Coming off a draft in which running backs returned to the first round, the potential is there for two more backs to exit the green room on the first day of the festivities. Even if it’s just Zeke who fist-bumps Roger Goodell on Thursday night, there’s a deep crop of backs poised to make significant NFL contributions sooner rather than later. Here’s a pre-draft rundown of the 2016 crop of running backs. As an added bonus, we've included a quote for each player from DraftWire, extended NFL draft coverage from our parent company, USA Today Sports.
EZEKIEL ELLIOTT, RB, OHIO STATE - 6-0, 225
What’s not to like? Elliott has the requisite size for a three-down back in the NFL to go with outstanding vision and patience, elite balance, nimble footwork and the burst to hit a hole and go the distance. Oh, and he doesn’t fumble, either. Scouts who nitpick note he needs work as a blocker (though Urban Meyer called him the best back without the football that he’d ever seen) and receiver, and that his relentless style opened him up to more big shots from defenders among his 600-plus college touches. Some may also be concerned that he called out Ohio State coaches after they failed to give him the ball enough in a loss to Michigan State. Those are quibbles, people; some view Elliott has not just the best back in this draft but the best player, period. If he’s not the first rookie off your dynasty draft board, someone in your league is overthinking things.
NFL Comparisons: Many scouts compare Elliott to last year’s top rookie back, Todd Gurley, by noting that he’s not as freakishly athletic but is a better all-around back. Stylistically he resembles Frank Gore and Edgerrin James in that he can check every box, while physically he has drawn comparisons to Corey Dillon. There’s a ton of NFL success in those comparisons.
From the USA Today DraftWire: “Boasts the size, agility, and hard-nosed running style to dominate the next level. He’s a day one starter in the NFL that can become one of the top backs in the league in time.”
DERRICK HENRY, RB, ALABAMA - 6-3, 247
Henry is a powerful north-south runner with unusually light feet for a big back. He’s more of a finesse runner than given credit for, using vision and patience to find the hole—and once he has a head of steam, he’s not coming down easily. He won’t make tacklers miss, but if he’s approaching top speed arm tackles aren’t bringing him down anyway. Henry proved to be a willing blocker in limited opportunities, and the same can be said for his contributions as a receiver. He’ll be best in a situation where he doesn’t have to break tackles just to get back to the line of scrimmage, and his ability to stay on the field in passing situations remains unproven. But used correctly—say as the new LeGarrette Blount in New England—the fantasy upside is tremendous.
NFL Comparisons: Blount is a common comparison, as is Brandon Jacobs. But Jacobs was more of a bull, whereas the Blount comparison holds a bit more water. More optimistic scouting reports reference Corey Dillon and Eddie George, but Henry has yet to show he can get yards on his own as well as those two elite backs did.
From the USA Today DraftWire: “The importance in evaluating Henry comes more in knowing what he can do that what he can’t, because his strengths can be top-tier when used properly. He can maximize opportunities in a good situation better than most starting running backs in the NFL.”
KENNETH DIXON, RB, LOUISIANA TECH - 5-10, 215
Dixon rolled up elite production—including the second-most touchdowns in FBS history—against a lesser level of competition, but there is plenty to like about his game. His vision, patience, decisiveness and high football IQ accentuate his elusiveness, and he may be the best pass-catching running back in this draft class. However, some scouts are concerned that with average burst he lacks the physical tools to find success in the NFL, and with more than 900 career touches he comes into the league with some wear on his tires. Maybe his frame can’t hold up to the same workload it did in Conference USA, but if his track record of finding the end zone can’t buy him a three-down opportunity his pass-catching ability will at least get him on the field.
NFL Comparisons: Dixon has drawn several comparisons to Thomas Rawls, a similarly sized back who handled the jump to Sundays after playing at a lower level of competition. But his game—pass-catching acumen and the potential to be an every-down back—more resembles that of Ahmad Bradshaw at the low end and Frank Gore and Marshall Faulk at the upper end.
From the USA Today DraftWire: “May not be a 20-25 carries a game type of back, but he can be a valuable asset to any offense in the hands of the right coordinator. His ability to wear several hats and still perform at a high level should earn Dixon at least a rotational role sooner rather than later.”
DEVONTAE BOOKER, RB, UTAH - 5-11, 219
Booker combines a natural understanding of how to play the running back position with excellent balance, light feet and a powerful build. He has a three-down skill set that includes 80-624-2 as a receiver in two seasons at Utah and an average of almost 150 yards from scrimmage per game. A torn meniscus prematurely ended his final college season, a concern since he already lacked top-end speed. Scouts also ding Booker for a lack of ball security and because he’ll be old for a rookie (23) when he hits the league. He’ll fit best in a zone system that takes advantage of his one-cut-and-go ability, and if his knee is sound he could wind up as a close rival to Ezekiel Elliott as the best three-down back in this class.
NFL Comparisons: The most optimistic comparison likens Booker to LeSean McCoy, though even pre-knee injury he wasn’t nearly as shifty as Shady. More likely he turns out to be Jeremy Langford, a capable back who can make hay with an opportunity, or Charles Sims, a contributor in the passing game. Another scouting comparison, Donald Brown, speaks to his potential; let’s hope Booker can deliver more than what Brown provided.
From the USA Today DraftWire: “Outside of Ezekiel Elliott, [Booker] is the most all-around complete running back in this class, capable of handling the workload on every down.”
ALEX COLLINS, RB, ARKANSAS - 5-10, 217
Collins did himself no favors with an average at best showing at the NFL Scouting Combine, but his performance came as no surprise as it’s not athleticism that made him a college success—and make no mistake, three 1,000-yard seasons in the SEC is an impressive feat. Collins is solid in all facets of the game—except perhaps ball security—but truly stands out in none. He runs hard, maintains his balance, shows good vision and burst in the hole, and falls forward when tackled. Collins has little experience in the passing game and as noted before has struggled to hang on to the football. He doesn’t project as the kind of talent who will be handed a starting job, but when given the opportunity he’s capable of doing enough with it to remain on the field.
NFL Comparisons: Collins projects similarly to Chris Ivory, who was an effective part of a committee before blowing up when given more touches last season. His game has also drawn comparisons to Marion Barber, another back who could bang out yardage—especially at the stripe—but wasn’t necessarily a three-down feature back.
From the USA Today DraftWire: “Aggressive, full-speed-ahead runner with a powerful frame, but doesn’t have the athleticism or lower body flexibility that other backs in this class offer.”
PAUL PERKINS, RB, UCLA - 5-10, 208
Perkins is shifty, with good vision and balance and an explosive burst; more than a few tacklers have set their sights on him only to end up grasping air. He’s also a natural pass-catcher, with 80 catches in three seasons at UCLA. He may not be big enough to handle a full workload, and while elusive he doesn’t run with the power of a typical three-down NFL feature back. He’ll need to demonstrate more in pass protection to earn regular playing time on third downs.
NFL Comparisons: At the top end Perkins is viewed as a poor man’s Jamaal Charles, not big enough to hold up between the tackles but quick enough to cause problems and a threat in the passing game. Along that same vein Perkins has drawn comparisons to Reggie Bush, Duke Johnson, and Shane Vereen. There’s a definite theme there.
From the USA Today DraftWire: “A better football player than he is a pure athlete. If he can master the transition to a pro-style backfield, could be one of the steals of the draft.”
JORDAN HOWARD, RB, INDIANA - 6-0, 230
A power back by trade, Howard set the single-season Alabama-Birmingham rushing record before that school decided to shutter its football program. Unfazed, he moved to the Big 10 and actually increased his per-carry average by a full yard. He’s deceptively shifty for a big back, with balance, vision and good instincts as well as the strength to move the pile. However, he’s a one-speed back with no burst, and his running style won’t help alleviate concerns about his ability to stay healthy. Can he remain an effective workhorse stepping up in class once again?
NFL Comparisons: The names scouts associate with Howard are fellow big backs who don’t bring a lot of burst or wiggle to the table. That said, guys like Stephen Davis, Jeremy Hill and LeGarrette Blount have been effective when given 15-plus carries per game. Howard appears set for similar if he’s able to withstand the workload.
From the USA Today DraftWire: “If he can stay healthy, Howard possesses an NFL-ready game that will allow him to step into a starting lineup sooner rather than later, but the powerful back lacks the ability to be anything more than an average starter at the next level.”
JONATHAN WILLIAMS, RB, ARKANSAS - 5-11, 220
Williams missed last season after undergoing foot surgery, then opted not to use a medical redshirt and enter the draft. He’s a north-south runner with quick feet and decent hands who had success in a committee at Arkansas. His vision and balance make him effective in short yardage, but scouts ding him for an upright running style and ball security issues. Ultimately a team will need to trust his medical reports to take a chance on adding him to their backfield mix.
NFL Comparisons: Given the foot injury a Jonathan Stewart comparison would make sense, but Williams’ style more closely resembles that of TJ Yeldon or Alfred Morris—or, going further back, Rudi Johnson or Jamaal Anderson.
From the USA Today DraftWire: “Has the size, strength, footwork, and determination to be a top-tier running back someday, provided he can stay healthy and continue to improve his vision.”
CJ PROSISE, RB, NOTRE DAME - 6-0, 220
After starting his college career as a wide receiver, injuries and a lack of depth pushed Prosise into the backfield and he responded with a 1,000-yard season. He’s a talented back who is still learning the position, with the strength to run between the tackles and enough speed to successfully bounce outside. As you might expect given the position switch he’s also a natural pass-catcher. There are ball security issues, but most of the scouts’ concerns stem from Prosise’s lack of experience as a running back.
NFL Comparisons: There’s some David Johnson here, another back who spent time at receiver but was shifted to capitalize on his athletic gifts. Multiple scouting reports compare Prosise to Jeremy Langford as well, and pass-catching backs like Charles Sims and Fred Jackson also drew comparisons.
From the USA Today DraftWire: “A versatile runner who isn’t great at any one thing but can become a mid-low end starter for many teams. Can operate in a variety of schemes, but is never going to be a transcendent talent.”
DANIEL LASCO, RB, CALIFORNIA - 6-0, 209
Less than 400 touches in four college seasons helped Lasco fly under the radar, but a monster showing at the Scouting Combine—top positional performances in the 40, vertical, broad jump and 60-yard shuttle—opened some eyes and sent many scouts back to the film room. Lasco augments his size and athleticism with receiving and special teams ability, but his lack of durability not only kept him under wraps but also has teams concerned about his NFL future.
NFL Comparisons: Lasco’s game resembles that of Duke Johnson—athleticism and quickness, likely limited to an NFL role as a pass-catching back.
From the USA Today DraftWire: “Maybe the running back who impressed the most [at the Scouting Combine]. Flew to a 4.46 40 time after setting the top mark in the vertical and broad jump at his position.”
TYLER ERVIN, RB, SAN JOSE STATE - 5-10, 192
Ervin is electric in space, a trait highlighted by his five return touchdowns in four college seasons. He has excellent balance and reads blocks well, running with good speed and a toughness that belies his size. It’s that lack of bulk that draws the ire of pro scouts who wonder if he’ll be able to stand up to the rigors of the NFL; he already missed a full season in college due to injury. His impact in the pros will likely come in the return game, with an added contribution as a receiver out of the backfield.
NFL Comparisons: There’s some Darren Sproles here, though Ervin is more angular at a similar weight stretched out over four more inches of frame. Pass-catching backs like Theo Riddick and Dion Lewis are also mentioned, as are backs like David Wilson and Ronnie Hillman—neither of whom has proven able to stand up to anything more than a committee role in the NFL.
From the USA Today DraftWire: “Posted impressive marks [at the Scouting Combine]; looked great in pass-catching drills and making cuts with the ball in his hands as well.”
KENYAN DRAKE, RB, ALABAMA - 6-1, 210
Drake is best known for his explosive speed, a trait the NFL loves to overdraft, but the fact he never touched the ball more than 107 times from scrimmage in four seasons at Alabama tells you he’s a committee back at best in the pros. He’s not a powerful runner, too often running east-west in hopes of getting the edge, and an injury history that includes a broken leg and broken arm won’t help. But experience as a receiver and returner, along with that speed, will land him at least a look in the NFL.
NFL Comparisons: Drake’s upside would be to carve out a Charles Sims or Duke Johnson type of role, where he can be used as a receiver without being asked to pound between the tackles.
From the USA Today DraftWire: “A player who will likely thrive or succeed based almost solely on his landing spot and usage in the NFL. Get him the ball in space, flex him wide, use him on jets and tosses, and Drake’s big play ability will shine through quickly.”
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