Last year's NFL draft saw zero running backs taken in the first round, but AP Offensive Rookie of the Year Eddie Lacy proved to be an excellent investment by the Green Bay Packers en route to a Pro Bowl season.
There are several ball-carriers who at least warrant consideration to come off the board earlier in 2014 than Lacy did at No. 61 overall. The crop of talent is deep and thus could force the hands of front offices seeking a franchise-caliber back.
After all, the Seattle Seahawks' road to Super Bowl XLVIII was paved by physicality and a hard-nosed rushing attack catalyzed by Marshawn "Beast Mode" Lynch. As pass-happy as the league is in the modern era, a strong running game is required to keep defenses honest.
Here is a look at the best candidates to be selected first in this year's draft, taking into account their production and how their skill sets translate to the pros.
Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
By no coincidence, the back built to thrive in the NFL most in this class is comparable to Lacy in terms of build and underrated burst through the hole.
Hyde's running lanes were aided by Buckeyes dynamic quarterback Braxton Miller, but his quickness, balance and vision at 6'0", 242 pounds is excellent. That makes him hard enough to bring down in the open field—a place he often gets to, because he gets north-south and gets to the second level faster than defenses can often anticipate.
Bleacher Report draft expert Matt Miller weighed in on the Hyde and Lacy draft dynamic:
If you're upset that your team passed on Eddie Lacy, just hope they draft Carlos Hyde.— Matt Miller (@nfldraftscout) January 4, 2014
Sitting out the first three games of his senior season actually helped Hyde take some wear and tear off his massive frame. That showed as the year progressed, because he ran for at least 100 yards in each of his last nine contests, totaling 1,521 yards on 7.3 per carry and 15 touchdowns on the ground.
Like Lacy at Alabama, Hyde didn't get a chance to show off his hands out of the backfield as much but has demonstrated adequacy in that regard.
Although Hyde didn't play in the Senior Bowl, it shouldn't hurt his standing. He has the best combination of tools and size of all his peers, and he should be chosen in Round 1 of the draft.
Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona
Hyde's 31 touchdowns over the past two seasons are sensational, but no one can compete with the mind-boggling numbers Carey has produced over the past two seasons.
Without a viable passing game in 2013, Carey still managed to build on the success of his sophomore campaign with 1,885 yards and 19 TDs, giving him 42 rushing scores in his last two years in Tucson.
Wildcats head coach Rich Rodriguez said that no one ran harder than Carey in college football in the past decade, per Daniel Berk of the Arizona Daily Star:
RR also said that nobody in college football over the past 10 years ran harder than Ka'Deem Carey. Production certainly backs that up.— Daniel Berk (@DSBerk) February 5, 2014
That's a strong endorsement and also reflects the drive and swagger with which Carey plays, which should serve him well at the next level.
The comparison to St. Louis Rams stalwart Zac Stacy accentuates the point about running backs. Those teams thin at the position would have loved to have Stacy this past year, as he amassed 973 yards rushing and seven TDs with Kellen Clemens under center for most of that time.
While Stacy's status as a fifth-rounder illustrates the volatility at the position, it's also a testament to how franchises can miss out on landing a decisive runner to set the tone versus the league's toughest defenses.
Carey has a knack for finding the end zone and has a compact frame at 5'10" and 207 pounds. With solid pass-catching ability to go with his sage instincts, the team that nabs Carey won't regret it.
If he falls as far as Stacy did in the draft, Carey will be viewed as one of the big steals. Don't expect a team in need to wait this time around, though.
Tre Mason, Auburn
Who will be the best NFL running back?
Mason managed 1,816 yards (5.7 average) and 23 TDs to go with 12 receptions despite playing in a such a run-heavy offense that saw QB Nick Marshall rarely take to the air.
The 5'9", 205-pounder runs a lot bigger than he's listed, with an ability to generate yards after contact with his low center of gravity. Combine that with breakaway speed to rip off big gains and the faculties to make defenders look silly in space, and Mason's likeness to Ray Rice makes a lot of sense.
I guess that's why they've got to watch tape. I'm not afraid to put my head and nose in there and get dirty. I feel like I can run between the tackles and also outside the tackles. I just try to be very dynamic and run the ball different ways.
The NFL Scouting Combine will be a great place for Mason to win teams over and prove the draft advisory board's third-round grade wrong. Realistically, though, Mason isn't going to go much higher than Round 2 unless a team is over the moon for him and doesn't believe he'll still be available.
Look for Mason to be in the mix in the middle or latter portions of the second round and to serve as a productive change of pace as a rookie—if not a viable featured back.