2016 NFL Draft: Running Backs Who Could Be Mid-Round Steals

Luke Easterling@@LukeEasterlingCorrespondent IFebruary 23, 2016

2016 NFL Draft: Running Backs Who Could Be Mid-Round Steals

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    Harry How/Getty Images

    Recent years have certainly given their share of cautionary tales when it comes to spending premium NFL draft picks on running backs, and finding value in later rounds seems to be the more prudent course of action every offseason.

    This year's crop of runners certainly has its big names—Ohio State's Ezekiel Elliott, Alabama's Derrick Henry—and second-tier studs like Louisiana Tech's Kenneth Dixon, Utah's Devontae Booker and Arkansas' Alex Collins.

    But what about the mid-round stars who seem to pop up and have success every year in the NFL, such as 2014's Devonta Freeman and Jeremy Hill? Can this year's draft class produce backs in the later rounds who can have immediate and sustained success in the pros?

    Here are five backfield bargains who could end up being huge steals on draft day.

Jordan Howard, Indiana

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    When the UAB football program was shut down, Jordan Howard was forced to find a new home to complete his college football career. After two productive campaigns for the Blazers, Howard proved he could rack up yards just the same in the Big Ten, rushing for at least 145 yards in every full game he played in last season.

    Did you catch the "full game" part? That's because durability is the biggest question mark for Howard, who missed all or part of seven games in 2015. He also suffered a torn meniscus and a pelvic stress fracture as a junior in high school.

    NFL.com's Lance Zierlein notes that while Howard's ability to stay healthy is concerning, he has the skill set to be successful early in his NFL career:

    Howard has the optimal size and talent needed to strap the pads on and become a productive workhorse for a team looking for one, true lead back. Howard's vision, power and subtle shiftiness allow him to create and break tackles along the way. Staying healthy in the NFL is a legitimate concern for Howard considering his relentless running style. If he can stay healthy, Howard has the ability to become an instant factor as an NFL starter.

    As more NFL teams move away from the "bell-cow back" approach to the running game, players like Howard will likely have a better chance at sustained success thanks to a decreased workload. If he can stay healthy and land in the right backfield, Howard has the talent and skill set to be a playmaker from day one in the pros.

Daniel Lasco, California

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    Teammates Jared Goff and Kenny Lawler will get more headlines throughout this year's predraft process, but Cal's Daniel Lasco is an impressive playmaker in his own right who could surprise many once he makes it to the pros.

    Viewed by most as a likely Day 3 pick, Lasco was limited to just 69 total touches in 2015 thanks to various injuries. But when fully healthy in 2014, he racked up nearly 1,500 total yards and 14 touchdowns for the Golden Bears.

    Lasco used his time off the field to learn the mental nuances of his position, and he feels prepared to make an impact in the NFL, per Connor Letourneau of the San Francisco Chronicle:

    It let me take a step back and visualize what I needed to do, and how I needed to do it. Everything happens for a reason, and I’ve always believed that. It is what it was, and now I’m blessed to say that I’m healthy and ready to go.

    Right now, my mind is at a great spot. I’m just excited for what’s in store the next couple months.

    At 6'0", 205 pounds, Lasco might be a bit light to take on anything more than a change-of-pace role early on in his NFL career, but he's a shifty back who can make things happen in space. He's also more physical than his size might suggest, and if he can avoid injuries, he could end up being a valuable weapon at the pro level for years to come.

Jonathan Williams, Arkansas

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    April L Brown/Associated Press

    After teaming up with Alex Collins to give Arkansas one of the best running back tandems in the country in 2014, Jonathan Williams was poised for another huge year before a foot injury cost him his entire 2015 season.

    But despite missing his entire senior campaign, Williams did everything he could to sharpen the mental side of his game, as he told SECCountry.com's Alex Martin Smith at this year's Senior Bowl:

    I really just want to show that I’m 100 percent back and show my love for the game. Show my intelligence. Even though this year, I didn’t get to play football, I still was in the meeting rooms and still on the boards just getting my football intelligence higher. That’s what I want to display to the scouts.

    At 5'11", 219 pounds, Williams has the frame to be a full-time starter in the NFL, but he'll have to prove he can stay healthy. His injury concerns could drive him down draft boards, but if he's able to prove himself durable, Williams could easily be as successful at the NFL level as Collins, who projects as an earlier draft pick by at least a round or two this year.

Paul Perkins, UCLA

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    This year's best value at running back might come in the form of UCLA's Paul Perkins, who ran wild through the Pac-12 over the past two seasons to the tune of nearly 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns on the ground.

    At 5'10", 210 pounds, Perkins is big enough to handle the pounding of a starting NFL running back, but it's his quick feet and explosiveness that could make him a big-time playmaker at the next level.

    Rob Rang of CBS Sports outlined some of Perkins' strengths back in December:

    Perkins is a classic slasher well suited to the spread attack in which he starred for the Bruins. He's a shifty runner, demonstrating both flexible joints to bounce laterally as well an explosive burst. Balanced and flexible, he's able to dip under the grasp of would-be tacklers and keep his feet, quickly building up to top speed.

    He's got a high running style that could leave him open to big hits, but Perkins is otherwise a fairly complete back who can make defenders look silly with his vision, patience and agility. He's a capable receiver out of the backfield and could rack up plenty of yardage as a rookie if he lands in the right spot.

Kelvin Taylor, Florida

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    The 2015 season had plenty of ups and downs for the Florida Gators, but the play of Kelvin Taylor gave fans in Gainesville plenty to be excited about on a regular basis.

    Though he's more well-known for being the son of former Gator running back and first-round draft pick Fred Taylor, the Belle Glade, Florida, native made a name for himself in 2015, rushing for over 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns for the SEC East champs.

    Dane Brugler of CBS Sports pointed out some of Taylor's attractive traits last month:

    Compact build with good bulk for his body type. Runs small between the tackles with forward lean to always finish forward. Physical, churning his legs through contact.

    Quick decisions as soon as he sees a sliver of daylight, finding the cutback lane. Sharp lateral cuts at the line of scrimmage with a quick accelerator to burst outside. Enough speed to get to the edge. Effort isn't a question, running with energy and toughness.

    Brugler goes on to note Taylor's reputation for being a hard worker as well as his effectiveness when it comes to ball security—zero fumbles on 510 career touches. He may not be the explosive playmaker his dad was, but the younger Taylor has the skills and work ethic to carve out a significant role in the NFL.

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