Since the turn of the century, the most active first round for ball-carriers came in the 2000 draft, led by Jamal Lewis with the fifth pick to Baltimore, followed by Thomas Jones to Arizona with the seventh pick, Ron Dayne being selected by the Giants with the 11th choice, Seattle snatching up future All-Pro Shaun Alexander at 19 and the Rams' ill-advised 31st selection of Trung Canidate.
Since that draft, four running backs were taken in the first round just twice. The 2005 and 2006 drafts saw the earliest selections for a tailback since the turn of the century, with Miami taking Ronnie Brown at No. 2 in 2005, followed by New Orleans selecting disgraced Heisman Trophy winner Reggie Bush at that same spot in 2006. The Saints would later choose another Heisman winner, when they had Mark Ingram join them with the 28th pick in 2011, as the Tide runner was the only first-round back that year. He was also the latest first-round running back choice since the millennium.
Others to join Bush in the first round in 2006 were Laurence Maroney at No. 21 to New England, oft-injured DeAngelo Williams by Carolina with the 27th choice and Joseph Addai going to the Colts with the 30th selection. The next draft with four first-round runners was the 2008 crop, which was headed by Darren McFadden as the fourth pick by Oakland, followed by another oft-injured Panther, Jonathan Stewart, at No. 13, recently retired Rashard Mendenhall to Arizona with the 23rd pick and recent Jets import, Chris Johnson, going 24th to Tennessee.
The best of all the running backs since 2000 has been Adrian Peterson, scooped up by Minnesota with the seventh pick in 2007. The only other tailback taken in Round 1 that year was Seattle's Marshawn Lynch, chosen by Buffalo with the 12th choice. The most puzzling choice was Trent Richardson to Cleveland with the third selection in the 2012 draft, only to send him packing to Indianapolis a year later.
In fact, all three running backs taken in the first round of the 2012 draft have had more than their fair share of troubles. Doug Martin had a banner rookie season in 2012 after Tampa Bay took him with the 31st pick, but his 2013 season was wiped out by injuries. The highly questionable pick of "problem child" David Wilson by the Giants with the 32nd choice proved to be a bomb, as his neck injury could force him into retirement.
The 2008 draft featured the most running backs taken within the top 10 picks. Brown led the way, followed by Cedric Benson joining Chicago with the fourth pick and Carnell Williams becoming a member of Tampa Bay with the fifth choice. Brown and Williams also became the first running backs from the same school to be taken with top-10 choices in the same draft.
Some teams have put a greater emphasis on finding a blue-chip ball-carrier than others. Arizona (Jones in 2000; Mendenhall in 2008; Chris Wells in 2009), New Orleans (Deuce McAllister in 2001; Bush in 2006; Ingram in 2011) and Buffalo (Willis McGahee in 2003; Lynch in 2007; C.J. Spiller in 2010) lead the league by selecting three ball-carriers in the first round since the 2000 draft.
Others have found some sort of success patching together a running corps with later picks, waiver claims and trades, rather than go the first-round route. Since the 2000 draft, the Jets, Pittsburgh, Jacksonville, Houston, Philadelphia, Dallas, Washington, Green Bay and San Francisco have not used a first-round pick on a running back. Since taking Lewis and Alexander, respectively, in 2000, the Ravens and Seahawks have not selected any running backs in the first round, either.
From the 2000 draft to present, 37 tailbacks entered the NFL as first-round draft selections. Last year, the first ball-carrier to hear his name called was Giovani Bernard, going to Cincinnati with the 37th overall choice as a second-rounder. This year will likely see as many as four second-round ball-carriers. Coming down to the final weeks, it is a toss-up between Washington's Bishop Sankey or Ohio State's Carlos Hyde earning the distinction of being the first running back taken.
Not since Emmitt Smith have I seen such a mistake-free, vastly underrated ball-carrier like the Huskies' Sankey. Blessed with an incredible blend of balance, body control, power and cutback ability, he is one of my all-time favorites, and I have no problem comparing him to the former Cowboys great. In his 25 games as a starter, he has compiled 3,309 yards with 35 touchdowns on 594 carries (5.46 ypc) and caught 60 passes for 553 yards. The only player in college football to produce better numbers during that two-year span was Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey (3,814 yards and 37 scores on 652 attempts for a 5.85-yard average).
Sankey has recorded 312 first downs and gaining positive yardage 126 times inside the red zone. In addition to his 35 touchdown runs, he had crucial carries that led to 32 other touchdowns and 19 possessions that resulted in field goals. As a receiver, he set up 15 touchdowns and six field goals.
Hyde's season got off to a rough start after he was suspended for the first two games and did not really get untracked until the Buckeyes' fifth contests, but his 1,521 yards on the ground placed seventh on the school season-record chart and he averaged 7.31 yards per carry while reaching the end zone 15 times. He's not a capable receiver, nor does he have great speed, but as a Michael Turner-like pile mover, he is ideal for a team that utilizes a power running game, with possible destinations being Tennessee or New England.
One of the rising stars at this position is Towson junior Terrance West. Perhaps due to a lack of top-level competition and underclassmen not being able to play in all-star games, he still hovers in the mid-round range on draft boards, but he had a good showing performing the agility tests at the Scouting Combine, along with an equally impressive pro day.
In each of his three seasons, he ran for more than 1,000 yards, capped by his school- and Colonial Athletic Association-record 2,509 yards in 2013, the second-highest total ever by an NCAA Football Bowl Championship player. His 84 touchdown runs tied the all-time FCS mark. Outside of questions about competition, the 225-pounder has similar receiving deficiencies as Hyde, managing only 36 catches in 37 games.
One month ago, Auburn's Tre Mason was right in the thick of the race for the top running back spot with Hyde and Sankey. Now, red flags are flying after a recheck of his left wrist injury brought about a load of denials from the ball-carrier that he has any type of injury. NFL teams will likely listen to the doctors on this one. Scouts also wonder if he was a product of the Tigers' shuttle system, and they have questions whether his one season as a starter after three on campus shows his big season was a fluke or he's simply a late bloomer.
Injury factor aside, Mason is not the biggest back in this draft, as he is more in the lines similar to the Bengals' Bernard (5:09, 207). The similarity ends in the speed department, as Bernard is a blazer. Mason had his best running performance at the 2014 Combine, topping out at only 4.5 seconds in the 40-yard dash. He did manage to reach the end zone 23 times on 317 carries for 1,816 yards last season, but three of his fumbles proved costly, with the opposition turning that trio into touchdown drives.
Two off-field issues in recent years have teams really looking into the background of Louisiana State's Jeremy Hill but, on the field, he ranks with the better prospects in this class. He has just two years of experience and 16 games in the starting lineup, but his 1,401 rushing yards last season is second-best in school history, as he set the LSU annual mark by averaging 6.9 yards per attempt and found the end zone on 16 runs, fourth-best in a campaign by a Tiger.
Hill was a bit of a disappointment at the Scouting Combine, where he managed only a 29-inch vertical jump and ran 4.66. He also had a pedestrian 20 reps during the 225-pound bench press. Back on campus, he did improve his 40 time to 4.58 on pro day but, after running the shuttle drill at 4.46 and the three-cone at 6.99 in Indianapolis, he suddenly showed no lateral agility in Baton Rouge, posting pro day numbers of 4.59 (shuttle) and 7.64 (cone).
Carey would settle for Hill's 4.66 40-yard dash, as he's constantly failed to get his time under 4.7 seconds. As was the case for Hill, off-field problems reared their ugly head last summer, as he began the season serving a suspension. While the teams might have concerns with Sankey's high carry total the last two seasons, Carey easily surpasses those numbers, as he toted the ball 652 times for 3,814 yards and 37 touchdowns since the start of the 2012 schedule.
Teams looking for change-of-pace type of runners will consider speedy Lache Seastrunk as a viable option in the third- or fourth-round picture, but here is where I have my concerns. The Baylor product has to be the worst pass catcher since Venus de Milo (no hands, guys; read that college Greek mythology book). Additionally, he is rarely used inside the red zone. On 158 carries last year, he was tackled for a loss 16 times, stopped for no yardage seven times and fumbled twice. Thirty-six of his attempts did gain at least 10 yards, though. If he can show any sense of return skills, he will add to a sketchy resume that says "speed zone" only.
I'm one of those sappy type of guys — loves the underdog-makes-good type of story. From what I have seen of Georgia Southern's Jerrick McKinnon, I feel he will be this year's "feel-good" story. Whether used in the slot, as a quarterback, in the backfield as an A-Back or as a traditional tailback, this hard-working, imposing athlete delivered on Saturdays.
McKinnon "blew the doors" off of Lucas Oil Stadium for the Scouting Combine with a 4.41-second run in the 40-yard dash (second-fastest for the running back class), 40 1/2-inch vertical jump, 11'02" broad jump, 4.12 20-yard shuttle and 6.83 three-cone drill, establishing his place as the finest athlete in the 2014 draft pool. Plus, he topped all runners at the Combine by putting up the bar 32 times in the 225-pound bench press (second-best for all tailbacks and fullbacks at any Combine in the last 10 years).
On the field, he had equally impressive numbers, as his 3,899 rushing yards rank fourth and 42 touchdown runs tied for sixth in school history. While lacking a howitzer for an arm, he did manage to throw 12 touchdowns among his 34 pass completions. With a patient and innovative coach, the different ways to use this kid could be astounding.
Charles Sims of West Virginia might have been better off staying at Houston instead of transferring last year. He joined a Mountaineers program whose stale offense had to constantly play catch-up during a 4-8 season, thus abandoning the ground game often in the second half of those contests. It did help establish his pedigree as a receiver, as Sims pulled down 45 passes last season. In 48 games as a collegian, he made 203 catches for 11 scores and ran for 3,465 yards and 40 more touchdowns.
Even though Andre Williams of Boston College led the nation and set school and Atlantic Coast Conference records with 2,177 rushing yards while scoring 18 touchdowns, poor workouts and a lack of explosion on game film viewed could see him drop down to the third-day draft picture. He didn't catch any passes last year, either.
Joining McKinnon in putting together an impressive performance at the Scouting Combine was Stanford's Tyler Gaffney. Returning to the gridiron after trying his hand at professional baseball, Gaffney exploded for 1,709 yards on 330 carries, second-best in school annals, as his 21 touchdowns rank third on that annual list. In Indianapolis, the 220-pounder was clocked at 4.49 seconds in the 40-yard dash, ran the three-cone drill in 6.78, had a 36 1/2-inch vertical leap and a 09'08" broad jump.
Gaffney likely will hear his name called on the third day, where other running backs likely to be selected in the fourth/fifth rounds are Devonta Freeman of Florida State, Storm Johnson of Central Florida, sleeper Rajion Neal of Tennessee and Coastal Carolina's underrated Lorenzo Taliaferro.
Later in the draft, players like James White of Wisconsin, Senorise Perry of Louisville, DeAnthony Thomas of Oregon, Isaiah Crowell of Alabama State, injured Marion Grice of Arizona State and Antonio Andrews of Western Kentucky are expected to be selected.
Some interesting free-agent signings could come from a group featuring Alfred Blue of Louisiana State, Henry Josie of Missouri, George Atkinson III of Notre Dame, LaDarius Perkins of Mississippi State, Kapri Bibbs of Colorado State and Jerome Smith of Syracuse. Off-field problems have teams backing away from Oklahoma's Damien Williams and James Wilder Jr. of Florida State, despite their impressive athletic skills. Southern Cal's Silas Redd will likely drop out of the draft due to injury issues, but if he's healthy by training camp, some team could end up with a player similar to Arian Foster.
Camp battles are where you might see Kedrick Rhodes of West Alabama, Zurlon Tipton of Central Michigan, Tim Flanders of Sam Houston State, Stephen Houston of Indiana, Branden Oliver of Buffalo, Zach Bauman of Northern Arizona, Sam Ojuri of North Dakota State, Charles Ross of Rice and Josh Harris of Wake Forest win a roster or practice squad berth.
|#SANKEY, Bishop||5:10||209||4.49||26||35 1/2||10'06"||4||6.75||7.8|
|HYDE, Carlos||6:00||230||4.66||19||34 1/2||09'06"||4.39||7||7.2|
|#WEST, Terrance||5:09||225||4.54||16||33 1/2||10'00"||4.15||6.92||6.6|
|#%MASON, Tre||5:09||207||4.5||20||38 1/2||10'06"||4.15||7.07||6.4|
|#SEASTRUNK, Lache||5:10||201||4.37||15||41 1/2||11'02"||4.3||6.81||6|
|MCKINNON, Jerick||5:09||209||4.41||32||40 1/2||11'00"||4.12||6.83||5.9|
|SIMS, Charles||6:00||214||4.48||17||37 1/2||10'06"||4.3||7.16||5.8|
|GAFFNEY, Tyler||6:00||220||4.49||17||36 1/2||09'08"||4.18||6.78||5.7|
|FREEMAN, Devonta||5:08||206||4.58||16||31 1/2||09'10"||4.26||7.11||5.6|
|#JOHNSON, Storm||6:00||209||4.54||16||35 1/2||09'10"||4.27||7.05||5.5|
|#THOMAS, DeAnthony||5:09||174||4.39||9||32 1/2||10'04"||4.23||6.94||5.2|
|#JOSEY, Henry||5:08||194||4.43||20||34 1/2||09'10"||4.13||7.07||5|
|PERKINS, LaDarius||5:07||195||4.46||23||35 1/2||10'04"||4.3||7.08||5|
|#ATKINSON III, George||6:01||218||4.48||19||38||10'01"||4.46||7.07||5|
|FLUELLEN, David||5:11||224||4.66||16||36 1/2||10'00"||4.21||6.9||4.9|
|WILLIAMS, Damien||5:11||222||4.45||16||35 1/2||10'01"||4.25||7.37||4.9|
|#WILDER JR., James||6:03||232||4.86||18||35||10'01"||4.24||6.92||4.9|
|#REAVES, Darrin||5:07||209||4.54||20||39 1/2||10'03"||4.54||7.07||4.7|
|CORNETT, Tim||6:00||209||4.48||15||36 1/2||10'05"||4.26||7.01||4.7|
|OLIVER, Branden||5:07||208||4.62||26||33 1/2||09'09"||4.22||7.04||4.6|
|MALENA, Ben||5:08||194||4.61||22||33 1/2||09'03"||4.27||7.19||4.6|
|HARRIS, Josh||5:10||206||4.46||28||35 1/2||09'11"||4.21||7||4.6|
|OJURI, Sam||6:01||208||4.52||14||38 1/2||09'11"||4.4||7.3||4.6|
|TOUSSAINT, Fitzgerald||5:09||204||4.53||24||35 1/2||10'02"||4.1||6.59||4.5|
|WATTS, Trey||5:10||195||4.78||8||26 ½||09'02"||4.37||6.94||4.4|
|HUBERT, John||5:07||202||4.55||15||30 1/2||09'05"||4.39||7.09||4.4|
|Immediate starter...Should have a major impact to the success of the franchise, barring injury...Possesses superior critical factors...Plays with consistency and without abnormal extra effort...Rare talent.|
|7.6-8.0||Star Quality||Eventual starter...Should make a significant contribution in his first year...Possesses above average critical factors...Has the talent and skills to start...Will contribute to upgrading the team...Can play without abnormal effort, but has some inconsistency in his play that will improve with refinement and development...Has no real weakness.|
|7.0-7.5||Impact Player||Possesses at least average to above average critical factors in all areas...Will contribute immediately, whether as a starter or a valuable reserve...Will move into the starting lineup with seasoning...Above average player who needs to refine certain areas.|
|6.5-6.9||Eventual Starter||Could move into the starting lineup within three years...Has average critical factors in all areas...Needs further development, but has the ability to contribute.|
|6.0-6.4||Potential Starter||Could force himself into the starting lineup with improved perform- ances...Will make a team...Has average critical factors in most areas, but at least one with less than average quality that he will have a hard time overcoming...Probable draft choice.|
|5.5-5.9||Roster Player||Has the ability to serve as a key reserve and possible future starter... Possesses average critical factors, but more than several areas are less than average...Plays with normal extra effort.|
|5.0-5.4||Project||Has the skills to play pro ball with proper tutoring...May make a team based on need...Possesses no real strong critical factors and is probably below average in several areas that the player will have a hard time overcoming...Possible draft choice, but only if that team is caught short on talent available at that position.|
|4.6-4.9||Develop- mental||Could make a team with an impressive showing in training camp... Not strong in most critical factors...Deficient in more than one area that he will not be able to overcome...At least average in the factor of competitiveness...May not make a team due to his limitations.|
|4.1-4.5||Camp Player||Has redeeming qualities that could allow him to play in the pros with improved performances...Deficient in more than one critical factor... Might make a team, but will always be the player that squad will look to replace.|
|3.5-4.0||Reject||Might make a team, but has glaring deficiencies in several critical factors...Below average competitor whose athletic skills will allow him to enter training camp, but has a difficult time in trying to make a team.|
Dave-Te' Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft.