Text your five best friends right now and ask them who the best running back in the NFL is. That's what I did this week, texting the people I trust most in the NFL for an expert opinion on a question that's been bothering me all summer: Who will be the best running back in the NFL this season?
My answer: Dallas' Ezekiel Elliott if he can keep it together off the field (no more ripping down shirts to expose breasts) and the NFL's ongoing investigation into domestic violence allegations doesn't cost him playing time.
What might surprise you is that almost no one else I spoke to agreed. Every NFL evaluator except for one replied that Pittsburgh's Le'Veon Bell is the league's best back. Bell, the guy currently not at OTAs and who hasn't signed his franchise tag.
Elliott led the NFL in rushing last season, and conventional wisdom says he'll enjoy a big follow-up season, but NFL evaluators and decision-makers see things differently. As one put it, "Bell transcends scheme. You can flex him out and he's going to beat defenders in one-on-ones as a receiver." Said another, "With Zeke, you have to worry about how long he's going to stay committed. Bell's a dog. He won't ever quit."
Ezekiel Elliott definitely has the skills to remain one of the NFL's top producers at running back, but when it comes to talent, he was consistently ranked behind Bell by evaluators polled for this article. Bell's agent will be happy to hear that as they try to hammer out a long-term deal to keep him in Pittsburgh.
Here's what else is going on this week:
- The best running back prospect in a decade
- A quarterback with "best ever" potential
- What's in Bob Stoops' future?
- Christian Hackenberg vs. the New York media
The Scout's Report
—How good is Penn State running back Saquon Barkley? He has the potential to be the best running back prospect of the last decade. He's closer to Le'Veon Bell than Ezekiel Elliott with his shiftiness and what he offers in the passing game. On an offense with few weapons, Barkley will be asked to shoulder a heavy load this season.
—Wyoming quarterback Josh Allen is my top quarterback for the 2018 class, and one scout I spoke to said he could be the highest-ranked quarterback he's ever evaluated. Teams are in love with Allen's size, arm strength, athleticism and upside as a passer.
—Aaron Donald skipped the non-mandatory portion of the offseason for the Los Angeles Rams, but he showed up on time for mandatory minicamp this week, according to Steve Wyche of NFL Network. Donald is expected to want a new deal and should come in as one of the highest-paid players in the league when that's done.
—Odell Beckham was not holding out for a new contract...per Odell Beckham at his first press conference after returning to the team for mandatory activities. Beckham said, "I was just taking the time to train" when asked why he was absent. Beckham then showed up to camp wearing cleats that took shots at media sites like TMZ and ESPN with "Shhhhhhhh!!!" written in red letters. In a league where the NFL tries to scrub all personality, it's refreshing to see someone like OBJ stand up to the masses—especially if he keeps backing it up on the field.
—A few key players are requesting a new contract, or sitting out and hoping for one. Duane Brown wasn't there for the start of Houston Texans camp, and Joseph Person of the Charlotte Observer reported Greg Olsen wants a restructured deal.
—Andrew Luck won't be participating in minicamp with the Indianapolis Colts this week, according to Zak Keefer of the Indianapolis Star. Said head coach Chuck Pagano, "The next step is getting to the point where he can throw." That might be a team being cautious, but it terrifies me. Luck is the Colts' offense and the team's best shot at winning games. If he's not on the field, the AFC South is truly up for grabs.
—The Chargers signing Melvin Ingram to a four-year deal is news you should take note of. Ingram has become one of the best standup pass-rushers in the NFL, and this deal ensures the Chargers have he and Joey Bosa on the same defensive front for at least four more seasons. The Chargers loaded up on offense in the draft and could be a surprise team in the AFC West.
—Once a promising running back, Matt Jones has requested his release from Washington, according to Stephen Whyno of the Associated Press. After his rookie season, it looked like Jones would become a star back, but fumbles and a lack of production have plagued him since. If released, he wouldn't be on the market long, as teams would still be interested in the talent he showed previously.
—Shade of the Week: The Boston Herald quoted Josh Kraft (son of owner Robert) as saying about the Patriots Hall of Fame, "You should check it out. It's a lot better than the Jets Hall of Fame, which is nonexistent."
5 Names to Know
5. George Kittle, Tight End (San Francisco 49ers)
This is my thought and not based on any inside info, but George Kittle has a very good chance to start at tight end for the 49ers this year. Kittle is very similar to Jordan Reed in terms of athleticism but is a better blocker. Kyle Shanahan will love that versatility and athleticism at tight end.
4. DeShone Kizer, Quarterback (Cleveland Browns)
A coaching staff source remarked to me this week that Kizer was impressing them with his arm talent and ability to apply coaching to his game. Kizer shouldn't be considered the favorite to start over Cody Kessler just yet, but I'd keep an eye on him as that competition heats up.
3. Kenny Golladay, Wide Receiver (Detroit Lions)
At 6'4" and 218 pounds, Kenny Golladay has the size the Detroit Lions lack at the receiver position. He's also a talented route-runner with strong hands. It was a surprise when he was the team's pick in the third round, but with the loss of Anquan Boldin, it makes sense. He's also impressing in camp, per Dave Birkett of the Detroit Free Press.
2. Dion Dawkins, Offensive Lineman (Buffalo Bills)
When the Buffalo Bills drafted Dion Dawkins in the second round, I expected he'd be playing right tackle. He may eventually, but with Cordy Glenn out, it's fair to think Dawkins could be asked to play the blind side as a rookie. At Temple, Dawkins was asked to play the left side and did well in that role. This is a player to watch in minicamp, because he has the talent to start as a first-year player.
1. Ryan Switzer, Wide Receiver (Dallas Cowboys)
Ryan Switzer has a chance to make his mark as a receiver and as a return man for the Cowboys this fall. People forget Switzer was one of the best punt returners in college football history—so much so that teams started kicking away from him. He'll get work in the slot for Dallas but should also see plenty of touches in the return game.
5. Christian Hackenberg sucks, haven't you heard? That's the story many in the New York media are telling fans. They're even posting supporting evidence in the form of videos and stories about him hitting reporters standing on the sidelines with errant throws.
But is that fair and balanced or #fakenews?
I haven't been to Jets camp, so I can't tell you if Hackenberg has been good or not. But I know you can't evaluate a player off one throw. Or five throws. And posting a video to Twitter where the receiver (a player visiting the team on a tryout basis) doesn't run the right route and blaming the quarterback isn't a smart way to build your argument that Hackenberg isn't any good and that by proxy the Jets front office isn't any good.
In the above video, Hackenberg throws a duck that shoots over the head of a receiver and goes toward the media scrum. The tweet made its way around the web with no one pointing out the truth in the clip—that the receiver ran the wrong route and give piss-poor effort in doing so.
Listen to the coach shouting, "Come out of it." He's telling the receiver to run an out route, not sit on the break. If he comes out of the stem at a 90-degree angle like he's supposed to, that pass may be high but still catchable. Quarterbacks throw to a point on the field where the receiver is supposed to be, and in this case, the receiver wasn't there.
As for getting hit by errant passes: If you stand near the sideline or at the end of a route in practice, you're going to get hit by passes. It's happened to me every year I've attended the Senior Bowl. It's practice. Things happen. Passes miss their mark. Receivers run the wrong route. Would taking a clip of that one bad throw and posting it on Twitter be me telling you guys the truth about the player?
It wouldn't be.
4. Bob Stoops shocked the college football world with his sudden retirement last week. A retirement in June raises many questions, and maybe chief among them is if Stoops will now try to jump to the NFL.
As long as I've been covering football, Stoops' name has been connected to the NFL as a head coaching candidate. The most likely scenario is probably Stoops serving as a "senior adviser" to a team and then seeing if he likes the pace and style of the NFL.
It's worth noting Stoops has never coached for an NFL team and only left the Midwest for two years (1996-98) as the defensive coordinator at Florida. Maybe Chris Ballard, another hardcore Midwest guy, would consider him for the Indianapolis Colts job if Chuck Pagano doesn't pan out?
3. There was plenty of speculation that Stoops would be in line for a job with the Chicago Bears if John Fox is gone after this season. That wouldn't surprise me, but I'd also keep this name in mind: Jeff Fisher.
Fisher played for the Bears and spent one season there as a coaching assistant in 1985. It's too soon to say Fox is done after only two seasons on the job, but if he's out, these are two names I expect to be linked to that job.
2. They're not all draft-eligible yet, but you'll want to put a reminder in your phone about Clemson football games this season, if only to catch the talent on the defensive line. Christian Wilkins, Dexter Lawrence and Clelin Ferrell all look like future first-rounders with top-10 potential. Wilkins and Ferrell are 2018 eligible, with Lawrence not on the radar until 2019.
1. Stick to Football Episode 9 is out! We talk to guest host Marshal Miller about the 2018 running back class and whether Josh Rosen, Josh Allen or Sam Darnold should declare if a team like the Cleveland Browns or New York Jets earn the No. 1 overall pick. We also answer your questions in #DraftonDraft and talk about which fries are the best fries (not tater tots).
Matt Miller covers the NFL and NFL draft for Bleacher Report.