NFL Draft 100: Matt Miller's Top Running Backs

Matt MillerNFL Draft Lead WriterMay 1, 2014

NFL Draft 100: Matt Miller's Top Running Backs

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    The running back position isn't valued as highly as it might have been in previous years, but you still need a good running game to win a Super Bowl. In fact, the Seattle Seahawks rode Marshawn Lynch to the Lombardi Trophy this past season, following a recipe the Baltimore Ravens, New York Giants and others laid the groundwork for in year's past.

    We know you need a running back, but does the 2014 draft class have any worth taking?

    The goal of the NFL Draft 100 is to look at the film and determine who the best prospects are.

    The B/R NFL Draft 100 metric is based on scouting each player and grading the key criteria for each position. The criteria are weighted according to importance on a 100-point scale. Unlike our NFL 1000 series, this project factors in upside for each player, as the NFL draft is as much about upside as it is about production.

    Running backs are judged on power (20 points), speed (20 points), vision (30), receiving (10), upside (20) and all of the technique, athletic ability and football intelligence needed to play the position.

    In the case of ties, the ranking is based on which player I prefer personally.

    Subjective? Yes. But ties are no fun.

    I scouted each player with these key criteria in mind. The following scouting reports and grades are the work of months of film study and in-person evaluation.

     

    All combine statistics and height/weight information courtesy of NFL.com.

8. Terrance West, Towson

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Power

    19/20

    At 5'9" and 225 pounds, Terrance West has the size to be a bulldozer between the tackles. He can bounce off tacklers and doesn't go down with first contact. His natural leverage and body lean allow him to pick up plus yards after contact. West is at his best in goal-line situations, and he has the leg-churning power to drive opposing tacklers and be a big player between the tackles.

    Speed

    16/20

    West turned in a 4.54-second 40-yard dash time at the combine, and that's comparable to what you would expect to see from him on film when adjusting for level of competition. He doesn't have the speed to pull away from defenses or the second gear to run away in space, but he does a good job of accelerating through the hole and getting to his top speed in a hurry.

    Vision

    27/30

    West did a good job of picking and choosing his spots at Towson, but how will he do in the NFL? He can hesitate in the hole at times and doesn't show the elite quickness or agility needed to make the fast cutbacks that are required in the NFL. That said, his instincts are good, and he excels at finding small spaces and then using his power to push his way through the line. He can be a one-cut runner with good north-south skills.

    Receiving

    6/10

    West is raw as a third-down option in the passing game. He can execute swing passes and make the easy pitch-and-catch, but he doesn't show great hands outside the flats.

    Upside

    16/20

    West dominated the small-school level, but how well will he hold up as a power runner without great speed in the NFL? That's why his upside is in question. Towson rode him hard, and there have to be concerns about how many more hits he can take going forward.

    Overall

    84/100

7. Jeremy Hill, LSU

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    Jonathan Bachman/Associated Press

    Power

    19/20

    Jeremy Hill looks to have everything you'd want from an NFL running back. He's 6'1", 233 pounds, and he has the hulking physique to withstand punishment as a power runner. Unlike some other big runners, Hill uses his size well and runs with authority between the tackles. When a defender gets in his path, Hill relishes the chance to lower his shoulder and pop the tackler. He picks up positive yards post-contact and has the balance to keep his feet moving after that contact.

    Speed

    16/20

    While not fast (4.66-second 40-time), Hill is quick. He has nimble feet and uses them well to change direction and pull away from the first wave of defenders. He can be very tight-hipped and doesn't show great moves to elude defenders. He's going to take quite a few hits in the backfield.

    Vision

    25/30

    Hill is more of a one-cut runner in a power scheme, but he's a positive downhill mover. He doesn't show great cutback ability or open-field moves, but he creates his own holes at the second level. He finds openings and creases in the line and gets his pads squared without wasting steps or movement. Without great burst in the open field, he's limited in terms of what he'll do past the line of scrimmage or outside the hashes.

    Receiving

    7/10

    An above-average receiver, Hill wasn't used often as a pass-catcher. When thrown to, he has shown soft hands and a dependable ability to get upfield after the catch. He's a dump-off or swing-pass receiver only.

    Upside

    17/20

    Hill has the skills to be the best running back in the 2014 draft class, but he's also a gamble. He's been arrested twice for assault, suspended by LSU for the 2013 season opener and must prove he can stay on the field. If he can prove that such issues are in his past, Hill could be very special.

    Overall

    84/100

6. Devonta Freeman, Florida State

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Power

    15/20

    At 5'8" and 206 pounds, Devonta Freeman doesn't pack the punch of a power back. He struggles to run through tackles if met by a defender, and he is not a yards-after-contact player. Freeman has good body lean and will fall forward post-tackle, but he doesn't break many tackles using his power. Given his thick legs, he could improve here with better leg drive.

    Speed

    16/20

    Freeman is quicker than he is fast, and he shows good lateral quickness in the hole. He can make defenders miss with good agility but doesn't have the burst to run away from a defender. He's limited as a big-play threat, but he has enough shake and explosion to beat a defender to the edge.

    Vision

    27/30

    Freeman uses his lateral quickness to hit the creases he finds in the offensive line. He has a good ability to jump-cut and find cutback lanes, and he hits the holes with a full head of steam. He did benefit from wide holes in the Florida State offensive line—and more than a few defenses were so keyed on Jameis Winston that Freeman was a forgotten man after the handoff.

    Receiving

    9/10

    Like Ray Rice, Freeman is able to affect the game as a receiver out of the backfield and even when going in motion to the slot. He has soft hands and extends to make catches away from his frame. He's also a good route-runner, showing nice quickness in and out of breaks.

    Upside

    18/20

    A persistent back injury is a concern when determining Freeman's long-term potential, but as a receiver and outside runner, he's exactly what the NFL wants. When taking the lion's share of the carries, he could quickly prove to be better as a professional than he was in college.

    Overall

    85/100

5. Storm Johnson, Central Florida

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Power

    17/20

    Storm Johnson passes the eyeball test at 6'0" and 209 pounds. He has a powerful build with thick legs and the trunk to push the pile. This power allows him to run between the tackles and truck defenders, but he will give up extra yards at times by looking for contact instead of trying to evade defenders. Johnson doesn't run with high pads either, which is something most taller backs struggle with.

    Speed

    16/20

    Johnson has good speed for his size but doesn't have the explosive speed to be a threat to pull away from defenders on the edge. He has enough speed to quickly get through the line and attack the second level, but asking him to run toward daylight isn't something to expect he'll do consistently. That said, Johnson does have enough speed to rip off a few long runs.

    Vision

    25/30

    Learning to take the first hole is something Johnson must become accustomed to. Too often in the UCF offense, he looked to bounce runs outside instead of taking the inside lane. This issue became less prominent as he developed over the course of his career, but he must break the habit of trying to always bounce runs to the outside. When he does keep himself disciplined and runs inside, he shows good vision to identify rushing lanes and has secondary vision to make defenders miss. He's an ideal one-cut runner.

    Receiving

    9/10

    Johnson excels as a receiver and shows very soft hands. When playing out of the backfield or in motion, he's been able to show good ability as a route-runner with slippery movement post-catch.

    Upside

    18/20

    The biggest question with Johnson's game is his struggle to hold on to the football. Fumbles were an issue for him, but if he can improve his ball security, Johnson looks like an early starter in the NFL.

    Overall

    85/100

4. Bishop Sankey, Washington

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    JOE NICHOLSON/Associated Press

    Power

    15/20

    With a slight build at 5'9" and 209 pounds, Bishop Sankey isn't a ground-and-pound runner. He does most of his damage running off-tackle and in space, where he does show a willingness to lower his shoulder and take on tacklers. His between-the-tackles power is average, though, and he needs a lane opened for him to attack the defense in the trenches. Sankey has the physical tools to become a more powerful runner.

    Speed

    18/20

    A very strong, explosive player, Sankey has enough speed to be a threat as an outside runner. He can turn the corner and hit a second gear to pull away from defenders. He's also agile enough to make defenders miss in space. If he hits daylight, he's gone.

    Vision

    27/30

    Sankey has the balance and agility to find his way through trash, and he's shifty enough to make a quick cutback when a secondary lane opens up. His secondary vision is also good, as he makes easy, smooth cuts in the open field. Sankey knows how to read his blocks, and he shows good patience when letting plays develop.

    Receiving

    8/10

    A solid, productive receiver out of the backfield, Sankey shows good ability as a next-level receiver. He'll pull in passes away from his frame, and he can make plays in traffic too. Sankey is ready to step in as a receiver on third downs.

    Upside

    18/20

    Sankey has been used heavily at Washington, but he has immediate NFL impact talent. He could stand to improve as a receiver, blocker and when using his vision to make big plays on the edge, but he could easily be the best Year 1 back of this class.

    Overall

    86/100

3. Tre Mason, Auburn

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    Hal Yeager/Associated Press

    Power

    15/20

    Tre Mason doesn't have the ideal build for a power system, and at 5'8" and 207 pounds, he doesn't look the part as a between-the-tackles runner. That said, Mason does show the skills to bounce off tacklers, as he uses a well-timed spin move to get away from a tackler's grip. Mason has shown that he can handle a ton of carries and pound a defense, even if he's not the biggest or strongest back.

    Speed

    18/20

    Mason has the speed to hit the second level and explode through a defense. He gets to top speed very quickly and brings enough acceleration to make big runs in space. He has the start-and-stop skills to frustrate defenders and then explode toward daylight.

    Vision

    27/30

    The Auburn offense opened up huge holes for Mason, but he did his part in showing patience and letting plays develop in front of him. Mason demonstrates a good understanding of the running game and lets his blockers do their job. He reads the play well on the fly and has the quickness to adjust on the edge. As an inside runner, he can struggle to stick to the script and too often looks to bounce runs to the outside.

    Receiving

    7/10

    A little-used option as a receiver, Mason flashed the skills to be utilized in passing situations. Grading his receiving skills is largely a projection, as film study left too inconclusive of a result. But his ability as a kick returner and his hands on pitches, tosses and dump-offs was encouraging.

    Upside

    19/20

    Mason has big potential, but there will be questions about his ability to transition from the Auburn offense to an NFL system. If used in a zone rushing scheme, he has the speed, balance and vision to make an impact right away.

    Overall

    86/100

2. Charles Sims, West Virginia

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Power

    16/20

    Charles Sims could pass for Matt Forte if you saw them side by side. At 6'0" and 214 pounds, Sims has the build to withstand the pounding of an inside running game. He runs with good punch and will drive his legs through contact. What you don't get from Sims is great yardage after the defense gets to him. Learning to run lower will help his overall power.

    Speed

    17/20

    Sims has the first-step burst to get into the second level and accelerate away from defenders. He's shifty too and has the agility in space to make a defender miss with his hips and feet. He doesn't have that great speed to turn the corner and run away from a defense, but he can pick up chunks of yards.

    Vision

    26/30

    Primarily a shotgun runner, Sims will need to adjust to seeing the field from behind the quarterback in the NFL. He shows good patience working down the line of scrimmage and has the burst to cut and run when he sees a crease. He's not only a one-cut runner, but he does a good job of identifying cutback lanes and will bounce runs outside when the inside closes. Without great power, he can't always push through those inside openings and needs a clear lane to create in traffic.

    Receiving

    10/10

    Sims—at both Houston and West Virginia—has been the best receiver on his team while playing running back. He has exceptionally soft hands and is a smart, fluid route-runner with the skills to leave defenders in coverage.

    Upside

    19/20

    Put Sims in an NFL scheme, and he has the running skills and hands to be a major threat. The biggest question is whether his heavy touches in college will leave him with too little tread left on his tires.

    Overall

    88/100

1. Carlos Hyde, Ohio State

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    Jay LaPrete/Associated Press

    Power

    20/20

    Carlos Hyde (6'0", 230 lbs) fits the mold of the big, bruising power back. He has the thick lower body and wide chest to absorb tacklers and bounce off them in order to pick up yards after contact. He improved his footwork and keeps his legs moving through trash and arm-tacklers. With a high step that puts his knee in a player's facemask, Hyde can be dangerous between the tackles.

    Speed

    16/20

    A big area of improvement for Hyde in 2013 was his speed. In the past, he struggled to keep his weight in check, and it affected his burst. Now that his conditioning is in control, he's playing with exceptional burst, and he is showing the second gear needed to pick up those 10- to 15-yard runs.

    Vision

    28/30

    Hyde sees through the trash well and can pick and slide on inside runs to find a clean lane. He's similar to Frank Gore in that he won't always see the big outside lane to bounce to, but he picks his way through inside runs and somehow comes out clean. His inside vision is much better than what we see from him on the outside. He could stand to be more patient letting outside runs develop.

    Receiving

    9/10

    Hyde has rare hands and route-running skills for a big back. He does a great job of plucking the ball out of the air on dump-offs and can be an effective player on screen plays. 

    Upside

    17/20

    Hyde made major improvements before the 2013 season and really reinvented himself as a running back. If he can sustain this level of play, he could be a high-impact player. But if he struggles with his weight or speed, he will find it difficult to stay on the field.

    Overall

    90/100