1.) Giovani Bernard RB, North Carolina
The more I watch North Carolina Tar Heels RB Giovani Bernard, the closer of comparison I can make to Buffalo Bills RB C.J Spiller. Bernard didn’t blow away scouts at the combine with his 40-time, but seems to have more game speed than track speed. Not only did Bernard start at RB for the Tar Heels, he also was the team’s punt returner. Bernard has good but not great speed, but also has the ability to square up on a defender and drag him along for more yards. When he has the ball in his hands, Bernard has the vision and patience to see what is going on up field and time his cuts perfectly. He doesn’t have game-changing speed or great size, and may struggle against bigger, faster competition at the next level. He will also have to prove team doctors that his knee is healthy, after missing the entire 2010 season with a torn ACL and two games this season with a minor knee injury. While Bernard doesn’t have the same type of speed as Spiller, they both use their quick cuts, and fluid hips to make defenders miss in the open space. Bernard may not run guys over like Eddie Lacy, but he has the best hands at his position and can contribute in a variety of ways. He should be drafted some time in the 2nd Round of the draft and possibly be the first back off the board.
2.) Eddie Lacy RB, Alabama
Let me start off by saying if Eddie Lacy’s hamstring injury continues to linger, I would rank him No.4 on this list. Eddie Lacy is a powerful runner, who like former Alabama Crimson Tide RB Trent Richardson can’t fight his way through defenders to pick up the extra yards. One of Lacy’s best performances of the season came in the BCS National Championship against Notre Dame, when he rolled through the Fighting Irish for two touchdowns. While Lacy doesn’t have great speed he makes up for it with great vision to find the hole and break through it, and make a defender miss with a juke or spin move. One major question that faces Lacy as he heads into the draft is how well he can catch the football and protect the QB. Often at Alabama he would be used in primary running situations and only occasionally on passing downs. When watching Lacy in the passing game, you see the inexperience in blocking and occasional drops. Lacy can definitely improve in both areas, but his hard-nosed running style will make NFL teams fall in love. As long as he can prove the hamstring isn’t a major problem, Lacy should be one of the first few running backs off the board in the 2nd Round.
3.) Joseph Randle RB, Oklahoma State
I have to give credit to my friend Vance Meek for leading me to Oklahoma State RB Joseph Randle. Early in February I found out about Randle, and immediately went to the tape to see just how good he was. On the very first play, Randle broke to the outside, made a defender miss and sprinted the rest of the way for a touchdown. While the touchdown was impressive, what I loved from Randle was his burst to the outside and elusiveness in open space. After reading the holes, Randle jumped to the outside and was faced head on with Texas Longhorns S Kenny Vaccaro. One quick cut later and Vaccaro was left gasping for air, as Randle was on his way for pay dirt. Not only does Randle run the ball well, he is a great option as a receiver and a willing blocker. Randle often was sent out wide and could either stretch the field or take short routes to pick up yards. He has soft hands that help him get a firm grasp on the ball, and the patience to secure the ball before he takes off. Randle needs to hold on to the football, as he struggled with fumbles throughout his college career. He also needs to get lower when running with the ball, so he has better pad level when trying to be taken down. Randle continues to rise up draft boards, and could sneak his way into the second round.
4.) Johnathan Franklin RB, UCLA
Another name that continues to rise up draft boards is UCLA Bruins RB Johnathan Franklin. Franklin helped lead the Bruins offense to a breakout season under the tutelage of new coach Jim Mora. Mora praised Franklin as the best running back he has ever coached, with his talents matching his great instincts and leadership. When you think of small, speedy RB’s you tend to think of them as guys who have great hands but tend to shy away from contacts and big hits, that is not Johnathan Franklin. While Franklin may be small he loves to get physical and fight for yards. When facing a tackle in the open field, he has shown the agility to make a defender miss and find the open space. Even when there isn’t a hole off the snap, Franklin has the patience to wait until something develops and the burst to squeeze through a tiny hole. Unfortunately, while Franklin is a great runner he still is questionable as a receiver. Franklin will be faced with the challenge of proving his frame can hold up to the NFL, which will cause some concern for NFL teams. Franklin may not hear his name called until the late third or early fourth round, but his stock continues to rise as more praise continues to roll in.
5.) Marcus Lattimore RB, South Carolina
I may have South Carolina Gamecocks RB Marcus Lattimore higher than some, but my faith and confidence in his knees continues to grow. Lattimore looked was a lock for the first round before tearing his ligaments vs. Tennessee. This marked the second time in Lattimore’s career he suffered from a devastating knee injury as his draft stock plummeted. When healthy, Lattimore can do everything you could ever ask for. He may not have great speed, but is quick enough to break big runs and even when defenders do catch him, he is too strong to bring down. Lattimore fights for every last yard, and has the patience and timing to slip past defenders. While Stepfan Taylor is a do it all RB, Lattimore is different in that he does it all at a high level. The biggest concern with Lattimore though, comes right back to his knees. Some teams may take him off completely after two major knee surgeries, and we still don’t know if he will be the same type of player he was before the injury. Doctors say he is ahead of schedule and many like to point to Adrian Peterson as a player who bounced back from a devastating injury, but AP is the exception to the rule. Lattimore likely will fall to the fifth round, and any team that takes him will be gambling on his knees. If the gamble pays off, they will get the best running back in the draft in the fifth round.
6.) Stepfan Taylor RB, Stanford
I will admit maybe my favorite running back this year is Stanford Cardinals RB Stepfan Taylor. Taylor has been the leading rusher for the Cardinals for the past several seasons, carrying the workload and helping the offense in a variety of ways. He is the all-around running back, who can provide an NFL team with a tough runner, an excellent blocker, and the hands to play receiver as well. Taylor was the lead man for the Cardinals, and was relied upon after Andrew Luck a season ago. He can come in right away and provide a team with everything they want, and they won’t have to teach him how to protect the QB or how to catch the football. Unfortunately for Taylor, for all the things he can bring to a team, he doesn’t do any of them exceptionally well. Taylor doesn’t have great speed and can often be tracked down in open space. While Taylor may not be a star at the next level, he can be a very capable starter in the league. He is a sound running back, who will give a coach everything he could ever ask for. While he may not be the beautiful back who can sprint past everyone on the field or run over every defender, but he plays football the way it is supposed to be played. He gives his heart on every play, and will never hurt his team in one aspect of the game. He can be a starter in the NFL, and should be drafted no later than the 4th Round.
7.) Christine Michael RB, Texas A&M
While Johnny Manziel was grabbing all the headlines for the Texas A&M Aggies, RB Christine Michael was busy dominating at the goal line. After finding his way into head coach Kevin Sumlin’s doghouse. Michael couldn’t stay out of trouble, he was suspended for a violation of team rules and found himself in even more trouble after tweeting “Man run the ball” during the game. While Michael will have to answer questions about his attitude and maturity, he can let his play on the field display his abilities. Michael is a physical runner who will go out and look for contact. While some running backs like to run out of bounds after a first down, Michael targets to defenders and runs over them. Michael isn’t just a power back though, he has the speed to break out into the open field and reel off an 80-yard score. Michael impressed scouts with his 4.54 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. He also showed at his Pro Day that he has solid hands and can help a team in the passing game. For all the ability Michael has, he still has to prove to coaches that his bad attitude and problems off-the-field are a thing of the past. He needs to improve as a pass-blocker and his physical style of running could shorten his career at the NFL, but there is no questioning the talent Michael has.
8.) Montee Ball RB, Wisconsin
Montee Ball is the 8th best running back in this class, at least in my opinion. While Wisconsin Badgers fans and Ball supporters begin to tell me how wrong I am, I’m going to tell you why I have Ball so low. Yes, Ball has been the best running back in college football and set the NCAA record for career rushing touchdowns (83). Ball had a great career as the leading man for the Badgers, but he was also exposed to wear and tear on his body. He finished with 924 career carries, and in an era where the shelf life of running backs is growing shorter, he enters the NFL at a disadvantage. Ball is a power back who can make the first man miss, then uses his vision to find his way down the field. Ball was a perfect fit for Wisconsin’s scheme and benefited from a massive offensive line in front of him. Ball runs the ball well, but was limited to just 59 career receptions. He will also have to prove to coaches that he can be an effective blocker, another area he was rarely exposed to during his career. While Ball is the physical type of runner teams love, his inexperience in the receiving game and as a blocker, along with his extensive workload in college hurt his draft stock. The NFL is turning into a speed league that relies on the passing game, and Ball doesn’t bring that to a team. Despite one of the best careers in college football history, I just can’t see Ball being nearly as successful at the next level.
9.) Andre Ellington RB, Clemson
When you think of speed, one of the first names that will come up is Clemson Tigers RB Andre Ellington. Simply put, Ellington is the type of back who makes your jaw drop when he sprints down the sidelines. Ellington is short, at 5′ 9″ it will be a major reason for concern, but it is also surprising that someone so short isn’t afraid to get dirty. Ellington won’t shy away from contact when it comes to making a big play, if a linebacker is standing between him and open space he will try to run him over. Ellington is your typical game-changer, who thrives on making big plays and can serve as the spark plug for an offense. While you have to love Ellington’s speed, there are still a few things that drop him down the list. The first is obviously his size, which even in college was a weakness as he continued to struggle with taking numerous hits and staying on the field. Going to the NFL where the hits are harder, many will have doubts if he will hold up at the next level. Ellington is also very questionable when it comes to vision, patience and ball security. Rather than wait for a play to develop, he will try to break to the outside to make something happen on his own. He doesn’t wait for holes to develop and it hurts his ability to make big plays more consistently. Even when the big play is set up, Ellington just seems to lose the fumble at bad times. He doesn’t secure the ball and leaves it open to be punched out. While teams will fall in love with his big play ability, he falls to the later rounds because of problems with durability, vision and ball security.
10.) Mike Gillislee RB, Florida
Rounding out my top 10 running backs is Florida Gators RB Mike Gillislee. He entered the season as a fringe NFL Draft prospect, but slowly climbed his way up the rankings and now could finish as a 4th Round pick. Gillislee is one of my favorite running backs in this class because of his versatility as both as a running back and receiver. When in the open space, Gillislee has the quickness and elusiveness to make defenders miss. He can use a quick cut to make one man miss, then explode through the middle to pick up the big yards. Gillislee also has the vision to monitor what is going on downfield so he can time his cuts and react to the defense. He is also effective as a receiver, something he displayed last season. While his 16 receptions may not stand out he averaged nearly 10 yards per catch. While Gillislee is gifted in the open space, he is limited in pass protection and his durability is a major question. Gillislee seemed like a willing blocker at times, but then you would see him shy away from protecting Jeff Driskel. Another reason Gillislee didn’t get much recognition until this season is because he was never on the field to display his skills. He needs to prove to scouts that his small frame can hold up in the NFL, and that his injuries are a thing of the past. I think Gillislee could be one of the best kept secrets as a Day 3 pick and contribute immediately as a rookie.
Topics: 2013 Nfl Draft, Alabama Crimson Tide, Andre Ellington, Christine Michael, Clemson Tigers, Eddie Lacy, Florida Gators, Giovani Bernard, Johnathan Franklin, Joseph Randle, Marcus Lattimore, Mike Gillislee, Montee Ball, North Carolina Tarheels, Oklahoma State Cowboys, Running Backs, South Carolina Gamecocks, Stanford Cardinal Football, Stepfan Taylor, Texas A&M, UCLA Bruins, Wisconsin Badgers