2014 NFL Draft Positional Preview (Running Backs)

By Nick Paulenich

Special to Pro Football Guru

Courtesy of NFL draft writer Nick Paulenich, here is the 13th in our series of positional previews for the 2014 NFL Draft. Nick’s rankings will include the Top 5 players at each position. So far, Nick has previewed the top defensive tackles, defensive ends, the inside linebackers and outside linebackers, safeties and cornerbacks available in this year’s upcoming draft. He has also taken a look at the top kicking and punting prospects. On offense, there’s a look at the top centers, guards and tackles, as well as the tight ends and wide receivers.

Part 13: Running Backs

Overview: Last year, the first back did not come off the board until the fifth pick in the second round (Giovani Bernard, Bengals). In the same round, four more backs were drafted. The trend may continue in 2014.

The top back is Ohio State’s Carlos Hyde, who could sneak into the very end of the first round, but most likely will be a second-round pick. After Hyde, there are the backs such as Washington’s Bishop Sankey and LSU’s Jeremy Hill, who could go in the second- to third-round. Backs like Auburn’s Tre Mason (size) and Boston College’s Andre Williams (injuries, lack of receiving skills) have question marks but will go in the second- to third-round.

What to watch for is where backs like Kent State’s Dri Archer and Oregon’s DeAnthony Thomas land. Neither are every down backs, but they are dynamic playmakers who could fit into a Darren Sproles-like role.

Small-school stud Terrance West of Towson will garner some attention as well after rushing for 2,509 yards and 41 touchdowns last season and impressing scouts in the postseason. The breakdown:

1. Carlos Hyde, 5-11 7/8, 230 lbs., Ohio State

In 2013, Hyde was a Third-team All-American and earned the Big Ten’s Ameche-Dayne Running Back of the Year award as he rushed for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns. He owns the Ohio State record for best yards per carry average for a career (6.1), single season (7.3 in 2013) and game (10.2 in 2013). He led the Big Ten in scoring and touchdowns in 2012 and 2013. Hyde missed the first three games of 2013 season for conduct not representative of the football program due to a bar altercation with a woman (charges were dropped). He was the first running back to rush for 1,000 yards under Urban Meyer.

Strengths: Has power and durability. Fights through traffic. Accelerates well for size and has good vision and ability to cut. Can serve as a lead blocker or pass catcher.

Weaknesses: Has had character concerns due to off-the-field issues. Lacks vertical speed.

Projection: Late first- to second-round pick

2. Bishop Sankey, 5-9 1/2, 209 lbs., Washington

Sankey earned Second-team All-American honors in 2013. Last season, Sankey broke the school-record for rushing yards in a single-season with 1,870 (previous record-holder was Corey Dillon with 1,695 in 1996). In 2012, Sankey rushed for 1,439 yards, the third-highest total in UW history. His 37 career rushing touchdowns is tops in school history.

Strengths: Picks through traffic with a shifty style. Runs with a good pad level and follows blocks well. Can run over or shake a defender. Has good receiving and pass protection skills.

Weaknesses: Needs to improve upper body strength, field vision and creativity. Lacks size and can wear down.

Projection: Second-round pick

3. Jeremy Hill, 6-0 5/8, 233 lbs., LSU

Hill, a First-team All-SEC selection by the Associated Press, left Baton Rouge with two seasons of eligibility remaining. He rushed for 2,156 yards and 18 TDs on 345 carries during his career, including 1,401 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013. His 6.9 yards per rush in 2013 is an SEC record for a running back with at least 200 carries (previous record of 6.79 was held by Georgia’s Garrison in 1992). Hill has had off-the-field issues dating back to high school. At LSU, Hill was arrested and charged with simple battery in April 2013 after punching a man at a campus bar.

Strengths: Runs with good pad level, break tackles and get yards after contact. Can run with power or laterally.

Weaknesses: Has character concerns due to off-the-field issues. Needs to improve pass catching skills as well as recognition against the blitz

Projection: Second- to third-round pick

4. Tre Mason, 5-8 1/2, 207 lbs., Auburn

Mason exploded in the final three games of the 2013 season, rushing for 663 yards against Alabama (164), Missouri (304) and Florida State (195). For his efforts, Mason was a Heisman Trophy finalist and named Second-team All-American by several outlets. He also earned SEC Offensive Player of the Year honors and set the school record for rushing yards in a season (1,816) and rushing touchdowns (23).

Strengths: Runs with excellent balance and good pad level. Can run through traffic well. Accelerates quickly with good change of direction skills. Has pass receiving skills. Returns kickoffs.

Weaknesses: Lack of size and pass protection skills.

Projection: Second-to third-round pick

5. Andre Williams, 5-11 3/8, 230 lbs., Boston College

Williams, the Eagles all-time leading rusher with 3,739 yards, capped his career with huge 2013 season. He led the nation in rushing with 2,177 yards en route to be named a consensus All-American. He earned the Doak Walker Award (given to the nation’s top running back). Williams was a finalist both the Heisman and Maxwell Awards.

Strengths: Equipped with size. Runs with balance and power. Falls forward and gets yards after contact.

Weaknesses: Takes too long to accelerate and runs upright. Lacks receiving skills (10 career catches).

Projection: Third-round pick

Others to Watch: Dri Archer, Kent State; Ka’Deem Carey, Arizona; Lache Seastrunk, Baylor; Charles Sims, West Virginia; De’Anthony Thomas, Oregon

Small-School Sleepers: Jerick McKinnon, Georgia Southern; Terrance West, Towson

Next up: Quarterbacks

Nick Paulenich is an experienced NFL writer and researcher and the founder of The Sports Savant. You can find Nick on Twitter at @npaulenich.