Here are the top five running backs in this year’s draft, a potential position of need with Eddie Lacy entering his final season under contract, 30-year-old James Starks coming off a fumble-plagued season and no sure-fire young prospect waiting in the wings.
Stats are from STATS via Real Football, though statistical comparisons were compiled by Packer Report.
EZEKIEL ELLIOTT, Ohio State
Position rank: 1
Height: 5-foot-11 3/4. Weight: 225. 40: 4.47. 10: 1.58. 3-cone: DNP.
Notes: Elliott finished fifth in the nation with a Big Ten-high 1,821 rushing yards to win the conference’s Ameche-Dayne Running Back of the Year Award and the Chicago Tribune’s Big Ten MVP. He averaged 6.3 yards per carry and finished third in the nation with 23 rushing touchdowns. Plus, he added 27 receptions for 206 yards (7.6 average). As Ohio State blew through Wisconsin, Alabama and Oregon to win the national championship in 2014, he rumbled for 696 rushing yards and eight touchdowns. Elliott owns two of the top three single-season rushing totals in Ohio State history — his 1,878 yards in 2014, when he won the Sullivan Award as the nation’s top amateur athlete despite playing through a broken wrist, is No. 2 on the list. His career total of 3,961 rushing yards trails only Archie Griffin’s four-year total of 5,589.
To be sure, Elliott’s numbers were helped by his offensive line. According to STATS, he averaged 4.0 yards before contact — tied for fourth-best in the draft class. However, his 2.3 yards after contact tied for fifth-best. More than running the ball, Elliott is the complete package. His 93.1 percent catch rate was No. 1 in the class and his 77 percent conversion rate on third-and-short ranked fourth. Plus, he fumbled once and, according to Pro Football Focus, ranked No. 1 in pass protection among backs with at least 50 snaps as a blocker. He allowed one pressure (a sack) in 102 protection snaps.
Scouting: “He is the No. 1 running back and it’s not even close,” a scout said. “He’s one of the best I’ve seen. If teams weren’t so damned scared to take a running back early, he’d go in the top five. Dominant. Nothing he can’t do.”
Longtime NFL scout Dave-Te’ Thomas said Elliott had “natural hands” in the passing game, comparing him to Matt Forte in that phase of the game. “Elliott is a downhill runner, but he also has very loose hips, quick change of direction and good power that he combines with nimble feet and excellent running balance,” Thomas said. “He shows superb agility with his pick-and-slide and the hip flexibility to easily redirect to the cutback lanes. He has impressive acceleration into the second level and, unlike most big backs, do not label him as a one-cut runner, as he is quite capable of eluding or running through tackles. He’s quite flexible slipping through traffic and when extending for passes. He has the power to drag the pile and an incredible stiff arm to ‘donut’ a defender that gets in his path. He has that instinctive feel and vision to spot even the slightest of creases and, unlike a lot of young backs, has the patience of a veteran when it comes to following his blocks.”
Personally: Notre Dame recruited him to play defensive back. In his final collegiate game, the Fiesta Bowl against Notre Dame, Elliott rushed for 149 yards and a career-high four touchdowns. Athletics runs in his DNA. His parents were athletes at Missouri, with his father playing on the football team. “When I first started playing football, I was a fullback,” he said at the Combine. “My first job was to block. When I first got to Ohio State, I realized I wasn't going to be the biggest or fastest guy, I was only 17 playing with a bunch of 22- and 21-year-old guys, so I was trying to find something that would set me apart. And that day I realized it was just effort. Not everyone is willing to go out there and play with a lot of effort. And blocking is another thing that running backs aren't really willing to do. That's a part of my game. I really made it important to me to become very good at.”
DEVONTAE BOOKER, Utah
Position rank: 2
Height: 5-foot-10 3/4. Weight: 219. 40: DNP. 10: DNP. 3-cone: DNP.
Notes: Booker missed the end of his senior season with a knee injury that required surgery and prevented him from working out at the Combine or Utah’s pro day. He is scheduled to have a personal pro day Tuesday. Booker is one of just two players at Utah to record back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons and one of just three to accomplish two 1,000-yard seasons in his Utah career. He set a school record with 120.6 rushing yards per game and tied the school record with 14 100-yard rushing games, and ranks third with 2,773 rushing yards and sixth with 21 rushing touchdowns. He was first-team all-Pac-12 as a junior — plus first-team all-academic — with 1,512 yards (5.2 average) and 10 touchdowns on the ground and 306 yards on 43 receptions. He was second-team as a senior, despite having season-ending surgery on a torn meniscus in November. He rushed for 1,261 yards (4.7 average) and 11 touchdowns and added 318 yards on 37 receptions.
Unlike Elliott, Booker didn’t benefit from an elite offensive line. His 2.8 yards before contact ranked toward the bottom of the draft class, meaning he rarely had a head of steam. Thus, his 1.9 yards after contact isn’t a glittering number, especially for a 219-pounder, though he did convert 75 percent of the time on third-and-short. While he might not have Elliott’s power, he’s a terrific player in the passing game. He ranked third in the draft class with 37 receptions but outweighed those players by 20-plus pounds. He did fumble three times and, among PFF’s group of 20 backs with 50 pass-protection snaps, Booker ranked 10th with six pressures (no sacks) allowed in 89 snaps.
Scouting: “Possibly the most pro-ready running back in this draft, thanks to Utah’s scheme, Booker either powered his way into the end zone (five touchdown runs inside the 5-yard line) or broke free for long distance races towards the end zone (four scoring scampers at a minimum of 25 yards) among his total of 11 touchdowns,” Thomas noted. “He accounted for nearly 70 percent of the team’s rushing output. In the three games without Booker, the team averaged one touchdown per game, compared to two with him in the lineup. As a receiver, he caught 80 passes the past two seasons, with 33 of those becoming first downs.”
In PFF’s draft preview, that scouting and statistical service compared Booker to Arian Foster because of his hands and zone-running ability. “Booker has outstanding vision to excel in a zone-blocking scheme, but was also very effective running power schemes in 2015. He doesn’t have that breakaway gear, but his short-area quickness will allow him to get through tight spaces and make the most of his blocking in the NFL.”
Personally: Booker’s got big plans for his hometown of Sacramento, Calif. In the Del Paso Heights part of the city, Booker remembers seeing friends being shot and killed. “As kids, we didn’t have anywhere to go to play ball or get homework done. Just everybody was out in the streets pretty much. If we had a Boys and Girls Club, the kids wouldn’t get in trouble or do bad things."
PAUL PERKINS, UCLA
Position rank: 3
Height: 5-10 3/8. Weight: 208. 40: 4.54. 10: 1.62. 3-cone: DNP.
Notes: In 2014, Perkins became the first UCLA runner since DeShaun Foster in 2001 to lead the Pac-12 in rushing, with his 1,575 yards ranking second in school history. In 2015, he finished fourth in the conference with 1,343 rushing yards and tied for second with 15 total touchdowns to earn second-team all-conference honors. Perkins finished his career ranked third all-time at UCLA with 3,491 rushing yards and fifth with 4,236 all-purpose yards. No running back in school history has caught more passes than Perkins’ 80.
Left one-on-one, Perkins almost always wins. According to STATS, Perkins forced a missed tackle on 22 percent of his carries — tied for the best in the draft class. According to PFF, he led the backfield class by forcing 85 missed tackles (rushing and receiving). He averaged 2.3 yards after contact, had a 71.4 percent catch rate and fumbled only once. Perkins isn’t a power threat, however. He moved the chains just 58 percent of the time on third-and-short. Only two backs were worse in our top 25. He also was among PFF’s worst pass protectors, with 10 pressures (one sack) in 105 pass-blocking snaps.
Scouting: “He’s the change-of-pace back you thought you were getting when you drafted (Johnathan) Franklin a few years ago,” a scout said. “Rodgers has never had a guy who can consistently turn a no-yard pass into a gain of 10.” Said another scout: “You know how I always tell you that the biggest mismatch is my edge rusher against your offensive tackle. With the right guy, the second-biggest mismatch is my back against your linebacker in the passing game. This guy’s got great vision and feet to win those matchups.” He ran against a lot of light boxes and spent most of the game in the pistol. Those could be troubling things for some teams but not so for the Packers, who line up in the pistol and have Rodgers to spread the field. However, he’s too small to carry the load or help much in pass protection. Pass protection is paramount for the Packers. Could the Packers overlook that fact to take advantage of his playmaking ability?
Personally: Perkins’ father, Bruce Perkins, played football at Arizona State and spent two seasons in the NFL as a fullback for the Buccaneers and Colts. An uncle, Don Perkins, was a running back for the Cowboys for eight seasons. In a game in October, Paul lined up at running back for the Bruins while his brother, Bryce, was a redshirt freshman quarterback for Arizona State. At Chandler (Ariz.) High School, he was teammates with former UCLA quarterback and current Packers signal-caller Brett Hundley. Perkins went from a two-star recruit to an NFL-bound runner. “I try to idolize myself after Marshall Faulk,” he said at the Combine. “He was a role model of mine. I think he could do it all. Great runner, great pass blocker and tremendous catcher of the ball.”
JORDAN HOWARD, Indiana
Position rank: 4
Height: 5-foot-11 7/8. Weight: 230. 40: 4.56. 10: NA. 3-cone: DNP.
Notes: Howard starred at Alabama-Birmingham. He made the Conference USA all-Freshman team with 881 yards (6.1 average) and was first-team all-conference as a sophomore with a school-record 1,587 yards (5.2 average) and 13 touchdowns. UAB shuttered its program after the 2014 season and Howard chose Indiana out of about two-dozen suitors. He made an immediate splash. Howard was first-team all-Big Ten in 2015 with 1,213 rushing yards (6.2) average and nine touchdowns. He had two standout games. Against Iowa, which had allowed 85.8 rushing yards per game and just one rushing touchdown to date, Howard ran for 174 yards with touchdowns of 37 and 29 yards. He then rushed for 238 yards against Michigan — the most ever for a Hoosiers back against the Wolverines.
Howard ran like the 230-pounder he is, blowing away the rest of the backfield class with a whopping 3.0 yards after contact, according to STATS. No other back averaged more than 2.4 yards after contact. Howard tied for fourth by forcing a missed tackle on 16 percent of his carries and was Elliott’s equal with a 77 percent conversion rate on third-and-short. He fumbled only once. However, he is a total nonfactor in the passing game with 11 receptions and a 64.7 percent catch rate. At least he won’t get anyone killed: Among PFF’s group of 20 backs with at least 50 pass-protection snaps, Howard ranked third with two pressures (no sacks) in 66 snaps.
Scouting: At 230 pounds, he certainly fits what the Packers tend to look for as a ball-carrier. By percentage, he had the lowest tackle-for-loss percentage in the class. He seems to always fall forward. “With the zone scheme, he certainly fits what you guys do on offense,” a scout said. “I don’t know if he can catch or if he can ever catch.” Another scout worried about Howard’s penchant for taking punishment — a major question for a player with some injury history. With Lacy entering the final season of his rookie deal and the verdict certainly out after he let himself get so far out of shape last year, Howard has the look of a front-line running back if he can become more of a presence in the passing game.
In its draft guide, PFF also noted Howard’s experience in a zone scheme: “Excellent zone runner. Understands when to cut back and when to stay frontside. Shows patience and presses the hole before cutting to get downhill.”
According to Thomas, Howard led the nation in percentage of carries the required at least two defenders to take him down. “Thanks to the ankle injury, Howard had quiet success on the field, but he missed more than half of the offensive snaps. Still, his body of work is impressive and you have to wonder where one of the most explosive offenses in college football would have finished if Howard was not sidelined for that long period of time. He set up nearly 70 percent of the team’s touchdown drives.”
Personally: He’s a big back now and he was a big back when he was a kid. “Even in little league, some of the parents would refer to him as ‘The Bulldozer,’” his mom said. He grew up in a hurry. He lost his grandmother, grandfather and father in a six-month span. Part of entering the NFL a year early was to avoid excess wear-and-tear. “It's not something I pay attention to in a game, how many carries. I take as many carries as I can in a game. But a running back, we know our life span isn't that long and 800 carries, that's a lot just for college.”
DERRICK HENRY, Alabama
Position rank: 5
Height: 6-foot-2 5/8. Weight: 247. 40: 4.54. 10: 1.60. 3-cone: 7.20.
Notes: Henry won the Heisman Trophy in rampaging fashion. Henry set SEC records for rushing yards (2,219), rushing touchdowns (28) and carries (395). He won the school’s second Heisman while winning the Maxwell Award (top amateur athlete), the Walter Camp Player of the Year and the Doak Walker Award (top running back). Not only did he lead the nation in rushing and rushing touchdowns but it wasn’t close, with 200 more yards and four more touchdowns than his nearest competitors. Setting records is nothing new. At Yulee (Fla.) High School, he broke Ken Hall's 51-year-old national high school rushing record with 12,124 yards after rushing for 4,261 yards as a senior in 2012. At Alabama, his 3,591 rushing yards broke Shaun Alexander’s career record.
As Alabama was in full-blown stat-padding mode to get Henry the Heisman, he was given a staggering 395 carries. That’s 106 more than Elliott. The guy is a tireless brute, tying for second in the class with 2.4 yards after contact. His missed-tackle rate of 15 percent and third-down conversion rate of 67 percent, however, were disappointments, and he was toward the bottom of PFF’s pass protection chart with nine pressures (no sacks) in 103 pass-blocking snaps. Plus, he fumbled four times.
Scouting: No doubt, Henry will rank higher on some teams’ boards than our rankings. However, we tried to view this through a Green Bay lens. Coach Mike McCarthy covets three-down backs so he can run his no-huddle offense. With Henry’s poor pass blocking this season and 11 receptions (64.7 percent catch rate), it’s hard to see him being a three-down back. Perhaps that can be developed through a year of seasoning as he works behind Lacy and Starks, but would you spend a premium draft pick on a No. 3 back? Plus, there’s the workload. “I know everyone loves (Alabama coach Nick) Saban, but what he did to that kid is criminal. What’s the point in giving him the ball 400 times? It’s not like the other kid (Kenyan Drake) wasn’t any good.”What's not knowable, the scout said, is how Henry will fare given his height and upright running style. He'll be tackled by bigger defenders in the NFL. He easily survived the hits in college. Will he have the same success in the NFL?
“Henry was a bull in the china shop as a ball-carrier,” Thomas said, “often wearing down his opponents late in games. My biggest concern was the way the team tried to pad his stats, usually giving him the bulk of carries when the game was out of reach. Henry might be another Trent Richardson, in that he struggles to break free when he gets too upright in his stance. Texas A&M tagged Henry for losses on six runs and there were four appearances where he failed to gain positive yardage on at least five attempts. What concerns some is the fact that 12.4% of his rushing attempts resulted in no or lost yardage in 2015. He’s an undervalued pass catcher with the large mitts needed to be highly effective on screens.”
Personally: Not only is he an athletic star, but he was chosen to deliver the closing prayer at the National Prayer Breakfast in early February. Along with striking a Heisman pose with President Obama, his message included being great leaders and helping and inspiring others.
Bill Huber is publisher of PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave him a question in Packer Report’s subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at www.twitter.com/PackerReport.