For the first 50 years of the NFL draft, running backs were royalty—maybe not kings like the quarterbacks, but next in line to the throne. Then last year, for the first time… well, ever, the first round of the draft passed without a single running back being selected.
Get used to it. The combination of the league’s view of running backs as relatively disposable and a thin draft class make it extremely likely the 2014 draft will be the second consecutive without a first round runner. But that doesn’t mean this class is devoid of fantasy help. Here’s a rundown of some of the more likely candidates to find their way into significant NFL touches, this year and down the road, with selected quotes from both the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide magazine and the 2014 FRG Draft Guide digital magazine, a production of FirstRoundGrade.com, a USA Today Sports Digital Property.
Carlos Hyde, Ohio State – 5-11, 230
Hyde is a powerful runner with quick feet and more than enough size to succeed in the NFL. He has burst through the hole as well as the power to move a pile, though he doesn’t have home run speed and isn’t a particularly creative runner. Hyde wasn’t used extensively in the passing game but he has demonstrated good hands and the willingness to compete in pass protection. He could very well be the first back drafted this year, though character concerns stemming from an incident that resulted in a three-game suspension at Ohio State may slap a red flag next to his name on some team’s boards.
NFL Comparisons: There’s some Marshawn Lynch to Hyde’s game, but he more closely resembles a couple backs from the 2013 class who found NFL success last season, Eddie Lacy and Le’Veon Bell. If you want to go back a few years, you could compare Hyde to Stephen Davis or even Natrone Means. The good news is, nowhere in my research was there a comparison between Hyde and fellow Buckeye Beanie Wells.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “Big, downhill, ball-control running back who is tough and durable.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “Projects as a starting running back in the NFL that can be the missing piece for a team looking for a grinding, ball control back.”
Bishop Sankey, Washington – 5-9, 209
At 5-9 Sankey is a shade shorter than ideal for an NFL back, but he’s built low to the ground and has a strong lower body that makes him a surprisingly effective inside runner. Sankey also has good vision and lateral quickness—you could call him shifty—as well as enough speed to run away from tacklers in the open field. He’s also a good receiver and effective in pass protection, making him a fairly complete back. His high mileage at Washington (677 touches the past two seasons) is a concern, and there are questions about ball security and long-term durability. Ultimately, he seems capable of stepping into any role in the NFL and could wind up the top rookie back in this class given the right situation.
NFL Comparisons: Sankey has drawn comparisons to Giovani Bernard and Doug Martin, a pair of smallish backs who have both found success on Sundays. He also has similarities to Priest Holmes, though keep in mind it took a couple years and the right offense before Holmes became a fantasy deity.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “Shifty and smart back.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “There are few runners in this class that have as well rounded of a skill set as him.”
Tre Mason, Auburn – 5-8, 207
Even casual college fans got acquainted with Mason thanks to his 304-yard outburst in the SEC title game—not to mention the little tidbit about his dad being a member of De La Soul. And when you break Bo Jackson’s single-season rushing record, you should get on the radar. The biggest knock on Mason is his size, or lack thereof, which also leads to questions about his durability and how he’ll hold up in pass protection. But he’s solidly built with quick feet and good vision and patience, quick acceleration and the ability to change directions quickly. Mason also brings something to the table as a kick returner, and at minimum he should carve out early playing time as a complimentary back.
NFL Comparisons: More than one scout sees some Ray Rice in Mason, and that’s certainly not a bad guy for a back to be compared to. Similarities have also been drawn to Julius Jones, and if Mason truly is unable to hold up to a feature-back workload that might be more accurate, at least with regards to his being more of a complementary back than a workhorse.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “Patient runner with very good lateral cutting ability.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “Able to provide an offense with a nice change-of-pace option and a runner that can spell a starter.”
Ka’deem Carey, Arizona – 5-9, 207
It’s tough to argue with Carey’s collegiate productivity, as he’s amassed 4,290 scrimmage yards and scored 44 touchdowns over the past two seasons. He’s a surprisingly physical and effective inside runner given his lack of size, though some scouts ding Carey for an upright running style. His success appears to have come more due to vision and instincts than elite speed or quickness, which also concerns some scouts about his ability to transition to the NFL. Mix in some sub-par postseason workouts, a high collegiate workload and some character concerns due to off-the-field issues and Carey is more likely to slide down the draft board than other backs in his talent range.
NFL Comparisons: At the top end, scouts see characteristics of Frank Gore and Knowshon Moreno, a pair of three-down backs who have found plenty of NFL success. Some scouts also see similarities to Ahmad Bradshaw, which wouldn’t be a bad consolation prize so long as Carey avoids the injury bug that has plagued Bradshaw’s pro career.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “A physical and violent runner.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “His game simply doesn’t suggest high-level success in the NFL.”
Lache Seastrunk, Baylor – 5-9, 201
Yet another smallish back, Seastrunk runs with surprising power for his size thanks to a compact, powerful build and outstanding balance. He accelerates quickly, possesses good vision and the ability to change direction at full speed, and sports that top gear other backs in this class lack. He’s a threat to go the distance on any given play. Where scouts ding him, in addition to his size, is a lack of instinctiveness that leads to too much dancing before making his move through the hole. Scouts also worry that his productivity in college was due to Baylor’s spread offense rather than Seastrunk’s ability. While he wasn’t asked to do much in the passing game in college, that may be where Seastrunk makes his initial NFL impact.
NFL Comparisons: At times Seastrunk’s video-game moves evoke memories of Barry Sanders… okay, let’s dial that back to Jahvid Best. Other scouts see similarities to Ahmad Bradshaw, and if Seastrunk can pick up the NFL passing game quickly he could get an opportunity to demonstrate if those comparisons are apt.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “Powerfully built back with good vision and body control.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “Projects as a fringe starting-level running back that can provide big plays in chunks of yards to an offense.”
Charles Sims, West Virginia – 5-11, 214
Sims was a wide receiver coming out of high school, so it should come as no surprise that he’s a natural pass-catcher many scouts have ticketed for third-down duty in the NFL. But Sims was plenty productive as a runner as well, with good vision and acceleration and plenty of speed. The knock on most scouting reports is that Sims runs too high, leaving him exposed to big hits. He also isn’t much of a power runner, viewed by some as still learning the position after converting from wideout. You’d think after 592 college carries, he’d have that figured out.
NFL Comparisons: Not surprisingly, the common comparisons for Sims are fellow pass-catching backs like Demarco Murray and Andre Ellington. The former has been a solid NFL runner when healthy, and the latter may get his shot at same this season; in other words, if the comparisons hold it may take a season but Sims should be able to transition to the pros.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “Downhill, one-cut zone runner.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “Very good depth player who will initially see his playing time on third downs and in passing situations.”
Devonta Freeman, Florida State – 5-8, 206
Freeman isn’t particularly big, but he’s powerfully built with thick legs and runs with a low center of gravity. He accelerates quickly, has good vision and cutting ability, and flashed natural receiving skills at Florida State. Freeman enters the NFL with low mileage, having been part of a backfield committee in college, but scouts believe he’s built to hold up to a feature-back workload on Sundays. He’s a high-effort guy who at minimum can contribute in a committee and might bring enough to the table to provide an NFL team with an every-down back.
NFL Comparisons: Like several other backs of his somewhat diminutive stature in this draft class, Freeman has drawn comparisons to Ahmad Bradshaw. He also reminds some scouts of Andre Ellington, suggesting he could open his pro career as a third-down back.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “Shifty back who has good vision and cutting ability.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “A strong and instinctual back who runs with 100% maximum effort on every carry.”
Jeremy Hill, LSU – 6-0, 233
On the field, Hill is an impressive specimen. Last year he set the SEC record for yards per carry at 6.9 and posted the second-best rushing season in LSU history, in all amassing 2,410 all-purpose yards without a single fumble. He’s big, with surprising speed and agility for a man of his size, and a powerful north-south runner with balance and vision. What’s not to like? Well, there’s a litany of off-the-field incidents in which police were involved that cost him significant time at LSU and likely have some teams removing him from their draft board entirely. If he’s able to put the character issues behind him he has the potential to be a successful two-down back on Sundays.
NFL Comparisons: Hill’s scouting report could have been cut and pasted from LeGarrette Blount’s draft profile, as they have similar styles—and checkered pasts. Blount seems to have moved on successfully, which gives hope for Hill’s prospects as well. So do other scout comparisons to moderately successful big backs like Shonn Greene, Cedric Benson and Michael Turner.
From the USA Today Sports NFL Draft Guide: “North-south runner who is not easy to tackle.”
From the 2014 FRG Draft Guide: “One-dimensional power back that struggles in pass protection and offers little on special teams.”
Other running backs in the 2014 draft class to keep an eye on: James Wilder, Jr., Florida State; Marion Grice, Arizona State; Isaiah Crowell, Alabama State; Storm Johnson, Central Florida; Andre Williams, Boston College; DeAnthony Thomas, Oregon; Rajion Neal, Tennessee; Dri Archer, Kent State; Terrance West, Towson; Jerick McKinnon, Georgia Southern; James White, Wisconsin.