Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be doing my own rankings of draft eligible players at their positions, today we’ll start with the running backs.
Shonn Greene is gone (pause for your mini re-celebration) and the Jets signed career backup Mike Goodson to join Bilal Powell and Joe McKnight in the backfield. I called Goodson a career backup because technically speaking that’s exactly what he is, realistically he was buried on depth charts behind some really good running backs (DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart in Carolina and when they both were still really good and Darren McFadden in Oakland) and if he can stay healthy he could prove to be more than just a serviceable back if given the opportunity. With so many question marks in the already thin backfield I expect the Jets to target a running back in rounds two or three, round four at the latest.
1) Eddie Lacy (Alabama) – Alabama has been making running backs into first round picks year after year and I’d be surprised if that trend gets bucked this year. As far as ranking the recent Alabama backs I’d say it goes, 1) Richardson, 2) TJ Yeldon (yeah maybe I’m getting ahead of myself but I think this will be the consensus thought after the 2013 season), 3) Eddie Lacy and 4) Mark Ingram.
Ingram was a great college back, but he physically dominated in college and has had no such success doing so in the NFL. Of course life won’t be as easy in the NFL as it was in ‘Bama for Lacy either, but his skills and physicality translate better to the NFL than Ingram’s.
One of the many benefits to playing running back at Alabama, very low milage. Whether it was Yeldon this year or Richardson the year before Lacy has been splitting the carries for his entire Alabama career.
Lacy is a fast, physical downhill runner. He can power through the line and run right through arm tackles, has great pad level and will lower his shoulder to inflict damage on would be tacklers. But it’s not just power and a strong inside game, Lacy has exceptional footwork and is much more agile and shifty than you’d expect and he also has excellent and deceptive speed, especially considering just how big he is (5’11”, 231 lbs.). He has the speed to bounce it outside and beat defenses between the tackles or around edges and uses sharp/hard cuts and spin moves to make defenders miss. Lacy has great balance, not only with his feet and body as he is running, but also in how he chooses to beat defenses, inside and out, with power or speed and finesse.
Lacy has good hands and is dangerous on screens and check downs but he needs to work on being more consistent in the passing game, running routes and especially in pass protection. Lacy has the capability to handle pass protection in the NFL but he’s going to have to put in a lot of work to get himself to that point. Sometimes it’s difficult to scout him because ‘Bama had by far the best o-line in college and while I certainly wouldn’t say vision is a weakness for him, there were some concerns on specific plays where he had trouble identifying some smaller holes. Still you can’t punish him for having a great line and he did a great job of making sure their hard work and talent very rarely went to waste. In a draft with a bunch of really good backs but no elite backs, Lacy clearly separates himself as the top back in the class.
UPDATE: Lacy missed the combine due to a hamstring injury, but today he ran for scouts and naturally we have conflicting reports. ProFootballTalk.com says, according to Mark Edwards of the Anniston (Ala.) Star, “Lacy unofficially ran a pair of 4.4 40-yard dashes,” but Alex Scarbough of ESPN.com reports, “One scout timed Lacy as having run a 4.59 and 4.62 in the 40. His top time would have placed him 15th among running backs who competed in March’s NFL combine.”
Lacy certainly looks and plays faster than 4.59 on film and well I’ll let his former coach explain since he obviously carries a tad more clout than I do, “He’s faster than you think. He has very deceptive speed, and very deceptive quickness. For three or four years around here, I’ve been watching Eddie Lacy, who everybody thinks is a little too straight-line as a runner, and can’t make people miss, make people miss in the hole, with his sudden quickness and great change of direction.”
Talk to ’em coach.
2) Johnathan Franklin (UCLA) – Every time I watched a UCLA game this season, Johnathan Franklin jumped out at me and I have the pages of notes to prove it. As I went back and watched more tape I found myself becoming more of a fan with every snap. Franklin is fast (4.49 40) and he makes great use of that electric speed during games. He has good vision, great at setting up the defense, quick, strong cutbacks, great burst inside the tackles and can certainly bounce it to the outside rather effortlessly. He’s extremely elusive, both shifty and slippery. Has very good, smooth lateral movement but runs mostly north/south and has no qualms about pounding the holes between the tackles. He’s patient but decisive and will use his blockers to his advantage.
He’s a much more physical runner than you’d expect, loves contact, uses his pads well (can improve though) and certainly has the ability to pop and bounce off defenders while also possessing the ability to make defenders look silly in space. He has phenomenal balance, keeps his feet churning as he fights for extra yards and pushes defenders forward. Quick, powerful feet with great change of direction ability (6.89 three-cone drill).
Franklin is extremely dangerous as a receiver, he still needs to become a more consistent receiver but when he gets the ball on a screen, swing, check down or anything that gives him some space to work with he’s an immediate threat to break a big play. He also needs to improve on his pass protection if he hopes to become a three-down back, but if you watch him you can see he has the ability and the knowhow to do it, he just needs to work on being more consistent.
Overall he’s a dangerous play-maker who will torch defenses if they give him space and he’s physical, fast and creative enough to create space by shifting, bouncing and weaving his way through a crowded line and exploding to the second level and beyond. Some minor kinks to work out in the passing game but he has the ability to become a three-down back while providing dynamic play-making ability from the jump. One of the things that stood out to me were his games against Stanford. The Cardinal always have a tough, strong physical defense and pride themselves on stopping the run, Franklin didn’t hesitate matching Stanford’s physicality and beating them with his speed, the Pac-12 isn’t exactly a defensive league but having two of your best games against Stanford is worth noting.
3) Giovani Bernard (North Carolina) – Explosive play-maker, fast (4.53) and plays fast. Great in space where he is extremely elusive. Strong north/south runner with good lateral movement, great burst and is a tough, physical inside runner though he doesn’t generate a lot of push. Has the ability to make defenders miss and break/slip through tackles. Good vision and patience, uses blockers and will set up defenders. Quick, strong feet with explosive acceleration (6.91 three-cone drill). Great speed burst outside around the edge, but not afraid to get the tough yards inside, not afraid of contact, in fact he will create contact and fight through it, will take and inflict punishment and always bounces right back up.
Lightning quick, great use of spin moves, stiff arms and double spin moves. Has a nose for the goal-line/first-down marker, smart runner. Only 5’8″ 202 lbs., but uses that to his advantage, when facing a stacked pile at the line he’ll identify a small crease and dive through the crack to pick up the necessary yards. Good receiver, can be deadly in open space, he lined up wide occasionally. Kick/punt return ability, won games this way, his speed and downfield vision allows him to break off huge chunks. Has great balance, hard to bring down, sideline stepping skills.
My favorite play of his wasn’t supposed to involve him. It was a deep pass downfield, the receiver caught it and started running downfield then a defender came and knocked the ball loose and as the ball bounced around the field all of a sudden, out of nowhere, Bernard comes flying in and dives at the ball knocking it away from a defender and continuing towards the ball until he scooped it up and ran it right into the end zone. So much hustle and that’s the type of effort he gives you on every play.
He does have a tendency to run himself into trouble a bit too often and as evasive as he is in space he tends to get flat footed and bogged down, hesitant and lose his shifty wiggle ability in more cramped spaces. Has had some injuries, tore his ACL before the season causing him to redshirt in 2010 and in 2012 he missed two games after injuring his knee against Elon in the first game of the season. Needs to be more consistent in ball security, had a few careless fumbles, nothing that can’t be fixed.
4) Le’Veon Bell (Michigan State) – Strong, physical downhill runner. Has good vision and patience, uses blockers well and hits open holes with authority. Runs with good pad level and makes great use of those pads to bounce off or run over defenders. Quick, powerful footwork, quick stop-start (6.75 in the three-cone drill), explosive change of direction. Crafty and powerful, north/south runner, smooth in space and is graceful in and out of his cuts. Runs right through arm tackles like a game of Red-Rover, will lower the shoulder pads to run right through defenders, he definitely enjoys contact, but he can also make the defenders whiff with a strong array of jukes, hurdles, stiff arms and he has a black-belt in spin moves. Evasive and powerful, keeps driving his legs fighting (usually winning) for extra yards. Makes it very hard on the defenders to tackle him and will get extra yards or break a big play solely on effort. Has great balance and is a very talented athlete who uses all of his athletic strengths to his advantage. Finds creative ways to create leverage.
Has room to grow more consistent in the passing game (both receiving and blocking), but has the ability to do so and become a three-down back. He’s more quick than fast as he lacks elite breakaway speed (4.6 40 time) and as great as he is between the tackles he sometimes had trouble beating the defense around edge and that will only become more difficult in the NFL.
5) Andre Ellington (Clemson) – Explosive play-maker, whether it’s kick returns, swing/screen passes, inside or outside runs Ellington is a dangerous weapon with the ball in his hand (assuming he can keep the ball in his hand, has had some fumbling issues). Both quick and fast (4.61 40), he can run right around or past defenders, extremely shifty, deceptive runner, hard/powerful cuts with quick acceleration. Deadly in space and can explode around the edge into space, but is far from shy when it comes to contact and running inside. Ellington plays much bigger than his 5’9″ 199 lbs. frame would suggest, will lower his shoulder and bounce off defenders and can even move a pile every so often. He’s a strong downhill runner who keeps driving his legs and when he knows he’s going down he’ll lean forward and launch himself for some extra yards. He’ll find running between the tackles much harder in the NFL, but that won’t stop him from trying and if he can stay healthy and hold on to the ball he’ll likely succeed.
He’s got great downfield vision, smooth and efficient runner with good lateral movement, sets up defenders and can make multiple defenders miss with a series of sharp jump cuts. Explodes through and around open holes, runs hard and has exceptional balance. The hand plant king, go watch him play Auburn last year, he has two ridiculous plays where he was being tackled only to position his body so he could plant his hand, prop himself back up and use that forward momentum to break through the defender and keep on running for big games and that game wasn’t the only game he broke that out in. Great effort, continually fighting and competing for more yards and will spin, slip or juke his way out of being tackled.
He certainly has game-breaker capabilities, but he’ll probably never be a three-down back. He’s had some fumbling issues and occasionally tends to outrun his blockers and it’s hard to imagine him as an effective pass blocker in the NFL. Also because he’s so small his history of minor injuries (Missed five games in 2010 with a foot injury that required surgery. Was held out of games or parts of games in 2011 with nagging ankle and hamstring injuries leading him to get minor ankle surgery last spring. Also suffered a minor injury at the combine) is concerning, especially when you factor in his style of play. The way he runs with speed, power, determination and force is exactly what you want in your running backs, but considering his small frame it could also be contributing to his injury issues.