Position Analysis: Running backs

Running back is a position that appears to be getting devalued in the NFL draft, and the talent in this year's draft class doesn't help. It's possible only one running back, goes in the first round, setting up a lot of mid-round prospects that could be value picks. The Vikings could get in on that action. We break down the top 10.

POSITION OVERVIEW: In recent years, if a running back isn't an elite talent like Adrian Peterson or Trent Richardson, the position takes a beating on draft weekend. The new conventional wisdom is that running backs can be developed and just as many star running backs can be found in the middle to late rounds to fill a void. Guys like Arian Foster and Alfred Morris have become the type of player many teams are looking for, not using a blue-chip pick on the position unless a player is such a slam dunk selection that he is just too good to pass up. Compounding that problem this year is that there isn't an elite running back in this year's draft. The most physically gifted running back (Marcus Lattimore) is a huge risk after suffering a gruesome knee injury last season that might keep him on the shelf this year. As a result, there may only be a couple of running backs coming off the board in the first two rounds, making it one of the weakest RB classes in recent memory.

VIKINGS RUNNING BACKS – Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart, Jerome Felton, Matt Asiata, Joe Banyard.

VIKINGS NEED – Given the miraculous recovery that led Peterson to the MVP award last season, the Vikings seem set with their top three RBs of Peterson, Gerhart and Felton. While the team might consider using a late-round pick on a speed-burner/change-of-pace type back in hopes of finding a Darren Sproles-type utility man, the team may end up using just three or four roster spots on running back, making this a position that may well be ignored during the seven rounds of the draft.


Eddie Lacy, Alabama, 5-11, 231 – Fourth-year junior…A one-year starter who rushed 204 times for 1,322 yards, caught 22 passes for 189 yards and scored 19 touchdowns…A Louisiana native, his family was displaced by Hurricane Katrina when he was in high school…Played behind Saints first-round pick Mark Ingram and Cleveland's 2012 first-round pick Trent Richardson until last year…Had surgery to repair a turf-toe injury following the 2011 season…A well-built muscular power back with a compact, NFL-ready build that can take a pounding…Averaged 6.8 yards per carry in his college career…Has great leg drive and gets everything out of each run…A strong blocker…Has excellent agility and can make the first tackler miss…Played in a pro-style offense that translates well to the NFL…Has a history of lower-body injuries (ankles, turf toe)…Very limited production – had just 355 carries in his college career…Is prone to fumbling…Doesn't have great burst to take runs to the house…Slows down when changing direction…Limited productivity as a receiver and drops too many passes…Did not work out at the combine. PROJECTION: A big power back who has the measurables to be a bell cow in the NFL, his lack of experience can be seen two ways – one as inexperienced, the other that there is still a lot of tread on the tire. He will be the first back off the board with Green Bay being a logical landing spot.


Montee Ball, Wisconsin, 5-10½, 214 – Fourth-year senior…Two-year full-time starter who rushed 663 times for 3,753 yards and 55 touchdowns in that span…A Heisman Trophy finalist in 2011…Lost 25 pounds between the 2010 and 2011 seasons…Won the Doak Walker Award in 2012, given the nation's top running back…Finishes runs and gets the most out of just about every carry…Attacks the line when he gets the ball…Instinctive and knows when to bounce plays outside…Rarely gets taken down on first contact and sheds defenders with relative ease…Soft hands as a receiver…Shows patience when stringing plays out and waits for a hole to develop…Doesn't have top-end speed…Had 983 touches in college and some teams will be wary that he has too much mileage on his knees…Suffered a pair of concussions as a senior, making some remember Jahvid Best's risk/reward pick three years ago…Not used as a receiver – had just 10 catches last year…Doesn't have a second gear in the open field…Ran a 4.66 40 at the combine with 15 reps of 225 pounds, a 32-inch vertical jump and a 9-10 broad jump. PROJECTION: He was the Big 10's top runner the last two seasons and averaged 5.6 yards a rush for his college career. But the amount of use he got in college will scare off some teams and he will fall into the second round as a result, but he could be a huge value at that point.

Andre Ellington, Clemson, 5-9¼, 199 – Fourth-year senior…Two-year full-time starter who rushed 435 times for 2,259 yards and 19 touchdowns in that span…Became a starter as a true sophomore but missed four games due to toe surgery…A frightening runner in the open field, he can take any carry the distance…Can stop and start on a dime and hits top speed quickly…Plays with aggression, doesn't look to run away from contact and will fight through tackles…Has elite change-of-direction skills…Averaged 5.5 yards per rushing attempt during his college career…Has value as a return man…Is undersized by NFL standards for a featured back…Has suffered a lot of minor injuries, which is a concern at the next level…Doesn't have great lower body strength and won't move the pile at the goal line or in short yardage…Wasn't used much as a receiver (59 catches in 48 games) and will need a lot of work there…Has little value as a blitz pick-up blocker…Often runs into his own linemen because he doesn't wait for holes to open on sweeps…Didn't lift at the combine, but ran a 4.61 40 (pulling a hamstring along the way) with a 34-inch vertical jump and a 10-2 broad jump. PROJECTION: A classic change-of-pace back, his speed and escapability will intrigue a lot of teams. He has a chance to come off the board in the second round but wouldn't surprise many if he's still on the board into the third round given his laundry list of injuries.

Giovani Bernard, North Carolina, 5-8½, 202 – Third-year sophomore…Initially signed with Notre Dame, but backed out when head coach Charlie Weis was fired…Was granted a medical redshirt in 2010 after suffering a torn ACL…Started 21 of 23 career games, rushing 423 times for 2,481 yards and 25 touchdowns, while catching 92 passes for 852 yards and six TDs…A complete threat as a runner/receiver/returner…Is very tightly built and is hard to knock off his pins…Makes decisive cuts and gets moving upfield quickly…Has surprising toughness for his size, both in not going down easily and as a blocker…Can bounce plays outside while keeping his focus on finding a hole to dart through…Doesn't have a top gear and can get caught from behind…Is undersized and will struggle as a blocker at the next level…Doesn't have much growth potential to add muscle or power…Has some injury concerns – missed all of 2010 and two games last year with knee injuries…Doesn't have great strength…Ran a 4.53 40 at the Combine with 19 reps, a 33½-inch vertical jump and a 10-2 broad jump. PROJECTION: A versatile player who could develop into a Darren Sproles-type back, but because of his size limitations he may end up being a third-down/change-of-pace back and punt returner in the NFL. With those types of limitations, he likely will remain on the board until the third round.

Johnathan Franklin, UCLA, 5-10, 205 – Fifth-year senior…Became a starter five games into his freshman season and started 45 of 53 career games…Finished his college career with 788 carries for 4,403 yards (a 5.6-yard average) and 31 TDs, setting the single-season and career rushing marks for UCLA…Can consistently make something out of nothing in the run game…Has good balance and isn't easily taken off of his feet…Blossomed as a senior, setting a school record with 1,734 rushing yards…Has been compared with his strength and speed to Jacksonville's Maurice Jones-Drew…Has good hands, although he wasn't used much as a receiver…A big-play threat at all times…A willing blocker who has a lot of toughness…Is undersized by NFL standards and doesn't have good upper body strength to be an effective blocker at the next level…Got a reputation as a fumbler during his career, coughing up the ball 22 times in four seasons…Isn't an effective short-yardage or goal-line back…Doesn't have a great first step and needs time to reach top speed…Doesn't have a lot of growth potential and might be maxed out…Didn't lift at the combine, but ran a 4.49 40 with a 31½-inch vertical jump and a 9-7 broad jump. PROJECTION: He fits in a system where a player makes one cut and turns upfield, but his limitations as a receiver and a blocker will likely keep him on the board until late into the second day and possibly Day 3 of the draft.


Mike Gillislee, Florida, 5-11¼, 208 – Fourth-year senior…One-year starter who carried 244 times for 1,152 yards and 10 TDs last year…Is a slippery runner who makes people miss with good lateral agility to avoid clogged holes…Hits the hole aggressively and gets the most of just about every run he has…Has an excellent spin move that often leaves defenders grabbing air…A student of the game who works hard in games and in practice…Has a lot of potential as a receiver, although he was used a lot…A bit thin by NFL RB standards and some teams won't see him as anything other than a complementary back…Will get impatient and get happy feet when his primary hole isn't developing and will try to freelance…Doesn't have an elite second gear in the open field…Doesn't have great weight room strength and consistently gets pushed backward pass protecting…Runs a little too upright and gives defenders clear shots to hit him too often…Very limited experience – a one-year starter who had just 389 carries in 49 career games…Ran a 4.55 40 at the combine with 15 reps of 225 pounds, a 30½-inch vertical jump and a 9-11 broad jump. PROJECTION: Does a lot of things well but isn't a standout in any aspect of the game, which will turn off some teams and, more than likely, keep him on the board well into the third round or maybe the fourth.

Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina, 5-11¼, 231 – Third-year junior…Started 28 of 29 career games, rushing 555 times for 2,677 yards and 38 touchdowns and caught 74 passes for 767 yards and three TDs…An All-American in high school and South Carolina Gatorade Player of the Year as a senior…Named National Freshman of the Year in 2010…Missed six games in 2011 with a torn left ACL and the last four games of 2012 with a torn right ACL, PCL…Has excellent size, speed and strength…Has good burst to hit the hole hard and good balance to absorb the initial contact…Moves the pile in short yardage and at the goal line…Has good vision and patience to allow plays to develop…A solid runner and receiver who has the ability to be a three-down back…Injuries are a huge red flag – two torn ACLs – and he may not be ready to return in 2013…Doesn't have elite speed to outrun defenders and take carries the distance…Doesn't show open-field elusiveness, and when defenders get their hands him he typically goes down without breaking free…Doesn't have a lot of fluidity to bounce plays and change direction smoothly…Didn't work out at the combine while rehabbing his right knee injury. PROJECTION: He has seen his production drop each of his three seasons due to injury. Heading into 2011, he seemed like a lock to be a first-round pick and likely the first RB off the board, but injuries have made him a huge risk. A forward-thinking team will probably gamble on him, but players with a giant red flag on them like he has typically are viewed as priority picks in the fourth round or so. There are just too many question marks to take him much higher, despite great potential if he can stay healthy.

Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State, 6-0, 204 – Third-year junior…Became a starter midway through his true freshman season and started 31 of 39 career games, finishing with 564 carries for 3,085 yards (a 5.5-yard average) and 40 touchdowns and caught 108 passes for 917 yards and three TDs…A two-way All-State high school player in Kansas and was a track star as well…Runs with power and isn't brought down or slowed down with arm tackles…Has good speed, accelerates quickly and is tough to bring down once he gets rolling…Has good power and musculature…Has a decisive first step and gets heading up-field in a hurry…A productive receiver who was counted on as a check-down receiver…A strong leader who is a "team-first" type that is a willing blocker who does the little things to be effective…Gets every inch out of most of his runs…Spent a lot of time in the weight room and may be maxed out in terms of growth potential from here on…Doesn't have an elite second gear…Inconsistent pad level and runs too high at times…Isn't very shifty and doesn't make a lot tacklers miss…Isn't overly instinctive and has raw technique…Had some fumbling issues because he runs too upright at times…Didn't lift at the combine with a thumb injury, but ran a 4.63 40 with a 32-inch vertical jump and a 10-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: A tough running back with some power to his game, he will likely have a hard time being an elite running back, but he is a blue-collar, lunch-pail type runner who will be a value pick sometime in the third or fourth rounds.

Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State, 6-1½, 230 – Third-year junior…One-year full-time starter who had 382 carries for 1,793 yards (most in the Big 10) and 12 touchdowns…A muscular specimen who looks the part of the prototype NFL running back…Keeps his center of gravity low and doesn't get himself exposed for the big hit that can cause fumbles…Has good balance and finds seams at the line to get to the second level…Will initiate contact when it arrives and often breaks tackles and keeps his feet moving…Adept at hurdling defenders who come in low…A solid receiver who caught 67 passes the last two years…Doesn't have a second gear in the open field…Inconsistent production and was stymied by the better defenses he faced…Is not effective running sweeps and too often has plays strung out to the sidelines…Doesn't have a great burst to blow through a hole…Production often declined late in games…Is not an aggressive one-cut runner and will get bottled up behind the line too often…Ran a 4.60 40 at the combine with 24 reps, a 31½-inch vertical jump and a 9-10 broad jump. PROJECTION: A workhorse last year for MSU, Bell doesn't have a complete body of work. He is an intriguing backup prospect who, if the starter gets injured, could be a solid bell cow RB, but doesn't have the great intangibles, which could keep him on the board into the third round or beyond.

Stepfan Taylor, Stanford, 5-9¼, 219 – Fourth-year senior…Three-year starter who ran 787 times for 3,997 yards and 38 touchdowns and caught 95 passes for 735 yards and five more TDs…Left Stanford as the school's all-time leading rusher after replacing Toby Gerhart…Thickly built and has a very strong lower body to push the pile…Reads his blockers very well and shows the patience to wait until a hole develops…Hits the hole hard and has enough burst to get through thin seams…Has good forward lean and gets the most out of his runs…A willing blocker and pass protector…Doesn't have a second gear in the open field…Doesn't have great field vision and will miss cutback lanes too often…Doesn't have the speed to consistently turn the corner on sweeps…Had a poor showing at the combine (see below)…Tends to end too many runs by lowering his head instead of trying to make defenders miss…Is undersized and has small hands, which often leads to fumbling at the NFL level…Ran a 4.76 40 at the combine with 17 reps, a 30-inch vertical jump and a 9-2 broad jump. PROJECTION: A hard-nosed runner with a track record of being a workhorse out of the backfield, he could be a solid NFL running back, but doesn't have the breakaway speed to come off the board early. He likely will be on the board until late in Day 2 or early in Day 3.

Kenjon Barner, Oregon, 5-9¼, 196
Rex Burkhead, Nebraska, 5-10¼, 214
Knile Davis, Arkansas, 5-11½, 227
Ray Graham, Pitt, 5-9¼, 199
Jawan Jamison, Rutgers, 5-7½, 203
Theo Reddick, Notre Dame, 5-10¼, 201
Robert Rouse, Fresno State, 5-5¾, 190
Spencer Ware, LSU, 5-10¼, 228
Kerwynn Williams, Utah State, 5-8¼, 195
Cierre Wood, Notre Dame, 5-11¼, 213

John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.

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