OHARA'S DRAFT PREVIEW: Rating the running backs

Posted Apr 30, 2014

In the fourth installment of his draft preview series, Detroitlions.com columnist Mike O'Hara rates the top running backs available

For Carlos Hyde and any running back who hopes to be a first-round draft pick, there are no guarantees in terms of draft position or future success or failure in the NFL.

From the top of the draft to the bottom – and beyond – performance in college does not translate to the pros. Neither does draft position.

Hyde, who closed out his career at Ohio State last year with a big season and a huge Big Ten finale against Michigan with 226 yards on the ground, is rated by most analysts as the top back in the draft.

Barring a surprise, Hyde is likely to be a second-round pick. Part of the reason is that this is a deep draft with so many good players at other positions – wide receiver and offensive line among them. If that prediction holds, it will mark the second straight year that no back was drafted in the first round.

Bishop Sankey of Washington, Tre Mason of Auburn and Jeremy Hill also could go in the second round or early in the third.

When he spoke at the NFL Combine earlier this year, Hyde expressed disappointment over what he and many other backs perceive as the NFL downgrading the importance of running backs in a shift to pass-oriented offenses.

“It does kind of bother me,” Hyde said. “I feel like they are down on us. They are just kind of down-playing us – ‘We can wait to get y’all.’ There are guys drafted in the late rounds that are having a lot of success in the league right now, so it’s changing the GM’s minds.”

The question of whether the running back position has been de-emphasized is debatable.

No backs were drafted in the first round last year, but four went in the second round. It was the first time since the NFL and AFL adopted the common draft in 1967 that no back was drafted in the first round.

The fullback position is almost extinct in terms of the draft. No fullbacks were drafted from 2009-11, and only once since 2004 have more than three fullbacks been drafted in the same year.

The rushing stats in 2013 show that teams do not have to use a high draft pick to get a productive runner.

The Eagles’ LeSean McCoy led the NFL in rushing last year with 1,607 yards. McCoy was a second-round draft pick in 2009, and three backs were drafted ahead of him – Knowshon Moreno and Donald Brown in the first round, Beanie Wells in the second.

Alfred Morris, a sixth-round pick in 2012, was fourth in rushing last year with 1,275 yards. As a rookie with Washington in 2012, Morris finished second in the league with 1,613 yards – behind only the great Adrian Peterson, a first-round pick from the star-studded 2007 draft. Peterson won the rushing title with 2,097 yards, the second highest total in league history.

Arian Foster, who entered the NFL as an undrafted free agent in 2009, led the NFL with 1,616 yards in 2010 in the first of three straight 1,000-yard seasons.

O'Hara's Top 10 running back prospects
1 Carlos Hyde Ohio State 6'0 230 4.66
2 Bishop Sankey Washington 5'10 209 4.49
3 Jeremy Hill LSU 6'1 233 4.66
4 Tre Mason Auburn 5'9 207 4.50
5 Andre Williams Boston College 5'11 230 4.56
6 Devonta Freeman Florida State 5'8 206 4.58
7 Charles Sims West Virginia 6'0 214 4.48
8 Ka’Deem Carey Arizona 5'9 207 4.70
9 De’Anthony Thomas Oregon 5'9 174 4.50
10 Terrance West Towson 5'9 225 4.54

O'Hara's Top 5 fullback prospects
1 Trey Millard Oklahoma 6'2 247 4.64
2 Ryan Hewitt Stanford 6'4 246 4.87
3 Jay Prosch Auburn 6'1 254 4.74
4 J.C. Copeland LSU 5'11 271 4.95
5 Kiero Small Arkansas 5'8 244 4.90


Running backs

The best

Carlos Hyde, Ohio State: Hyde followed the path of former Ohio State Heisman Trophy winner Eddie George by spending a year at Fork Union Military Academy in 2009 to meet the academic requirements to attend OSU.

Hyde was suspended for the first three games of 2013 but was a force when he got on the field, rushing for 1,521 yards, a 7.2-yard average per carry and 15 rushing TDs. He rushed for 226 yards against Michigan, the most ever by a Buckeye vs. Michigan.

The rest

Bishop Sankey, Washington: He spent 2011 as a reserve and broke out in 2012, rushing for 1,439 yards and 16 TDs and adding 33 catches for 249 yards. He came back with a record-breaking 2013 season – a school-record 1,870 yards rushing and 20 TDs for a career-record 37 rushing TDs. He averaged 143.8 rushing yards per game.

Jeremy HillRB Jeremy Hill (Photo: AP Images)

Jeremy Hill, LSU: A third-year sophomore, he had a big 2013 season with 1,401 yards rushing and 16 TDs. He’s had legal problems and is on probation until July of 2015, stemming from his involvement in a fight outside a bar in April of 2013. Lack of speed will drop him down in the draft.

Tre Mason, Auburn: He played sparingly in 2011 but broke out in his debut, returning a kickoff 97 yards for a TD in his first game. After 1,002 yards in 2012, he exploded in 2013, breaking Bo Jackson’s school record by rushing for 1,816 yards and 23 TDs. Some analysts rank him as the most skilled back in the draft.

Andre Williams, Boston College: He started strong as a true freshman in 2010, rushing for 461 yards, and finished stronger in 2013 by leading the nation in rushing with 2,167 yards and becoming the 16th runner in FBS history to go over the 2,000-yard mark in a season. It’s unknown if he can help as a receiver. He had only 10 catches in his career.

Devonta Freeman, Florida State: Short (a little over 5-8) but sturdy, Freeman made an impact early, becoming the starting tailback halfway through his freshman season in 2011. In the Seminoles’ 2013 national championship season, he rushed for 1,016 yards to become the school’s first 1,000-yard runner since Warrick Dunn in 1996.

Charles Sims, West Virginia: Sims had three productive seasons at Houston, his hometown school,  and played as a true freshman in 2009. He sat out the 2010 season when the NCAA ruled he was ineligible but returned to play the next two years. He transferred to West Virginia in 2013 and had his best season – 1,095 yards rushing and 45 catches for 401 yards. Despite having small hands (8-1/4) he’s been a good receiver.

Ka’Deem Carey, Arizona: One of the great high school ball carriers in Arizona history, he gained nearly 4,500 yards and scored 71 TDs his last two prep seasons. A three-year player at Arizona, he led the FBS with 1,929 yards and 23 TDs in 2012 and came back in 2013 to rush for 1,885 and 19 TDs. He had some legal issues the last two years. A poor workout in his pro day, when he looked out of shape, hurt his stock.

De’Anthony Thomas, Oregon: Fast but small, he did not play in a conventional offense at Oregon, which gives scouts concern over what he’ll bring to the pros on a consistent basis. In high school in 2010, he was timed in 20.61 seconds for 200 meters. He put up dazzling averages at Oregon and can contribute as a runner, receiver and return man because of his speed but is unlikely to be more than a spot player.

Terrance West, Towson: Another Fork Union alum, he won the Jerry Rice Award in 2011 as the top freshman in FCS division football by rushing for 1,294 yards and 29 TDs. It was a sign of what was to come. In 2013 he set FCS single-season records with 2,519 yards rushing and 41 rushing TDs. He had 84 career TDs.


The best

Trey Millard, Oklahoma: Typical of fullbacks, his value isn’t in the numbers. He was the Sooners’ primary fullback as a freshman in 2010 and had that role until a knee injury midway through 2013 put him out for the season. Good size, decent speed and a well-rounded game as a runner, receiver and blocker put him at the top of his position  – but a low-round pick because how teams value fullbacks.

The rest

Ryan Hewitt, Stanford: Taller (6-4) than the average fullback, he had more receptions (59) than rushing attempts (28) in four seasons. His most memorable play was in the Rose Bowl loss to Michigan State. He was stopped for no gain on a fourth and one, giving the ball to the Spartans on downs to run out the clock.

Jay Prosch, Auburn: Powerfully built, he is credited with a 440-pound bench press in high school in Alabama. An Alabama native, he began his career at Illinois in 2010 and transferred to Auburn in 2011 when he mother was diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. He played more of the H-back position in 2013, with no carries and 5 receptions.

J.C. Copeland: He’s an intriguing prospect because of his size and background. He played defensive line in high school in Georgia and had 27 sacks his senior year, but was converted to fullback as a freshman at LSU in 2010. He scored 2 TDs on one-yard runs in the NFLPA Collegiate Bowl.

Kiero Small, Arkansas: After two junior college seasons, he transferred to Arkansas in 2011. In addition to fullback, at the JC level he also played linebacker and posted 120 tackles, with 21 for loss in 2010. Small played only one game in 2012 because of an injury. He returned in 2013 to play all 12 in a 3-9 season and carried 40 times for 151 yards and added 19 catches for 128 yards.

Lions’ running back/fullback depth chart:

Returning: Reggie Bush and Joique Bell share the load at tailback, with Bush getting a little more playing time in a duo that ranks among the NFL’s best for balance and production. Also back are Mikel Leshoure and Theo Riddick at tailback with Montell Owens at fullback. Owens played sparingly in one game last year because of a knee injury. Tailback Stephen Miller spent 2013 on the practice squad.

Newcomers: Fullback Jed Collins, signed as a free agent; Carlin Isles, a speedy rugby player, was signed near the end of last season.

Lions draft probability: There is enough depth and versatility that the Lions do not have to draft a running back. However, if a tailback with obvious skill drops to the fourth round, the Lions might add one.