The NFL’s talented class of rookie running backs in 2018 is out of the gates after most of them saw their first action in Week 1 of the preseason. Their performances suggest their combined value will mirror that of the Class of 2017, with the best of the bunch standing out but also with several later-round players headed toward immediate impact in the Alvin Kamara-Kareem Hunt vein.
Unfortunately, we will need to wait to see Patriots first-rounder Sony Michel, who was out with a knee injury. And we will no longer see Redskins second-rounder Derrius Guice, who is out for the season with a knee injury.
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Going around the league, here is a closer first look at eight notable rookies’ stock coming out or their pro debuts.
Kerryon Johnson, Lions
Johnson’s awesome start confirmed the idea that Detroit made a great decision to trade up and draft him in the middle of the second round. He turned 11 touches into 67 impressive scrimmage yards against the Raiders, showing off all his strengths as a runner and receiver. There was power, speed, explosiveness, vision and, when needed, patience and decisiveness.
The Lions in the offseason vowed to fix their backfield, and Johnson has zoomed ahead of Ameer Abdullah. LeGarrette Blount got the default veteran start in the first game, but he’s 10 years older and has major limitations to his game. Detroit sticking with Blount on early downs and Theo Riddick on third downs would be predictable and a waste of Johnson’s versatility. Kerryon is the best Johnson the Lions’ offense has had since Megatron.
Royce Freeman, Broncos
Devontae Booker has been tabbed as Denver’s top back, but he is only a placeholder until Freeman, a more powerful runner who’s built to excel behind a zone blocking scheme, feels comfortable.
Freeman turned his four carries against Minnesota into 38 yards and a touchdown, working in the game right behind Booker. Freeman had received early praise, and now he has late momentum to win the feature job.
Saquon Barkley, Giants
There was no way Barkley could improve his stock, right?
Wrong. His 39-yard run on his first carry was jaw-dropping but not surprising; he did things like that on a regular basis at Penn State. Barkley was in sync with the strengths of the Giants’ improved offensive line, and he did not yet get a chance to show how dynamic of a receiver he can be. As crazy as it sounds, Barkley could clear the high bar set by Kamara and Hunt last season as a runaway rookie of the year.
John Kelly, Rams
Speaking of Kamara, here’s the next Tennessee running back in the pipeline. For the Rams, Malcolm Brown was a little-used backup for Todd Gurley. Kelly is on his way to displacing Brown as the ultimate insurance for arguably the league’s best back.
Kelly blew through the Ravens for 77 yards on 13 carries, including a 40-yard burst. Gurley is bound to get another monster workload this season, but Kelly is shaping up to be an improved RB relief plan for coach Sean McVay.
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Rashaad Penny, Seahawks
Penny did not shine when needed in the opener against the Colts (8 carries for 16 yards and 2 catches for 7 yards). The Seahawks are not handing anything to the surprise first-rounder, as undrafted second-year runner Chris Carson has come back strong from last year’s leg injury to be the initial favorite for early-down work. In contrast, Carson needed only 4 carries to gain 26 yards.
Penny also has an opening to earn snaps on passing downs with C.J. Prosise hurt again, but J.D. McKissic remains the better fallback option out of the backfield. Seattle’s history under Pete Carroll has never been to lock into pedigree, including draft status. The Seahawks will hope the competition sparks Penny to live up to his all-around promise, or he will have a smaller role at first.
NIck Chubb, Browns
Chubb, with little help from the Browns’ second-string line, looked overwhelmed between the tackles against the Giants. He got stuffed regularly as his 15 carries added up to a dismal 11 yards.
The second-rounder from Georgia is not ready for early-down work in the Dawg Pound. Some steady improvement through the early part of the regular season can change that outlook in time given Hyde’s history of durability issues.
Ronald Jones III, Buccaneers
A head coach calling a debut “average” and then immediately reaffirming the current depth chart is never good for a rookie running back. That’s what happened regarding Dirk Koetter and Jones (8 carries, 9 yards, TD), who was thoroughly outplayed by Peyton Barber (4 carries, 21 yards, TD) against the Dolphins.
Jones is lagging behind in pass protection and is not the most natural pass-catcher — two big obstacles for a rookie. The former issue is adding to Barber’s lead, but if Jones can improve in the latter capacity, he can make Charles Sims expendable and get some work out of the backfield in the passing game.
Kalen Ballage, Dolphins
In that same game against the Buccaneers, Ballage played OK numbers-wise with 10 carries for 37 yards. But in reality, the fourth-rounder’s night was awful. He tried to do too much on one of his runs and lost a fumble. He followed that performance with horrendous pass protection in practice … to the point that quarterback Ryan Tannehill reportedly ripped him and took him out of an ensuing huddle.
So Kenyan Drake apparently can rest a little easier knowing Ballage is no threat to him in splitting significant carries with the 35-year-old Frank Gore.
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