The age of the first-round running back has long since come to pass as NFL teams devalue running backs' importance, and for good reason. But along with Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Arkansas RB Alex Collins has the unique skill set to buck the trend and match last year's draft with two Round 1 running back selections. While he'll have competition for draft position with Elliott and Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, Collins will earn high marks throughout the draft process with his sights set on the top 32 picks.
The top-ranked running back in the country coming out of high school, per 247Sports, Collins emerged as the SEC Freshman of the Year en-route to a thriving career at Arkansas. Sharing time with Jonathan Williams, another NFL-worthy back, early in his career, Collins remains relatively fresh among NFL running back prospects, with three years of experience and under 700 career touches.
Offering elite acceleration when he has space, Collins possesses top-end speed that should approach the 4.4-second level at the NFL combine's 40-yard dash, and he gets to that top speed in a hurry during live-game action. That type of acceleration, coupled with his sheer size and bulk, gives him a Le’Veon Bell-like impact in the open field, as he can win with speed or power in open space.
Offering plus-strength at first contact, Collins works through tacklers even before he’s built up speed. In this play against Texas Tech, Collins couples that initial break through contact with that elite acceleration, gaining speed at an alarmingly fast pace and leaving second- and third-level defenders behind him en route to a long touchdown run:
He can be a bit off balance and reckless laterally when initially getting to the hole. Offering a one-cut-and-go running style when his initial hole is open, Collins gains speed at a high level and turns into a downhill, remarkably physical open-field runner.
The occasional issues in his initial running angles stem from an overeagerness to get into one-on-one opportunities. He can get lost in his initial burst at times, and could stand to play with a bit more control as he approaches the hole on most non-draw plays.
However, that primarily stems from his understanding that few college tacklers can finish against him in one-on-one opportunities. His initial-step issues are a coachable fix, and with that being his biggest issue, it could simply be a matter of a year of development before Collins is trustworthy enough to not miss opportunities at the NFL level.
He keeps his feet moving persistently at contact, and stays strong with a willingness to fight through double tackles. He’s willing to lower his head and bulldoze upfield, keeping his feet moving. He wasn’t asked to do this often at the college level thanks to his offense and the spread nature of his blocks, but he’s displayed the ability to throw off-balance defenders off him in the red zone and initiate physicality himself. Through contact and as he splits tight gaps at the second level, he’s able to both get skinny and balanced along with playing with great ball security.
His acceleration coupled with quick cuts laterally at the second level allow him to consistently gain separation and keep his top speed in the open field. His vertical speed rarely loses steam as he changes direction subtly in the open field, and despite appearing and playing like a bigger, more physical back, Collins offers elite open-field maneuvers to spring free.
In this play against Kansas State, notice how he works around the edge with a slower buildup, accelerates once he passes the first level and evades the open-field tackler easily with an inside cut, gaining speed at a remarkably high level for a tackle-breaking running back:
His initial vision and anticipation of defensive alignments could be improved, however, as his offensive system at times allowed for larger gaps than he’ll see at the pro level. But that’s generally true of many top running backs in offenses that threaten horizontally and vertically.
Finally, he received ample work as a pass-catcher in his junior season, including lining up in the slot, and has better than expected route-running footwork and spins his head back to the quarterback with control and readiness. Collins’ flashes as a receiver stem from confidence in space and in one-on-one matchups. He’s not an efficient route-runner yet, but he’s comfortable off of play action and in delayed routes.
Collins dips his head occasionally in pass protection on the perimeter, but he’s effective against both speed- and power-rushers. That said, he is much further along and has more experience, than most college running backs entering the NFL draft
To offer first-round value as a running back, a prospect needs to show rare running upside that can single-handedly lead an offense. With most of the NFL's top running backs being drafted after Round 1, or not at all, it's much easier to dismiss the position on the first day rather than appreciate the elite talent.
Collins doesn't have to be a Todd Gurley or Adrian Peterson type talent, but he needs to boast a skill set that can offer an offense an impact that few can provide at the NFL level. The former top-rated high school running back has the bulk, strength and acceleration combination that already puts him in the upper echelon of NFL running backs as soon as he's drafted.
It'll take at least a year in the NFL before his complete upside can be realized at the NFL level, but Collins will receive lofty draft comparisons and expectations throughout the draft process.
Collins has to earn a first-round grade from NFL teams, and at his position, with other top running backs vying for the same spot, it won't be an easy task. But he is one of the few elite skill-position talents in the 2016 NFL draft, and with so few franchise-changing players in each draft class, Collins may be too special to pass on in Round 1.