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Draft top 5: Running Backs

Greg Gabriel's list of the top backfield prospects. Greg Gabriel

May 02, 2014
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In the 2013 Draft, not one running back was drafted in the first round. In free agency this year, no running back hit the jackpot like some players at other positions. Let’s face it, in the NFL world, the position has been devalued. It's not because running backs aren't important. It’s more because of the short shelf life of a running back and the trend towards two back systems.

With the draft next week, it looks as if for the second year in a row there won’t be a running back drafted in the opening round. That’s not to say there aren’t some quality backs in the draft. There just isn’t a special back. Until a truly special back comes along, the days of seeing a runner drafted in the first round are over. That said, here are my top five for this year.

1) Carlos Hyde – Ohio State

By most accounts, Hyde is the top back in this draft. He has ideal NFL size at 5117 – 230. He ran only 4.66 at the combine, but 40 speed is not the most important trait a runner has to have. He has to be quick, have a burst, be instinctive, create, and run with power. Hyde has those traits.

He ran for over 1500 yards and averaged better than 7.0 yards per carry this past season. He has good quickness to the hole and the patience to set up blocks. He can make a cut in the hole to a seam. He can make people miss in a short area and consistently gets yards after contact. When the tough yards are needed, Hyde can get them.

As a receiver, he is reliable, being used mostly on shorter routes. He is willing as a blocker but needs to improve his technique. Overall, I feel Hyde is a solid second round pick and wll be a starter early in his career.

Bishop Sankey – Washington

At 5094 – 209, Sankey doesn’t have great size but he has a fairly thick, muscular build and can run (4.49). He is not a power back who will move the pile, but he will break tackles and get yards after contact.
He is quick to the hole and has very good vision and instincts. He is creative and can make defenders miss both in tight and in space. He has a number of big plays because of his top instincts. He is a very good receiver who works to get open and has good hands.

As a blocker, he is more than willing and will face up, but like a lot of smaller backs, he can struggle with big people. I don’t see Sankey as a “bell cow” type of back in the NFL but he can be very productive if used the right way. A solid second round pick

Tre Mason – Auburn

Like Sankey, Mason doesn’t have great size (5084 – 207), but he is quick and fast (4.50). He is quick to the hole and again like Sankey, he has very good vision and instincts. He is patient and waits for a Seam to open.

While Mason has quick cutting ability, I wouldn’t call him a cutback type runner. Most of his cuts are to the outside. He runs low and can break some tackles, but he is not a power type who is going to get the tough yards. He is more of a “scat back” type, who is elusive and can be dangerous once he is in the open field

He is used some as a receiver and shows reliable hands, but it was discovered at the combine that he may have a non-union in his wrist or a small fracture. He is willing as a pass blocker but not that effective. He does not use his hands well in pass protection (wrist problem).

I see Mason as more of a rotating type back. He can be effective if used properly. Getting his wrist repaired will make him that much more effective.

Jeremy Hill – LSU

There are some who feel that Hill is the most complete back in this draft. That may well be the case, but at the same time, there are some character issues that cause concern.

At 6005 – 233, he has ideal NFL running back size. While he ran only 4.66 at the combine, he improved that to 4.54 at the LSU pro day. His play speed is closer to 4.60.

Hill is a patient runner who gets to the hole quickly, and like all good runners, he has very good instincts. He is a top cut-back runner who can find a seam and burst through it. He runs low and with power. He consistently gets yards after contact and is effective in short yardage situations.

While Hill gets some production outside, he is best between the tackles. He will break some long runs, but he is the type who can nickel and dime a defense and then break a longer run. He is a very reliable receiver who has good hands and knows how to get open in the short passing game. Like a lot of college backs, Hill needs to improve his pass blocking skills.

Hill has the talent to be a starter early in his career. He will probably get drafted in the second or third round.

De’Anthony Thomas – Oregon

Thomas has some special traits, but he is never going to be a fulltime back in the NFL. The team that drafts him has to have a plan. If that team can get him 15 touches a game he can be very dangerous.

At 5085 – 174, Thomas is a small guy. But he is extremely quick and fast. He ran only 4.50 at the combine, but came back to run 4.35 at the Oregon pro day. He plays to that 4.35 speed.

Thomas is very instinctive and with his elusiveness and speed. Once he is in the open, it’s a touchdown. He is effective inside because of his vision and cut back skills. He seems to always find an opening. He needs space, as he is not an after contact player. As an outside runner, he is patient for blocks to set up and then has a great burst off those blocks. He has very good hands and consistently works to get open as a receiver.

Thomas is a specialist who has to be used the right way. He will be productive as a returner and a change of pace back. Creative teams will also line him up in the slot. He is a bit of a wild card selection because he will never be a fulltime player, but I can see him going as high as the second round and as low as the top part of the fourth. He is a very interesting prospect.

Follow Greg on Twitter @greggabe

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