The 2018 draft class was full of talent at the running back position. The most notable went number two overall to the New York Giants. Other athletes selected much later such as Royce Freeman, Nyheim Hines, Kerryon Johnson, Rashaad Penny all contributed heavily to their respective teams’ successes last season, despite not being the highlights of the group.
The three best rookie running backs in 2018 were, undeniably, Saquon Barkley, Nick Chubb, and Sony Michel, all of whom had phenomenal seasons. For a position that is valued less and less in the modern NFL, that is an insane amount of talent to have been found in a single draft. But even a brief examination will reveal that Barkley stood out above the rest.
Saquon Barkley was incredible in 2018
The reason I didn’t title this article “Who was the best rookie running back in 2018?” is because the answer to that question should really be obvious to anyone who was paying attention. Even if you weren’t, it should still be clear that Saquon Barkley was absolutely the best of the bunch. In fact, he might have been the best running back in the NFL period.
Barkley wasn’t necessarily the best runner in the class, something I’ll touch more on later. That’s not to say he was bad; He ran for 1,307 yards, second-most in the NFL, and 11 touchdowns, fifth-most in the NFL, while averaging 5 yards per carry as a rookie for the Giants. If that was all Barkley did during his rookie year, he would already have had a phenomenal season.
Barkley is the perfect modern running back
Barkley’s abilities as a receiver were really what set him apart. His 721 receiving yards were fourth-most in the NFL by a running back in 2018, and he added 4 receiving touchdowns as well on an overall poor Giants’ offense. During their own impressive rookie campaigns, Chubb and Michel had reasonably similar production to Barkley on the ground. But neither came anywhere close to him as receivers. The two of them had less than 200 receiving yards combined. They really weren’t being used as receivers by their respective teams at all.
When you combine Barkley’s ability on the ground with his ability as a receiver, you get a running back that is perfect for the modern NFL, which is placing more and more value on versatile running backs who can catch the ball out of the backfield. Barkley’s versatility and talent led to him having more yards from scrimmage than any other player in the NFL, and to win the AP Offensive Rookie of the Year award. He looks to be a star in the league for years to come.
Chubb and Michel may have been better on the ground than Barkley in 2018
But the fact that Barkley is a transcendent talent at his position (can you tell that I’m a fan?) shouldn’t take away from the excellent seasons that Chubb and Michel had. As I briefly mentioned already, while Barkley was the best rookie running back overall, if you look purely at their abilities as a runner, both Chubb and Michel were arguably better in 2018.
This might initially seem like an odd claim, since statistically, Barkley outperformed his fellow rookies in just about every category. Neither Chubb nor Michel broke 1,000 rushing yards, so Barkley outgained them both by more than 300. He also averaged more yards per carry and scored more touchdowns than either player. But the box score isn’t everything. There are many factors outside of a running back’s control that will affect their statistics.
Examining Barkley, Chubb, and Michel with OSM grades
This is where Pro Football Network’s Offensive Share Metric (OSM) grades come in. The grading system takes into which factors a player had control over, and which they didn’t, in order to determine how responsible the player was for their production. It doesn’t necessarily indicate which player was better, but it does show how well a player performed given the situation they were presented with. When you examine the three rookies on this metric, a clear difference emerges.
In 2018, Barkley received an OSM grade of 33.53. This isn’t a bad grade by any means. However, Michel ended up doing slightly better, at 34.51, and Chubb outperformed them both by a significant margin, with a grade of 37.05. Once again, these grades don’t necessarily indicate that either of them are better runners than Barkley. However, they do show that both of them had to do more work in order to produce similar numbers.
One factor in particular influenced Chubb’s grade
There are a lot of factors that go into determining these grades, but one of the most important factors contributing to this discrepancy is the percentage of time that the three running backs faced at least eight defenders in the box. Chubb was in this situation more than 34 percent of the time, seven percent more often than Michel, and 11 percent more often than Barkley.
So, on average, Michel and Chubb were both met with significantly more resistance when they attempted to run the ball, Chubb especially. This difference helps to explain why Barkley’s grade was the lowest of the three despite averaging more yards per attempt than either of his fellow rookies. This also explains why Chubb’s grade was so high.
In fact, Chubb had one of the highest grades of any running back last season. Teams put more men in the box more often against the Browns than they did against either the Patriots or the Giants. This means that, on average, Chubb was in a significantly more difficult position than his counterparts any time he was handed the ball, making the fact that he had similar statistics even more impressive.
With that said, Barkley is expected to see more men in the box in 2019 as the only offensive threat that the Giants have.
The 2018 running back class represents the future of the position
Barkley, Chubb, and Michel were all great in 2018. Michel was probably the worst of the three (although he won a Super Bowl, so I doubt he’s complaining), but he still played very well.
Barkley and Chubb, meanwhile, both excelled in specific areas. Barkley’s versatility makes him one of the most dangerous players in the NFL, regardless of position. Hopefully, the Giants can get him some help sooner than later.
Chubb, on the other hand, wasn’t anywhere near as impactful as a receiver but was one of the most effective runners in the NFL relative to the situations he faced. Between the three of them, along with the many other talented players that were drafted alongside them, will shape the state of the position in the NFL for years to come.
Lucas Ellinas is a writer for the Pro Football Network covering the PFN Data Lab. You can follow him @Lucas_Ellinas on Twitter.