For 49 years, every draft has seen a running back go in the first round. That means since 1963, when there were just 14 teams in the NFL, before the first Super Bowl, a running back has been taken in every single first round. 38 of those 49 have seen running backs go in the top 10. 28 have seen running backs go in the top 5. 9 have seen running backs go first overall. Yet, heading towards the 2013 draft, there’s a chance – no, a strong likelihood – that we don’t see a single running back taken on the first day. Why? Two main reasons – it’s now accepted that the NFL is a passing league, the value of the running game is dropping, and most of this year’s running backs just aren’t that good. Since Marcus Lattimore’s horrendous injury, most experts have agreed that there are no first round prospects left. Dan Tiller leads us through his top five draft eligible running backs, to see who gains the award for “best of a bad bunch”.
#5 – Mike Gillislee, Florida
Having spent time behind senior running backs Jeff Demps (now on “Injured” reserve for Patriots after picking up an Olympic silver as part of the US 4×100 team) and Chris Rainey (a depth back for Steelers), Gillislee is now the #1 RB for the Florida Gators, and has been picking up a lot of fans this year. While a glance at his statline – especially the 4.6 yards per carry – is not exactly mouth-watering, there’s a reason a scouts are seeing NFL potential, if not as an every-down back.
Gillislee clearly has a “football brain”. It’s hard not to be impressed by his vision, in finding holes between the tackles to run through, and seeing when a lineman is failing and jumping in to bail him out in pass protection. However, the Florida native still struggles in finding the open field. Despite keeping surprising speed through his cuts, and having non-stop legs, he rarely gets away from defenders, except for a few weak arm-tackling defensive backs. While he can see what he needs to do, he perhaps lacks the body control to make it happen.
That’s not to question his toughness – Gillislee works incredibly hard, as shown by his performance against Texas A&M where, after picking up a groin injury in the second quarter, he continued running to the same standard through the whole game. That, as well as throwing himself in the way of a few fearsome pass rushers (notably Sam Montgomery) shows he has the work ethic to make himself last in the NFL.
#4 – Andre Ellington, Clemson
It’s clear to see that Clemson’s Andre Ellington’s top attribute is his rapid speed. He’s from the running back school of “Make ‘em miss”, he regularly uses his blitzing pace and slight frame, just 5’9” 190lbs, to try to get around defenders, rather than trying to knock them over. Whether it’s finding room to sprint through on the inside, or bouncing around to burn some yards on the outside, his speed is definitely his primary weapon.
However, this doesn’t result in as many huge gains as you may imagine, due to Ellington’s unfortunate tendency to go to lengths to avoid big hits. When he gets around the outside, he spends more time looking inside at approaching defenders to avoid being hit unexpectedly, rather than facing downfield and sprinting as we know he can. Such a mindset isn’t too much of a deficiency in college, but when he comes up against some of the big bad players in the NFL, he’s going to have to learn pretty quickly that sometimes you just have to take a big hit.
Other than this, his work rate is no matter of concern. He shows a real desire to keep plays going, as he regularly appears to have been tackled before sticking a hand in the ground to keep his balance and get going again, twice resulting in big gains against Auburn.
#3 – Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State
After Brandon Weeden’s departure to the NFL and the introduction of true freshman quarterback Wes Lunt, Oklahoma State knew they needed Joseph Randle to step up into a more important role – with defences no longer needing to focus on first round picks Weeden and wide receiver Justin Blackmon, they knew that defences would focus on taking Randle out of the game to test the very young new QB. As such, Randle showed his commitment by working hard to put on 10lbs in the offseason while keeping his speed.
Randle has a nicely balanced game – as well as being one of the top running backs in the class, he’s good at both receiving and pass blocking – but as a running back, it’s his running ability I’m most interested in. There’s a lot to be pleased with – he’s got good straight line speed, and can squeeze several yards from a play when he gets through a hole. He shows good patience with his line and on his day, can be very hard to tackle. As a negative, he seems to lack real acceleration and burst to get through the holes that open up. When he gets moving his speed is nice, but he struggles with getting to the line on occasion, missing out on a few opportunities for big gains. This, combined with consistency struggles, hurts his stock.
#2 – Eddie Lacy, Alabama
Eddie Lacy has been referred to as “a big back who runs like a small back”. At 6’1” 220lb, Lacy shows agility that betrays his heavy frame, from quick shifts to his trademark spin move. The latest on the conveyor belt of Alabama runners, with Trent Richardson and Mark Ingram (and, er, Glen Coffee) in the years before him, it’s certainly a long shot to say he’ll be the third consecutive first round Bama back.
Once Lacy gets going, he can be very hard to stop. His high end speed with his size is a potentially very dangerous combination, and with his brilliant timing on his spin move, he can make defenders look silly. Regardless, he has not been quite the prospect many had hoped, since taking over as Bama’s #1 back. Despite running behind an incredible O-line, with prospects such as Chance Warmack and Barrett Jones making holes for him, the number of times his slight hesitation gets him caught for just a short gain is quite worrying and makes you consider whether all of his positives are just a result of great work from such well-regarded blockers. However, Lacy’s natural combination of a bullish frame and lightning speed means he could very well be sculpted into an NFL calibre player.
#1 – Giovani Bernard, North Carolina
If there’s one player with a chance to go on the first day, it’s North Carolina favourite Gio Bernard. One thing that becomes immediately obvious when watching him is that he’s a real pain to bring down. His legs never stop moving which drags him away from tackle attempts, running hard with a low centre of gravity always gains him a couple of extra yards. While not a typical burner (which isn’t to say he suffers from a lack of speed), his open field elusiveness is helped great amounts by great hip control to allow him to avoid defenders closing in.
Something teams will love to see is his readiness to get stuck in to the passing game. With 45 receptions last year – and 42 in 2012 with 5 touchdowns at the time of writing this – he’s a regular receiving option for Bryn Renner. While he’s suffered from a few drops, there’s a lot to like in his receiving game, with his lack of hesitation to turn and start heading downfield. A less obvious aspect of his play in the passing game is how impressive his pass protection skills are. As a Colts fan, watching a lot of Joseph Addai gives me appreciation for how useful a pass-blocking back can be, and I see a lot of that in Bernard. He clearly understands the blocking game, as well as the receiving game and a running game.
As for whether he’ll go in the first round, should he declare? Well, he’s showing more than David Wilson did, but only time will tell.