NFL Draft Preview: Running Backs

Posted Apr 16, 2013

South Carolina RB Marcus Lattimore might be the best back in the draft but his injury history will likely bump him down in the order. (Photo courtesy of Getty Images)

For the first time in nearly a decade, the Rams will enter this year’s NFL Draft with a bit of uncertainty at the running back position.

That’s because, for the first time since 2004, they will not have Steven Jackson in the fold and ready to handle the bulk of the work as the team’s workhorse running back.

After nine seasons in which he established almost every major rushing record in franchise history, Jackson departed for a three-year contract with the Atlanta Falcons. The move comes just shy of Jackson’s 30th birthday and at a time where he is hoping to pursue a Super Bowl while the Rams begin looking to the future at the position.

In fact, the Rams actually began looking to the future during last year’s NFL Draft when they doubled up on running backs in hopes of not only complementing Jackson but also perhaps finding his long term replacement.

That draft brought Isaiah Pead with the third of three second round picks and Daryl Richardson with the team’s final pick in the seventh round. Additionally, the team added power back Terrance Ganaway off waivers from the New York Jets just before the start of the 2012 season.

From that trio, the Rams received mixed results without enough sample size from any of the three to make any sweeping generalization about their roles moving forward in 2013 and beyond.

Richardson provided the most production among the backs remaining on the roster, posting 98 carries for 475 yards, an average of 4.8 yards per attempt. He started the season with a bang, ripping off long runs early in the season but his opportunities and production tailed off near the end of the season as the Rams relied on Jackson for their final push toward the postseason.

Pead never really got into a groove after a late arrival to camp caused by graduation rules that kept him at the University of Cincinnati for most of the offseason program. By the end of the season, Pead did get a handful of chances and flashed the elusiveness and speed that made him a priority pick for the Rams in 2012. He finished with 10 carries for 54 yards and three catches for 16 yards.

Ganaway appeared in just three games but did not get any touches in those contests.

Looking toward this year’s draft, the Rams believe in the backs in place and would like to get more chances for Pead and Richardson moving forward with Pead serving as a do it all type and Richardson as the speedy change of pace back.

What’s missing from the equation is a big, powerful back that could be used to move the chains on short yardage opportunities and, perhaps, to step in as a pass protector on third downs, things Jackson brought to the table.

While it’s possible Ganaway could fill the power back role, it’s also quite likely the Rams will turn to the 2013 NFL Draft at some point to fulfill that job.

Despite using two picks on backs last year, it’s not out of the question that another back could be added early in this year’s draft. Coach Jeff Fisher’s history in Tennessee would indicate a willingness to continually bolster the position.

To wit, Fisher’s Titans used a second-round pick on running back LenDale White in 2006, another second rounder on back Chris Henry in 2007 and a first-round selection on back Chris Johnson in 2008.

Should the Rams opt to go after a running back in this year’s draft, they will choose from a diverse group that doesn’t necessarily feature a star but does appear to have plenty of depth.

Headlining the class is Alabama’s Eddie Lacy, a big, powerful back with the ability to break tackles and move the chains between the tackles. Lacy could fit the bill of what the Rams are looking for.

Should Lacy be available when the Rams pick with either of their first-round selections, he could figure into the mix as a possible replacement for Jackson and complement to Pead and Richardson moving forward. It’s unlikely he’ll last to where the Rams choose in the second round.

South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore might be the top-rated back in this draft and a potential top 15 pick were it not for a pair of devastating knee injuries that cost him big chunks of his final two seasons with the Gamecocks.

Lattimore could be an ideal fit long term but it remains to be seen if the Rams can afford the draft currency in terms of the pick to land a player who likely would have to start the season on the Physically Unable to Perform list.

If the Rams opt to wait beyond the first round to draft a back, they’ll have plenty of options. UCLA’s Johnathan Franklin and Florida’s Mike Gillislee also could figure in as mid-round picks. Neither are necessarily big backs but they have the ability to run between the tackles and can help in pass protection, Franklin in particular.

Others who could fit the bill through the middle rounds include St. Louis native Montee Ball of Wisconsin, Texas A&M’s Christine Michael, Clemson’s Andre Ellington, North Carolina’s Giovani Bernard and Michigan State’s Le’veon Bell.

Later round options that could present themselves are Arkansas’ Knile Davis, LSU’s Spencer Ware and Stanford’s Stepfan Taylor, among others.

While fullbacks are something of a dying breed, it is possible the Rams could look to add one late in the draft or as an undrafted free agent. They parted ways with Brit Miller during the 2012 season and used tight end Lance Kendricks in that role after.

The Rams have tinkered with using Ganaway in that spot but it remains to be seen if they want to revert to having a full-time fullback on the roster again. If they do, Harvard’s Kyle Juszczyk, Florida State’s Lonnie Pryor and Ohio State’s Zach Boren are among the options. 

Top Five Running Backs

1. Eddie Lacy, Alabama – Big, powerful back who runs through arm tackles and finishes runs well. Only question is how he’d fare behind a less dominant offensive line.
2. Montee Ball, Wisconsin – The stocky St. Louis native produced some absurd numbers for the Badgers but handled a huge workload and doesn’t possess top end speed.
3. Christine Michael, Texas A&M – Perhaps the most complete back in the draft in terms of size and skill. Only held back by injury and off the field issues.
4. Johnathan Franklin, UCLA – Hard working back who does all the little things in terms of pass blocking and catching. Not the fastest or most elusive but just finds ways to get things done.
5. Andre Ellington, Clemson – Small but speedy back who could be a nice change of pace for a team that already has a bruiser.

NOTE: South Carolina RB Marcus Lattimore would probably top this list were it not for a pair of devastating knee injuries. If healthy, he’s a surefire first-round talent.

Sleeper: Kerwynn Williams, Utah State – Small but fast and productive, Williams has the chance to be a nice change of pace back and become the next little known back to make a difference at NFL level.

Top Five Fullbacks

1. Kyle Juszczyk, Harvard – Strong showing at the Senior Bowl let teams see he’s not afraid to mix it up with anyone and flashed good receiving skills out of the backfield.
2. Lonnie Pryor, Florida State – Fast and athletic, he’s not a true lead blocker but he could provide a different type of weapon from the position for whoever drafts him.
3. Zach Boren, Ohio State – More of a true lead blocker who plays with a bit of an old school chip on his shoulder. Tough and physical but not a great athlete.
4. Zach Line, SMU – More nimble and athletic than some others on this list but doesn’t necessarily do anything well.
5. Tommy Bohanon, Wake Forest – Big, powerful type who doesn’t have much speed but more than willing to bring the wood to open holes for his running back.

Sleeper: Michael Zordich, Penn State – Small but tough and has the ability to do some different things. Unlikely to be drafted but could steal a roster spot as an undrafted free agent in the right situation.