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Running on Empty

by DJ Boyer on Jan. 2, 2014

The running back position is always very curious to predict due to the changing landscape of the NFL. With teams becoming more and more pass-happy we are seeing running backs become devalued. Last season was the first time in 50 years we did not have a running back drafted in the 1st Round, and right now chances are we could see it two years in a row.

 

The Top Prospects

 

Lache Seastrunk is a player not short on confidence. Seastrunk famously boasted in the preseason that he was going to become the second Heisman winner from Baylor after Robert Griffin III won it in 2011. He got off to a hot start topping 100 yards in 6 of his first 7 games on the season while finding the end zone 11 times. Seastrunk was then hit with a groin injury that limited his production down the stretch and caused him to miss two games entirely. He still had 1,060 yards and averaged 7.5 yards per carry very similar to his 2012 totals when he was named Big 12 Offensive Newcomer of the Year and averaged 7.7 yards per carry and had 1,012 yards. The craziest stat though is he didn't catch a single pass on the season. Seastrunk spent a year at Oregon before transferring, and now is reportedly on the fence as to whether to enter the draft or not. With quarterback Bryce Petty coming back to Waco for his senior season we know Baylor would more than likely start the season in the top 10 if both return. Seastrunk may be the first running back off the board and is currently one of three running backs carrying a 2nd round grade.

Ka’Deem Carey was actually draft eligible last year as a redshirt sophomore but he elected to come back to Arizona for his junior season. Carey topped off a great campaign with 1,716 yards and 17 touchdowns but those numbers are down from 2012 when he led the nation with 1,929 yards and 23 touchdowns. His shining moment this season would have been his 206 yard and 4 touchdown performance as the Wildcats upset Oregon late in November. Carey topped the 100 yard mark in every game this season and missed only the season opener against Northern Arizona. Carey is a durable back that topped the 300 carry mark each season so a team looking for a dependable 25 carry type of back will be quick to have Carey near the top of their list. He proves adequate as a receiver and his blocking has noticeably improved. Carey and Seastrunk will battle for the top running back taken in the draft if both leave their final years of eligibility behind.

Bishop Sankey is the last member in the top prospect tier and is the running back that has seen the biggest improvement in his draft stock going from a 6-7 rounder at the start of the season, to a solid 2nd round prospect. Sankey raised his rushing total from 1,439 to 1870 and his touchdowns from 16 to 20. He hasn’t caught many passes but of the three running backs listed he seems to be the most elusive in the open field after catching a pass. Sankey is a very patient runner who does not have top-end speed but seems to make great choices when hitting the hole and will patiently wait for blocks in front of him to develop. With the coaching change at Washington happening next season and his elite status, Sankey has already announced that he will declare.

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Of the top prospects Sankey seems to be the most complete back while Carey is the dependable workhorse and Seatrunk is all about speed and flash. Sankey and Carey are virtual locks to enter the draft with Seastrunk on the fence due to injury this past season.

 

Second Tier

Andre Williams led the nation in rushing this past season so it’s a little hard to fathom for some people how he could be listed as a second tier back. Williams is a 3rd round prospect after posting the 9th best single season rushing total in history with over 2,100 yards, topping 200 yards in a game 5 times and 250 an astonishing 4 times. Williams doesn’t have a lot of miles on the tires as he was not used exclusively until this season. He did suffer a shoulder injury though in the regular season finale against Syracuse and it limited him to just 9 carries in the game. There will be some concern with the shoulder but since Williams does not have tremendous breakaway speed or excel in any particular area he is still relegated to the second tier.

Tre Mason may ride the coattails of his 300+ yard rushing performance against Missouri in the SEC Championship all the way to the NFL. Mason topped 1,000 yards a year ago and 1,600 this year while impressively leading the three-headed rushing attack at Auburn. Mason has a very wide frame and thick legs which help his rushing style as he stays very close to the ground with a low center of gravity. He could go as high as the 2nd round as someone who is seriously considering leaving for the next level. Mason had some fumbling problems early on but he seems to have worked very hard in the category of securing the football.

Carlos Hyde may have been the hottest runner in the NCAA coming down the stretch as he single-handedly bailed the Buckeyes out of some games that looked like they could have been losses. Hyde has over 1,400 yards and his last 8 games he has topped the century mark in every game and twice had over 200. He put up these numbers even after missing the first three games of the season after serving a suspension by the team. Hyde weighs in at 245 pounds and has very good speed for such a large back. He has good hands for a back his size and build, making him ideal for goal line and short yardage situations, looking like a true three down type back.

Charles Sims transferred this past season from Houston to West Virginia and since he had already graduated he did not have to sit out a season for eligibility purposes. Sims hoped to get more running chances, whereas in Houston he saw more passes in a pass-first system that was not very pro friendly. Sims responded with 1,095 yards rushing and another 401 in the air with 14 total touchdowns. Sims is on the bigger side and does not have blazing speed. Aside from pass catching he may not have an area where he wows scouts on the field but he is solid across the board. Sims currently looks to be a 3rd/4th round prospect, yet his pass catching ability will push him up the board or make him valuable to teams running hurry up and spread offenses.

De'Anthony Thomas may have to stay in Oregon after a junior season that saw him plagued by injuries. At the beginning of the season there were many who felt that if Thomas declared he would be a 1st round selection and likely the first running back off the board. Thomas averaged 6.2 YPC, which astoundingly is he all-time low. Together he has over 1,877 rushing yards on only 240 career carries. Even though he is only 5-9 there are some teams that project him as a wide receiver at the next level because he catches the ball so well and creates separation in space. Thomas looks poised for a strong senior season and will count on his projected sub 4.4 speed to enhance his draft status.

 

Lurking and Late Round Gems  

 

Marion Grice had a very productive senior season falling just shy of 1,000 yards after missing the last three games due to injury. Grice plays larger than his 6’0” 205 pound frame and is an excellent receiver out of the backfield. He lacks top end speed but he may have the best hands of the running backs available. The receiving ability Grice displays could push him as high as the 3rd round while rounds 4-5 are more likely.

 

Rajion Neal was one of the best backs in the SEC this season but playing on a subpar Tennessee team avoided him getting accolades and being seen by most of the country. Neal managed over 1,200 yards on a team that changed quarterbacks in nearly every game. Many teams knew Neal was the lone consistent threat on offense but he was still successful and averaged 5.2 YPC and scored 12 touchdowns. The career of Neal is very reminiscent of another former Volunteer years ago that went through the cracks on draft day…Arian Foster.

Antonio Andrews has been one of the most productive running backs at the FBS level over the last two seasons logging over 4,400 yards from scrimmage with 3,400 and 30 touchdowns coming on the ground and adding another 1,000 and 3 touchdowns through the air. What Andrews lacks is top flight speed but he is tough to bring down and has been one of the leaders in the nation the last two seasons in yards after contact. Andrews may find his niche as a change-of-pace back or someone who specializes in short yardage and goal line situations, but he has the durability to play even more at the NFL level. Playing in the Sun Belt will not hurt his stock as Andrews has put up big games against big schools and he displays amazing consistency. This past season Andrews failed to reach 100 yards rushing in only one contest…the season opener against Kentucky when he logged 99 yards.

Kapri Bibbs is a redshirt sophomore that took the football world by storm this season with 1,741 yards and more impressively 31 touchdowns on the ground, leading the NCAA at Colorado State. Bibbs does not have gamebreaking speed though and he shows a propensity to fumble as he carries the ball away from his body in the open field. Yet he has a great build and runs very low to the ground. Bibbs shows that he gets stronger as the game wears on and can be a punishing runner that can wear out a defense. Bibbs should be attractive to many teams in the draft and I think by the third round we will hear his name mentioned with a couple of teams when he could come off of the board. If he shows more speed than expected, he has the production numbers to jump into the top tier of running backs

Isaiah Crowell is this year's small school entrant into the party but he wasn’t always a small schooler. You may remember Crowell at Georgia where as a freshman in 2011 he rushed for 850 yards and 5 touchdowns. A felony weapons charge and subsequent arrest derailed his career at Georgia and he landed at Alabama State where he put up 842 yards rushing as a junior and 1,121 this past season, with 15 touchdowns in both seasons. Crowell has a nice blend of size and speed, and while he is not a bruiser he's also not a scatback that needs a lighter workload. He will go in the later rounds but he could be one of the diamonds in the rough when all is said and done.

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Running back is a position where we are seeing numbers declining as offenses become more complex and pass oriented. You still need balance as an offense no matter how good the passing attack is and while elite runners don’t seem to be present this year the class is deep at the position.