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2018 NFL draft countdown: Projecting running backs

Nine days away from the NFL draft in Dallas …

On Monday, we looked at the sack projections for the top edge rushers. Today, we turn our attention to running backs.

One of the big questions leading up to the draft is whether Penn State's Saquon Barkley will live up to the hype of being a top-10 pick.

The answer, according to a Football Outsiders statistic, is an emphatic yes.

BackCAST considers a running back's size-speed combination, his yards per carry average and his share of his team's rushing production. The better a prospect scores in those departments, the more likely he is to succeed in the NFL. The statistic, expressed as a percentage, projects the amount by which a running back will exceed the production of an average drafted running back during his first five seasons in the NFL.

BackCAST doesn't just think Barkley is the top running back in this draft; it sees him as a historically great talent. Barkley's projection of 181.9 percent is the second-highest projection in the model's dataset, which dates to 1998. Only Ricky Williams, the fifth overall pick in 1999, scored higher.

No other running back in this year's class comes close to Barkley's projection. Royce Freeman out of Oregon ranked second (88.1 percent), and Derrius Guice out of LSU ranked third (86.0 percent).

Guice, whom the Bucs recently brought to Tampa for a private workout, is projected to go early in the second round. He averaged 6.5 yards per attempt but has a downside that might be difficult for the Bucs to overlook.

"He is unlikely to give his team much in the receiving game," said Nathan Forster, the creator of BackCAST. "He averaged just more than 7 receiving yards per game and is a larger than average back, which are both bad signs for his receiving prospects in the NFL."

Other notable scores: Rashaad Penny, 81.0 percent; Nick Chubb, 76.2 percent; Ronald Jones II, 60.0 percent; and Sony Michel, 16.8 percent.

In 2017, BackCAST was high on Leonard Fournette (145.6 percent) and Dalvin Cook (141.2 percent), but it whiffed badly on Alvin Kamara, wondering, "Would teams spend a second-round pick on a player who was going to be the next Travaris Cadet?" Kamara, whom the Saints chose early in the third round, went on to gain more than 1,500 yards and score 13 touchdowns last season.

• Speaking of running backs, in Bill Barnwell's "all-trades" mock draft for ESPN, he constructs a tempting deal for the Bucs. Barnwell imagines a swap in which Arizona moves up to No. 7 and Tampa Bay drops to No. 15. The incentive for the Bucs? All-Pro David Johnson.

Ridiculous, you say? Well, Johnson is entering the final year of his rookie deal, Barnwell writes, and if the Cardinals don't want to pay him $10 million a season, this is their best chance to trade up and get their quarterback of the future. Unless, of course, they're content with Sam Bradford and Mike Glennon.

Barnwell also pitches a trade between the Bucs and 49ers in which San Francisco moves up from No. 9. In return for swapping spots in the first round, Tampa Bay would get the 70th overall pick. The Bucs traded the 69th overall pick to the Giants last month for defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul.

• In a Good Morning Football segment called "Bro, You're on the Clock" on Monday, Kyle Brandt played the role of Bucs director of player personnel John Spytek and made the case for Vita Vea as the team's first-round pick.

"I want to go defensive tackle," Brandt said. "I love this guy, Vita Vea from Washington. He's a monster. I look at our history when we won our Super Bowl. We had the D-line. I'm tired of the NFC South running all over the place — Ingram and Kamara and stuff. Let's set up a brick wall for them, a 300-pound one."

Then Brandt got a phone call …

Contact Thomas Bassinger at [email protected] Follow @tometrics.

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