2014 NFL Draft: Highlighting the Top 10 Running Backs

Matt Miller@nfldraftscoutNFL Draft Lead WriterFebruary 6, 2014

2014 NFL Draft: Highlighting the Top 10 Running Backs

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    The days of the workhorse running back may be over, but try telling that to the Seattle Seahawks or San Francisco 49ers. Tell Eddie Lacy that he's supposed to share carries in Green Bay. Tell Adrian Peterson he has to give up touches to Toby Gerhart. Please, try it. Film his response for us. 

    The running back isn't dead in the NFL, not by a long shot. The 2013 season was a reminder that the running game is still as important as anything in the game. The Seahawks rode Marshawn Lynch and a stout defense to a Super Bowl. The 49ers pounded Frank Gore into every defense they faced this year, while Colin Kaepernick struggled. Lacy put the Packers on his back when Aaron Rodgers went down. The Philadelphia Eagles and Kansas City Chiefs would not have been playoff teams without LeSean McCoy and Jamaal Charles, respectively.

    So, what do you want in a running back? I want them fast, with the vision to see the hole and great cutback ability, too. I want them able to catch the ball and make plays with their feet. I want them strong enough to play between the tackles, but nimble enough to bounce and accelerate.

    Running back is perhaps the toughest position to scout outside of quarterback, but it has to be done. Here's an in-depth look at "How to Scout Running Backs", but for today, here's your intro to the 10 best backs in the 2014 draft class. 

10. Devonta Freeman, FSU

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    Versatility—that's the name of the game for Florida State's Devonta Freeman. 

    The 5'9", 203-pound running back shows his athleticism and versatility immediately when you turn on the game film. He was able to rush for over 1,000 yards in a crowded backfield for the Seminoles this year, but he also had 22 catches and proved to be a valuable member of the offensive game plan. Producing in an offense as crowded as Florida State's earns Freeman major props.

    Projecting his talents to the pros, it's easy to see Freeman coming into the league as a third-down back. His speed, vision, hands and the fact that he can run inside and outside the tackles makes him valuable there. He'll need to work on things like blitz protection and blocking, but Freeman has the tools to be a major contributor in his first year.

9. De'Anthony Thomas, Oregon

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    The term "offensive weapon" became trendy last year, but it never really took off. Denard Robinson, the man the label applied to, struggled to find his footing as a rookie in Jacksonville. Other OWs—guys like Tavon Austin and Percy Harvinhave amazing talent but didn't offer the template other teams will look to steal when drafting their own weapon.

    That puts Oregon's De'Anthony Thomas in an interesting position, as he doesn't have one true position. Does he play running back at 5'9" and 170 pounds? Does he try to work on his route-running and move to wide receiver? Is he limited only to being a special teams and speed player? The answer will vary from team to team, but if an innovative team lands Thomas, he has unbelievable skills ready to be tapped in to.

    Thomas' best asset is his speed, and he has a lot of it. His top speed is as fast as anyone in this class, and he runs with great vision in the open field. Whether it's on an option run, a jet sweep or a punt return, Thomas has the moves and pure burst to kill a defense. The trick will be finding ways to get the ball in his hands.

8. Lache Seastrunk, Baylor

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    Lache Seastrunk comes in ranked at No. 8 among running backs, but he could be the first back off the board when the draft rolls around in May. That's how talented he is and how closely ranked the remaining running backs are together. At this point, it's all about personal preference of the team drafting.

    The team that drafts the former Baylor Bear will get a ton of speed. Seastrunk loves to attack the defense outside the tackle box, where he has the wiggle room to make tacklers miss and the jets to run away from the rest of the defense. Give him daylight, and he's gone. He'll find that opening on a run or pass out of the backfield. He's fast, he's versatile and his open-field vision is upper tier. Not bad, right?

    Seastrunk could be the fastest of the pure running backs in this class (excluding guys like De'Anthony Thomas), and he gets to top speed in a flash. But he's not just a straight-line sprinter. Seastrunk has good agility and lateral movement to make defenders miss in the hole, and he finds his cutback lane quickly. He's special in space, and if he can learn to play as well between the tackles, he'll be a starting running back within his first two years in the NFL.

7. Marion Grice, Arizona State

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    One of my favorite players in the 2014 NFL draft class, Arizona State's Marion Grice isn't a name you will hear or see much outside of this space. But that's OK; he'll be our secret. 

    Grice spent two seasons at Arizona State after receiving two years of excellent coaching at Butler (KS) Community College. At every level he's played, he's been a touchdown machine. Whether he was in high school, JUCO or Arizona State, Grice always found the end zone. And what teams will love is that he does it as a runner and a receiver. 

    At 6'0" and 205 pounds, Grice is also a bigger version of the dual-threat running back taking over today's NFL. He shows the power to run between the tackles but has the burst to get free outside and make plays. You'd like to see better patience in letting the hole develop, but that's a coachable point. What you can't coach is a feel for the end zone and the soft hands Grice brings to the table.

6. Bishop Sankey, Washington

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    One of the most productive running backs in the 2014 class, Washington's Bishop Sankey has the numbers to back up his game. But do his athletic skills translate to the NFL?

    We asked the same question of Montee Ball last year, and he did well in his first season. Sankey is in a similar situation.

    The biggest downside to Sankey's game is that he doesn't run with much power. You'd love to see him lower his pads and knock a linebacker over, but that's just not his game. And when you combine that with limited speed, you have a one-cut runner with great vision and patience but not much behind those runs. 

    That's worked for Frank Gore and Arian Foster, so don't get too down on Sankey's prospects, but know who you're drafting. Maybe he adds weight and strength and dedicates himself to running between the tackles, where his vision is crazy good, but Sankey has work to do if he has intentions of being a starting running back in the NFL.

5. Jeremy Hill, LSU

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    Drafting a player onto your NFL team is a lot like playing the lottery. You could strike it rich, or you could waste your $20. Jeremy Hill is the best example of this at running back. 

    The former LSU runner has everything you'd want from a pro power back. He's big (6'1", 235 lbs.) and runs with good burst and body lean when he's going downhill. And for a big guy, he has good agility and can shake a defender who meets him in the hole—that is, if he doesn't simply lower his pads and truck him.

    Hill comes with red flags, though. Off-field issues are there, and they'll be something teams have to investigate thoroughly before selecting the talented runner. While he was already on probation for another arrest in 2011, Hill was arrested outside a bar last April after punching another man. NFL teams will look the other way if you're talented enough, though, and Hill has day one starting ability at one of the most important positions on the field.

    He'll be drafted, but how early depends on how well teams can accept the baggage that comes with his undeniable talent.

4. Charles Sims, West Virginia

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    Charles Sims might be a better wide receiver than running back. No, really.

    The West Virginia running back is a fine ball-carrier, but go back to his time at Houston or his one season with the Mountaineers and you'll see him splitting out wide, running routes and attacking the ball in the air. It's a sight to see. But ask him to run between the tackles or off-tackle and it's pretty, too. Sims brings a lot to the table for NFL teams to devour.

    When you hear that a running back is a great receiver, it's almost second nature to expect that runner to be a smaller guy. You picture Darren Sproles or Dexter McCluster. Sims isn't built like that, though. He's built like Matt Forte. At 6'0" and 214 pounds, he has the bulk to handle the ball between the tackles and the strength to push the pile for tough yards. His thick legs and body lean take care of the rest.

    Sims has the all-around athleticism to start in an NFL backfield next year. He can run inside or outside, has the acceleration to be a problem for defenses if he gets loose and is a fluid, confident receiver, no matter where you release him into the route from.

    Remember this name, as he'll be impressing the league soon enough.

3. Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona

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    Sometimes, being the guy who does all the little things well is all you need. For Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey, his production, experience and three-down tool set are ideal in today's game. The only question to his game is if he has the speed and agility to get away from NFL defenses.

    Carey was super productive at Arizona, but he did so without being super fast, super strong or really remarkable in any athletic area. That can work, though, especially if the back has the vision and balance to find holes and create space on his own. Carey does that, and he shows the patience to attack openings or wait and trust his offensive line. Like I said, he does all the little things well.

    You won't see Carey dominate at the scouting combine, but turn on the game film and you see him consistently carving out yards and making plays. Whether it's four yards, six yards or nine yards, Carey chips away at the defense, and then you realize he's put up 150 yards and carried the offense for the whole game. 

    That's an asset NFL teams can appreciate. Arian Foster and Zac Stacy don't run away from defenses either, but they produce. And Carey will certainly be a producer.

2. Tre Mason, Auburn

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    System product or stud? That's the question I am asked the most when talking about Auburn's Tre Mason. But turn on the game film, and it's easy to fall in love with his agility, vision and raw speed in space.

    Mason definitely benefited from the Auburn running game implemented by head coach Gus Malzahn, running in tandem with quarterback Nick Marshall, but like any player, he still had to execute. Mason can have the table set for him by the offensive mastermind calling the shots, but it's up to him to get the job done. And he does—over and over again.

    Mason isn't the biggest back you'll evaluate, and at 5'9" and just over 200 pounds, there may be questions about his size and durability. That said, he comes into the NFL with very little wear and tear on his frame from his college days and shows the kind of agility to limit big hits and bounce off tacklers for extra yardage. 

    Mason is the type of three-down back you can build an offense around, and that's exactly what an NFL team will do early in his career.

1. Carlos Hyde, Ohio State

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    No player in the 2014 draft class helped himself more this season than Ohio State's Carlos Hyde.

    Before the season, Hyde was seen as a big back with little burst and off-field issues that led to a three-game suspension. That was before he took off against Wisconsin and then started dominating folks from there on out. Hyde was back, and he was better than before.

    The suspension must have opened some eyes, because Hyde came into the 2013 season looking faster, stronger, hungrier and more dominant than ever before. The late-round grade Hyde carried coming into the season fell apart, week by week. And now, heading into the combine, he's the best running back in the class. 

    At 6'0" and 242 pounds, Hyde has the size to punish a defense between the tackles, but this year he showed a second gear to run away from defenders once he cleared the first wave. That combination of power, speed, balance and body lean is what makes Hyde the best back in this year's class.