With the NFL free agency period all but dried up, it is time to turn our focus to the NFL Draft. The three day bonanza in Radio City Music Hall begins in less than six weeks and is always a fan favorite, acting as a football oasis full of potential and hope. To get ready for the 2014 NFL Draft let’s begin breaking down the top prospects at every position.
The role of a running has changed drastically over the last twenty years. They used to the focal point of an offense and finding a top back was high on a GM’s list of priorities. Fast forward to today’s NFL and it couldn’t be more different. The NFL has evolved into a passing league centered around quarterbacks and wide receivers, making running backs more or less expendable. This devaluing of the running back has been obvious at the NFL draft where the top running backs are being selected later than ever.
Making matters worse for this year’s draft class is the fact their isn’t a truly elite running back prospect. Compared to recent years where there was at least one dynamic back available — Trent Richardson in 2012, C.J Spiller in 2011 and Knowshon Moreno in 2009 — this year’s draft class is full of solid but unspectacular prospects. (Looking at those names it’s obvious why NFL teams are hesitant to draft a running back in the 1st round)
Add in multiple off the field incidents and it’s easy to see why 2014 will likely be the second year in a row without a first round running back. Draft guru Todd McShay summed up this year’s running back class perfectly with this Tweet.
This RB class -unlike the rest of the #NFLDraft14- is short on talent and long on police and medical reports. Red flags everywhere.
— Todd McShay (@McShay13) March 1, 2014
Despite the lack of top prospects there are some talented running backs in this years draft capable of impacting an NFL team in next year. Using tape from their college days lets look at each prospects strengths and weaknesses.
Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde
Carlos Hyde is your typical Big 10 running back: big and physical. With his downhill running style, Hyde bludgeoned his way to nearly 2,500 yards and 31 touchdowns during his Junior and Senior seasons at Ohio State. A powerful runner with enough quickness, Hyde is the premier back entering the 2014 NFL draft.
Strengths: Powerful runner, enough speed to break runs outside, effective short yardage back and ability to play all 3 downs due to his soft hands and willingness to pick up blitzers.
Weaknesses: Lack of explosiveness, cannot change directions quickly or outrun faster defenders in the open field and suspended for the opening game of 2013.
Overall: A powerful and punishing North/South runner Hyde will be a valuable commodity on draft night. Helping his cause, teams have begun recognizing the value of a power back as defenses begin to shift towards quicker, lighter defenders to handle the spread elements in the NFL. With his ability to punish defenses up the middle and provide a real outlet in the pass game Hyde could be a true three down back in the NFL.
Simply put, Hyde is just too physical a runner to stay on the board for long. While his lack of speed dampens his upside, Hyde’s stock will be buoyed by the recent success of two similar young running backs – Le’Veon Bell and Eddy Lacy — and he should be the 1st running back off the board.
Prediction: 1st half of 2nd round
Auburn’s Tre Mason
In 2013 the Auburn Tigers were the best story in college football. A year after going winless in the SEC, Auburn rattled off 13 straight victories behind Guz Malzahn’s unorthodox double wing offense. The biggest beneficiary of this change was Tre Mason, who ran for an impressive 1,800 yards and 23 touchdowns last year. Relying on a blend of quickness and power Mason provides an interesting option for teams in need of a back.
Strengths: Great acceleration, one cut runner that gets up field in a hurry, surprisingly powerful for a 200 pound running back and has quick feet capable of changing directions on a dime.
Weaknesses: Lacks breakaway speed and a true second gear, can keep his pad level high at times, played in a unique system at Auburn and is a poor pass protector in both technique and desire.
Overall: Mason is a bit of an anomaly because he is a smaller back who’s game is built upon power. Yes, he was extremely effective running the ball in between the tackles at Auburn, but there are questions over whether he can replicate that success in the NFL where the front sevens are much larger and the holes are smaller. Additionally, Mason’s break out year came in an unorthodox offense that seemingly caught defenses off guard – there are many Mason runs where the defense is all over the place – so some of his production might be a product of the system.
Mason will be an effective but not a special running back. He has the power, quickness and North/South running style to be a key part of a running back rotation but he lacks the explosiveness in the open field to be a game changing back that garners a high draft pick.
Prediction: Mid to late 2nd round
LSU’s Jemery Hill
A bruiser both on and off the field, Jeremy Hill fit right in with Les Miles’ LSU Tigers. Behind a mammoth offensive line, Hill powered his way to a 1,400 yard and 16 touchdown season in 2013, established himself as the main cog in LSU’s running back rotation. While his brawler’s mentality was a bonus on the field, Hill was involved in multiple off the field incidents and comes with a plethora of red flags.
Strengths: Physical runner who utilizes his 230 pound frame, doesn’t hesitate in the backfield, hits the hole with power and has enough speed/agility to break longer runs.
Weaknesses: Upright running style, gives defenders a big target, allows defenders to attack the ball and has serious off the field issues.
Overall: A physically gifted runner, Hill is a true power back that excelled in the SEC. While he is limited by his lack of true speed and ability to make defenders miss, Hill should be able to carve out a solid niche in the NFL. The main problem with Hill is his lengthy arrest record and any team that drafts him will have to be confident in his ability to stay out of trouble.
Prediction: Early 3rd Round
Washington’s Bishop Sankey
A two year starter at Washington, Bishop Sankey was a key component in the Huskies reassurance under Steve Sarkisian. His all-around game was utilized as he ran for nearly 1,900 yards and caught 30 passes out of the backfield last season. His lack of power and explosiveness limits his potential at the next level, but he should be able to become a reliable 3rd down back.
Strengths: Natural runner that possesses balance, understands running lanes, good vision, soft hands, understands where to sit down on check downs and overall effective in space.
Weaknesses: Lack of power, shies away from contact sometimes, hesitates in the backfield, lacks breakaway speed and will be limited to a 3rd down role in the NFL.
Overall: After carrying the load at UW as an every down back, Sankey projects as a ‘air’ back or 3rd down back in the NFL. That said he doesn’t possess the elite speed to be a game changer out of the backfield. Instead, Sankey’s best attributes — finding space, soft hands and adequate pass blocking – will allow him to be a safety net of sorts for a pass heavy team.
Prediction: Mid 3rd Round
Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey
Ka’Deem Carey burst onto the national scene two years ago with a 1,900 yard season in Rich Rodriguez’s spread system. He followed up his impressive sophomore campaign with another outstanding season last year finishing with 1,885 yards and 19 touchdowns. Extremely productive in his two seasons at Arizona, Carey is an all-around back that displays a good combination of strength and agility. The main risk with Carey is that he lacks elite athleticism which raises the question of whether he can replicate his collegiate success at the next level.
Strengths: Decent blend of power and elusiveness, can run over or around defenders, great vision, good cut back runner and a great blocker.
Weaknesses: Lack of elite athleticism, is a 207 pound running back that ran a 4.7 40 and has seemingly maximized his abilities.
Overall: Carey is a classic example of a great college player. He has the instincts and desire to be successful NFL running back but lacks the elite athleticism to be a difference maker in the NFL. Still players with Carey’s skill set are valuable in the NFL. I see him as an Ahmad Bradshaw type — a tough, dependable back that will excel on 3rd down – and Carey easily could become an important part of a running back rotation. I could also see him fitting in well with a zone blocking scheme like the Texans where vision and lateral movement are emphasized over speed and power.
Prediction: Early to mid 3rd Round
As you can see there is no home run prospect at the running back position in this year’s draft. No one has the elite blend of speed and power required to be a game changing back in the NFL. Instead there are a bunch of effective but limited running backs that will most likely become a part of a rotation.
For NFL teams, the lack of elite talent might not be a bad thing. There isn’t a C.J. Spiller or Trent Richardson that will wow teams with off the chart numbers and convince them to spend a top pick on a relatively unimportant position, but there are solid players that if utilized correctly could become key players for any NFL team.
Full breakdowns of the 2014 Running Back Class