Eddie Lacy is widely considered to be the top running back in the draft, but I vote Gio Bernard.
Running back is perhaps the toughest position to evaluate in the time leading up to the NFL draft.
For every can't-miss prospect like Trent Richardson, there's a sixth-round stud like Alfred Morris. Not many foresaw Morris being the most productive rookie runner last season, but the former Florida Atlantic star was exactly that, racking up a total of 1,613 yards on the ground.
Richardson was arguably the Browns' most valuable player last season after being selected by the with the No. 3 overall pick. The rookie played 15 games, rushing for 950 yards and 11 touchdowns, without losing a fumble on 318 total touches.
There were three running backs selected in the first round of the 2012 NFL draft—Richardson, Doug Martin and David Wilson.
This year's draft boasts yet another intriguing crop of runners. South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore looks to bounce back from a devastating knee injury, Wisconsin's Montee Ball hopes to find success in the NFL after a record-breaking college career, while Alabama's Eddie Lacy rides a huge junior campaign with the Crimson Tide.
Lacy is widely considered to be the No. 1 player at the position. Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller ranks Lacy as the draft's top running back and the No. 31 overall prospect.
At 5'11", 231 lbs., Lacy boasts the size and physicality to be a successful between-the-tackles runner at the professional level. After being buried on the depth chart behind Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson at Alabama, Lacy exploded onto the scene in his only season as the starter, rushing for 1,322 yards and 17 touchdowns.
But although Lacy is a tough, north-and-south runner, his lack of breakaway speed and pass-catching ability leave a bit to be desired.
Bernard only played two years of college football after suffering a torn ACL in a preseason practice as a true freshman, but he certainly left his mark on the Tar Heels before declaring for the draft. As a redshirt freshman, Bernard rushed for 1,253 yards and 13 scores. This past season as a redshirt sophomore, Bernard racked up 1,228 yards and averaged 6.7 yards per carry.
The biggest knock against Bernard is his perceived inability to run between the tackles given his lack of size.
At the NFL Scouting Combine, Bernard measured just a hair over 5'8" and 202 pounds. His size may not be ideal for the position, but smaller backs have had a great deal of success at the NFL level. Ray Rice stood exactly 5'8" at the 2008 NFL Scouting Combine and checked in at 199 pounds.
Since becoming Baltimore's lead runner in 2009, Rice has racked up at least 1,143 yards and 61 catches in each of the past four seasons. Height means very little in regards to the success of running backs, so long as the player has adequate bulk for the position.
Rice, now listed at 5'8", 212 lbs., has developed into one of the NFL's best receiving running backs, but he caught just 37 passes in three years at Rutgers. Bernard has already proven to be a receiving threat in two years at North Carolina, racking up 92 receptions in two seasons with the Tar Heels.
Neither Eddie Lacy, Marcus Lattimore, Montee Ball nor Andre Ellington caught more than 29 passes in a single season while in college.
Bernard also mat be the most explosive home-run threat in this year's draft class. This past season, he returned 16 punts for 263 yards and two touchdowns, including a dramatic go-ahead 73-yard score against North Carolina State with 13 seconds remaining.
Bernard had a sensational sophomore season while North Carolina operated primarily out of the shotgun. And with pass-happy teams such as the Green Bay Packers, Denver Broncos and Atlanta Falcons in need of an every-down running back, the versatile Bernard will certainly be on their radar.
Green Bay, Denver and/or Atlanta could consider a running back at the end of Round 1, but perhaps a more likely scenario would be one of these teams taking Bernard in the second round. The Detroit Lions, Cincinnati Bengals and New York Jets could also consider Bernard early in Round 2.
Currently, Eddie Lacy is the odds-on favorite to be the first running back off the board in April. But for most of last offseason, Doug Martin was considered to be a second-round prospect, before the Tampa Bay Buccaneers traded back into the first round to draft him with the No. 31 overall pick.
Before he works out at the combine tomorrow, Bernard's stock sits firmly in the second round, but don't be surprised if a team takes a chance on him with their first-round pick. A couple years down the road, a lot of NFL teams will be kicking themselves for passing on Gio Bernard.