Draft Class Heroes: Mid-Late Round Running Backs Primed To Steal Show Again?

Photo: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports

You know the drill. Tuesday morning means one thing, and one thing only...it's time for the fourth edition of Draft Class Heroes!

From mid-late round running backs starring in the preseason to three players that have caught my eye in scouting this past week to one big-name prospect with a lot to prove in 2018, we've got a lot of ground to cover this morning!

Draft Class Superheroes of the Week: Mid-Late Round 2018 RBs

It happened in 2017 with Kareem Hunt and Alvin Kamara. It happened in 2016 with Jordan Howard, and in 2015 with Tevin Coleman and David Johnson. And it happened in 2014 with Devonta Freeman. No matter what the NFL does, it cannot stop letting quality NFL running backs slip into the mid-late rounds of the draft.

Now 2018 might be a difficult year to judge the league on, because there were so many outstanding backs at a position that isn't typically highly-valued. Given the depth of the class some were bound to fall through the cracks, much to the benefit of several running back-needy teams in the mid-late rounds.

With Saquon Barkley, Sony Michel and Rashaad Penny currently sidelined with injury, Derrius Guice out for the year with a torn ACL and Ronald Jones still finding his way in Tampa, most of the highly-drafted backs aren't making a strong impression yet this preseason.

That's ok however, because we've got a host of mid-rounders clamoring for the respect some of them should have been given during draft weekend.

John Kelly, Los Angeles Rams

The 62nd player on my board, Kelly lasted all the way until pick no. 176 before the Rams nabbed him to backup Todd Gurley. What a shame, as there are more than a few teams around the NFL that Kelly should be starting for.

My dude is doing all this, making NFL defenders look stupid while bouncing off tacklers for a touchdown, while wearing the number 42. Do you understand how impressive that is? The aesthetic obstacle he has had to overcome before the ball is even snapped? On his way to legend status for these feats.

Royce Freeman, Denver Broncos

15 carries for 84 yards and three touchdowns should have Broncos fans clamoring for Freeman to get feature back responsibilities in Denver. Freeman's feet and vision have always been his best traits, and he's using them to find success between the tackles. It is his burst that has caught my eye however, as he looks to be moving as well as he ever has through the hole.

Zero hesitation by Freeman, hits the hole at full speed (great block by the fullback) and zips to the second level to split a couple defenders for the score. See what number he's wearing? That's no. 37, folks. One of the most repulsive numbers I've ever seen a football player don. Kid has a chance to be special, defying the odds like this.

Chris Warren, Oakland Raiders

This dude wasn't even drafted! Yet Warren has been a stud this preseason, running for 250 yards and averaging 5.4 yards per rush while scoring twice. He's shown power, decisiveness and the ability to finish runs behind his pads. All while wearing the no. 34, a disgusting jersey choice, but more acceptable for a big bruising back than any other type. Carry on with the Lord's work, Mr. Warren.

Undrafted backs Phillip Lindsay, Mike Boone and Ryan Nall have also all impressed, although they probably won't see much playing time unless a rash of injuries occurs. Obviously we take all preseason play with a grain of salt, and finding a path to feature playing time for any of these guys seems tough to envision.

Freeman is probably the exception to that rule. Vance Joseph has been vocal about a committee approach in the backfield led by Devontae Booker, but Freeman has so obviously out-played him this preseason that the head coach may only be able to sit idly by for a brief while longer. If he pulls the trigger and gives Freeman the bulk of the workload, we could have an Offensive Rookie of the Year sleeper on our hands.


One of the toughest gigs I've had this summer is finding quality draft-eligible safeties with legit ball skills, range and athleticism. This class has some decent safeties, but very few prospects have shown any traits worth getting thrilled about at this point in the process.

So I dove deep for a couple names that could emerge during the 2018 season, hoping that at least one can become a coveted prospect due to the traits they offer that other safeties in the class just can't.

1. Delvon Randall, S, Temple

I've had at least five people on Twitter ask me about Randall over the past six weeks, and I finally got around to checking him out. I'm glad I listened to y'all. Not only is Randall physical and explosive, but he also has pro-ready size and strength at 5-11, 210 pounds.

He's terrific against the run and has legit ball skills, making some of the most impressive interceptions I've seen over the past two years. Eight interceptions in two seasons as a starter is a number that will catch teams' eyes, especially when they pop in the tape and see how this dude earned his production. He's my no. 2 overall safety entering the season, and I'm excited to see what kind of progress Randall makes in 2018.

2. Lukas Denis, S, Boston College

This dude is wild. Denis plays fast and a bit frantic, and has a tendency to bite on anything and everything he sees, especially in man coverage. He's far from mentally polished based on his 2017 tape, but it is important to keep in mind that was also his first season at safety.

Despite his flaws, the converted cornerback still rang up seven interceptions (tied for second in nation) and broke up 10 passes, showing ball skills, range and instincts that NFL teams will covet in the draft. There are very few safeties in this class that can create turnovers, and while Denis needs work on his tackling, man coverage technique and mental processing, his peaks are better than any safety in the class.

3. Juan Thornhill, S, Virginia

Seven picks, 19 passes defensed. That's what Thornhill brings to the table, with the vast majority of that damage coming at cornerback. He won't play on the outside in the NFL, where his lack of elite athleticism and overall fluidity got him in trouble a good bit last season, but back at safety for the Cavaliers this season, Thornhill could put himself on the map as a prospect.

At 6-foot-1, almost 200 pounds and sporting vines for arms, Thornhill has the length and ball skills to consistently compete at the catch point. He's at his best when he's able to keep things in front of him and process and react, so a move back to safety this year is huge for projecting him to the NFL. If Thornhill does what I think he can, we could be talking about a day two safety prospect that is currently getting no love in the national media.

Villain of the Week: Gregg Williams, Defensive Coordinator, Cleveland Browns

Last week, Browns rookie cornerback Denzel Ward was hurt while making a quality form tackle on a receiver, in which he happened to buckle backwards a bit on the hit.

Excellent job of getting low and wrapping up, all while keeping his helmet up and driving into the contact with his shoulder. It's textbook stuff, but not good enough for his defensive coordinator apparently. Williams, who once told his players in New Orleans to "kill the head and the body will die" and orchestrated Bountygate, had some harsh words (when doesn't he) for Ward's tackle.

"I was glad to hear (it wasn't serious) and maybe he'll finally listen to me and stop doing those stupid things the way he's trying to tackle and tackle the way I tell him to tackle and he won't get hurt."

Williams epitomizes everything I hate about coaching, although I know that some of his players have loved him over the years. That's almost a discussion for another time. But what good does this comment do?

First, even if he wants Ward to cut Ertz on this play, the corner can't know that Ertz is going to dive forward and surrender himself without fighting for extra yardage. He's doing the right thing by using proper form, things just happened to go awry. It happens, it's football.

But on top of all that, why call Ward out to the media? What purpose does that serve, other than to gratify Williams' ego? It is clear from comments by all the Browns' coaches that Ward has excelled in camp and preseason action. There is no extra motivation or accountability needed here, so why not handle it in-house, one-on-one with your player?

I wonder how Williams would have liked it if his players dropped his repulsive Bountygate actions to the media, rather than coming to him face-to-face? I think we all know the demeaning, profanity-laced tirade that would have followed an action like that.

In the lair this week...

  • My top 10 preseason positional rankings for the 2019 NFL Draft dropped today, along with those of my colleagues Trevor Sikkema, Joe Marino and Kyle Crabbs. You're definitely going to want to check those out.
  • My preseason top 50 big board with analysis will drop on Thursday morning, right before I announce to the world who the real LBU is (if you haven't read about the revelation of the true DBU, I suggest you do so now).
  • On Friday I'm going to write about the five SEC prospects with the most to prove in 2018 after lackluster 2017 campaigns.

College football gets underway in earnest this weekend. My loins are girded. My body is ready. We are finally home.