2013 NFL Draft: Giovani Bernard Is Top Running Back If He Declares

Marques EversollAnalyst IDecember 1, 2012

If Bernard declares for the draft as a redshirt sophomore, he's the best of the 2013 class.
If Bernard declares for the draft as a redshirt sophomore, he's the best of the 2013 class.Grant Halverson/Getty Images

There are a handful of intriguing running backs in this year's crop.

Stepfan Taylor has had a consistent career in a pro-style offense at Stanford, Montee Ball is now the NCAA record-holder for career touchdowns and Clemson's Andre Ellington has speed to burn.

But the best draft-eligible runner in the 2013 class is North Carolina's Giovani Bernard.

The running back position has been devalued in the NFL over the past decade, as teams transition into spread passing attacks. However, having an elite running back that can make something out of nothing can be the difference of a win or a loss.

And by all accounts, Bernard can do it all.

In high school, Bernard shared the backfield with James White, who would eventually commit to the University of Wisconsin. Bernard and White helped guide St. Thomas Aquinas High School to consecutive state championships in 2007 and 2008.

White, his college teammate, has enjoyed success with the Badgers playing in the same backfield as 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist Ball.

Bernard, on the other hand, hasn't had to share the ball with anyone at North Carolina. He's been the focal point of UNC's offense since arriving on campus.

After sitting out his entire freshman season with the Tar Heels after tearing his right ACL in practice, Bernard became the starting running back immediately as a redshirt freshman.

Bernard exploded onto the scene in his first season as a Tar Heel, rushing for 1,253 yards and 13 scores while averaging a solid 5.2 yards per carry. He surpassed last year's numbers this season, grinding out 1,228 yards on the ground and averaging a jaw-dropping 6.7 yards per attempt.

What separates Bernard from most of the other running backs that may potentially be in the 2013 draft class is his ability to catch the football. As a redshirt freshman, Bernard caught 45 passes as the Tar Heels' season ended in a loss to Missouri in the Independence Bowl. He had 47 receptions and five touchdowns this season.

North Carolina is not bowl eligible this year, so Bernard could return to school next season for a chance to win a bowl game.

But if Bernard decides to call it a career and move on to the NFL, teams in need of a game-changing runner will be salivating come April.

Built like a truck at 5'10", 205 pounds, Bernard has the size and physicality to make it as a traditional between-the-tackles back at the professional level. But on top of having a prototypical NFL build, Bernard is a true home run threat whenever he touches the ball.

On top of being the team's bell-cow, Bernard served as the Tar Heels' primary punt returner in 2012, returning 16 punts for 263 yards and two scores.

Overall, this draft class appears relatively weak at the running back position. But there are hidden gems every single year, and Bernard could certainly emerge as a difference-maker immediately as a professional.

If he declares, CBS Sports ranks Bernard as the top running back in the 2013 class, just ahead of Alabama's Eddie Lacy, Ellington, Ball and Taylor. Bernard would be the No. 45 overall prospect, planted firmly in the second round of the draft.

Things can always change, however. Doug Martin was widely considered to be a second-round pick in last year's draft for much of the offseason before his stock rose late in the draft process. Martin was one of five players that I said would likely be drafted too low.

And while it's far too early to compile a similar list for 2013, Bernard is certainly capable of doing everything a team wants a feature back to do—much like Martin coming out of Boise State.

Many upcoming decisions on whether or not to return to school or turn pro will catch the attention of draft enthusiasts. One of such decisions will be that of Giovani Bernard.