Eddie Lacy is an NCAA national champion, a BCS Championship MVP, an All-SEC performer and has terrorized even the most-stout of college football defenses during his three-year Alabama career.
But is Lacy worth a first-round pick?
This isn't the first time Lacy fought this battle to get recognized. Injured during his senior year of high school, Lacy picked up over 1000 yards in seven games. The scouting sites ranked him anywhere from 13th (Rivals) to 24th (Scout)—that's among running backs, not overall. Still, teams clamored to court him and he picked Alabama over a host of other traditional powerhouses like LSU, Oklahoma and Tennessee.
Once he got onto the Alabama campus, things didn't get much easier sitting behind superstar backs Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. Still, Lacy found ways to get noticed—notably as the lightning to Richardson's thunder as Nick Saban tried to keep his workhorse fresh. While Lacy is now known as a bruiser, he was able to hit long-gainers while spelling Richardson, even as he battled turf toe throughout the second half of his junior season.
In his final season, Lacy was overshadowed by some other running backs nationally, but was considered the top draft prospect at his position until lingering hamstring issues crept up and have kept him from working out in front of teams.
With talented backs like Giovanni Bernard (North Carolina), Johnathan Franklin (UCLA) and Montee Ball (Wisconsin) looking to make their marks on Sundays as well, just how high should Lacy come off the board?
Well...He Is a Running Back
Spoiler alert, I have what amounts to a first-round grade on Lacy. (Note, my grading system—the same system Bill Belichick uses—doesn't really assign rounds like other systems do). The problem is, players with "first-round grades" don't always go in the first round. Sometimes a really good player drops for a variety of reasons.
Lacy could drop because of the lingering injury issue, but more than likely, he drops below a few players less talented than him because they play positions that teams value more highly than running back.
Look at the teams in the bottom half of the first. The Cowboys, Giants, Bears, Vikings, Texans, Patriots, 49ers and Ravens have no use for a first-round back. The Falcons could conceivably bring Lacy aboard to sit behind Steven Jackson, but certainly have bigger fish to fry. The Packers could use a running back, but that's what we've been saying for years and Ted Thompson just winks and says: "I got this."
That leaves the Rams, Steelers, Bengals, Colts and Broncos as possible suitors (or, of course, a trade-up scenario could materialize on draft day.) The Rams have two picks and could certainly take Lacy to pair with last year's selection, Isaiah Pead. Still with an offensive line in shambles and still lacking a clear No. 1 receiver, the Rams might not pull that trigger either.
I had this same conversation in my write-up for Marcus Lattimore, who (if healthy) would have a higher grade than Lacy. Backs are losing value in today's NFL.
Still, even in years with a lackluster class at the position, at least one running back always seems to sneak into the first round.
Should it be Lacy this year?
Comparing Lacy to Other Recent First-Round Backs
Being a first-round running back doesn't mean as much as it once did as teams clamored to get pick up prospects like Ricky Williams, Jamal Lewis or Edgerrin James toward the top of round one. Looking back, it's easy to see the declining importance of the position as players like Tim Biakabutuka and Ki-Jana Carter were once considered elite prospects.
Transport Lacy back in time and we probably wouldn't be having this discussion in 1994.
Recently, however, as the "first-round back" club has diminished in size, it has (at least in theory) started to become more elite. Since teams know they can get a capable back in the third round or later, first-round backs need to be really special.
This is the argument I made for Richardson last year: if a player can single-handedly change the way other teams prepare for your team, you draft him and thank your lucky stars you had the opportunity. Few players each year are able to make that claim. Some years, the class is talented, but bereft of even one of those uber-elite talents.
2013 is one of those years.
It's a great class, but there are quarterbacks with question marks. Great pieces, but no transcendent players on defense. Solid linemen, but no Joe Thomases in the bunch. The best all-around prospects might be a guard (Chance Warmack) and a tight end (Tyler Eifert). Once one factors in positional value, Warmack could easily go in the teens while Eifert may not even be a first-rounder.
In the past five years, among the top backs taken, only Richardson was one of those players who could single-handedly change a franchise's direction. As a prospect, I believed Ingram was as well, but he hasn't panned out that way so far in the pros. C.J. Spiller is just now hitting his stride as a featured back. Knowshon Moreno might not have a roster spot if he doesn't shape up in Denver.
In that same group of backs, as prospects, Ingram and Richardson have tied for the highest grade that I've given a back since I started scouting players in 2008. Moreno is one of my biggest misses and was right below them. Of that group, Spiller had my lowest grade, although he was a great deal higher than Ryan Mathews that year.
Right now, my grade on Lacy is in the middle of that pack—a 6.7 which falls under the broader label of "Dirty Starter." These are players that may not be instant impact starters right away, but will eventually slide into the top spot on the depth chart and will help their team.
The criteria for a 6.7 grade is: contributes in his first year, starts in his second year. Must be able to get on the field in some capacity as a rookie. Must be a candidate to start in his second year.
Let's Go to the Tape
Of course, the grade is the final assessment, so how does one get to that grade with Lacy? First and foremost—lots of tape! Living in SEC country, Alabama is on almost every weekend whether they're playing another SEC school or the community college down the road.
So, I've seen every snap of Lacy's college career, but for the purposes of scouting isolated three junior-year and two sophomore-year games. The opponents were Michigan, Arkansas, Notre Dame and LSU twice.
As expected, Lacy had a very small workload in those two sophomore-year games against LSU, but it was interesting to see how he has progressed as a blocker and in terms of both vision and balance. While Lacy clearly had skills as a junior, he proved to be a much more well-rounded prospect in his final season at Alabama.
The first thing that jumps out about Lacy is the obvious: He is a thickly built (5'11", 231), powerful runner. He showcases tremendous physical running and although he picked up the nickname "circle button" in school (a video game-inspired shout-out to the spin move he often employs) "hit stick" might be an even better moniker for him.
Lacy churns through contact in a way reminiscent of Jamal Lewis or early-career Jerome Bettis. It isn't as much about dragging people or blowing them up as it is about meeting tacklers head-on and refusing to go down on first contact.
Of course, the negative side to that positive is that Lacy often finds himself running to contact rather than away from it. In the NFL, that's a one-way ticket to the injured reserve, as Adrian Peterson has found out.
Everyone knows that SEC defenses are the cream of the crop and many defenders that Lacy was able to run through on Saturdays will be meeting him same place, just different day for a long time to come. However, an NFL season (and moreso career) is a marathon compared to college ball, and a lot of those SEC defenders will end up "going pro in something other than sports" as the commercial says.
Lacy will have to figure out ways to tweak his running style sooner rather than later in the pros.
He's got more skills to fall back on, however. As I mentioned earlier, Lacy's balance and vision improved dramatically into his junior season and became an extremely underrated facet of his game. The Alabama offensive line certainly opened up plenty of good-sized holes for him, but Lacy was able to take advantage of even the smallest of creases.
To complement that part of his game, Lacy displays good burst as well as the ability to make himself smaller in the hole. When I say burst, I don't mean acceleration. Think of burst as the point at which acceleration and intent meet, combined with a smattering of footwork. Lacy has good burst to the hole, even while he doesn't have the acceleration to hit the edge against NFL defenses.
These are acquired skills rather than natural talent—a credit both to his growth as a player and the coaching acumen at Alabama.
In the open field, Lacy displays good feet (again, dude's nickname is "circle button") as well as solid upper body and core balance. He'll never be mistaken for Darren Sproles, but for his size, he's got better-than-expected agility and can make defenders miss as well as keep his feet underneath him after contact.
This can be a negative to Lacy's game as well as it is not something he is naturally gifted with. He has a tendency to get heavy-legged at times and can (as earlier mentioned) run to contact rather than continue to be dynamic in the open field. I noticed this more toward the end of games. Notably, I didn't notice it at all in the National Championship against Notre Dame.
In layman's terms, that's called being a "gamer."
Lacy is also a build-up runner rather than a quick hitter. He doesn't possess great straight-line speed, but can breakaway from defenders when he is given room. That room isn't always present at the NFL level, so Lacy may not be able to make something from nothing quite as much as he did in college.
In terms of being a well-rounded back, Lacy has improved as a pass-blocker, but still needs more work here. Because of this, he is likely a two-down back as he enters the league. He tends to throw a shoulder into contact rather than take rushers on with a good base or cut-block them. He is capable as a receiver, but not special in that regard.
What Other Experts Have to Say
When Lacy gets going, he possesses enough speed to pull away in the open field. He's not shifty, but he makes up for that with an explosive quality to his running.
While he may never outrun a defense like Adrian Peterson, he has some Frank Gore to his running style. He's fast enough without being overwhelming in that department.
Lacy needs work in a few of the things that many NFL teams look for in their running backs. In comparison to his Alabama predecessors, Lacy isn't quite as versatile as Ingram (especially in the passing game), and he's not as dynamic as Richardson. His size and overall skill set would seem to relegate him to rotational status in the NFL, unless he's taken by a team that specifically covets power zone runners as the backbone of its offensive structure.
From NFL.com's draft profile:
Lacy has the build and the talent to be a starting running back in the NFL. He plays with light feet, and great balance, yet he still runs with a lot of power. While he's not a tremendously fast guy, he has more than enough tools to compensate. One thing that Lacy will have to improve going forward is his blocking.
The Bottom Line
Lacy is a talented back who hasn't had the normal workload of a college workhorse. He should be plenty of help to the team that drafts him and can fit in either man blocking or zone blocking schemes. Because of how hard he hits the hole, he may be a better fit for the latter. He may never be counted among the best at his position at the next level, but he should be a valuable piece to a team's puzzle.
Look for Lacy to go in the late first to early second round. If he hopes to go on the higher end of that, he will have to convince teams that he is healthy and in shape by working out for them. Depending on where he lands, he could be an immediate starter, but he will have to share the workload with a more talented pass-protector.
Solid fits for Lacy include but are not limited to: St. Louis Rams, Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Arizona Cardinals, New York Jets.
Michael Schottey is the NFL national lead writer for Bleacher Report and a member of the Pro Football Writers of America. Find more of his stuff at The Go Route.