This will be the year to find your starting running back. That may sound a bit counterintuitive; after all, there is no Trent Richardson, Darren McFadden, or Adrian Peterson prospect in this draft. There might not even be a back in the tier of CJ Spiller, Jonathan Stewart, or Marshawn Lynch. It’s even possible that the fifty-year-old streak of a running back being selected in the first round will fall this April, but that does not mean this year’s class of running backs won’t produce its fair share of quality pros. With value being the key word in NFL front offices, general managers in search of starting caliber players after the first round are salivating at this year’s low cost of potential impact rookies.
Putting on the tape, Eddie Lacy should garner the most interest and likely has the best chance of sneaking into the first round. Lacy ran behind a mammoth of an offensive line as a junior last season. Alabama has churned out first round running backs in Mark Ingram (28th) and Trent Richardson (3rd) in each of the last two years, and it’s tough to distinguish how Lacy would have fared without an elite line last season. Regardless, Lacy looks like a difference maker with rare power. The 5’11” 231 pound bowling ball runs as hard as anyone in the class and produces yards after contact. His pre-draft process has been hampered by a hamstring injury and an ultimately lackluster forty yard dash, but Lacy can still be the first off the board at his position.
Wisconsin’s Montee Ball has put together the most impressive résumé among this year’s crop of running backs. Ball is the NCAA’s all-time touchdown leader with 83 scores and produced a total of 5,738 yards from scrimmage in four seasons with the Badgers. Ball’s rushing style may not turn heads, but he has a legitimate case to be made as the most complete back in the draft. Ball has a great nose for the endzone and underrated lateral quickness. There are questions about the heavy tread on his tires (924 career carries), but the counter to that is proven durability. Ball has the ability to withstand the load. At worst, Ball should be a reliable if not spectacular, runner at the NFL level that.
Giovani Bernard, a 5’8” scatback out of North Carolina, has tremendous upside at the pro level. Built more in the mold of the league’s smaller backs, Bernard can bring burst to an NFL backfield. A redshirt sophomore, Bernard is a threat as a receiver and return man, and he has shown a great understanding of protection schemes. Bernard grades out below last year’s Doug Martin and David Wilson, but has a similar play style.
Personal preference will largely decide the order NFL teams select among a deep runningback class. Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell, Clemson’s Andre Ellington, UCLA’s Jonathan Franklin and South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore could be selected in any order. In all likelihood, at least one should be chosen ahead of Lacy, Ball, or Bernard. Bell has good power and size, though is limited in other areas, including breakaway speed. Ellington is another player who appears to have all the tools to excel at the next level, including speed that didn’t necessarily translate to a 4.61 forty time. Franklin showed good balance and vision during his career and was a home run threat out of the backfield at UCLA. Lattimore could easily have been the top prospect at his position had it not been for a devastating knee injury during the past season. Lattimore has shown tremendous progress since the injury and could be a steal if he can fully recover.
Running back has proven to be a position at which players can make early contributions at the pro level. Trent Richardson, Doug Martin, and Alfred Morris all burst onto the scene in 2012 and became their team’s feature back. The 2013 class will likely have a similar impact. Several teams that are already considered playoff or Super Bowl contenders should be able to find a back that will help set them apart.
Not only, can the position instantly improve the team, the depth of the running back position will likely push backs down the board on draft day. With many players grading out similarly, the slight marginal differences among the backs could create a game of chicken among NFL teams. Front offices can sit back and wait for the first few backs to be chosen before feeling any pressure to select one. This could easily push the position down to the late second or third round before a run occurs, increasing the value of the position.