View photos of the fourth mock draft by Buccaneers.com contributors Carmen Vitali and Scott Smith. Photos by AP Images.
The pool of running backs available in the 2018 NFL Draft is considered to be a deep one, but it also has a large split between the consensus top prospect and the next tier of players. As one well-respected draft analyst noted last week, that could lead to some good value for teams targeting the running back position at the bottom of the first round and the top of the second.
As we noted here on Buccaneers.com earlier in the offseason, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers have a history of success when it comes to selecting running backs early in the second round. And, as it happens, Tampa Bay owns the sixth pick in the second round this year, number 38 overall. Assuming that consensus top pick, Penn State's Saquon Barkley, is not available at the seventh pick in the first round, the Buccaneers could turn their attention to the offensive backfield early on Friday night.
General Manager Jason Licht fielded questions about the upcoming draft last Thursday and said it's "fair to say" that running back is a position at which the Buccaneers would like to add some "depth or quality" to. Licht also made it clear, on the other hand, that the team does have a potential lead back already on hand.
"There's good depth and there's running backs scattered across the draft that we feel could help us," said Licht. "With that said, the talk of running back comes up a lot, but we do like Peyton Barber and we do like what Peyton brings to the table. He's a big guy that can grind it out in your four-minute offense and also when he was given the opportunity, he played really well. Really, he's still young and on the rise."
The Buccaneers may find that there is another position at which the value is better for them early in the second round. However, if they do choose to dip into that deep pool of backs, there is likely to be an attractive option or two. NFL Network analyst Mike Mayock recently ran through that top-end running back depth in a conference call with the media, touching on such potential NFL standouts as LSU's Derrius Guice, USC's Ronald Jones, San Diego State's Rashaad Penny, Auburn's Kerryon Johnson and the Georgia duo of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb.
"Barkley's special," said Mayock. "Derrius Guice, I think is a first-round talent who's got to be a little bit more consistent and mature with the way he projects himself. I think Sony Michel is a first-round talent. I think there's some concerns out there about his knee and whether or not that would push him in the second round. But I compare him a little bit to Alvin Kamara. I don't think he catches the ball as well but a similar run game.
"And then you start getting into guys, again, at the top of the second, like … Sony Michel. Ronald Jones from USC is a change-of-pace guy. Penny from San Diego State, great kick returner and really a good tailback at 220 pounds. And Nick Chubb, the other Georgia cornerback, you could make a case for all four of those guys, top of the second round, all of whom I think are going to bring value to a team."
The team that drafts Barkley early is going to expect him to be the complete, three-down package, running with power between the tackles, hitting the edge, creating big plays, catching passes out of the backfield and providing pass protection when necessary. The next tier of backs is a more varied bunch, some excelling more than others in certain areas. Guice is the back who shows up most frequently in first-round mock drafts after Barkley and may be the most powerful runner between the tackles in that group.
"Derrius Guice – first-round talent," said Mayock. "I don't think anybody questions his running style, which is north-south, tough, quick feet, ran better than people thought. He's a first-round talent. Reminds me a little bit, just style-wise, of a Frank Gore. Gets a lot of carries, tough. His issues more are just -- I don't know what the right word is. Maybe it's some immaturity off the field. What's his work ethic going to be like? Will he be a true pro? Will he show up to go to work every day? Some of those concerns could push him into the second round, but make no mistake about it, he's a talented kid."
Mayock referred to Auburn's Johnson as a "leggy, jump-cut guy" and thought he might last a little later, into the late second or early third round. He praised Chubb's toughness and suggested he would be a "home-run" pick in the second or third round. As mentioned above, he gave Michel significant praise by comparing him to Kamara of the Saints, who happens to be the reigning NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year. As for Jones, Mayock probed one part of his game but still gave him a strong review.
"I've got Ronald Jones as a second-round running back, and I think that's pretty special. I think his ability with the ball in his hands is as good as anybody in this draft. The concern I had is whether or not he has natural hands. And at 205 pounds, basically you're looking at a back that's not going to get 25 touches in the run game. I know what he can do with the ball in his hands. I know, when you hand it to him, he's fine. My concern is just third down, change of pace, throwing the ball, pass protection -- how elite will he be at that level? But trust me, I love his football game. I just question the natural hands."
Perhaps the most interesting part of Mayock's analysis was his contention that NFL coaches are becoming less focused on specific positions on offense and instead are simply looking for the best available play-makers at any skill position. If a team is receiver-needy but the players available in the draft don't justify a high pick at that position, they might choose to spike their offense with a running back or a tight end instead.
Kamara provides an excellent example. Heading into the 2017 season, the Saints had running back Mark Ingram coming off his best season as a pro and an apparent hole at receiver after trading Brandin Cooks to the Patriots. New Orleans didn't take a receiver in the draft, but it did trade a 2018 second-round pick to the 49ers in order to get an extra third-round selection that it used on Kamara. The rookie became a huge part of the Saints' passing attack, catching 81 passes for 826 yards.
"Coaches are saying forget what you call them, but they're not wide receivers, they're not running backs, tight ends," said Mayock. "Find me a dynamic offensive player, and I'll figure out how to use them. And I think that's what we've seen at the running back position the last few years."
This year, those players might in fact be running backs. And if they so choose, the Buccaneers could be in good position to grab one of them.