Preseason Top 5: SEC Running Backs

Photo: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

After producing Leonard Fournette, Alvin Kamara, Derrius Guice, Sony Michel, Nick Chubb, Kerryon Johnson, Derrick Henry and Todd Gurley over the past four draft classes, the SEC was due for a down year. There is nobody in the current draft-eligible crop with the skills of any of the aforementioned prospects, but the conference still should see at least one back come off the board in the top 100, maybe two.

Here are my preseason top five draft-eligible running backs in the SEC.

1. Damien Harris, Senior, Alabama

I was among the masses who were surprised when Harris opted to return to Alabama despite back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons with the Crimson Tide, as I felt he had nothing left to prove at the college level. After studying his game closely this summer, I still feel that way about who he is as a rusher.

Harris isn't notably explosive, elusive or fast, but his contact balance, vision and decision-making are all impressive. He's not a punishing runner, which some will decry due to the expectation of damage that his size and build should exact on a defense. But Harris is still tough to get down 1v1, as he's able to absorb shots and keep churning for extra yards.

Where Harris won't help much is in the passing game, where he has failed to make a big impact at Alabama. He doesn't project to space player usage in the NFL, and while he'll be competent enough on screens, there's nothing about his game that screams, "get this guy touches" in a designed fashion in the passing game. Harris needs work on his technique in pass protection as well, which you'd hope would be a little better given his time spent in that role at Alabama.

We're talking about a day two back at best in Harris, who has to hope he doesn't lose out on many carries to Joshua Jacobs and Najee Harris this year.

2. Benny Snell, Junior, Kentucky

Two things that would surprise me about Snell over the next five months: 1) if he looks much different than he has the past two seasons 2) if he declares early for the draft.

There's just nothing really special or exciting about Snell's game, and although he's a solid pass protector and capable receiver, I struggle to see where the NFL will get excited enough about him in the draft. He just isn't a great athlete, nor is he a truly violent runner despite his powerful running style.

Snell can pick up yards after contact, but isn't a true tackle-breaker as a runner. He's not an impactful player in space, burst and acceleration are weaknesses as a runner and he can even be a bit indecisive without clearly defined space to run to. Snell can help an NFL team, but I don't see him as a preferable starter or third-down back given his current skill set.

3. Damarea Crockett, Junior, Missouri

Truth is, I'll be surprised if many of these backs enter the draft this year, unless the overall weakness of the crop inspires the advisory board to hand out better projections than they typically would. Crockett has a nasty jump cut that has made some highlight reels, but he's easily brought down by first contact, and I don't think he's athletic enough for his running style to project well to the NFL. Think Paul Perkins-esque.

Crockett is almost non-existent as a receiving option at Missouri, with just nine career catches. Fumbling concerns might be his biggest obstacle to a high draft selection, as the running back has put the ball on the ground once every 40 touches (!!!) while at Missouri. Crockett will need a big 2018 season in his return from a shoulder injury that cut short his 2017 campaign, especially after several of Missouri's other backfield options impressed in the junior's absence.

4. Trayveon Williams, Junior, Texas A&M

What happened to Trayveon Williams? Despite his size, Williams' freshman season had me thinking of high-end projections for the scatback, as he rushed for over 1,000 yards, averaged almost seven yards per carry and scored eight touchdowns.

Sure enough, as the 2017 season kicked off, there was Williams, starring in the first game I scouted last year by running over UCLA's defense for 203 yards and two touchdowns while averaging over 9.2 yards per carry. I remember thinking he had the potential to lock himself into at least a day two selection if he kept playing at this level.

What happened next? I honestly don't know. One second Williams looked explosive, elusive, decisive and confident. The next he was constantly brought down by first contact, rarely even showing much fight as a ball carrier. His decision-making got worse as a runner, and he struggled with some of the zone concepts Texas A&M ran.

Even Williams' production as a receiver, which seemed like a promising role for him after 39 catches in his first two seasons, has been minimal. 60 of his 192 receiving yards last year came on blown coverages in the flat vs Alabama, and Williams seemed unable to create in space to the degree I'd seen in the past.

Maybe I was too high on him originally, but Williams yards per carry dropped from 6.8 to 4.6 last year, and the tape supported those stats with lackluster performances. We'll see if he can bounce back in Jimbo Fisher's offense this season.

5. Aeris Williams, RB, Mississippi State

Williams is the kind of player you love to have on your college squad, but struggle to see making an impact in the NFL. He blocks, he's tough, he protects the ball and he's a high IQ runner. But if you're looking for special traits or third-down impact, it's probably best to look elsewhere.

You won't see Williams run through contact often, and he doesn't have the burst to maximize his mental processing. Williams will also be 24 before his rookie season begins, with probably between 600-700 career touches on his frame. I'm not sure how many teams will be invested in that profile anywhere before late day three.

Also add to watch list: Joshua Jacobs, Alabama. Elijah Holyfield, Georgia. Devwah Whaley, Arkansas. Jordan Scarlett, Florida. Lamical Perine, Florida.