SAN DIEGO STATE’S RASHAAD PENNY: Penny is one of my favorite players in the entire draft. In 2017, he finished fifth in the Heisman Trophy voting and earned first-team All-American and All-Mountain West honors after leading the entire nation with 2,248 rushing yards. He also finished third in yards per attempt (7.8) among running backs with at least 150 carries. He had 23 rushing touchdowns, second-most in the FBS, including a long of 95. They rarely used him in the passing game, as he had just 19 receptions for 135 yards and two touchdowns. Actually, his 19 receptions were second-most on the team, which goes to show you how much they relied on the running game. His ability to return kicks is the cherry on top. He returned 17 kicks for 521 yards and two touchdowns, as well as two punt returns for 70 yards and a touchdown this past season. Overall, he had seven kick returns for touchdowns over the last three seasons.
I just love watching him play. Scouts say he has excellent burst and that his decision making is on point. He’s a home-run hitter who has a chance to score every time he touches the ball. He has the speed to beat you outside and is strong enough to run in between the tackles. He’s very good at breaking away from defenders, too. Pro Football Focus notes that he led his draft class with 80 tackles broken in the run game. He also makes plays when you think there’s no room to run.
And at 5-foot-11 and 220 pounds, he has solid size. He also ran a 4.46 40 at the NFL Scouting combine, which tied for third-best among running backs who participated.
With all that said, why isn’t he a consensus first-round pick? Well, he played against inferior competition in the MWC. However, in SDSU’s only game vs. an AP ranked team (No. 19 Stanford), Penny carried the ball 32 times for 175 yards (5.5 per-carry average) and added five receptions for 31 receiving yards in a 20-17 win. He looked great at the Senior Bowl, too, carrying the ball nine times for 64 yards (7.1 per-carry average) and catching a 73-yard TD pass.
If drafted by the Chargers, he’d form a dominant one-two punch with Gordon and would excel as an every-down back should the latter miss time.
Round Prediction: Round 2-3
GEORGIA’S NICK CHUBB: Chubb is getting overlooked. The 2014 SEC Freshman of the Year and first-team All-SEC selection took a step back after suffering a significant knee injury midway through the 2015 season, costing him the final seven games (including Georgia’s bowl game) of the year. He returned his junior season to play in every game and rushed for 1,130 yards and eight touchdowns, but many scouts said Chubb wasn’t the same player pre-injury.
Enter 2017, where Chubb was one half of a dynamic rushing attack in Georgia. He led the team in carries (223) and finished with 1,345 rushing yards, a career-high 15 touchdowns and a solid 6.0 yards per carry. However, he’s being overshadowed by the more explosive Sony Michel, who finished with 1,227 rushing yards of his own and ranked second in the FBS in yards-per-carry average (7.9) among backs with at least 150 carries. Chubb found the end zone a total of 46 times (44 rushing, two receiving) in his four-year career.
The 5-foot-11, 227-pound Chubb is a bruiser. He has great balance and vision. He’s a north and south runner who powers through and fights for extra yards. PFF notes that he averaged a career-high 3.9 yards after contact per rush this past season. He also made people miss, forcing 56 missed tackles, per PFF. And he showed his athleticism at the combine, tying for sixth in the 40 (4.52), tying for first in the bench press (29 reps), tying for fourth in the vertical (38.5 inches) and finishing second in the broad jump (10’8″) among running backs who participated.
Chubb has been a workhorse for the Bulldogs. He had career 758 rushing attempts. In comparison, Penny had a total of 488 carries. Will Chubb wear down sooner than later in the NFL because of his usage in college? I’m sure plenty of general managers have asked that question. He’s also not going to be a threat in the passing game (nine total receptions over the last two seasons). And while he didn’t fumble at all last season, he has fumbled eight times (lost five) in his career.
Overall, scouts believe Chubb won’t become an elite running back after that injury, but I think he’s determined to prove people wrong. With that said, I think the powerful Chubb will make a big impact for the Chargers, even if it’s playing second fiddle to Gordon, a role that will be new to him after being the longtime primary ball carrier for the Bulldogs.
Round Prediction: Round 2-3
AUBURN’S KERRYON JOHNSON: Johnson saw some playing time as a true freshman and split time with another back as a sophomore (scored 11 touchdowns), but it wasn’t until his junior year (2017) that he took over as Auburn’s lead back. As a full-time starter, Johnson earned first-team All-SEC honors and was named SEC Offensive Player of the Year after finishing with 285 carries for 1,391 yards and 18 rushing touchdowns. He also caught 24 balls for 194 yards and two touchdowns and even threw for a touchdown.
Scouts say he is a tough, well-balanced runner with great patience. Even though he’s not considered a speedster by some, he has good acceleration and can slip by defenders for big gains. He really stood out against Alabama’s vaunted defense in the Iron Bowl. He was one of only two running backs to rush for over 100 yards vs. the eventual college football playoff champions; here is his full game highlights. And like Penny, Johnson had the ability to return kicks. He totaled 26 career kick returns and averaged at least 22.0 yards per return in both of his first two seasons.
At 6-foot and 213 pounds, Johnson has a leaner frame. However, he does have big arms (32 1/2 inches) and big hands (9 3/4 inches). He didn’t run the 40 at the combine and only benched pressed a mere 11 reps, which tied for the lowest total among backs who participated, but his 40-inch vertical and 10’6″ broad jump ranked second and third, respectively.
Scouts find his upright running style a weakness. In the NFL, he’s going to be open to even bigger hits, which could lead to fumbles and injuries. He’s already dealt with a series of injuries. Last year, he missed two games earlier in the season due to a hamstring injury, and then he dealt with a nagging shoulder injury late in the season (didn’t miss any time). He suffered a high-ankle sprain in the spring of that year and dealt with another ankle injury the season prior (didn’t miss any time). He also underwent shoulder surgery after his freshman year. As for holding on to the football, he had elite ball security, fumbling just once all last year and only accounting for three total fumbles in his career. Unfortunately, last year’s fumble (which he lost) occurred in the SEC title game vs. Georgia.
Overall, Johnson has the tools to become a great NFL running back, but his durability is a big question mark.
Round Prediction: Round 2-4
OREGON’S ROYCE FREEMAN: If I had the option of picking Johnson in the second round or Freeman in the third or fourth round, I think I’d go with the latter.
Freeman was very productive and durable for the Ducks. He came onto the scene right away, starting 11 games as a true freshman and became the Pac-12 Offensive Rookie of the Year. He topped that by earning first-team All-Pac-12 honors his sophomore season. However, he struggled the following year. After finishing with a combined 3,201 rushing yards and a total of 35 rushing touchdowns in those two seasons, he failed to eclipse 1,000 rushing yards (945) or score double-digit touchdowns on the ground (nine). He was playing through pain after suffering a leg injury early on in the season.
He bounced back in 2017, finishing with the ninth-most rushing yards (1,475) in the FBS and tied for the 10th-most rushing touchdowns (16) while earning second-team all-conference honors. Like Penny and Johnson, Freeman was a semifinalist for the Doak Walker Award, an award given to the nation’s top running back.
Scouts say the 5-foot-11, 229-pound Freeman is a very smart player with solid vision. He’s not a flashy, explosive back who has top-end speed, but he does have good footwork and the agility and strength (which scouts say they want to see more of) to break away from defenders. Last season, he had the sixth-most yards after contact among draft-eligible running backs. He also forced 53 missed tackles as a ball carrier, which was fourth-most among backs in his draft class. He has shined as a receiver, too. PFF notes that Freeman is one of the most effective pass-catching running backs, having caught 80-of-89 passes thrown in his direction over his four-year career. He had 79 receptions for 814 yards and four touchdowns during that span. Scouts also say he is a pretty good pass blocker.
He also impressed at the combine. He tied for the 10th-best 40 time (4.54 seconds) among backs who participated. His bench press (17 reps) and vertical (34 inches) were average, but he was a top performer in both the three-cone drill (6.90 seconds, third-best) and 20-yard shuttle (4.16 seconds, tied for third-best).
The downside? According to PFF, Freeman had an up-and-down career (grade-wise) at Oregon. And like Chubb, he comes with some wear and tear (943 career carries). The lack of breakaway speed will push him down the board, too.
That said, Freeman is a solid all-around back who has a nose for the end zone (64 total TDs). He would be a steal in the mid-rounds.
Round Prediction: Round 3-4