There’s a lot of intrigue surrounding this year’s running back class for the 2016 draft. We have an elite prospect who will go early, boosted by the impact Toddy Gurley had his rookie year, and the reigning Heisman trophy winner about whom opinions vary greatly when projecting NFL success. A number of juniors have given the RB class a boost of quality as well. If there’s one position where it’s difficult to criticise almost any underclassmen who enters the draft early, it is this one, where career length and durability are always a question that sees scouts prefer less wear and tear from too many carries in college. Sr = Senior, Jr = Junior, So = Sophomore. An “r” prefix indicates a redshirt year (sat out for a year without playing, usually their first year of college).
1. Ezekiel Elliot, Ohio State, Jr. 6ft 0, 225 lbs
Grade: 1st Round
Although having a nice season up to that point, Elliot really exploded as a superstar in the last few games of a 2014 season that ended in victory for the Buckeyes in the first ever playoff for the National Title. In the final 3 games (the Big 10 Conference Title game vs Wisconsin, and playoff wins over Alabama and Oregon), Elliot totalled a massive 696 yards and 8 touchdowns. While his fellow late-season star teammate Cardale Jones wasn’t able to replicate his heroics in 2015, Elliot only built on his, putting together a huge year. The junior back finished with 1,878 yards on 273 carries, a 6.88 yards per carry (YPC) average, and 23 touchdowns. The production was consistently impressive, going over 100 yards in 12 of the 13 Ohio State games this season. His only blemish being a rather forgettable performance in their costly single loss to Michigan State, with only 12 rushes for 33 yards. What wasn’t forgettable was the unfortunate comments in the heat of the moment that followed that defeat, as Elliot called out his own coaches for bad playcalling before announcing his departure at the end of the year in a less than ideal manner. He did respond the right way in the remaining games to close out his college career on a high note with two big time performances versus rivals Michigan, then Notre Dame in the Fiesta Bowl. Elliot isn’t quite the unique talent Todd Gurley was out of college, but could end up being a higher pick regardless (Gurley went 10th overall). He is as complete a back as you can get, with no flaws to his game. Elliot has an ideal combination of size, strength and speed. He can create both up the middle and laterally, with the ability to churn out the tough yards just as well as he can break away and take the ball the distance on long runs. His vision and decision-making are superb, allowing him to create even when opponents are loading the box against him. What is really impressive in particularl is the way Elliot lowers his shoulder to finish runs, initiating the contact and delivering hits himself on defenders rather than the other way around, and always seems to fall forward as he fights for extra yards. The toughness element is never lacking. That complete all-round ability extends to the passing game, where Elliot is very accomplished at running routes and catching out of the backfield. Though he hasn’t had a receiving touchdown since his freshman year, his 55 receptions the past two seasons are a solid contribution, and looks very natural when he is called upon. Elliot is not just NFL ready, but ready to step in immediately as a focal point of an offense, which should more or less guarantee being another rare back these days to be worthy of an early first round pick.
2. Derrick Henry, Alabama, Jr. 6ft 2, 242 lbs.
Grade: 2nd Round
There’s added scrutiny that comes from being the Heisman Trophy winner at draft time. That isn’t helped by the varied success that recipients of the award can have as professionals. Furthermore, recent running backs from Alabama have likewise been hit or miss. Mark Ingram, who also won the Heisman, struggled in his early years before establishing himself with the Saints. Eddie Lacy has had a period of success but is coming off a poor year and the less said about Trent Richardson the better. Rather than compare him to other backs from his school, comparing him to Le’Veon Bell might be more fitting, at least in terms of considering his upside. Similarly built to Henry, Bell faced many of the same questions when entering the league about replicating his success when faced with bigger and faster defenders that he can’t always overpower as he did in college. That worked out rather well for the Steelers and could do also for whoever chooses Henry. The junior did appear at times to be a man among boys this season. His bulldozing style up the middle wears down opponents and can take several defenders to bring him down. While not particularly elusive or blessed with a quick change of direction, when he gets up to full speed he is practically unstoppable at his size, and his signature stiff arm move flattens would-be tacklers. Unfortunately, he doesn’t always get that opportunity to accelerate, too often being stuffed within the first couple yards for little gain. Without the ability to move well laterally a run defence that clogs up the middle, forcing him to bounce outside renders him much less effective. Although his team won the national championship, and he did contribute 6 TDs in the big final three games of the year, Henry was (relatively) less effective against some strong defences in Florida, Michigan State and Clemson who limited him to 4.22 YPC over that stretch. Henry will have to prove over the pre-draft months in workouts that he can be a factor in the passing game. Though he had 5 receptions against Ole Miss in week 3, he caught just 4 passes over the 12 games since. That is in part due to the use of Kenyon Drake on passing downs, but still is a slight question. In limited opportunities he has shown good hands catching out of the backfield, and his ability to completely stonewall blitzing linebackers flying at him at full speed is impressive, giving Henry the ability to step in and contribute straight away for the team that drafts him. In his award-winning season, Henry finished with 2,219 yards on a heavy workload of 395 carries (a number higher than evaluators would like) at 5.62 YPC and 28 rushing scores.
3. Alex Collins, Arkansas, Jr. 5ft 11, 218 lbs.
Grade: 2nd-3rd Round
It was no surprise to see Collins choose to enter the 2016 draft after the completion of this season. As mentioned, scouts get concerned about the wear and tear of too many carries entering the league, and Collins has been a big time contributor for the Razorbacks right from his true freshman season through his entire college career. In addition, he has proven himself under the pressure of being the lead back this year with his partner in the ground game (more on him later) out for the season, and was able to finish on such a high note in Arkansas’s bowl win over Kansas State that will be fresh in the memory of scouts, rushing for 185 yards at a massive 8.04 YPC and 3 touchdowns in his last college game. Collins’ time at Arkansas got off to a slightly unusual start when his mother, who didn’t want him to sign for the team, stole his letter of intent and ran off with it. Eventually he got his father to sign a new copy instead and his decision has proved a good one. Collins has gone over 1,000 yards in each of his three seasons, the first two while splitting time with Jonathan Williams. Collins has good size for the position, but also excellent explosive burst and power. In his earlier days, his game was mostly about north-south running for the most part, often without a great deal of vision or patience involved, but he made it work with his ability to gain yards after contact, fighting and churning his legs or breaking tackles. He still does that, getting the most out of every run, always falling forward. Now though, he has shown so much improvement with his awareness and vision to create better, and showing improved lateral movement and footwork. Collins has to be one of the better athletes among the top running back prospects. He still needs work to provide a complete game though. In three full seasons, Collins has provided just 27 career receptions.
4. Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech, Sr. 5ft 10, 212 lbs.
Grade: 3rd Round
Though coming from a smaller school in Conference USA, Dixon chose the Bulldogs over offers from SEC teams LSU, Arkansas and Ole Miss, so he certainly had the talent out of high school but chose to go somewhere he could play immediately. It worked out well too, with a highly productive career that sees him leave with the second most combined rushing and receiving touchdowns in NCAA history with 87 in his four years. Though he missed time as a Senior, Dixon still finished with 1,070 yards (5.43 YPC) and 19 rush TDs, with 467 yards receiving and 7 more TDs through the air. Outside of Elliot, Dixon might be the most complete back in this class, with his all-round game a big boost to his stock. He has the natural abilities and hands of a true receiver out of the backfield with the skills to then run after the catch and exploit space. He is also a real standout in pass protection that will earn him trust early on in his career. Dixon has good size but is probably close to maxed out on what he can add to his frame. Within that though is excellent strength, particularly in his lower body to keep the legs churning after contact. He shows good vision and lateral cuts to hit holes and make the most of space. Dixon is a bit limited athletically though. He doesn’t have true deep speed that sees him caught from behind when attempting to break long runs. His short-area quickness and changes of direction are fairly average too. He may never be an elite runner in the league, but should have a high floor at least, and his ability to contribute in all phases early on ought to see him off the board by the end of day 2 in the draft.
5. C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame, rJr. 6ft 1, 220 lbs.
Grade: 3rd Round
Prosise came out of absolutely nowhere to become one of the top running back prospects for the 2016 draft. Originally a defensive back when first joining the Irish, he moved to wide receiver where he was a solid if unspectacular contributor in 2014. During the off-season prior to the start of the 2015 games, Prosise decided to try out at running back to try and provide some depth at the position. He turned out to be a complete natural, and when lead back Tarean Folston went down injured early, Prosise stepped in and proved that the flashes he had shown in practice translated. An injury late in the year meant he was limited to just 157 carries on the season but still finished with 1,029 yards at 6.55 YPC and 11 rush TDs. His experience as a receiver made him an obvious threat out of the backfield too, with 26 receptions and a TD there too. What excites about Prosise is that he is just scratching the surface, and with his speed and power inside a big 220 lb frame, the potential upside could be big. He really makes the most out of every run, with a fairly simplistic approach that involves generally one cut then head north and go, no dancing around in the backfield. He eats up space when the hole opens in front, shows excellent balance, and then is tough to bring down. The biggest issue right now is unquestionably that he plays far too high with poor pad level, which he’ll need to work on and improve. Ball security is also a problem, having fumbled the ball five times this season. The lack of experience with just one season as a runner might also work against him slightly. His traits though, with his raw power and athleticism, are reminiscent of what made Javorius Allen such a good prospect out of USC last year. Prosise looks similar to Allen, who ended up with the Ravens, doing well in the second half of the season.
6. Jonathan Williams, Arkansas, Sr. 5ft 11, 223 lbs.
Grade: 4th Round
Arkansas’ leading rusher in 2014, despite splitting carries with Alex Collins all year, Williams had his best season as a junior with just shy of 1,200 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground, chipping in with a couple of receiving scores as well. He was all set for a big final season with the Razorbacks, before an injury to his foot in the pre-season required surgery, costing him the entire 2015 season. Williams made the decision early on that he would choose to work on his recovery then enter the draft, rather than take a medical redshirt to return for a 5th year. The screws were removed from his foot in November, and he is now set to make his comeback at the Senior Bowl this week, where he’ll have a chance to both prove that he is back healthy, and remind everyone that he’s one of the top prospects at the position this year. Not only is Williams a powerful back with ideal NFL size, he has outstanding movement and sharp changes of direction for a bigger bodied back. He truly moves like someone 20 lbs lighter. Again, proving that he can still do that post-injury is going to be so critical. In addition, Williams runs with outstanding work ethic and determination on each and every carry, showing toughness to fight for every additional yard he can get. Add in solid skills as a receiver out of the backfield and he has an all-round game to offer. Like Prosise, fumbling has been an issue, also losing five in his 2014 season. Entering the season, I had a late 2nd round grade on Williams. Right now, with questions lingering, he would be too big a risk that early. The Senior Bowl and Combine (medical checks in particular) are going to be bigger for Williams than for most this year.
7. Devonte Booker, Utah, rSr. 5ft 11, 212 lbs.
Grade: 4th Round
After transferring to Utah from a junior college, Booker exploded onto the PAC-12 scene with a huge 2014 season for over 1,800 total yards. It was a surprise therefore that he chose to return for his senior year rather than enter the 2015 draft, even more so as he is a little bit older, now set to be 24 as an NFL rookie. Booker did have another productive final season, hitting 1,261 rush yards and 11 rush TDs in his 10 games played. But the amount of touches he’s had and hits taken in the past couple seasons are a big concern, with 642 touches, an average of 28 per game. He missed the last three games of the season with a torn meniscus knee injury that required surgery and that he is still recovering from. The combination therefore of hits taken, wear and tear, ability to stay healthy and age are all knocks that will be factored in. Booker does have a solid combination of size and athleticism to offer, has decent vision and has proven he can be a focal point of a winning game plan. His versatility was constantly on show, proving particularly effective as a receiver out of the backfield with 79 catches over his two years with the Utes. While his movement is decent, he does lack top end speed. Strength comes into question when he is asked to pass protect, an area that he is particularly poor in, including technically. Despite the big numbers overall, Booker has had his struggles against better opponents. In 2014 he averaged 5.18 YPC over the season, but was below 4.0 against Michigan, USC, Arizona State, Oregon and Colorado. The number of touches he has leads to some good totals, but his average in 2015 dropped to 4.71 as well. Booker has been a great playmaker for the Utes the last couple seasons, and you could see how much the team’s offense struggled without him down the stretch this year. However, there’s a lack of elite traits to get excited about and plenty reasons to doubt his effectiveness and long term durability to invest too highly in him.
8. Jordan Howard, Indiana, Jr. 6ft 1, 225 lbs.
Grade: 4th Round
The Hoosiers didn’t miss a step in transitioning past the loss of 2,000+ yard back Tevin Coleman to the NFL. After the UAB football program shut down, Howard chose Indiana to transfer to. Howard had been a great player his first two seasons for the Blazers, but playing for a school that receives little attention in a lesser conference meant he was not very well known to most. He will be now, after another excellent, productive, year against significantly better Big-10 opposition. Though he missed a fair bit of time over the course of the season with some injury troubles, he totalled 1,213 yards on just 196 rush attempts (6.18 YPC), and including his one through the air, contributed 10 touchdowns. The highlight performance that makes his case to NFL teams came versus the Michigan Wolverines. At the time of that game in week 11 of the season, Michigan ranked third in the nation in run defence, allowing just 80 yards per game on the ground. The junior back pounded away at them all game for 238 yards at 6.8 YPC, 2 rush TDs, and the afore-mentioned receiving TD. A lot of the runs weren’t pretty, churning out 3 yards here, 4 there, but he wore down a defence packed full of NFL-sized front seven players. The game epitomised his style. Howard is a bigger back at close to 230 lbs, and he uses that to his advantage. He doesn’t make the sharpest cuts or threaten too much hitting the edges, but is a force up the middle. His effort is on show every carry, battling for the maximum yardage after contact each play, keeping his legs moving to drive for additional distance. He may not make defenders miss, but he does have the knack for breaking tackles, and at the very least always falls forward for positive gain, even in a crowded box. He is a back built for the next level, and with 17 career games of over 100 yards, has plenty of production to back it up.
9. Kenyan Drake, Alabama, Sr. 6ft 0, 210 lbs.
Grade: 4th Round
He doesn’t see a great deal of touches over the course of a game or season, but Drake is a fantastic athlete (particularly for his size), a versatile threat, and a dangerous weapon to add to any roster. He won’t be an every-down back in the NFL, but can be used in so many creative ways. Drake is an electric, dynamic athlete with the ability to take the ball the distance on any touch. Once he is free in space, he can make defenders miss, and outrun practically anyone. With Derrick Henry the obvious workhorse, Drake was used sparingly by Lane Kiffen this season, but made the most of his opportunities. His athletic abilities extend to frequently lining up as a receiver outside, where he shows natural traits to run routes and make the most of his speed. Out of the backfield, there’s not a linebacker who has a chance of sticking with him, and he’ll continue to exploit that effectiveness in the NFL too. While he has good size, he’s not the most physical runner with it, and could probably be a better all-round runner if he could improve in that area. Drake does come with some questions. He suffered an awful broken leg injury during the 2014 season that required surgery. Though he returned to great effect this year, it was a bad one, and will be checked closely in his medical. He also ran in to some trouble with Nick Saban over the course of his Alabama career, with suspensions and being held out of practices on occasions too. That’ll surely be looked in to as well.
10. Paul Perkins, UCLA, rJr. 5ft 10, 210 lbs.
Grade: 5th Round
It seems that every time the Bruins play, the commentators are constantly saying how under-rated Perkins is and how he should be talked about more nationally. Ironically as a result he is constantly being referred to, and in some ways is even a tad over-rated at this point! No doubt that he had a great couple of seasons, including leading the PAC-12 conference in rushing in 2014. He had another big year this past season 1,343 yards (5.67 YPC) and 14 rush TDs. He’s a nice factor in the pass game too with 30 catches, 242 yards and 1 touchdown. As great as the numbers are, Perkins is one where it’s important to consider the scouting concept of “traits over production”. As great as the numbers are, he’s a very average athlete with average speed, and really just lacks any elite traits that wow you. What is impressive is his ridiculously uncanny ability to sneak through traffic and squirm his way between gaps that seem to not even be there. The number of “how did he get through there?” moments in his film is unreal. Part of it is his exceptional balance and good vision, which help him get the most out of his abilities. Unfortunately, what makes me hesitate with Perkins is that the things I like about his game, and his flaws that come with it, are almost identical to what you could see in Bishop Sankey coming out of another PAC-12 school in Washington. The same concerns dismissed last time are present again, that would make me wary of taking before the final day of the draft.