O'Hara's Draft Preview: Rating this year's running back class

Posted Apr 11, 2013

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

Eddie LacyRB Eddie Lacy

This was a good year for teams to use free agency to fill their needs at running back.

The Lions did it by signing Reggie Bush to add a big-play threat that’s been missing since the concussion sustained by Jahvid Best has kept him out of football since Game 6 of the 2011 season. The Falcons signed Steven Jackson of the Rams to succeed Michael Turner as their workhorse back.

This year’s draft class isn’t likely to provide the instant help the Lions and Rams expect from Bush and Jackson. A surprise prospect might develop, but this is a year when there isn’t a true lead back in the draft.

There is a familiar name – the school, not the player – at the top of this year’s class.

Eddie Lacy is the latest Alabama running back to move to the front of the line in a progression that leads to a high draft position.

Lacy was the understudy to Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, both of whom won national championships with the Crimson Tide before moving on to the NFL as first-round draft picks.

Lacy became the full-time starter last year and carried most of the running load as Alabama won its third national championship in three years, sealing the No. 1 spot with a suffocating 42-14 victory over Notre Dame in the BCS championship game.

Lacy led Alabama’s rushing attack with 140 yards on 20 carries. Typically, another Alabama back is waiting in the wings. Freshman T.J. Yeldon added 108 yards on 21 carries.

Lacy ranks at the top of what is not an especially strong or deep group of runners in the 2013 NFL draft. Most analysts rate Lacy at the first back to be drafted, late in the first round or early in the second.

Ingram was the only running back drafted in the first round in 2011, going to the Saints 28th overall. He has been part of the Saints’ running back rotation, with 1,076 rushing yards combined in two seasons.

Richardson was drafted third overall last year by the Browns and made more impact than Ingram. Richardson ran for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns.

However, the performances of Ingram and Richardson is further evidence that draft position does not guarantee success – or indicate a lack of it – for running backs.

Last season was a classic example. Doug Martin, drafted 31st overall out of Boise State by Tampa Bay, ran for 1,454 yards. Although he surpassed Richardson’s total by 504 yards, Martin wasn’t the leading rookie rusher.

That distinction went to Alfred Morris of the Redskins. Morris was drafted in the sixth round with the 173rd pick – 170 picks after Richardson and 142 after Martin – and ran for 1,613 yards.

There have been running backs who went into the draft as ready-made stars and produced.

The best example is Adrian Peterson, drafted seventh overall by the Vikings in 2007. He might have been drafted higher, but his last season at Oklahoma ended early because of a broken collarbone. That caused some concern for NFL teams because of his violent style.

Marshawn Lynch went to Buffalo five picks later, and eventually was traded to Seattle. Peterson has made five Pro Bowl teams, and Lynch has made three. Peterson ran for 2,097 yards last season and was voted the league’s MVP Award.

Lacy was asked at the Combine earlier this year to name his favorite team.

“My favorite team is Minnesota,” he said.

But the Vikings don’t need a runner.

“They don’t, but that’s my favorite runner,” Lacy said. “I liked them when Adrian got there.”

Following are my ratings for the top running backs in the draft, with comments on each player, and other issues involving where the Lions stand on the position. Each player’s height, weight and time in the 40-yard dash is included.

Fullbacks are not rated because so few are drafted, but the top prospects at the position are listed:

1. Eddie Lacy, Alabama, 5-11/231, 4.53: Lacy bided his time, backing up Mark Ingram, the Heisman Trophy winner in 2010 and in 2011 Trent Richardson, the Browns’ first-round pick in 2012. Responded as the starter with 1,322 yards, 17 TDs. Lacy is a powerful runner but not an elite talent, and there’s no guarantee he’ll be a first-round pick.

2. Montee Ball, Wisconsin, 5-11/214, 4.59: Missouri high school TD machine, scoring 107, and continued at Wisconsin, scoring 18, 33 and 22 rushing TDs last three seasons. Tied Barry Sanders’ one-season NCAA record with 39 TDs (six receiving) in 2011. Weight loss in 2011 showed up in better performance.

3. Giovani Bernard, North Carolina, 5-9/202, 4.50: Only two seasons of competition at North Carolina because of a season-ending injury in practice in 2010. Set Tar Heels’ freshman record with 1,253 yards in 2011. Led ACC in rushing with 1,228 yards in 2012, despite playing only 12 games.

4. Andre Ellington, Clemson, 5-9/199, 4.54: Backed up C.J. Spiller in 2009 and moved into a starting role the next year. Averaged 5.5 yards per carry for his career. Needs to be clear of injuries – torn knee cartilage in 2008, turf toe in ’09, hamstring pull at the Combine.

5. Johnathan Franklin, UCLA, 5-10/205, 4.46: Bruins’ leading rusher all four seasons, topped by a school record 1,734 in 2012. Added 33 catches as a senior. Improved ball security in 2012 with only one fumble after 21 the previous three seasons.

6. Le’Veon Bell, Michigan State, 6-2/230, 4.56: Size, agility, endurance and competitive streak are key attributes. Willing to carry the load. Even returned six kickoffs as a freshman in 2010. School record 382 carries in 2012 and 1,793 yards, second most in history. Also threw a TD pass in a bowl victory.

7. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina, 5-11/221, no time/injured: Outstanding talent whose career has been short-circuited by season-ending knee injuries in 2011 (left knee) and 3012 (right knee).  Three of the four ligaments were torn in the 2012 incident. Holds school’s career record with 38 TDs in only 29 games. Gritty, determined competitor who got an ovation from the scouts at his school’s Pro Day workouts just for jogging to show his intent to return.

8. Stepfan Taylor, Stanford, 5-9.214, 4.70: Distinguished himself in 2010 by rushing for 1,137 yards to become the first Stanford sophomore since Darrin Nelson in 1978 to go over the 1,000-yard mark. Finished off his career with 1,330 and 1,530 yards the last two years, departing Stanford as the career rushing leader (4,300 yards).

9. Mike Gillislie, Florida, 5-11/208, 4.48: Showed well as a freshman in ’09 with 267 yards rushing and an 8.6-yard average. With 1,152 yards in 2012, his only year as a full-time starter, he became the first Florida runner to crack the 1,000-yard mark since 2004.

Kenjon BarnerRB Kenjon Barner

10. Kenjon Barner, Oregon, 5-9/206, 4.39:  Set Oregon school record 1,020 KO return yards in 2009. Took over as starter in 2012 with departure of LaMichael James to the NFL and had a big season – 1,767 yards rushing, 21 TDs rushing, including a school-record 321 and five TDs vs. Southern Cal.

Others: Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State; Christine Michael, Texas A&M; Kerwynn Williams, Utah St.; Michael Floyd, LSU; Theo Riddick, Notre Dame; Jawan Jamison, Rutgers; Ray Graham, Pitt.

Fullbacks to consider: Lonnie Prior, Florida St., Zach Line, SMU; Tommy Bohannon, Wake Forest; Kyle Juszczyk, Harvard; Zach Boren, Ohio State; Michael Zordich, Penn St.; Ben Bartholomew, Tennessee; Braden Wilson, Kansas St.

Lions depth chart: Running backs – Reggie Bush, Joique Bell, Mikel Leshoure, Jahvid Best and Devin Moore, who played two games for Indianapolis in 2010. Best spent all of last season in the physically unable to perform list because of a concussion sustained in 2011. Kevin Smith is a free agent.

Lions draft possibility: If the Lions draft a running back, it is likely to be a late-round pick and a player with return ability. The Lions have not used a pure fullback in recent seasons. Tight end Will Heller filled the role most often in a variety of ways. Heller is a free agent.

Fullback longevity: Cory Schlesinger was the Lions’ primary fullback for 12 seasons (1995-2006) after making the team as sixth-round draft pick. It was a rare example of longevity for a fullback with one team.