The running backs that made up the 2015 draft class could be one of the more impressive groups in recent memory. Todd Gurley looks like a very special back, David Johnson showed big time ability as a runner and in the passing game while others such as T.J. Yeldon, Melvin Gordon, Duke Johnson, Karlos Williams and Ameer Abdullah showed flashes. That doesn’t even include the undrafted Thomas Rawls who was a very impressive find for the Seahawks. The 2016 group doesn’t have that kind of depth at the top, but there are a lot of backs who have the ability to make an impact in the league.
1. Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State: Since the Trent Richardson fiasco, not many running backs have gone on to be high first round picks, but Elliott looks likely to buck that trend. He fits the role of an every down back with an ideal build while possessing good vision and enough burst to make defenders miss. Most notably that stood out to me is his jump-cut which leads defenders off balance and he can turn into high gear quickly (a good example of this would be his first touchdown against Oregon in the national title game a year ago).
Along with that, Elliott is also a very willing blocker and has received praise from others for his impact without the ball in his hands. While he has some burst, Elliott can also be a physical runner and at times it seems he thrives off contact. The ability is also there to potentially be a decent receiver out of the backfield as well. At this time, Elliott appears to be the consensus top back in this class. It’s now up to teams to see where they value a back that could have the impact he’s capable of.
2. Derrick Henry, Alabama: Have you ever wondered what a running back with the size and speed of Von Miller would do in the league? If so, you’ll be paying a close eye on Henry. At 6’3” 247 pounds with 4.54 speed, Henry will be a nightmare for cornerbacks in run defense. For his size, Henry also has a surprising second gear in which he can reel off long runs. While this may not be as possible against NFL level conditioning, it’s also worth noting that Henry in many instances looked stronger as games went on.
Despite his size, the workload Henry received last year is a big concern for me and many others. Regardless of stature, 400 plus touches in a college season is a lot to handle. Surprisingly Henry also didn’t break a ton of tackles this past season which is a little alarming considering what you’d expect. He also never established himself as a pass catcher at Alabama so it’s possible that just isn’t a part of his game. Henry may not become a transcendent back, but if you want someone who can handle the ball 300 times a season and get double digit touchdowns, he may very well be your guy.
3. Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech: With quick feet, receiving chops and a nose for the endzone, Dixon looks like he is the yearly running back draft darling without the power five conference background. Despite not being a huge back, Dixon is a physical runner who is constantly fighting for extra yardage. It says a lot teams knew he was getting the ball early and often every Saturday but still couldn’t do much to stop it. Dixon also had some experience lining up in the slot within Louisiana Tech’s offense, so he may be more advanced than others in this class as a pass catcher right away.
Ball security is a concern as in the last three years; Dixon put the ball on the turf 13 times. Some have also raised concern on if Dixon will be as elusive when going up against a higher level of competition. Along with that, there seem to be worries regarding durability as his physical running style could take a toll for a back his size at the next level. In some elements, Dixon is still raw as a player but the potential is there for him to contribute right away and develop into a three down back.
4. C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame: In his first full year at running back Prosise certainly impressed, but still can learn some nuances of the position. Prosise has the build to be an every-down back and was a very patient runner and all things considered, did well running between the tackles. Being a former wideout, Prosise also flashed lots of potential as a receiver and could win matchups in the slot if presented at the next level.
In terms of what to work on, Prosise could improve in terms of blitz recognition, knowledge of various running schemes (which vary by who selects him obviously) and ball handling. While correctable, it’s worth noting that on less than 175 carries, he lost two fumbles but put the ball on the turf a total of five times. If the right team selects Prosise, the ability to be an impact player at the next level is a very realistic possibility.
5. Jordan Howard, Indiana: Between playing collegiately at UAB and Indiana, a lot of people probably don’t know a whole lot about Howard. Regardless, the guy can play. Despite being a bigger back, Howard can play with a lower center of gravity to fit into tight windows. On many occasions, he also displayed a feel for running lanes opening that some younger backs may not notice.
Despite the impressive positives, he doesn’t have big time downfield speed as there were instances where defenders chased him from behind. Due to missing games in the past with knee and ankle injuries, some teams may also have some questions. In the passing game, Howard wasn’t asked to do much as a receiver, so the jury is still out in that part of his game. Regardless, Howard has received some buzz of late and many feel he could be an impact player as a pro. It wouldn’t be surprising if he made a team very happy in rounds two or three.
6. Alex Collins, Arkansas: Considering they’re both physical runners with dreadlocks, comparing Collins to Chris Ivory seems lazy. However that’s exactly what I see when watching Collins. He isn’t much of a receiver, but hits holes with authority and is able to create some extra yards with his patience.
In terms of downfalls, Collins didn’t really demonstrate the ability to bust big runs to the outside. The lack of receiving chops as mentioned could hurt in the eyes of some as well. Regardless, the potential to be an impact running back that can carry the ball 20 times a game is there.
7. Devontae Booker, Utah: Booker isn’t a threat to rip one for 80 yards on every carry, but he is a patient runner with very good vision. During his time at Utah, Booker showed that he is also not one to shy from contact and is an impressive receiver out of the backfield as well. When watching Booker he sort of reminds me of Alfred Morris and a comparison of Morris with pass catching chops is nothing to scoff at.
There are concerns regarding Booker however. When the 2016 season starts he will be turning 24 (which is older for a rookie) in a position with a limited shelf life as is. Booker also hasn’t been fully healthy during the draft process as he is still recovering from a torn meniscus suffered this past season. For some teams, not being able to see a prospect fully workout will be a turnoff. While correctable, Booker also put six balls on the turf in a limited 2015 campaign. Booker is a wildcard amongst the backs in this class as while factors are there that could keep teams away; some are there which could see him selected as early as day two.
8. Paul Perkins, UCLA: If you’re looking for what running back in this class could put together the most impressive highlight reel, Perkins might be your answer. He doesn’t have the big time speed of a Jamaal Charles or Chris Johnson, but he can really make defenders look silly in the open field with his vision and various juke moves. On top of that, Perkins also has some ability to contribute in the passing game as well.
Despite heavy usage at UCLA, Perkins would be most effective as a committee back. That’s not necessarily a knock as unless you have an Adrian Peterson or Todd Gurley teams don’t exactly rely on one guy. Due to being a smaller back, questions will also raise in regards to if Perkins can run after contact at the next level. Regardless, the skillset is there to be a very good value at some point later in day two or in day three.
9. Jonathan Williams, Arkansas: Williams would have been one of the top backs in the 2015 class, but decided to come back to school. Unfortunately that decision hurt his stock as a foot injury ended his senior season before it even began. When he did play, there was a lot to like. Despite being a bigger back, the ability is there to make defenders miss as he is light on his feet. He also displayed the ability to play a role in the passing game and due to the injury has limited wear and tear in terms of total carries.
Of course, teams will have concerns about running backs with a foot injury coming into the league. So whatever team selects Williams will need to like how their medical evaluation returns. On occasion Williams also wasn’t as decisive as he could have been when it came to finding a hole and hitting it. Due to the injury Williams is sort of a forgotten man, but he could end up being one of the better draft values in relation to where he is picked in this class.
10. Kenyan Drake, Alabama: Drake is this year’s back who receives the “will be a better pro than college player” award. He is a slippery runner who has good size to go along with quick feet and chops in the passing game. Why Alabama didn’t give Henry a few more breathers to give Drake some more touches when he was healthy is beyond me.
The aspect of Drake being a slippery runner can be a weakness. In this instance, Drake can get impatient and want to create something instead of letting things open up for him. Injuries could be a concern for some as he has broken both his leg and arm in the last two seasons. Despite that, Drake has the ability to become a very nice change of pace back and could provide great value in the right situation.
2016 Class Grade: B