Underrated RB Prospects with Chance to Be the Next Kareem Hunt or Alvin Kamara
Top-notch running backs are frequently mined from the NFL draft's middle or late rounds.
In 2017, for example, third-round Toledo product Kareem Hunt led the league in rushing as a rookie, while third-round former Tennessee back Alvin Kamara was the league's Offensive Rookie of the Year. And beyond that, third-rounder D'Onta Foreman, fourth-rounder Tarik Cohen and fifth-rounder Aaron Jones all had high-impact rookie campaigns.
Which below-the-radar running backs in the 2018 class have a chance to rise up from the middle rounds and make a Hunt- or Kamara-level impact this upcoming season? With the April 26-28 draft less than six weeks away, here are five candidates.
Rashaad Penny, San Diego State
There's still plenty of time for former San Diego State running back Rashaad Penny's stock to rise, but it's shocking to see how often he's been ignored in early-round draft analysis and predictions.
Penny is a patient, NFL-ready back coming off a 2,383-scrimmage-yard, 25-touchdown senior season and a combine performance in which he ran a 4.46-second 40-yard dash at 220 pounds. He averaged 7.5 yards per carry as a junior and followed that up with a 7.8 yards-per-attempt average in 2017, and he added five touchdowns as a receiver during his last two years in the Mountain West Conference.
He's not overly explosive and has to work on his ball security, but his toughness and durability are being overlooked. This guy has the skill set to become an every-down back in the NFL.
Penny might not have Hunt's or Kamara's playmaking ability, so don't expect him to remind you of either rookie sensation visually. But if he lands with a team that has a backfield vacancy, the 22-year-old could have a chance to make an equally large impact in 2018.
Mark Walton, Miami
Like Hunt (4.62), former Miami running back Mark Walton put up an underwhelming 40-yard dash time (4.60) at the NFL Scouting Combine. But it'd be a mistake to let that fool you, because he played fast in 2016 before an ankle injury derailed his 2017 campaign.
Before suffering that injury in October, Walton was averaging a ridiculous 7.6 yards per carry. Against Toledo (coincidentally Hunt's alma mater) on September 23, he rushed for 204 yards on just 11 attempts. And one week later against Duke he caught four passes for 79 yards as part of a 130-scrimmage-yard performance.
Walton is thick despite weighing just 188 pounds, and he's flashed the same playmaking ability that made Hunt and Kamara stand out as rookies.
There will be concerns about his durability and speed, but Walton has the vision, patience, explosiveness and versatility you want in a potential lead back. If he's given that opportunity in 2018, he could immediately become a household name.
Royce Freeman, Oregon
Bleacher Report draft guru Brent Sobleski suggested to yours truly last month that the three-cone drill is the most important event for running backs at the combine, noting that the first question evaluators often have regarding a player at that position is, "Can he move his feet?" The drill gives you a feel for how well a player can change directions at high speed.
And at the combine, no potential Day 2 running back posted a better time than Oregon product Royce Freeman (6.90 seconds).
That alone isn't enough to make Freeman a draft dark horse, but it's icing on the cake for an underrated back who rushed for 1,300-plus yards in three of his four seasons in the Pac-12. The battle-tested 234-pounder moves like he's 30 pounds lighter and could become the complete package if he learns to play more physically.
He averaged 5.9 yards per carry during his four years as a starter at Oregon, and that number probably would have been higher had a 2016 knee injury not limited him. He remained healthy the rest of his time with the Ducks, though, and has workhorse written all over him.
Freeman doesn't look or feel like Hunt or Kamara, but he just might make a similar difference.
Nyheim Hines, NC State
NC State product Nyheim Hines lacks ideal size (5'8", 197 lbs) and doesn't have a long track record as an every-down rusher, which might explain why he's not expected to be an early-round pick in the 2018 draft. Still, he might be the ultimate high-upside back outside of the position's first tier of prospects.
The speedster ran a 4.38 40-yard dash at the combine after averaging 5.6 yards per carry and scoring 12 touchdowns in a breakout junior season in the ACC. He wasn't a lead back prior to that, but he proved himself as a pass-catcher with 43 receptions for 525 yards as a sophomore in 2016.
Hines had four touchdown runs of 45 yards or more last season, so he possesses the playmaking ability you want in an offensive weapon.
He's not quite as refined, as crafty or as big as the 5'10", 215-pound Kamara, but watch his tape and it's hard not to see something similar. And he might also be faster, making up for his other shortcomings.
Akrum Wadley, Iowa
Projected as more of a third-down back, former Iowa stud Akrum Wadley is a longer shot to become something special in the NFL. Still, the super-athlete put together 2,858 yards from scrimmage and 26 touchdowns as the centerpiece of the Hawkeyes offense the last two years.
We might be underrating Wadley as a rusher. He averaged 6.4 yards per carry as a junior, and he's quick-footed and elusive enough to handle double-digit carries each game. He might not be a 20-carry guy at 191 pounds, but he held up well with a huge workload in college before earning a Senior Bowl practice award as the top running back.
The 5'10" Wadley doesn't have breakaway speed (4.54 40), isn't a power back and isn't big enough to handle a full workload, but if he can put on more pounds and land in the right backfield (the Denver Broncos or New York Giants would be interesting), he has the vision, versatility and experience to play a huge role right away.