TEAM NEED – As far as an immediate need goes, this doesn’t have the appearance of anything other than late-round pick potential. Peterson is the defending NFL rushing champion and, to date, has showed no signs of taking a step backward. However, Peterson’s contract, which is largely guaranteed for 2016, effectively comes off the books in 2017 – when the Vikings would face no salary cap ramifications, but he would be due $18 million if he’s on the roster. McKinnon and Asiata have proved to be a nice tandem and Line has developed into a top fullback. For 2016, the Vikings would appear set at running back. Beyond 2016? That’s anyone’s guess, except for Rick Spielman and Mike Zimmer, who likely already have a long-term plan in place for 2017 and beyond.
POSITION ANALYSIS – In recent years, running backs have become more and more devalued, viewed as commodities that can be run hard, burned out and replaced. Last year, Todd Gurley broke the cycle of no running backs going in the first round. Ezekiel Elliott of Ohio State will continue that trend, but he almost surely will be the only running back selected on Day One. This isn’t an overly strong draft class and there may only be a handful of players coming off the board in Day 2, making most of the action for interested teams coming in the early stages of Day 3.
CREAM OF THE CROP
Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State, 5-11¾, 225 – Third-year junior…A two-year starter who rushed 562 times for 3,699 yards and 41 touchdowns and caught 55 passes for 426 yards in that span…Consensus All-American in 2015…An ideal combination of size, speed and strength…Runs with power and shows excellent patience to wait for a hole to open and attack when he hits the hole…A potential three-down back because of his receiving ability and unselfish willingness to block, which he does effectively…Has excellent change-of-direction skills…While he has good hands as a receiver, he was used almost exclusively as a check-down target…Doesn’t take losing well and has a history of throwing teammates and coaches under the bus when things don’t go well, which turns off some teams…Doesn’t have ideal deep speed and will get caught from behind at times…Didn’t lift at the Combine with an unspecified injury, but ran a 4.47 40 with a 32½-inch vertical jump and a 9-10 broad jump.
PROJECTION: Elliott is clearly the top running back in the class and will be a first-round pick. Some have speculated he will go as high as Dallas at No. 4, but more likely he will go in the middle third of the first round.
Derrick Henry, Alabama, 6-2¾, 247 – Third-year junior…Didn’t become a starter until T.J. Yeldon left for the NFL…In his only season as a starter, he rushed 395 times for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns…Had to build a trophy case in 2015, winning the Walter Camp Player of the Year, SEC Offensive Player of the Year, the Maxwell Award, the Doak Walker Award and the Heisman Trophy…Huge for a running back and runs with power and intensity…Doesn’t waste time running laterally, he’s a north-south runner who hits holes hard…Is patient to let plays develop and has the vision to make cutbacks aggressively…Moves the pile and always falls forward…Isn’t explosive and doesn’t have breakaway speed, making him subject to defenders swarming and delivering big hits…Doesn’t create plays and often stops when contacted early…Hasn’t shown that he’s a benefit in the passing game and will likely be a two-down back…Ran a 4.54 40 at the Combine with 22 reps of 225 pounds, a 37-inch vertical jump and a 10-10 broad jump.
PROJECTION: Henry could well be the best running back in this year’s draft. He doesn’t have a lot of tread off the tire, but he’s not a guy who gets tackled by one defender. Players like that burn hot but tend to have a short shelf life of full-time duty.
C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame, 6-0½, 220 – Fourth-year senior…One-year starter who is a converted safety and wide receiver before becoming a running back…In his only season as a starter, he carried 157 times for 1,029 yards (a 6.6-yard average), caught 26 passes for 308 yards and 12 touchdowns…Has very good agility, cutting ability and change of direction skills…Has strong leg drive and is rarely stymied on initial contact…Has a lot of intangible skills that make him a good runner, receiver and blocker…Does not have a lot of experience reading defenses and still has something of a learning curve…Is not a polished pass protector and may have to start his career as more of a two-down back…Has some durability questions due to a series of minor injuries, but nothing devastating…Didn’t lift at the Combine due to injury, but ran a 4.48 40 with a 35½-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A raw talent who may be viewed differently by different teams, he is an intriguing combination of skills that will likely fit in whatever scheme his team runs and has the potential to be a long-term starter in the NFL. But his lack of tangible experience at the position will almost surely drop him into Day 2 of the draft.
Devontae Booker, Utah, 5-10¾, 219 – Fourth-year senior who spent the 2012 season at American River Community College and didn’t play in 2013…Started 19 of 23 games at Utah, rushing 560 times for 2,773 yards, caught 80 passes for 622 yards and scored 23 touchdowns…Looks the part with a combination of change-of-direction skills, explosiveness to the hole and good balance…Consistently breaks tackles and gains additional yardage…A natural pass catcher who pulls in passes with ease and quickly gets moving north and south…Will be a 24-year old rookie coming off a knee surgery that ended his 2015 season in November…Does not have breakaway speed and will get dragged down…Runs with his pads high and, despite having power, he doesn’t look like a goal-line battering ram…Was unable to run or jump at the Combine due to his knee surgery, but did 22 reps of 225 pounds.
PROJECTION: A player with a well-rounded skill set who could be a featured back, but his draft stock could drop him much lower than we have him ranked since he will be 24 on draft day. But whoever drafts him will get a very player if he can bounce back from his knee injury.
Alex Collins, Arkansas, 5-10, 217 – Third-year junior…Didn’t become a full-time starter until 2015, but had three 1,000-yard rushing seasons…Had two big rushing seasons as a backup (190-1,026-4 in 2013 when he won SEC Freshman of the Year and 204-1,100-12 in 2014) before having a breakout season (271-1,577-20) in 2015…Was only the third running back in SEC history to have three 1,000-yard rushing seasons, joining Herschel Walker and Darren McFadden…Is a very strong inside runner between the tackles and has a nose for the end zone to finish off drives…A patient runner who hits a hole decisively when it opens and gets north-south in a hurry…Hits top speed quickly and can break off big runs (he averaged 5.6 yards a carry for his career)…Is not an ideal blocking technician and will need some refinement…Has good burst, but doesn’t have sustained speed and will get caught from behind by linebackers and defensive backs…Doesn’t make a lot of defenders miss in space…Ran a 4.53 40 at the Combine with 15 reps, a 28½-inch vertical jump and a 9-5 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A productive back from a pro-style offense who should hit the ground running in the NFL. He has some limitations but should come off in Day 2 and compete for a starting job at some point.
Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech, 5-10¼, 215 – Fourth-year senior who started 35 of 44 career games, rushing 802 times for 4,483 yards and 72 touchdowns and caught 87 passes for 969 yards and 15 more TDs…A touchdown machine who had three seasons with 26 or more scores…Has very good instincts and cutting ability to find holes and cutback lanes…A physical runner who finishes off runs consistently and gains as many yards as possible…A solid receiver who makes solid gains in open space…Is a little bit undersized and doesn’t have the type of body that can add much more muscle or bulk…Doesn’t have a second-gear and isn’t going to be a breakaway threat in the NFL…Has a history of fumbling – 13 in his last three seasons…Ran a 4.56 40 at the Combine with 18 reps, an impressive 37½-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A highly productive back from a mid-major conference whose numbers are difficult to project to the next level. But he’s a smart, instinctive runner who finishes carries, which will likely have him drafted before the end of the second day.
BEST OF THE REST
Jordan Howard, Indiana, 6-0, 230 – Third-year junior who spent his first two seasons at Alabama-Birmingham before transferring to Indiana when UAB decided to drop football…In two years at UAB, he rushed 451 times for 2,468 yards and 13 touchdowns…In his only season at Indiana, in just nine games, he rushed 196 times for 1,213 yards and nine touchdowns and caught 11 passes for 106 yards and another TD…A big back who runs with power and intensity…Has better field speed than he has timed speed and is hard to handle in the open field because of his running style…At his best in between the tackles running power football…Doesn’t hit the hole with a lot of explosiveness and needs space to get to the second level…Does not have good blocking technique and will get knocked backward too often…Has not been used much as a receiver (24 catches in 32 games) and will need to improve…Did not run drills at the Combine by choice, but had 16 reps of 225 pounds with a 34-inch vertical jump and a 10-2 broad jump.
PROJECTION: He didn’t help his cause by not running drills at the Combine and he has limited exposure at an elite level of football, but he has a running style that translates to the pros and could end up being taken off the board before the end of Day 2.
Paul Perkins, UCLA, 5-10½, 208 – Fourth-year senior who didn’t play as a freshman…A two-year starter who had 487 carries for 2,915 yards and 23 touchdowns and caught 56 passes for 443 yards and three TDs in that span…The first Bruin to lead the Pac 12 in rushing since DeShaun Foster in 2001…Is a patient runner with good natural instincts…Is a slashing runner who has an impressive jump cut with cutback skills to get into the clear and turn nothing into something…Has excellent vision and is rarely brought down by the first defender who has a shot to bring him down…Does not have prototype size and some teams will be concerned about long-term durability…Is not an ideal blocker, not because of a lack of effort, but because of his sleight frame…Doesn’t push the pile and doesn’t often get the extra yard or two after contact…Pulled his hamstring while running a 4.54 40 at the Combine, but had 19 reps, a 32-inch vertical jump and a 10-4 broad jump.
PROJECTION: A slashing two-down back who has a place in the NFL but doesn’t have the power or the breakaway speed to be viewed as a bell-cow back. Can be a productive player who likely gets taken in the fourth-round range.
Tyler Ervin, San Jose State, 5-10, 192 – A fifth-year senior who was granted a medical redshirt in 2013 with a shoulder injury…His only full season was in 2015, when he rushed 294 times for 1,601 yards, caught 45 passes for 334 yards and scored 15 touchdowns…A versatile player who made an impact at running back, wide receiver and returner in the SJSU offense…Reads blocks quickly and has the elusiveness to consistently avoid taking the big hit and gaining more yards in the process…Has a good combination of balance, body control and vision to get to top speed in a hurry…Added weight and bulk before the Combine and is still undersized for the NFL…Isn’t patient and too often ends plays by running up the backs of his own blockers…Durability is a big concern because of shoulder and ankle injuries throughout his career…Ran a sparkling 4.41 40 at the Combine with 17 reps of 225 pounds, a 39-inch vertical jump and a 10-10 broad jump.
PROJECTION: He made himself a lot of money at the Combine, coming in as an undersized back and turning enough heads that he will likely be a Day 3 priority pick. But, given his size limitations, he will likely be viewed as a third-down back/return specialist, and those don’t often get taken until the final day of the draft.
Kenyan Drake, Alabama, 6-0¾, 210 – Fourth-year senior…Started just six of 41 and had very limited production – 233 carries for 1,495 yards, 18 catches for 46 yards and 22 touchdowns…Was a complementary back to T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, so his opportunities were limited…Has very good change-of-direction skills and is his most dangerous in space…Has good speed and can hit the perimeter quickly as a runner, receiver and kickoff return man…Runs with patience and can extend plays until a hole opens and he hits it aggressively…Doesn’t have the bulk strength to be a consistent inside runner and will have to find a niche role for himself…His durability is a huge question after suffering a broken leg and a broken arm during his career…He doesn’t run with ideal pad level and opens himself up to big hits…Ran a 4.45 40 at the Combine with a disappointing 10 reps, a 34½-inch vertical jump and a 10-3 broad jump.
PROJECTION: Because of the embarrassment of riches on the Alabama roster during his career, Drake never got the chance to fully prove himself. That’s good and bad. The bad is that it will drop him into the third day of the draft. The good news is that he’s got a lot of tread left on the tire and, in the right situation, could be a Day 3 “steal of the draft” candidate.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Leon Allen, Western Kentucky, 5-11, 235
Josh Ferguson, Illinois, 5-9½, 198
Aaron Green, TCU, 5-11, 203
Devon Johnson, Marshall, 6-0½, 236
Daniel Lasco, Cal, 6-0¼, 209
Keenan Reynolds, Navy, 5-10, 200
Wendell Smallwood, West Virginia, 5-10½, 208
Kelvin Taylor, Florida, 5-10¼, 207
Deandre Washington, Texas Tech, 5-8½, 204
Jonathan Williams, Arkansas, 5-10¾, 220