In today's NFL, first-round draft choices of running backs is becoming a rarity. The position's role has evolved -- or devolved, depending on your point of view -- to a level that has almost become a plug-and-play situation for most teams. It doesn't necessarily matter the name of the player in the backfield. Thus, teams can wait on the position and find value after the opening day of the draft.
This year's class has several intriguing prospects, including several bell cows, a handful of third-down, change-of-pace products, and an abundance of undersized choices who struggle to distinguish themselves.
The best back in the class?
Tre Mason, Auburn: A compact runner whose vision is his best asset, Mason does not shy from contact. He is more powerful than his 5-foot-9, 207-pound frame suggests, and he doesn't have a ton of mileage on his legs. Mason is decisive and agile. He would be an ideal fit for a zone-blocking system in the NFL, where he can use his one-cut-and-go style to get down the field. He's not exceptionally fast by any means, but a 4.50-second 40 time means he will be tough to catch if he has a step on most defenders. While I would love to see Mason catch the ball more to better understand his ability in this area, I'd be surprised if he slid into Round 3. He will be a starter, in time, in the NFL.
Bishop Sankey, Washington: A versatile offensive threat, possessing soft hands and a natural ability to find the open lane, Sankey has a lot of appeal in this passing league. He measures 5-foot-10, 209 pounds, and has been extremely durable in the face of a monster workload (653 touches 2012-13). He is a bit thin and may not hold up to a regular beating in the NFL, but smart coaching staffs won't use him in that manner. Sankey has a nose for the end zone and plays bigger than his frame. His role in the NFL inflates his draft stock. I don't believe he is the most talented running back, and he may not have the most prolific career, but it is a matter of immediate impact for many teams. Sankey is unlikely to slide out of Round 2 and could even be the first back off the board.
Lache Seastrunk, Baylor: (First name pronounced as "Lake") Seastrunk relies too much on raw athletic prowess at this point. Standing 5-foot-10, 201 pounds, he is on the lean side, but his lower-body explosiveness is nothing short of impressive. Some may peg him as a change-of-pacer, which is where he may start his NFL career, but the explosive Seastrunk, who oddly has no special teams experience to speak of, has to prove he can catch the football (nine career NCAA receptions). I am higher on him than most people; it may take some time, but between his intelligence and athletic talents, Seastrunk has what it takes to excel in the right situation. He's a Round 3 grade with a world of upside in his corner.
Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona: Carey is a three-down back at the next level because of his soft hands and system-versatility. He has a good build at 5-foot-9, 207 pounds and has a little bit of everything in his running style. Carey shows strong ability to find cutback lanes, make jump-cuts to get there, and cause defenders to miss. His hands will be an asset in the pros, but standing out in pass protection is what will endear him to a coaching staff in a pass-friendly league. That said, he has to do a better job of protecting the football. He was highly productive for the Wildcats but has a lot of wear and tear on his body in the last two years. Carey also has some explaining to do about several off-field alleged incidents. If he can pass this test, I see late second-round stock.
Carlos Hyde, Ohio State: Hyde is an interesting prospect. He attended a military school in 2009 before transferring to Ohio State, and he improved his play as his college career wore on. Hyde has a bruising running style that matches his 6-foot, 230-pound frame. He won't win any races, although the senior is a quick enough to get to the edge in most situations. An alleged off-the-field incident with a female patron at a nightclub cost him three games in 2013. Hyde still managed to rush for 1,527 yards and 18 total touchdowns on the year. He is a two-down pounder in the NFL and could land with a cold-weather team. However, he profiles for a short-lived career. Despite being among the most talented prospects at his position, I have my doubts about Hyde's draft stock. He'll probably fall into the early third round.
Charles Sims, West Virginia: I am somewhat surprised that Sims doesn't get more love. His biggest drawback is age -- turning 24 this September severely limits his long-term worth. That is not all bad, however, because an NFL team rarely signs a running back to a second contract these days. A transfer from Houston, Sims has amazing hands and glides through defenses. Few players have such light, graceful feet and a sprinter's ability to hit a home run on any single play. He is system-versatile and can line up at wide receiver. If he properly utilized, Sims will be a defensive play-caller's nightmare in the NFL. I see potential for a late second-round choice of Sims, but he's probably going to be a third-stanza selection.
Jeremy Hill, LSU: Don't discredit the widespread comparisons to Pittsburgh Steelers RB LeGarrette Blount. Hill looks a lot like him on the field and has similar off-the-field concerns. There is a lot to like about the former Tiger's pro potential, but he offers a sea of red flags to navigate. He is powerful, decisive, coordinated, and explosive in short bursts. Hill (6-foot-1, 233 pounds) needs to be in a closely monitored situation with a strong mentor to live up to his potential. He has two-down stud written all over him, if his focus is harnessed. I'll be surprised if he is drafted earlier than the third round, and depending on how he is perceived after team interviews, Hill won't make it out of the fourth round.
Andre Williams, Boston College: Well-built, with a 5-foot-11, 230-pound frame, Williams is coming off a beastly season. The Eagles rusher racked up 2,177 ground yards and pitched in 18 touchdowns in 2013. He posted 10 career receptions and as many rushing scores in his first three years at BC. Williams has average speed and offers almost nothing in pass pro and even less as a receiver. He does, however, run with a low pad level and fight for the tough yards. Williams has durability concerns that will factor into his draft placement. Look for a Day 3 selection of Williams.
Won't struggle to find a role
Devonta Freeman, Florida State: From a positive perspective, Freeman has the profile of a serviceable NFL combo player. He doesn't have the size (5-foot-8, 206 pounds) to withstand a regular pounding, but he is stronger than he looks and has lateral explosion that cannot be taught. Freeman is a capable receiver out of the backfield and has limited mileage on his body. He is a willing pass protector and did not miss a game at Florida State because of injury. Freeman will have a niche role in the NFL as a complementary player off the pine. Therefore, his draft placement is probably somewhere in the late third to early fourth.
Terrance West, Towson: A small-school product, West plays like an SEC stalwart out of the backfield. His 5-foot-9, 223-pound build allows him to run hard inside and finish plays. Defenders struggle to tackle him without wrapping up and hanging on. He was highly productive in 2013 (2,509 yards, 41 touchdowns). West doesn't move well laterally and takes a lot of direct contact. He isn't likely to elude many NFL defenders or NFL scouts, for that matter. West has a Round 4 grade.
Jerick McKinnon, Georgia Southern: Strong. That is the best way to describe McKinnon in a word. He has a powerfully built frame for 5-foot-9, 209 pounds. McKinnon has all the upside in the world. He has played almost exclusively from a read-option system and need to learn pass protection nearly from the ground up. Receiving experience is nearly non-existent ... Coming from a small school, with a long way to go before he is a NFL-ready commodity, McKinnon will be a late-round pick for a team willing to stash and develop his evident skill set.
Tyler Gaffney, Stanford: Gaffney (6-foot, 220 pounds) is a hard worker and a very coachable player. He is a capable receiver and a hard-nosed runner. A bland, north-south runner, Gaffney may have a difficult time finding an offensive role in the NFL and is probably going to be reserved for special teams play. Everything about his athleticism is just about average. He is probably a fifth- or sixth-round pick.
Isaiah Crowell, Alabama State: Has a little bit of LeSean McCoy in him ... great balance, adequate pass protector, plays faster than he times, lean build and can get skinny through the line, dynamic in the open field. Major off-the-field concerns that will cause him to fall. Borderline undrafted free agent territory but may go as early as Round 6.
James White, Wisconsin: Productive, versatile, quality receiver, good nose for paydirt ... smallish build (5-foot-9, 204 pounds) but manages to generate surprising power because of balance, pad level and non-stop leg drive. Round 5 or 6 selection.
Storm Johnson, Central Florida: Above-average hands, limited route-running experience, lacks elite speed and strength, too frequently taken down by arm tackles. Committee player with limited upside and doesn't profile as better than a late pick. Sixth-round grade.
James Wilder Jr., Florida State: Awfully big body for a running back (6-foot-3, 232 pounds). NFL bloodlines (father played fullback), plays to the level of his competition, tough to bring down, a bit of shake-n-bake to his running style, explosive in short area but times poorly for top-end speed. Much better football player than athlete. Late sixth- or early seventh-round pick.
De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon: Exciting, elusive, dynamic, electric ... any number of synonyms fit Thomas' play. Too small, limited ceiling, lack of a defined NFL role, durability, ball security, inflated collegiate production ... Thomas is a late-round special teams pick.
Antonio Andrews, Western Kentucky: Savvy in the passing game, understands offensive roles of his teammates, kickoff return experience, effective ball carrier with quality build (5-foot-10, 225 pounds). Lacks lateral agility and elusiveness, marginal competition in college, no second gear ... plodder in the NFL. Round 7 or UDFA.
Silas Redd, USC: Definite ability but likely pigeonholed as a change-of-pace player in the NFL ... String of notable injuries and major ball security issues drastically reduce his upside. Below-average speed and balance. Late seventh-round flier, if drafted.
Marion Grice, Arizona State: Does nothing special between the 20s but has a knack for breaking the plane. Acceptable receiver and blocker. Borderline draftability.
Rajion Neal, Tennessee: Runs with low pad level, lacks great vision, too many carries with relaxed ball security ... Good build (5-foot-11, 211 pounds), limited mileage, moved around the field pre-snap ... very average, forgettable player. Probably not drafted.
Cory is KFFL's General Manager. In late 2002, he joined the KFFL staff as a research analyst and has been involved in fantasy sports since 1996. A member of the Fantasy Sports Trade Association, as well as Fantasy Sports Writers Association, Bonini has been featured in print, on radio and on scores of websites. Bonini co-hosted Big Lead Sports on SiriusXM Fantasy Sports Radio from 2011 to 2012.
Bonini was recognized with the 2010 Best Article in Print Award from the FSWA and was a finalist for the same award in 2011. In '11, he finished first overall in the FSWA NFL experts challenge that featured 60 of the industry's best competitors.