The 2012 running back class wasted no time in making an immediate impact at the next level. Trent Richardson came in right away as expected and ran for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns while playing through injuries. Doug Martin was another first round pick who had a huge year with over 1,450 yards. This isn’t even including Alfred Morris who was on nobody’s radar this time last year and ran for over 1,600 yards in his rookie season. This isn’t even including backs who have the chance to breakout next year such as David Wilson and Lamar Miller or others that showed potential such as Vick Ballard, Bryce Brown, Bernard Pierce and Robert Turbin.
This year’s running back class has some talent but it is highly unlikely that anyone will be a first round selection. There are a good amount of players who could be selected in the second or third round and end up becoming excellent values. Many times for running back the draft position doesn’t matter just that the opportunity presents itself and players such as Morris and Arian Foster are proof of that.
1. Eddie Lacy, Alabama: This is now third year in a row where it looks like an Alabama running back will be the first one off the board. In terms of how they compare, I would say Lacy is a better prospect than Mark Ingram but a tier below Trent Richardson. There’s a lot to like about Lacy he has the build to carry the ball 20-25 times a game and waits for holes to open. He is also light on his feet, shows great burst after hitting the hole and isn’t afraid to finish runs with contact. Like many young running backs, he can improve as a blocker but those adjustments can be made.
2. Giovani Bernard, North Carolina: Bernard has very good vision and the ability to see cutback lanes. While he may be viewed by some as a smaller back, he is tough to bring down due to a thick build which along with his cutback ability gives a team a very elusive back. Bernard can also hit his top speed very quickly and is a reliable receiver when called upon. He tore his ACL in 2010 so some teams may be scared by his medical history. Bernard could turn into a Ray Rice type player which would make him a steal in early to mid second round.
3. Andre Ellington, Clemson: I have Ellington rated higher than most as he has many traits teams are now looking for in a running back. He bursts through the hole and accelerates quickly to go along with good vision and the ability to cutback. Ellington is also willing to lower his shoulder for extra contact and is always fighting for extra yardage. Along with that, Ellington is very patient when it comes to waiting for holes to develop and can contribute as a receiver. His pass protection skills need some work and Ellington also holds the ball high which defenders in the NFL will take advantage of. He is another back that could go in the middle of the second round.
4. Le’Veon Bell, Michigan State: If you’re looking for a current running back to compare Bell to it would be LeGarrette Blount minus the character concerns. At 6’1 230, Bell is a big back but is also light on his feet as strong cuts and nice burst give him the ability to break off big runs. One thing he needs to work on is his vision as he isn’t always able to see cutback lanes. There aren’t many running backs that can both push piles and hurdle defenders but Bell is one of them. He has the potential to make a team very happy in the second day of the draft.
5. Johnathan Franklin, UCLA: Franklin has impressive quickness, willingness to finish runs and the ability to explode out of his cuts. He doesn’t have ridiculous speed but there’s enough for him to get outside and break off big runs. Franklin is also solid in pass protection, can catch out of the backfield and has the ability to run inside While Franklin improved in 2012, his six fumbles the year before will be concerning to teams. He is back that is shooting up draft boards and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him go in the early to mid second round.
6. Montee Ball, Wisconsin: Ball had a prolific career at Wisconsin but I’m not as high on his long term pro potential as many are. He is a reliable back that runs hard and also can contribute as a receiver. What worries me is that he isn’t a very elusive runner and had two years at Wisconsin where he carried the ball over 300 times. Most of Ball’s stats also came on pure volume as it was very common for him to get 30 plus carries a game which doesn’t happen in today’s NFL. Ball could be a very good fit for a team that runs a zone blocking scheme and can contribute immediately but his long term durability could become a concern.
7. Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State: During his time at Oklahoma State, Randle was effective in both the running and the passing game. He has decent speed and also has added weight on to his frame to get stronger. There are times he runs upright and can struggle pushing the pile. Unlike many young backs, Randle can come in right away and contribute in pass protection which could result in being selected in the late second or early third round.
8. Stepfan Taylor, Stanford: Despite Andrew Luck departing, Taylor went on to have another successful year at Stanford. He has a good build, is always running hard and has the ability to take advantage of a quick opening. Taylor won’t be a breakaway threat at the next level and while he isn’t exceptional at one trait, he is a well rounded back that can do a little bit of everything.
9. Mike Gillislee, Florida: Gillislee showed last year that when given the opportunity he can handle the ball 18-20 times a game if necessary. He does well at setting up cutbacks and has the speed to break some big runs. He is also willing to lower his shoulder in short yardage situations and has good hands out of the backfield. One negative trait is that Gillislee too often dances behind the line of scrimmage instead of just hitting his spots. He also holds the ball low which could lead to fumbles. Gillislee has the ability to contribute right away as a third down back as a rookie and could handle a bigger role later in his career.
10. Christine Michael, Texas A&M: Michael is arguably the most athletic running back in this class recording a 43 inch vertical leap and doing 27 reps on the bench at the combine. He has a low center of gravity and has open field speed to break off long runs. However, there are medical concerns as both his 2010 and 2011 seasons were cut short by injuries. This also with character concerns as well (note to all the kids out there trying to play in the NFL: Don’t oversleep and miss your meetings with teams at the combine). Michael has loads of physical gifts but there is enough baggage where for some teams the risk won’t be worth the reward.
2013 class grade: C+