Just about everyone agrees that a running back probably won't go in the first round of the 2014 NFL draft, but who goes first is a matter of debate.
More than almost any position in the entire draft, running back is a complete mystery as to how the different prospects will come off the board. The more that is "leaked" about different teams' preferences throughout the process, the more it seems as if no one knows anything about which player teams are favoring thanks to differing values and plenty of misinformation flying around.
One of the top backs on most people's boards is Ohio State workhorse Carlos Hyde. Much of the season focus was placed on other backs like Ka'Deem Carey from Arizona and Tre Mason of Auburn, but Hyde had a small but vocal contingent all season long.
Further, many of Carey's proponents eventually found themselves switching allegiances after the much smaller back disappointed at the combine.
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The question, then, is if the stock carousel stops here or if another back will find his way to the top of the class between now and May. An even better question is if Hyde deserves this spot or if he's simply the default choice in a lackluster class.
Hyde Offers the Most to a Modern NFL Offense
The league is changing.
Spoiler alert: The NFL has become a passing league. But that doesn't mean running backs have become completely useless. Some of the best offenses in the league last season had backs they could lean on (Philadelphia Eagles, LeSean McCoy; Chicago Bears, Matt Forte; San Diego Chargers, Ryan Mathews).
'14 RB draft class not awe inspiring, but has nice variety both in body type & versatility. Will be 3 or 4 significant rookie contributors.— Louis Riddick (@LRiddickESPN) April 18, 2014
What it does mean, though, is teams are no longer looking for someone who will simply pick up three yards and a cloud of dust. Offenses used to be built around the run and took advantage of teams overplaying the run with the pass. These days, teams are building around the pass, and a good running back is needed to take advantage of nickel and dime packages.
Enter, Carlos Hyde.
At 6'0", 230 pounds, Hyde is bigger than what was once considered prototypical back size and fits into what many consider the "power back" category of runners. Once upon a time, that may have been seen as a disadvantage in draft projection, but in an era where backs are going to be asked to pass block and run without a fullback in front of them, it's darn-near perfect.
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According to their body mass index, every back on that list is "obese." There aren't many scat backs being drafted very highly these days, and that's because when a team runs, it wants to have tough, durable and capable blocking. If a team needs a home run, it's not handing the ball off; it's throwing it 40 yards down the field.
Studied more tape on Carlos Hyde...love his burst thru the hole & he has some wiggle at the 2nd level to avoid tkls. My top RB.— Daniel Jeremiah (@MoveTheSticks) March 17, 2014
More and more, being a bigger "power back" is becoming the prototype.
As for what else Hyde brings to the table, let's turn to Bleacher Report featured columnist Ryan Lownes, who put together the scouting report on the big fella. He gave him a second- to third-round projection, saying:
One of college football’s great bounce-back stories, Carlos Hyde responded to a three-game suspension by elevating his play to new levels. In the best shape of his life, he carved Big Ten defenses with improved speed, agility and burst. Arguably the top senior running back in an unspectacular class, he is sure to tempt teams looking for a potential workhorse in the backfield. While he lacks proficiency as a receiver, he should fit well in most offensive schemes.
While Hyde didn't do much as a receiver in college, it's important to not knock a guy for being unable to do something when the reality may simply be he wasn't asked to (not saying Lownes did that, just making the point).
At Hyde's pro day workout, he showcased extremely soft hands and comfort as a receiver out of the backfield. He may never be Forte (or even former West Virginia back Charles Sims, in this same class), but he won't be a liability either.
More importantly, as mentioned before, teams are looking for backs who can block. As a pass-blocker, Hyde is a punisher who can make even a top-notch rusher think twice before trying to bull rush.
Speaking of punishing...there's his running style.
Picture this scenario: one back, three (maybe four) wide receivers. The tight end, if there even is one, is split out and hasn't blocked all season. The offensive linemen's splits are wider than what just about all of us were taught in high school, and most of them are in a two-point stance. The defense, to counter, has one linebacker and six defensive backs out on the field. The defensive tackles are widened in their techniques as well.
A draw is called.
Which do you want on your team, a punishing downhill runner who will run through those defensive backs or the guy who's going to dance around in the backfield, reverse course and eventually get dragged down from behind for a two-yard gain?
That scenario was once a pipe dream for offensive coordinators, but it has now become commonplace. That scenario is why Hyde has a real chance to be the first back taken in 2014.
If Not Hyde, Then Who...and Why?
If readers have been following the NFL draft long enough, it's easy to know the second someone starts making lead-pipe lock-style predictions, they're almost assured to go wrong. Because of that, it's impossible to say Hyde will go first; in fact, it might be a safer bet to put one's proverbial money on the field.
(Note: If you find yourself betting real money on the draft, seek professional help.)
Although the longtime comparison to Hyde has been Carey, the most likely prospect to supplant him is Auburn's Tre Mason. At 5'8", 207 pounds, Mason has a BMI of 31.5. So, while not as traditionally "big" as Hyde, it's crazy to think of him as a smaller back.
While still having some bulk on his frame, Mason is considerably faster than Hyde. More importantly, his burst (which in scouting terms can almost be thought of as where acceleration meets violence) gets him to the line of scrimmage and into the second level while Hyde is still steps behind.
Overall, Mason is comparable to last year's first back taken—Giovani Bernard—while Hyde is more of an Eddie Lacy-type runner. While all of the things I said about certain teams liking their ideal backs to look a lot like Hyde were true, plenty of teams find it awfully hard to pass up guys who can take it the distance.
The knocks on Mason, however, are pretty simple and very real. Coming from a niche Auburn rushing attack, Mason will likely never see those types of plays (or those types of wide-open lanes) ever again. Like a quarterback struggling to adapt to an NFL-style passing attack, Mason will be in a whole new world on Sundays.
Fumbles, lack of blocking ability, similar lack of experience receiving as Hyde, a presupposition to dancing rather than running downhill—all of these things stand in the way of Mason coming off the board before the rest of the running back class.
But, oh, that speed.
Central Florida back Storm Johnson has a cult following of supporters, but that cult (said as lovingly as possible, I promise) is full of very smart football minds like Greg Bedard of Monday Morning Quarterback. Johnson is a fantastic one-cut runner who could end up being the most productive back of the class, especially if he ends up in a zone-blocking scheme.
If a team like the Cleveland Browns—with Kyle Shanahan as offensive coordinator and a need at running back—are the first team to pull the trigger on a runner, it could be Johnson.
Some, like Mike Mayock, prefer Washington's Bishop Sankey. Former NFL scout Daniel Jeremiah says teams like LSU's Jeremy Hill. While I might not take either as the first back, a couple of my favorite backs in the class are West Virginia's Charles Sims and Baylor's Lache Seastrunk—both of whom I would be more than happy to have on any team I were hypothetically running.
Who is the best back in the draft class?
See, all of these backs bring different traits to the table. Sims is the class' best receiver. Seastrunk is a phenomenally explosive athlete. Hill is a pure power back, and so is Boston College's Andre Williams. Kent State's Dri Archer (listed by some as a receiver) is a Dexter McCluster-type who was once listed as a potential first-rounder by Pro Football Talk.
Different schemes, different predilections, different coaching styles could make any team value some of those backs above the others. That's only assuming on-field ability. Who knows how those backs (or anyone) acquitted themselves in combine interviews that might shift the field a bit.
Hyde, as much as anyone, has a chance to be one of the top backs and one of the most productive players in this draft class. Still, in a league that seems to be valuing backs in the draft less and less, it's not a sure thing.
However, if he runs in the NFL anything like he ran at Ohio State, the team that ends up with him will be very happy with its selection—first round, first back taken or otherwise.