As I was thinking about the running backs I liked in college this year, I was surprised at how few jump out at me. I mentioned this to the Dazzle and he agreed. We think it speaks to the way the perception of the position has changed in football culture, starting at the NFL level and trickling down to High School, over the course of the past 10-15 years. Up until as recently as the Aughts, good college and pro teams were defined by their running back. From Emmitt Smith to Thurman Thomas in the 90s to Marshall Faulk and Eddie George in the early 2000’s, NFL playoff teams often had an elite, “workhorse,” back. In the college game the running back was even more important. Take a look at the list of Heisman Trophy Winners and nominees in the 90s (Ron Dayne, Ricky Williams, Eddie George, Raashan Salaam etc) and its chock full of backs.
Then things started to change. As Defenses became larger, faster, and more punishing at the beginning of this century, they dominated the game from the line of scrimmage, (Ravens and Bucs for example).The NFL tweaked its rules to favor WRs and QBs to make the passing game easier in an effort to encourage offensive fireworks. At the same time, college coaches who could not land elite OL or RBs, (the vast majority) began to use spread offenses. Teams like Texas Tech and Baylor throw 70 times a game. Other second and third tier schools adjusted and the spread offense has now permeated college football to the point where only a handful of top programs still run a pro style type offense (See Georgia, Bama, LSU, UCLA, USC, Stanford). Now with few exceptions, a top back at your average Top 25 school might only get 15-25 touches a game where he used to get 25-30. Combine that with the need for more mobile QBs to run these spread offenses (a lot of RBs were QBs in high school in the past, now those guys stay at QB), the disappearance of the fullback (or “big back” really) and the rise of the “slot receiver” and the result is a lot of guys who would play RB in previous years are playing other positions or on defense and you have less backs. The Heisman trophy winners over the past 20 years (since 2003) have all been QBs with one exception (Mark Ingram, ha).
Also possibly spurring elite athletes to avoid the RB position at lower levels, most NFL teams became better at managing the salary cap and started realizing that RBs are a bad economic investment. They have the shortest average career of any NFL position. As athletes are bigger and stronger then ever before, it only follows that this affects the players who have full speed running collisions on every play the most. As a result teams are less interested in giving first round money to a guy who will most likely only be really good for 3-5 years. If you are a freak athlete who is 16 years old, and you know all this, wouldn’t you try to play another position?
As a result of all of the above, there are not many backs who I think will be taken early in this draft and make an immediate impact in the NFL. Unless rules making it easy for quarterbacks and receivers to connect change, the “ground and pound” is dead at the NFL level. Last year the first back taken was Gio Bernard at pick 37 overall by the Cincinnati Bengals. Bernard, a scatback who is just as likely to get touches receiving as he is on a direct handoff in the mold of Darren Sproles, is not a prototype “workhouse,” instead, he represents the versatility required of a player at a position that has become a complimentary rather than principal to the latest iteration of NFL offenses.
This is a good time to mention that I am not predicting where these players will go because it is simply too early. We don’t know who is drafting where and what individual teams will need what. The point is, while its rare to see an RB go in the first round of the new pass happy NFL, every year there are bunch drafted in the middle to late rounds, and here are the few that I think will be those backs. I will rank these guys based on my aforementioned grading criteria.
1. Melvin Gordon Wisconsin: He is the right size, 6’1 207, and he runs about a 4.5 40. What I really like about him is that he has great acceleration. He gets up to full speed almost instantly out of his stance. He has averaged 10 yards a carry all season long despite being the feature back in a run first offense. Watching him in a back up role last year, it was clear he was better than Montee Ball (much like it was clear Trent Richardson was better than Mark Ingram at Bama a few years ago). This year has confirmed that he is fast enough and has the right type of vision to be a success in the NFL. My only red flag is that he runs behind a Wisconsin OL that is always great. Wisconsin backs haven’t exactly torn up the NFL. he also hasn’t shown that he is a route runner or pass catcher. With the current state of the NFL I only see him as a late 1st or early 2nd round pick whereas 15 years ago he might have gone in the top half of round 1. He is probably the only RB with first round potential.
2. KaDeem Carey AZ: Another guy with NFL size already, 5’10 about 205. He also runs about a 4.5 dash. He is very similar to Gordon, except he plays for a team that isn’t nearly as good as Wisconsin in an offense that isn’t RB friendly (Rich Rod’s spread). While he doesn’t have high top end speed, he is very elusive and is versatile. Is a big part of the passing game. He reminds me of Jacquizz Rodgers. My big read flag for him is that any time a back runs for almost 2,000 yards in college, as Carey did last year, and gets as many touches as he gets, you wonder how he will hold up. The only other RB who could get selected in early.
3. D’Anthony Thomas Oregon: This guy is pure speed. He is expected to run a 4.3 and change. The obvious knock on him is that he is slight. He goes about 5’9 175. He is often hurt. I also don’t trust Oregon RB out of that offense. You can’t deny his speed though. He is the fastest back in this draft. Then again, so was LaMichael James a few seasons ago.
4. Lache Seastrunk Baylor: See what I wrote above, except this guy is about 30 lbs heavier than Thomas and runs a 4.4. and change. He has some highlight reel runs, and is a part of the passing game, but I want to see him against a team like Oklahoma before I start getting excited. He has the most run to move up as the season progresses.
5.Bishop Sankey Washington. This is another West Coast guy who can play. He has the right body type, 5’10’ 200. He runs a little harder and shiftier than you would think and his best attribute is his balance. He can run between the tackles a little bit. He has his best games against good defenses, like his 144 yard on effort, (on 20 carries no less) against Stanford in 2012. I could see him making a roster and catching on. Worst case scenario, he can become the team Chaplain since he’s a holy man and all.
6. George Atkinson III Notre Dame. This guy is my sleeper. He isn’t particularly good at Notre Dame. He splits carries and often misses holes and runs too up and down. I can’t overlook this though, he is 6’1 220 and runs a sub 4.5 dash. He is a very good kick returner. Remember Ryan Grant? He sucked at ND too and never completely won the starting job and then made a team in the NFL, figured it all out and was a pretty solid RB. GAIII also has the genes, his dad was a DB for the 70’s Raiders. I am not saying I expect him to be drafted high or anything, but I wouldn’t be surprised if somehow he makes a team and ends up on the field in the NFL if he can put it together. Editor’s Note: C-Lion is a ND fanboy. Adjust your expectations accordingly.
The NFL’s pass happy rules have diverted talented athletes who used to eye the running back position at a young age and moved them to other positions. I think the WR position is a major repository of that type of diverted talent. In a self-fulfilling prophecy laid out by me in my introductory remarks and realized here like a reverse straw man, WR is the one position that really jumps out at me as special this year. There are a lot wide outs in college this year with NFL potential. I look at the guys who are playing well this year in the NFL as rookies such as DeAndre Hopkins , Robert Woods, etc., and I think to myself, wow these guys were number 2’s on their own team because of the guys coming out this year. Think about that for a minute as we dive in to the WR.
The Elite 3: These guys are, by national football press consensus, the best three WRs in the country. I agree.
Marquis Lee USC: His stock is falling a bit due to injury, an awful QB and the shit storm that is USC this year. I don’t care I have seen enough. He is my number 1. He is a little small at 6’0 190, but don’t be fooled, he is the quintessential playmaker. He is very fast on the field and has that explosive extra gear in the open field to run away from people. He also runs track at USC. His 2012 numbers where insane. (118 receptions for 1,721 yards and 14 touchdowns in 12 games). Lee also returned kicks and averaged 28.5 yards per return. The two biggest reasons I am high on him is that everybody who watched USC last year saw that Lee was the number 1 WR on his team and is better than Robert Woods, who has emerged as a solid number 2 to Stevie Johnson in Buffalo. If Woods is that good then it follows that Lee is that good. I haven’t even mentioned that Lee is a great route runner as well. When you combine a good route runner with down field playmaking ability, you get a star. His ceiling is probably AJ Green, but that probably won’t happen. Worst case scenario he is better than any WR in the draft last year, maybe a Justin Blackmon type if he goes to a similar situation.
Sammy Watkins Clemson: One word, playmaker. He actually has better measurable than Lee. Sammy is 6’1 210, and probably runs a slightly faster 40. The thing that jumps out at me is his ability to get yards after the catch. The example that you will see in April a million times is his TD against Georgia in week one. He caught a 15 yard pass from Boyd, broke a tackle and just flew past the secondary to go 75 yards for a TD. The play reminded me of one that Larry Fitzgerald has against the Steelers in the Super Bowl a few years ago. It made you just go wow. Also, similar to Lee, Watkins shared catches with DeAndre Hopkins last year when it was clear that Sammy was a better WR. A lot of people like him more than Lee, because he is bigger and probably faster, but there are two flags that jump out at me. The first is his stats have never been that great, especially compared to the season Lee put up last year. Watkins doesn’t have a bad qb as an excuse either. The other one is that he has been in trouble with failed drug tests. He has the potential to be an NFL number 1 if he can stop smoking the sticky icky, or, at least figure out how to do it without getting caught like Dez Bryant.
Mike Evans A&M: This guy is the darling of the pundits right now, his stock is exploding. It’s easy to see why. He is 6’5 225 and is third in the nation in receiving yards behind two guys in gimmick offenses. The thing that jumps out the most statistically is his 23.3 average yards per reception right now. The game that everybody will talk about, and you will see on his highlight reel this spring, is the Bama game. He destroyed Bama’s secondary and seemed to make amazing catch after amazing catch from a scrambling for his life Manziel. I list him below Lee and Watkins because he is sort of a one year wonder right now, which raises red flags for me. He is only a redshirt sophomore though. He has great hands and body control to go along with his size. I see a little Demayrius Thomas in him. Maybe a little Ed McCaffery if cross racial comparisons bother you. I think that is probably his ceiling. More likely he is Joe Jurevicious. Still, that’s not a bad career.
The other SEC guys: This is clearly the second tier, but these guys are all pretty good and happen to play in the same region.
Odell Beckham Jr. LSU: This young man is benefiting more than anybody from the growth of Zach Mettenberger. He is 6’0 190 and runs about a 4.40 dash. This speed allows him to stretch the field and make big plays. He also returns punts. This seems to be a theme for elite WRs. Beckham has only 4 less catches than Mike Evans and averages almost 20 yards a catch. (I want to see a lot of catches and yards but also I need a ypc average of 16 or higher to move my furry needle). I can’t decide if he is going to be like his LSU predecessors Brandon LaFell or Reuben Randle or something more. His route running doesn’t impress me and he has another great WR on the other side in Jarvis Landry who is the perfect compliment to him. I think he will get taken in the 2nd or 3rd round.
Donte Montcrief Ole Miss: For some reason I love this guys name, but not a whole lot else about him. His biggest asset is his size. Montcrief is 6’3 226. He runs the deep fade well but he doesn’t seem to have blazing speed. He also isn’t a great route runner on anything other than deep routes where he goes up and gets the ball. He looks whatever the opposite of smooth is coming out of his breaks on any other route. I wonder if he is slow or the WR on the other side, freshman phenomenon L. Treadwell is just that good that he looks sluggish by comparison. I need to see him get more physical at the LOS and in blocking before I am sold on him. He has Jonathan Baldwin or AJ Jenkins written all over him.
Jordan Matthews Vandy: I put this guy next because he offers an interesting contrast to Montcrief. He is about the same height as Donte, 6’3, but is only about 205. For all intents and purposes he is not a deep threat, but, he is an outstanding route runner. On an otherwise questionable offense, he is 5th in the nation in WR yards, behind Beckham and Evans. The red flag of course is that his ypc is only 15.1, which is a little lower than I want to see. His limited physical attributes will keep him out of the first few rounds but he reminds me of fellow Vandy Alum, Earl Bennett. I think he sticks around on a team. Oh yeah he is a cousin of Jerry Rice, so there is that.
(Sleepers) L’Damian Washington Missou and Tevin Reese Baylor: I have these guys as late round guys who may make an impact. Tevin Reese is 5-10 and about 175 but I expect him to run about a 4.3 at the combine. The way Baylor uses him is like WVU used Tavon Austin. That speed might just catch on somewhere. Washington is having a great year at Missou and a big reason it is undefeated. At 6’4 205 with a 4.3 and change dash, he will get a look somewhere based on these measurables.
The WRs of the North: They do play football above the Mason Dixon Line still despite popular opinion. These guys are the best from schools in states which were victorious in the Civil War. Winter is coming my friends.
Allen Robinson PSU: This is another guy climbing the charts. The 6’3 210 Junior has made big play after big play for the Nittany Lions. He is 6th in the country in receiving yards, just 4 yards behind Jordan Matthews, but with a more than full yard 16.4 ypc. He has the right size for the NFL the question will be his 40 time. He might be a little slow. He could be a 2-3 round pick if he runs a decent time.
Jared Abbrederis Wisc: This is guy who is kind of underrated. At 6’2 190 he is a decent size. What stands out to me about him is his ability to get open. He’s produced despite spotty quarterback play and the Badgers’ inclination to run the ball, currently in the top 15 receivers by yards produced. The game where he made a name for himself was this year against OSU when he put up 10 catches for 207 yards and a TD on a very highly touted CB. I see Eric Decker potential here.
Brandon Coleman Rutgers: I have not seen Rutgers play. I am putting him on here because people like that he is 6’6 and 220. He looks like a TE. I have a feeling he can’t run like one though. His stats are snooze worthy. Stay tuned for his combine.
(Sleepers)Devin Street Pitt and TJ Jones ND: I have to pick guys here so I am going to go with Street because Pitt Wrs seem to do extremely well in the NFL, and he is the only guy to really make big plays against FSU so far this year. It was the first game but he went for 6 for 141. He has good size at 6’4 190 and really the only question I have on him is his speed. TJ Jones is a little small at 5’11 190 but has been the leader of the Irish this year on the field despite very shaky QB play. Does punt return duty and is a very good route runner. Editor’s Note: Told you guys, total homer.
The West Coast Guys you don’t ever see: Again, as much as hate to admit it, there is some good football in the PAC12 conference that none of us see because they play their games at 10 pm on Saturday night.
Brandin Cooks Oregon St.: This guy is on my list because he leads the nation in receptions and receiving yards. He comes in around 15.5 ypc as well, so that gets a look from me. He is undersized at 5-10 186, but maybe he could catch on as a slot in the NFL.
Kasen Williams Wash: He is just a prototypical NFL size WR. 6-2 216. His leaping ability jumps out at me. I question is ability to get separation from DBs at the next level.
(Sleeper) Shaq Evans UCLA: Shaq is Hundley’s number target and has performed very well. He plays his best in big games. At 6-1 211 he is prototypical NFL size. He is very quick as opposed to fast. I think his coaching will help him catch on somewhere on an NFL roster.