Supply and demand. That’s really all draft “value” is in terms of how teams finalize their boards and determine which prospects and positions they’ll take throughout the draft.
Quarterbacks are always a strong example: Every year, there are few in supply that teams value as potential long-term starters, and therefore, their demand is high on draft day, even if that means “reaching” on a less-than-ideal option.
In this class, running backs share the inverse relationship. With 21 underclassmen entering the draft and a host of talented seniors already included, there’s remarkable depth at a position that has consistently been devalued over the past few years.
But just because the demand for running backs early in the draft has dropped recently doesn’t mean this class is worth diminishing. It’s a near certainty that we won’t see a first-round runner this year for the second straight draft, but that doesn’t mean teams, fans and fantasy football owners shouldn’t appreciate the strength of this class.
Charles Sims, Carlos Hyde and Tre Mason are the three top running backs on Optimum Scouting’s board, and seem to be in the top-end of most evaluators position rankings at this time. While none are worthy first rounders in my opinion, all have the skill sets to be instant-impact runners the way Giovani Bernard, Le’Veon Bell and Eddie Lacy were a season ago as second-rounders.
Charles Sims offers the most value as a three-down running back, with a plus pass blocking and pass catching ability to go along with his quick step-and-burst ability on the interior and controlled and explosive running style. Carlos Hyde is the draft’s featured power back, boasting ideal size and plus balance in traffic to be this year’s Eddie Lacy-type brute runner. And Tre Mason, who was the catalyst for the Auburn offense’s success this season, boasts the explosive jump cuts, great stop-start and balance through contact that should make him a reliable runner in all areas of the field.
But after those three, we might not see another runner go in the top-three rounds. But that won’t be because this running class lacks top-end talent. It’s a mixture between NFL teams valuing rotations over a stand-alone runner along with situational roles valued over a do-it-all singular option.
The next two top talents at the position both have red flags that push them to the late Day 2 or early Day 3 range, but could make them draft day steals for teams looking to captilize on the talents they displayed in college.
Isaiah Crowell of Alabama State is a former SEC Freshman of the year at Georgia before he was kicked off the team. But whether it was in the SEC or the SWAC, Crowell has routinely displayed elite explosiveness, balance through contact and plus vision once he’s through the initial hole. Possessing potentially the most talent in this draft, the team that takes a chance on Crowell and puts him in an off-field position to succeed could reap the rewards quickly.
Kadeem Carey of Arizona suffered from a poor 40-time at both the NFL Scouting Combine and his pro day, causing concerns as to his ability to run away from tackles at an NFL-starter level. While that speed concern is true on film, his quick lateral cuts and elite vision/decisiveness make him a strong contender to start early in the NFL. If he starts to fall on draft day, you’ll hear ample comparisons between he and Zac Stacy, both slower but instant impact runners that succeeded as rookies.
Also, runners like Storm Johnson of UCF, a powerful yet fumble-prone runner who has some Marshawn Lynch-anger in his running style, Bishop Sankey of Washington, who may have the second best vision/decisiveness in the draft after Carey, Kapri Bibbs of Colorado State, a well-built surprise stand-out this year who’s my favorite to be this year’s Alfred Morris and Terrance West of Towson, a small-school runner who’s light on his feet and finishes runs at a high level, all have the talent to be early starters or major rotational players as rookies.
Combine that crew with situational speedsters like Lache Seastrunk of Baylor, De’Anthony Thomas of Oregon and Dri Archer of Kent State and high-upside running backs that didn’t put it all together in college like Devonta Freeman and James Wilder of Florida State, and it’s clear there are plenty of options for teams to fill whichever needs they want to at the running back position.
NFL teams aren’t just looking for multiple good running backs. They’re looking for runners who can fill a role in their offense and are unique from each other. Over-lap sounds good in theory if you’re protecting from injury, but teams are more apt to spread the wealth based on situational value as opposed to run one or two players into the ground and have a back-up with the exact same skill set.
The running back class won’t the story of the first day of the draft. It might not even be reach five selected players by the end of Day 2. But that won’t be because NFL teams are under-appreciating the caliber of the talent in this class.
The supply is at levels that most drafts don’t feature, as we at Optimum Scouting have 26 running backs with draftable grades. The demand, however, is only for a handful of number one options NFL teams are in search of, and a host of rotational backs.
The days of drafting a running back early on draft day are quickly fading. But the era of finding a Day 3 runner who immediately makes an impact is beginning. Teams will be looking to follow the trend, and find their own Zach Stacy, Lamar Miller, and Alfred Morris. And with the quality of talent in this year’s draft, we could see more than one “diamond in the rough” emerge from a loaded running back group and be an NFL team’s featured playmaker in 2014.