<
>

Just how good is Saquon Barkley?

play
Saquon Barkley continues Heisman campaign (0:51)

Penn State RB Saquon Barkley was held in check early by Northwestern. But he put his skills on display with his second TD run of the third quarter. Go inside the play to see how he did it. (0:51)

Penn State running back Saquon Barkley, the best running back in college football, is having a phenomenal season. He's averaging 6.4 yards per carry with eight touchdowns from scrimmage, and he already has more catches (29) than he had in all of 2016. Oh, and he has a kickoff return touchdown.

Barkley is No. 1 in our latest Heisman Watch, and the junior is ranked No. 2 overall in the latest 2018 draft rankings for ESPN draft analysts Mel Kiper Jr. and Todd McShay.

We asked Kiper and McShay for more of their thoughts on Barkley and the running backs in the 2018 class.


Would you take Barkley in the top five of the 2018 draft if you were running a draft room?

Kiper: If I was a general manager, I would not take a running back in the entire first round. That has been my philosophy for a long time. That's just the way the NFL is these days. Look at last year's playoff field. Of the 12 teams, only one started a first-round pick at running back, and that was Dallas. Ezekiel Elliott obviously had a tremendous season, but could Dallas have gotten similar production if it had waited to take a back in the second or third round? I think so. And I loved Elliott -- he was my No. 8-ranked prospect. It's just my personal preference that the difference between a first-round back and a back taken on Day 2 or 3 just isn't as big. They can get better value in other positions. We're already seeing that this season. Third-round pick Kareem Hunt might be the league MVP so far. Second-round pick Dalvin Cook was having a great season before he tore his ACL. Even Chris Carson, who was pick No. 249 out of 253, was playing well for Seattle before hurting his ankle.

Now, will Barkley go in the top five in April? I think he will. A team will fall in love with him and take him -- that's just what happens.

McShay: Mel has a lot of philosophies that I've heard over the years, but I hate to say that this is one I generally agree with. It places a tremendous expectation on a player if you take a RB in the top five, especially if your team has other holes. Before answering the question, you need answers from the team on the following: What does the O-line look like? What is the QB situation? Is the coaching staff committed to the running game? However, Barkley is simply a special player. He's No. 2 overall in my Top 32 right now, and I believe he's worthy of that top-five pick.

How does Barkley compare to the best running backs you've graded in the last few classes?

Kiper: He's going to have an elite grade from me, right up there with Ezekiel Elliott and Todd Gurley (and Trent Richardson, who was a bust twice over). Barkley can do it all. I think he'll run under a 4.4 40-yard dash. He's also a great team guy from everything I've heard. He plays hard, he's tough, and I think there will be a case for him being the best overall prospect in the draft come next spring.

McShay: I'm on record that he's better than Todd Gurley, Ezekiel Elliott and Leonard Fournette as a college player. Like Mel said, he'll get an elite grade from me, probably a notch below Adrian Peterson. He can really do it all as a player, and the only obvious area of concern is durability, as he's already been nicked up this season again.

Which other running backs should we keep an eye on for Days 1 and 2 of the draft?

Kiper: My position rankings are a good place to start. LSU's Derrius Guice is a known quantity, but he needs to stay healthy. Oregon's Royce Freeman is a big-play threat with 54 career rushing touchdowns. Alabama has Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, and I like Harris a little more. There's also Bryce Love (Stanford), Ronald Jones II (USC), Rashaad Penny (San Diego State) and Nick Chubb (Georgia). The 2018 class has a chance to be deep.

McShay: I think Guice is a very good player and could go in Round 1, but as Mel mentioned health is a concern. Same issue with Scarbrough, who already has an NFL body, but is coming off a serious leg injury in the title game last season. Chubb and Jones are other names to watch for Day 2. Love is also off to a fast start and Mark Walton was rising; we'll see how he recovers from his season-ending injury. This could be a deep class.


Almost famous

Kiper: Tyler Conklin, TE, Central Michigan

Conklin made his season debut in Saturday's win over Ohio, catching 10 passes for 136 yards and two touchdowns. He broke his foot in summer workouts and had surgery. He has impressed me over the last two seasons with his hands -- he catches away from his body -- and his physicality after the catch. He had a breakout season in 2016 with 42 catches and six touchdowns. Conklin is a former basketball player at Northwood University. He is far from the first undersized basketball player (6-4, 240) to change sports and end up at tight end, following in the footsteps of Tony Gonzalez, Antonio Gates, Jimmy Graham and others, though he's not on their level. Like most college tight ends these days, he rarely lines up next to the offensive tackle. He's used out wide and in the slot, so he's going to have to show he can block, too. But I like him as a potential early Day 3 draft pick.

McShay: Darius Leonard, LB, South Carolina State

Leonard had a monster game in South Carolina State's 35-14 win over Morgan State, finishing with 18 tackles, one TFL, two INTs and a pass breakup. A redshirt senior, he finished sixth in the FCS in tackles (124) in 2016. He's had some trouble keeping weight on, which could be an issue in the NFL, but I see him as a special teams contributor and potential starter down the road.


Prospects on the rise

Kiper: Minkah Fitzpatrick, S, Alabama

So how high could Fitzpatrick rise? I think he's going to be one of the top two or three prospects in this draft class. He was No. 6 on my most recent Big Board, but he'll move up a few spots after what I saw in the Crimson Tide's road win over Texas A&M. He had two tackles for loss, a forced fumble and an interception while the Aggies were in the red zone. At 6-1, 203, Fitzpatrick has played both corner and safety, but I'm ready to say I think he'll stick at safety in the NFL. He's really a defensive coordinator's dream -- a modern-day big corner who plays safety. He's versatile enough to line up in the slot and lock down receivers, but he can also be a center fielder. Fitzpatrick had eight interceptions from 2015 to 2016 (including four that were returned for touchdowns), so he has elite ball skills. He's not afraid to make a tackle, either, which is why I think he'll be a top-five pick in April.

McShay: Christian Campbell, CB, Penn State

He's fast rising in NFL scouting circles and I believe he'll test well at the NFL combine. He was targeted early and often against Northwestern on Saturday and only gave up a couple short completions. He also had an interception.