It is no secret that the SEC is loaded with talented running backs just one year after losing Leonard Fournette and Alvin Kamara to the NFL. With plenty of important football for each of the prospects listed below yet to be played, I’ve offered my initial rankings of the conference’s top ten draft-eligible backs. Keep in mind this list only includes players that will have completed their third year of football since their high school graduation, which excludes fun talents like Texas A&M sophomore Trayveon Williams, Missouri sophomore Damarea Crockett and Alabama sophomore Joshua Jacobs, among others.
1. Derrius Guice, Junior, LSU
Even in the heralded SEC, no back can match the ability of Derrius Guice. He’s a legitimate Heisman contender with the agility, power and burst to be a home run threat every time he touches the ball. At 5-11, 222 pounds, Guice has the perfect frame to run between the tackles with decisiveness and a low pad level that helps carry defenders with him or bounce off of them. His balance and elusiveness in the open field are probably the best in the class, but Guice complements those improvisational movements with terrific vision and mental processing at the line of scrimmage to manipulate defenders at the second level and maximize every carry.
2. Bo Scarbrough, RS Junior, Alabama
Scarbrough is coming off of a broken leg suffered in the national championship game against Clemson, but the 6-1, 232-pound back should still be in line to shoulder a heavy workload this season, along with Damien Harris. Scarbrough has the size, power, burst and long speed to be absolutely special, however the key will be staying healthy.
Not only are a torn ACL and broken fibula in his recent history, but in high school, Scarbrough also suffered season-ending injuries three times with a broken ankle (freshman season), torn ACL (sophomore) and high ankle sprain (junior). That’s a terrifying track record for an NFL team to bank on with a high-end draft pick, but if he’s able to stay on the field, Scarbrough has all the traits to become a first round pick.
3. Sony Michel, Senior, Georgia
Michel isn’t the biggest or fastest back, but he’s a savvy runner with good elusiveness and wiggle around the box to evade defenders. His vision is superb, and he always falls forward, fighting hard through contact to maximize every touch. Michel is also an experienced receiver, with soft hands and the athletic tools to be dangerous in the open field if he can play a little more under control. Although I’m excited to see how Nick Chubb performs in his second year back from injury, I really wish we could see Michel in a feature role for the entire 2017 season, especially considering how superb he was as a starter in 2015.
4. Nick Chubb, Senior, Georgia
Chubb is a tough runner with a physical mindset, and I was surprised by his vertical burst for such a stocky framed back coming off a significant knee injury. Chubb can really turn the corner, but he runs a little high (for a 5-10 back) and takes on a decent amount of contact. He’s tight in the hips, and may lack the quick twitch change of direction to consistently make defenders miss. Did that go away because of his knee injury? Will it return? A lot of questions wait to be answered by Chubb this season.
5. Damien Harris, Junior, Alabama
Harris doesn’t really have many special traits, but his feet are nifty, and his balance and pad level aid him in absorbing contact between the tackles. He’s experienced in pass protection and flashed a lot of promise in limited opportunities as a pass-catcher last season. Scarbrough is the better talent, but his injury history and the fact that Harris averaged 7.1 yards per carry last year should bode well for the junior getting plenty of opportunities to shine in 2017.
6. Ralph Webb, RS Senior, Vanderbilt
A shifty runner with light feet and deceptive strength despite being just 5-9, 202 pounds, Webb may not be a feature back at the next level, but he’s got the well-rounded skill set that NFL teams desire in their third down backs. A capable receiver and willing pass protector, Webb lacks the vision and tackle-breaking ability to be great around the line of scrimmage as a runner, often running into his blockers or hesitating in the backfield. Once his burst can be accessed however, Webb is tough to corral in the open field due to his balance and competitive toughness. He’s a fun college back that should have a solid NFL future.
7. Jordan Scarlett, Junior, Florida
Athletic traits will be in question with Scarlett, but there is no denying his physicality and strength as a runner, consistently picking up yards after first contact. Unfortunately Scarlett isn’t very explosive or elusive, at times looking slow to identify the hole and read defensive movements. The junior also hasn’t offered much as a receiver in his two seasons of action, reeling in just five catches and struggling with consistency in pass protection. But he’s got some Marion Barber-like runs, so it will be interesting to see if he can develop the other aspects of his game as a junior.
8. Keith Ford, RS Senior, Texas A&M
Ford’s vision isn’t bad, but his mental processing speed behind the line of scrimmage must pick up in his final collegiate season. His production is unimpressive, both at Oklahoma and at Texas A&M, but Ford sure looks the part with a well-muscled 5-11, 215-pound frame and obvious athletic traits. His pad level is excellent and there’s some wiggle and power to his game that will entice scouts. Unfortunately he’ll probably be paying second fiddle to sophomore sensation Trayveon Williams again this season, which could muddy Ford’s draft stock.
9. Kamryn Pettway, RS Junior, Auburn
Pettway wears the number 36 and dons a cowboy collar, making him an automatic qualifier for this list just based on those observations. He’s a herky-jerky runner who really needs to throttle down to cut laterally, but at his listed 236 pounds that is expected. Pettway is only 5-11, so he’s a load to bring down due to his boxy frame, especially when he gets going in the open field. He’s an average athlete with methodical pre-line of scrimmage movements however, and likely hits his ceiling as a future NFL backup who won’t offer much ability as a receiver either.
10. John Kelly, Junior, Tennessee
I came away from viewing a decent chunk of Kelly’s 98 sophomore year-carries with the impression that I needed a larger sample size to draw any real conclusion on his game. There are clearly some inconsistencies, but Kelly has the shiftiness and receiving ability to take over much of what Alvin Kamara did last season. How his vision and decision-making develops will determine whether Kelly ever becomes more than just a rotational college back.