombardi Trophy in back-to-back seasons with different teams. This is a player who has more value than just his on-field ability.

9) Royce Freeman, draft prospect

Freeman racked up 5,621 rushing yards (5.9 yards per carry) and 814 receiving yards in four years at Oregon. He can be a great asset out of the backfield, but he is also a very deliberate runner, as he won't run into a pile recklessly. The 5-11, 231-pound back has the great ability to lower the hitting surface for a bigger runner and has some sweet feet for his size. A Le'Veon Bell-type player, Freeman has good lower-body strength to break tackles -- but doesn't always break them due to subpar knee drive and footwork at times. Freeman was a shotgun runner in college. Can he run from the dot?

10) Rashaad Penny, draft prospect

A versatile player, Penny racked up 2,248 rushing yards with two receiving TDs and two kick-return scores last season. The 5-11 San Diego State back has long speed, good quick twitch, knee lift and lateral movement. With great acceleration, defenders must get to him before he gets to the line of scrimmage.

ON THE FRINGE: Jamaal Charles, free agent

In a limited, third-string role in 2017, Charles nearly rushed for 300 yards with 4.29 yards per carry. We saw him start to gain the confidence of a guy who rushed for over 1,000 yards in five of six seasons from 2009 through '14. Although the 31-year-old needs to be paired with a complementary back wherever he ends up, the aged Charles still has a skill set that's better than 75 percent of the backs in the league right now.

Follow Michael Robinson on Twitter @RealMikeRob.

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