Saquon Barkley might be one of the best running back prospects of the last decade, but the Browns could still land an impactful ball carrier later in the NFL Draft.
NFL Network analyst Daniel Jeremiah believes at least three running backs — Barkley, LSU's Derrius Guice and Georgia's Sony Michel — will hear their names called in the first round.
"I think those first three have kind of separated themselves," Jeremiah said Wednesday on a conference call along with fellow analyst Bucky Brooks. "And then after that I think you'll see that order vary, and yeah, some of these guys you're going to think are early second-round picks, they might be there in the late third round."
To be sure, Barkley — the former Penn State star who's widely considered the best prospect in the entire draft — is among several candidates Cleveland can take with either the first or fourth overall picks in two weeks. But if they go in another direction, Jeremiah said this year's class is capable of producing several starting-caliber backs later in the draft order, a list that includes Guice, Michel, Georgia's Nick Chubb, USC's Ronald Jones II, San Diego State's Rashad Penny and Auburn's Kerryon Johnson.
Jeremiah is not alone in that opinion. At the league's scouting combine two months ago, general manager John Dorsey lauded the depth of the group. "I think this is a really good draft for running backs. I think there are some really talented running backs in this thing," Dorsey said. "That's not to say whoever the first running back taken can't be a franchise difference-maker. That's how you have to look at these things as well. I mean, if you look back at (former Bears running back) Gale Sayers. What was Gale Sayers picked back in the day? He was picked up really early and he was a difference-maker. It's a case-by-case study."
Indeed, Dorsey knows that balance well. In his final draft as Kansas City's general manager last spring, he selected former Toledo standout Kareem Hunt in the third round, declining to splurge on a bigger-name running back in the earlier rounds. Hunt wound up leading the NFL in rushing as a rookie. The year before, however, Ezekiel Elliott — the former Ohio State star whom the Cowboys drafted fourth overall in 2016 — was the first running back taken and also the most productive of the bunch.
Jeremiah and Brooks stressed every team's situation is different. For the Browns, who return Duke Johnson Jr. and signed Carlos Hyde in free agency, it might not make sense to use a first- or second-round pick on a running back with needs at other positions.
"It just comes down to how do people value (the running backs), and when you're in the room, you also have to know that you are weighing what is at the running back position versus other positions," Brooks added, "and if another position is shallow, they don't have as much depth, you will always opt to get a top player at that position because you feel like you can come back and get a comparable talent at a position that is loaded like running back."