NFL Draft 2014: The running backs

Posted Mar 6, 2014

For the second time in the past three years, there is a chance that no running backs will be selected in the first round of the NFL Draft on May 8 as most teams are adopting a ground-game-by-committee approach.

Last year, no running backs were selected in the first round of the NFL Draft. The year before, it was three – Trent Richardson, who’s now on his second team, at No. 3; and Doug Martin and David Wilson with the final two picks in the opening round. And the year before that, it was another goose egg for the position in not only the first round but well into the second round.

This year? It’s looking like the running backs will have to wait, again, for a run at their position. That’s because most teams are throwing the ball more than running it, and using a by-committee approach when they do run.

The Seahawks are the leader of a small exception pack, with Marshawn Lynch the only back with 300-plus carries in each of the past two seasons. The only other backs with 600-plus carries the past two seasons are the Minnesota Vikings’ Adrian Peterson (627, with 348 coming in 2012 and 279 last season) and the Washington Redskins’ Alfred Morris (611, with 335 coming in 2012 and 276 last season). Lynch is wedged between them with 616 carries (315 in 2012 and 301 last season). And in 2013, the Philadelphia Eagles’ LeSean McCoy (314) was the only other back besides Lynch (301) with more than 300 carries.

“When you say featured back, I don't know that there are many featured backs in the NFL – Adrian Peterson, those types of guys,” Arizona Cardinals general manager Steve Keim said during the NFL Scouting Combine. “Most teams use a platoon of backs and that would probably be no different than us.”

The intrigue over which back goes first, and when, during the May 8-10 NFL Draft has a Seattle angle, as Mike Mayock lists the University of Washington’s Bishop Sankey as the top-rated running back in his latest position rankings. Mayock, an analyst for the NFL Network and, pushed Sankey from No. 3 on his pre-combine list to No. 1 following his efforts in Indianapolis last month. Sankey is one of 98 underclassmen who are making this what many are calling the deepest draft in decades.

Sankey’s ascent came at the expense of Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde, who dropped from No. 1 to No. 2; and LSU’s Jeremy Hill, who’s now No. 3.

But neither Mayock nor senior analyst Rob Rang give any of the available backs a first-round grade.

“I think this running back group A, is talented; B, is deep; and C, you kind of have to filter through it to see who you like because there are a lot of different flavors out there depending on what kind of offense you run,” Mayock said at the Combine.

Here are the top backs, based on Mayock’s rankings; analysis on each from Rang; and the players’ take from the Combine:

Bishop Sankey, Washington

Mayock’s ranking: No. 1
Rang’s take (he ranks Sankey at No. 4): “Natural football player who is better than the sum of his parts. Possesses excellent vision. Quickly identifies the hole and shows good burst to and through the line of scrimmage. Good lateral agility, including an impressive jump-cut to elude defenders in tight spaces.”
Sankey’s take: “I think that (the number of hits a back takes) may have played a small part. It wasn't the main reason why I came out. I think just looking at the past three years the success we were able to have as a team and the success I was able to have as an individual, I just felt like I was ready. At the end of the season, it just felt like if not now, than when to go out. We were coming off a bowl game win; had a 9-4 season. I just felt like it was the right time.”

Carlos Hyde, Ohio State

Mayock’s ranking: No. 2
Rang’s take: “He rushed for at least 100 yards in each of the last eight games, including two 200-yard performances. Hyde scored 15 touchdowns on the ground and added three more while catching 16 passes on the season. Hyde was a workhorse with 208 carries in 2013 and used his breakout senior season to get the attention of NFL scouts. He entered the season with a late-round draft grade, but ran angrier than ever and continued to move up boards with several highly productive performances.”
Hyde’s take: “I think my game is what separates me. What I bring to the table. I bring that passion. I play with a lot of heart. I feel like I bring that spark to the offense. When the offense needs something going, I feel like I can make it happen.”

Jeremy Hill, LSU

Mayock’s ranking: No. 3
Rang’s take (he ranks Hill at No. 5): “While he has spent most of his career in a running back rotation at LSU, Hill earned first-tea SEC honors by The Associated Press in 2013 after rushing for an average of 107.7 yards per game during the regular season.”
Hill’s take: “I was definitely blessed in college not to have any significant injuries. I just did my medical screening (at the Combine) and passed it with flying colors. I think that’s another advantage I have. Not playing that many years, I won’t have as much wear and tear on my body. I think that’s a huge thing for me going into the NFL.”

Andre Williams, Boston College

Mayock’s ranking: No. 4
Rang’s take (he ranks Williams at No. 10 because of medical issues): “Scouts are understandably cautious about a running back with his durability history, but I think there is a good chance Williams ends up as one of the top-five senior RBs drafted, likely on the Day Three.”
Williams’ take: “I think I was inspired the most by Adrian Peterson. He’s just a violent runner. He knows how to use his arms to get yards after contact. People have compared me to Earl Campbell and Jim Brown. I never got to see Earl run or Jim Brown run in person. But I did get to see Adrian Peterson run; Marshawn Lynch run.  And I really admire their run styles. In terms of me, I would say I’m a downhill runner. I’m best when my shoulders are square to the line. I make a quick cut, I get up field. I use my shoulders and hands as weapons. I like to punish the defense, punish the DBs. I like to finish in the fourth quarter.”

Tre Mason, Auburn

Mayock’s ranking: No. 5
Rang’s take (he ranks Mason at No. 1): “Mason leaves Auburn after rushing for more than a 1,000 yards each of the past two seasons, including his 1,816 yards (in 2013) – a mark that broke (Bo) Jackson's record of 1,786 yards set in 1983. At 5-10 and 205 pounds, Mason doesn't have a prototypical frame for his style of running, but he pounds the ball like he's 25 pounds heavier with his compact build and low pad level.”
Mason’s take: “If I had to compare, it would probably be somebody like Marshawn Lynch; along the lines of that. I can beat you inside, outside, anyway. Over you, through you, around you, find a way to get six points.”