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The 2014 NFL Draft is being discussed as one of the best and deepest classes of prospects to enter the League in the last ten years. Much of the focus has been on the wide receivers and quarterbacks, while the offensive tackles and a few pass rushers have also stolen some headlines.
But when it comes to the running backs, the consistent theme is similar to what it was last year: There’s no-one special in this class, and no prospect worthy of a first round selection.
Last year this time, players like Eddie Lacy, Gio Bernard and Andre Ellington were all considered good prospects, but none of them garnered first-round attention and seemed to have more questions about their game than answers.
Here we are a year later, and all three running backs have become critical pieces to their respective teams. Eddie Lacy turned out to be exactly what the Packers offense was missing, on his way to the NFL’s offensive rookie of the year. Gio Bernard and Andre Ellington added big plays and explosive ability to the Bengals and Cardinals. Bruce Arians recently came out and said that Arizona was going to build their offense around Ellington…not bad for a player that was part of a running back class that lacked first-round talent.
This year’s draft class is a lot like the 2013 group. In fact, it’s deeper than last year’s was and will provide clubs with a chance to not only add good depth to their running back group, but also a shot to land a potential starter.
I’ve broken down some of this year’s running backs in tiers below. And while there might not be a first rounder again in 2014, I wouldn’t be shocked if we end up with a cluster of backs that make significant contributions as rookies.
Tier One: Potential to Start in Rookie Season
Hyde is the top back available in the 2014 NFL Draft, and he’s the player that has the best potential to become the “Eddie Lacy” of this class. Not only does Hyde bring the same physical style that Lacy did last year, he’s also quicker than you’d expect a man with his measurables to be. While he won’t be a player that rips off long touchdown runs, he is going to be a workhorse with the potential to pop off a 25 yard run from time to time. He’s likely to go at or near the top of the second round, and he’d make a good fit for a team like the Giants who are still searching for a feature back to take some pressure off of Eli Manning.
Sankey enters the 2014 NFL Draft with varying opinions, as some draft analysts like him as the top back available, while others don’t have him in their top five. FRG considers Sankey to have just as much upside as Hyde, albeit with a different body type and overall running style. The best thing about Sankey is that he can do everything well; he as good vision, good burst through the hole, can make a man miss or lower his shoulder for extra yardage, and he’s capable of staying on the field on third downs both in pass pro and as a viable receiving target. He’s not a “pretty” runner, but he’s very effective. A team like the Cleveland Browns could gobble him up in round two and let him roll from day one.
Tier Two: Significant Part of RBBC
Arguably the most explosive of all the running back prospects, Seastrunk has the look of a player that will add much needed juice to a running game that is lacking big plays in big moments. He’s not quite big enough to be considered a feature back, but he certainly has the potential to serve in that “Gio Bernard” role next year. Seastrunk would be a good fit for the Jets, who continue to search for a running back that can bring some excitement to their offense and their fanbase.
Marion Grice is a prospect that is flying under the radar a bit within the NFL Draft community, but I have a hunch that he’s a little more highly regarded within NFL front offices. Grice is a jack of all trades; He’ll use his patience and vision to slash the defense in the running game while also showcasing soft hands and the ability to setup his blocks in the screen game. He’s not a “wow”‘guy, but a lot like Matt Forte, he’ll simply produce when given a chance. I’d like to see him in a situation like Jacksonville, where he’d likely earn a decent role early in his rookie season with a chance to become their running back of the future.
Simms is a prospect that many draft analysts like, and for good reason. He’s a lot like Grice in that he does just about everything well. And whie I think he’s a little tight in the hips and has some limits to his long-term upside, he’s a guy who is ready to contribute early and often in 2014. Simms could be a fit for the Bears, as they should be looking to add more youth behind Forte that can come in and ease his load right away.
Tier Three: Late-round Upside
If you’ve followed FRG on twitter, then you’re not surprised to see Wilder’s name here. Entering the 2013 college football season, Wilder was a guy that FRG projected to elevate his game to tier one status. Well, he didn’t, and his poor showing at the Scouting Combine has hurt his value even more. But as a football player and pure runner, he’s one of our favorites in this this class. He has a rare combination of balance and power, similar to the likes of a guy like Marshawn Lynch. His best football is ahead of him, and if he lands in the right situation (say, Houston or Baltimore), he’s the kind of guy that could end up being one of the bigger day three steals.
An extremely underrated prospect, Neal is a hard running slasher who has enough pop in his legs and behind his pads to be an effective back in the NFL. He has some qualities like a smaller Demarco Murray, and it wouldn’t shock me to see him be a late round option for the Titans and become guy that works his way into a surprising role in 2014.
Tre Mason’s value seemed to spike around the time of the National Championship, and he’s done nothing to hurt himself since. That said, he’s still a player with a day three skill set, as he’s more active than effective behind the line of scrimmage and is an unknown commodity in pass protection. Mason is a good back, though, who runs with a toughness level that exceeds his size. He’s a contagious player, as he seems to always make plays in spurts and generates momentum for himself and his teammates. I could see him being a nice later-round selection for the Lions, capable of serving as Reggie Bush’s immediate backup and serving in a role similar to Jacquizz Rodgers (Falcons.)
There are a bunch of other good runners in the 2014 NFL Draft that aren’t listed above. Players like Devonta Freeman (Florida State), Antonio Andrews (Western Kentucky) and Storm Johnson (UCF) are all going to get drafted and contribute early in their careers.
No matter what the draft pundits say about the running back position and its lack of overall value as it pertains to today’s NFL, the bottom line is that it’s the one position that can make the quickest, and in some cases, the most significant, impact to teams that are close to having a complete offense.
Don’t be fooled if none of these guys go in round one. A year from now, we’ll likely be valuing this year’s class of runners much like last year’s productive and exciting group.