With the 2018 NFL season on the horizon, a number of talented players are still playing under rookie contracts. Now is the time to make some future loot! With that in mind, NFL Network analysts LaDainian Tomlinson, Willie McGinest and David Carr examined the positions they respectively manned during their playing days to identify youngsters poised for a breakout campaign.
Today, Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson lists, in alphabetical order, young running backs to watch in 2018.
Saquon Barkley, New York Giants
2018 projection: 1,300-1,400 rushing yards and 12 touchdowns.
This kid was ready-made for the NFL and he's part of an organization with the Giants where he'll get almost all of the touches in the run game. New head coach Pat Shurmur will find ways to get the ball to Barkley, who can generate yards in a lot of different ways, including in the return game. A healthy Odell Beckham Jr. is as dynamic as they come, and fortunately for the rookie, he'll keep Barkley from facing an eight-man box.
There's a lot of pressure on Barkley. I know because I was in the same position when the Chargers selected me No. 5 overall in the 2001 draft. The competition level is an adjustment, but Barkley is used to having his name circled by opposing teams. He was the center of Penn State's offense, much like I was at TCU, so he should be able to handle that pressure since he's been in that position for years.
Dalvin Cook, Minnesota Vikings
2018 projection: 1,200 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns.
We saw such a small sample from Cook a year ago, when he suffered a torn ACL in Week 4 against the Lions. Before his injury, he compiled 354 rushing yards (4.8 yards per carry) and two rushing touchdowns, along with 90 receiving yards. He's already shown he can be a three-down back, so this pick was a no-brainer for me. He should continue to evolve within the Vikings' offense as a dynamic threat in both the run and pass games. Plus, having Kirk Cousins under center should only boost Cook's production. Defenses will be forced to pick their poison, making this offense hard to stop.
Kenyan Drake, Miami Dolphins
2018 projection: 1,100 rushing yards and nine touchdowns.
Drake showed flashes near the end of last season after Jay Ajayi departed for Philly. The former 'Bama back took the position and made it his own, which makes me think he's going to take the next step in Year 3. He's a dynamic, all-around back -- he can run the ball on first and second downs and has the ability to stay in on third down to catch the ball out of the backfield. Drake has added a little bit of weight this offseason as he expects to get more carries to provide more balance to the offense. Joining the RB mix in Miami this season is Frank Gore, who'll be a mentor to the young RB. The veteran can show Drake how to be an everyday starting back and more importantly, show him how to prepare for the job.
Melvin Gordon, Los Angeles Chargers
2018 projection: 1,700 yards from scrimmage and 15 total touchdowns.
Gordon has been on the verge of breaking out for a couple years, and he may have technically done it in 2017, a season that saw him gain 1,581 yards from scrimmage. I think with a repeat performance, at the very least, in his fourth year, Gordon will put himself in the top echelon of NFL running backs. He's an underrated player who continues to develop as a multi-dimensional back. With Philip Rivers getting older, the Chargers really need to expand the running game and utilize Gordon out of the backfield. He feels the pressure to step up and I believe he will.
Sony Michel, New England Patriots
2018 projection: 1,000 rushing yards and seven touchdowns.
I really liked what Michel did at Georgia. I hoped he would end up in the right system at the next level, and he did. Even in the Patriots' crowded backfield, I think the 2018 first-round pick will emerge as the front-runner before too long. Michel wouldn't have been drafted where he was (No. 31 overall) if Bill Belichick didn't think he could become the go-to guy in the run game. This kid is a three-down back. He can be a big part of this offense's next phase as Tom Brady ages and eventually retires.