By Marc Sluis, Staff Writer
The running back position is in a transition at the NFL level and is arguably much less important than it once was. No longer are the days of big money franchise type backs that were once highly coveted. In 2011 Mark Ingram was the only RB drafted in round 1 at pick #28, and he won the Heisman.
Regardless of the diminishing role of running backs in the NFL, teams still need a productive running game to chew clock when they are ahead and make teams at least think about the run. It’s not that teams don’t run the ball, but they tend to split the carries between multiple backs.
With that in mind there are some very solid prospects for the 2013 Draft. Here are the Top 6 at this early juncture.
1. Marcus Lattimore S CAROLINA
Strengths: Lattimore has a complete skill-set. He has good quickness and change-of-direction skills while showing the strength to gain tough yards between the tackles. He showed the ability to carry the load on the ground as well as contributing as a receiver and blocker.
Weaknesses: His straight-line speed isn’t great and is coming off an ACL injury.
The Take Home: Lattimore can do everything you want from a running back. He has the power and leg drive to be productive between the tackles and the burst and quickness to turn it outside. He has great hands and overall receiving skills out of the backfield and can sustain blocks on passing downs. His ACL injury will warrant investigation to make sure he’s fully healthy, but if that checks out and he picks up where he left off he is the most likely running back to be first off the board.
The only concern is his lack of elite straight-line speed, which could manifest itself in a negative way against the overall speed of defenses he’ll see at the next level. He has the necessary foot speed and can make quick cuts, but rarely shows the explosion to breakaway from defenders. However, it didn’t limit him from dominating the SEC, where defenses are very fast in their own right.
2. Knile Davis ARKANSAS
Strengths: Davis is an excellent athlete with impressive raw tools. Reports say he ran 4.33 in preseason workouts and was also impressive in the weight room, which highlights his combination of speed and size.
Weaknesses: He doesn’t change directions as sharply as other prospects, which dampens the advantage he has in straight-line speed. He seems to build up speed instead of exploding up field with acceleration. He has been injury plagued thus far.
The Take Home: Davis has the straight-line speed to break off big gains if given space, but is also big enough to sustain hits running inside. While his top speed is exceptional, he isn’t the kind of player who accelerates quickly in and out of cuts; he seems to gain momentum gradually and lacks the stop and start ability of quicker backs.
Being as productive as he was in the SEC, he led the conference with 1,322 yards and 13 TD, he showed he can produce at a high level against quality competition. He missed all of last year with an ankle injury and has been hit by the injury bug a lot throughout his career. If fully healthy he can use his speed to challenge defenses, but lacks the sharp cuts and quickness of Lattimore due at least in part to his height and running style.
3. Montee Ball WISCONSIN
Strengths: Ball has terrific vision, patience and instincts for running the ball. He has great lateral agility and can avoid defenders in tight spaces.
Weaknesses: He is by no means an explosive athlete and his straight-line speed is average. He isn’t overpowering or a real bruiser either.
The Take Home: Ball was incredibly production last year accumulating 1,923 yards on the ground, 306 receiving yards and a whopping 39 total TD, earning him a spot in New York as a Heisman finalist. He played behind a massive offensive line, but did show the lateral agility to make defenders miss in traffic with a great slide step. He makes up for his lack of elite speed by being slippery in crowded areas and creates space by a crafty use of juke moves.
He breaks tackles and beats defenders more with feisty hand fighting and vision than overwhelming speed or power. He’s a polished and experienced runner with an ability to squeeze out a few extra yards on every run. A well-rounded back Ball is a capable receiver and blocker, but his lack of explosiveness makes him versatile, but not a dynamic play-maker.
4. Andre Ellington CLEMSON
Strengths: Ellington can explode up field with his lighting quick acceleration and has excellent top end speed as well.
Weaknesses: His slight build and lack of power creates concerns about his durability. He is not terribly effective in between the tackles.
The Take Home: Ellington has the speed and acceleration to take it to the house on every touch. He can explode out of cuts and shows solid agility and elusiveness in the open field. He lacks the bulk to be effective inside and may not be an every down back. He is a big-play threat with good enough receiving skills to provide some juice to an NFL offense as a solid change of pace option.
5. Le’Veon Bell MICH ST
Strengths: Bell is very athletic for his solid, well built frame and displays great power with the ability to push the pile and run between the tackles.
Weaknesses: His speed, around 4.62, is a concern and suggests he may struggle to breakaway from defenders in the pro ranks.
The Take Home: Bell is a power back who showcased his athletic ability in his first game this season against Boise St. rushing for 210 yards and 2 TD. He wowed scouts with wicked spin moves and hurdled a helpless defender as he gashed the Broncos defense. He also showed great receiving skills out of the backfield with 6 receptions for 55 yards.
Despite the hot start Bell still lacks the top end speed to guarantee success in the NFL, but if he can run well at the combine he could go as high as the second round in April. Even without a better 40 time he has the skills to pound the ball inside and make defenders miss in traffic.
6. Christine Michael TEXAS A&M
Strengths: Michael shifts gears incredibly quickly and reaches top speed, an impressive 4.49, in a matter of a few steps.
Weaknesses: He is not a very physical back and gets tripped up in traffic. He has sustained serious lower body injuries in each of the last two years.
The Take Home: Michael has great speed and shoots through holes making him a threat to pick up yards with just a little daylight. He has good hands out of the backfield and the build to improve further as a blocker. He has the ability to make sharp cuts and use his acceleration to a lot cover ground very quickly. He needs to stay healthy to assure scouts he can be durable, but has the physical tools to be a great pro running back.