During the first day of the 2012 NFL Draft, the Browns chose running back Trent Richardson with the third overall selection. With the last two picks of the first round, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and New York Giants opted for running backs Doug Martin and David Wilson, respectively. Even if some underclassmen declare, this year’s draft class certainly doesn’t include a back as highly touted as Richardson. With Marcus Lattimore suffering a career threatening knee injury, some analysts are wondering if there will even be a single running back chosen on the draft’s first day. Each year since 1963, when Don Lisbon went 36th overall to the Niners and each round was only 14 picks long, at least one running back has managed to work his way into the first round; so a Day One with no ball carrier would still be at least a mild surprise. It’s likely that one player will ultimately slip in there. Still, there will be a bevy of backs available on Day Two when the second and third rounds take place. Some are complete runners with the skills to play every down. Others contribute speed, receiving ability, or both; but lack the full range to be more than a specialist or change-of-pace weapon. Here’s a look at three prospects from each category, in no particular order, who should hear their names called no later than the draft’s second day. Underclassmen are designated with an asterisk…
Montee Ball Wisconsin 5’11 212 – There was no way for Ball to match his 1923 yard, 39 total touchdown, junior season. In fact, a slow start, coupled with a pair of concussions, had some people questioning his decision to return for his senior season. But in his last five games, Ball has gained 665 yards on 126 carries (5.3 yards per carry) and scored 10 touchdowns. His stats aren’t the important part though. On the field, Ball has shown the ability that made him a Heisman finalist in 2011. He displays tremendous vision to pick his way through traffic, and patience to wait for his blockers to set up big gains for him. While some analysts downplay Ball’s ability by citing the talent on Wisconsin’s offensive line last season, he continues to prove that he can create his own yards when things break down. Ball possesses quick feet and is shifty enough to make tacklers miss. He is not a burner who will hit home runs with long runs, but he’s fast enough to be effective. Without Russell Wilson to hold down the quarterback position at Wisconsin, Ball’s receiving and pass protecting skills have been overlooked. But in winding his game tape back to 2011, Ball shows a pair of soft hands when catching the ball and the willingness to take on blitzers when staying back in pass protection. Ball is a sure-handed runner with just one fumble in his college career, and he’s remained durable throughout. Detractors will point to the concussions, but Ball hasn’t missed a game since October of 2010. He remains a viable option on Day Two for any NFL team looking for a potential starter down the road.
Giovani Bernard* North Carolina 5’10 205 – Just a redshirt sophomore, Bernard has become a favorite of draft analysts thanks to his all around game and the perceived weakness at the top of the senior class of running backs. This season, he has compiled 930 rushing yards (7.4 yards per carry) and 10 touchdowns rushing, 319 yards (10 yards per catch) and three touchdowns receiving, and 249 yards (20.8 yards per return) and two touchdowns on punt returns. Bernard runs with quick feet and short, choppy steps, but there is no wasted effort. He has an excellent pad level, is always falling forward and takes great care to avoid negative plays. Bernard is able to pick his way through traffic, gets going north and south very quickly and is a strong finisher. He has a strong lower body, good stop and start ability and can get up to full speed very quickly. Bernard does well to set up screen plays and swing passes, and turn up field immediately. He doesn’t appear overly fast, but like Ball he has plenty of speed to be effective and good moves in the open field. Bernard’s a willing pass protector, definitely not timid, but like all young backs he’ll need polish in this area. While his stats are eye opening on punt returns, he isn’t likely to continue these duties at the NFL level where he will appeal to teams as a potential every-down runner. Still Bernard’s production and versatility with the Tarheels this season make him the back most likely to sneak into the first round. That is, if he forgoes his final two seasons of eligibility.
Dennis Johnson Arkansas 5’9 213 – Coming into the 2012 season, most analysts didn’t even consider Johnson the best running back prospect on his own team. Still, his versatility made him an intriguing prospect. Despite Arkansas’ struggles this season, Johnson’s play has earned him more playing time and he’s been considered one of the team’s few bright spots. In his last four games the Razorbacks have won three and Johnson has rushed for 428 yards (5.5 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns. He runs with a low center of gravity and demonstrates good balance, vision and leg drive. He shows good patience and can step through a crowd to gain tough yards. He keeps his legs pumping and is tough to bring down once he has a full head of steam. Johnson is able to bounce runs outside and has some shake once he breaks into the open field, but like Ball and Bernard he is not a burner. He gets going forward quickly, avoids dancing in the backfield, and has good forward lean. As noted, Johnson is a versatile player who can catch passes out of the backfield and return kicks. He also does well to square up in pass protection. Johnson is a tough player who rebounded from a career threatening health scare. This history shouldn’t raise too many concerns due to the fluky nature of the injury and the fact that it had nothing to do with his legs. The biggest concern instead will be ball security, as he’s shown a tendency to get careless with the ball at times. Ball security issues are certainly easier to correct than gimpy legs, so NFL teams should be able to help Johnson work through it.
Change of Pace Backs
Kenjon Barner Oregon 5’11 192 – Fresh off a win over USC in which he rushed for 321 yards and five touchdowns, Barner has amassed 1295 rushing yards (7.2 yards per carry) and 19 rushing scores on the season. Yet despite toting the rock 20 or more times in five contests, and 30 or more times twice, most analysts don’t view him as an every down runner at the NFL level. It’s a fair viewpoint considering how often Oregon playcalling dictates that Barner bounce outside as soon as he realizes the middle is clogged. But Barner runs it inside more than people think. He isn’t going to break a ton of tackles but his shifty running helps him avoid big his, and when he does find contact he can still finish strong. Barner has terrific field vision and often runs on offense like he is retuning a kickoff. He has experience returning kicks as well, and that versatility will serve him well at the next level. Barner is an excellent receiver, but he is rarely asked to pass protect. He’ll need to add significant strength and improve his technique before he can contribute regularly in that role. He’ll also benefit from NFL coaching when it comes to staying patient and resisting the urge to bounce his runs to the corner. Considering the improvement over the past couple of years, it’s reasonable to expect that Barner will respond well to such direction. He may start off as a change of pace back, but his patience, vision, speed and willingness to get better make him a potential riser in the draft process as a player who could eventually graduate to a more prominent role.
Andre Ellington Clemson 5’9 195 – Ellington has picked up 780 yards (5.2 yards per carry) and seven touchdowns on the ground this season, so his statistics pale in comparison to Barner’s. Take a look at the game tape and, while the two backs possess similar size and speed, a few significant differences stand out. For one, Ellington seems to lack patience. Often he runs into the backs of his blockers before they have a chance to set up. While Ellington can burn, and be electric in the open field, he doesn’t always have the vision to get there. He will need to learn to slow his game down before he turns on the jets because he lacks the power to break many tackles. Ellington does run low and has balance to stay upright when defenders try to trip him. He’s a willing finisher who falls forward and doesn’t suffer from lack of effort. But he needs to add strength, particularly in his legs, so that he can translate that effort into tough yards. Until then, when he hits the pile at full speed, it is as if Ellington has gone head to head with a brick wall. Ellington is a very good pass catcher, but he is a liability in pass protection. He isn’t big or powerful enough to take on blitzing linebackers, so he’s incredibly vulnerable to basic bull rushes. He can’t rely on simply cutting the defenders’ legs. Ellington is going to need extensive work in this area. His true appeal right now is his blazing speed and his ability to make plays when he has room to maneuver. A creative offensive coach will be able to find ways to utilize those skills, but until/unless he can fine-tune his game, he won’t be appealing to every team. His best value will be to an NFL team with a tandem backfield situation.
Joseph Randle* Oklahoma State 6’1 200 – Tall and thin for a running back, Randle has been incredibly productive during his three seasons with the Cowboys. After rushing for 1213 yards (5.9 yards per carry) and scoring 26 total touchdowns as a sophomore, he has racked up 934 yards (5.3 yards per carry) and nine touchdowns this season. Despite his production, Randle won’t likely appeal to NFL teams as a potential every down back. As noted, he possesses a slim build not conducive to the pounding NFL runners take. While he is taller than most backs, he is able to get his pad level down when he hits the hole, and he doesn’t shy away from contact. Randle does well to find a crease, make a cut and go; and once he gets into the open field he’s a dangerous runner. However, Randle lacks the speed of Barner and Ellington. Against Iowa State this season he broke off a huge gainer but was caught from behind by a noticeably faster defensive back. You simply won’t see this from Barner and Ellington once they get past the last line of defense. Randle also lacks power and will struggle in pass protection initially. He’s a terrific receiver who has experience splitting out wide as well as catching passes out of the backfield. This makes him ready-made to contribute immediately in the pass game. He also displays the vision to steer himself through traffic – a skill that could allow him to earn playing time on kick returns. But until he gains some strength and seasoning, he isn’t likely to get a lot of carries in the ground game.