Draft Time: Evaluating Lower-Round Running Backs

USA TODAY Sports

An assist from resident Fullback Nick Shepherd on this breakdown. We focused on those tailbacks that are projected to be the 8th–through–25th taken at their position. The Chargers have so many needs to fill, there is almost no chance any of the top 7 (possibly top 10) are left when Telesco and Company get around to adding depth at this position.

Let's start with getting the top seven Running Backs out of the way:

  1. Eddie Lacy, Alabama
  2. Giovanni Bernard, North Carolina
  3. Montee Ball, Wisconsin
  4. Andre Ellington, Clemson
  5. Knile Davis, Arkansas
  6. LeVeon Bell, Michigan State
  7. Johnathan Franklin, UCLA

Great, now let's pick up the list here.

#8: Stepfan Taylor, Stanford

I don't see how we could get him without ignoring other big needs.

Nick: I love Stepfan. He’s smart. He went to Stanford. He’s strong. He’s quick. He ran a bad 40, but he’s a physical monster that runs with rage and hatred in his heart. Stepfan wants to beat you, let you know about it, and hurt you while he does it.

Punishing running style and so strong that his slowish 40 time would be offset because he’ll lose less in pads than other people who lack the hellspawn blood which clearly runs in his veins.

#9: Christine Michael

  • School: Texas A&M
  • Height: 5-11
  • Weight: 215
  • 40 Time: 4.54
  • Projected Round: 3-5

Michael had 417 yards on 88 carries (4.7 average) and 12 touchdowns. He is a sleeper running back who could be a surprise in the NFL. He looked really good in 2011 and actually led Texas A&M in rushing prior to going down with a knee injury. He's quick and solidly built and gets yards after contact. He had season ending injuries in 2010 and 2011, so durability is a concern. His productivity in 2012 was limited by more touches for Johnny Football and Ben Malena. Some of the drop-off is probably a change in offensive philosophy; Michael thrived in Mike Sherman's West Coast Offense with the immobile Tannehill at QB, not so much in Kevin Sumlin's spread attack that gave more carries to Manziel.

Nick: If boys named Sue grow up tough, I think you can say the same for those named Christine. Michael is deceptively fast for a 4.5 40 runner, because he has exceptional quickness and gets in and out of his cuts with suddenness. Displays vision in the open field and appears comfortable catching the ball. Short legs and obvious power remind a bit of Michael Turner, and this guys projects somewhere between DeMarco Murray’s injury prone and Turner’s bowling ballness.

#10: Joseph Randle

  • School: Oklahoma State
  • Height: 6-1
  • Weight: 200
  • 40 Time: 4.63
  • Projected Round (2013): 3-5

Randle was one of the many surprise disappointments at the NFL combine. His 40 time was much lower than people expected it to be since he thrived in Oklahoma State's wide open spread offense. Some of his productivity in college, 1,417 yards and 14 TDs last year, may be a function of weak Big 12 defensive competition and offensive philosophy. He caught 28 passes for 224 yards, so he's got decent hands and shows good speed and elusiveness.

Nick: potentially a great fit for ZBS, Randle shows off solid vision and quickness despite needing to add some bulk and potentially not being able to without cutting from his already not ideal 4.6 speed. A long strider, may leave himself susceptible to lower body injuries from more violent NFL hits.

[Sidenote: running out of the pistol is a great asset for projecting college RB’s into ZBS players – the extra yards means they are trained and capable to pick the correct hole, and their production is evidence of that.]

#11: Mike Gillislee

  • School: Florida
  • Height: 5-11
  • Weight: 207
  • 40 Time: 4.55
  • Projected Round (2013): 3-5

Gillislee had a better combine performance than anybody expected with a respectable 40 time and he also performed well in drills. He ran for 1,152 yards and 10 touchdowns last year for the Gators, highlighted by a 140 yard, 2 TD performance against rival Florida State. Gillislee does not show as much elusiveness or patience waiting for holes to open up as I would like for a back at the NFL level. He has a tendency to run headlong into holes that aren't there and doesn't change direction in situations that might call for it. The athleticism is there but he needs a lot of work to develop at the next level.

Nick:

Ryan Mathews 2.0. Impressive physically, lacks patience and vision to execute a ZBS. Pass.

#12: Kenjon Barner

  • School: Oregon
  • Height: 5-9
  • Weight: 196
  • 40 Time: 4.52
  • Projected Round: 4-5

Barner looks faster in an Oregon uniform than he did at the combine. While his 40 time is nothing to sneeze at, it was a lot slower than I expected him to run. He rushed for 1,767 yards, 21 TDs and 6.4 YPC last year. He had 20 catches for 256 yards and 2 TDs. My favorite thing about Barner is the large chip I expect him to have on his shoulder. As Oregon’s number 1 tailback he got a lot less hype than the Black Mamba, DeAnthony Thomas. I think Barner is looking to make a name for himself in the NFL and will be hard working on and off the field this year.

Nick: Quicker than fast, Kenjon moves really well and would be a tough guy to tackle in a phone booth. Has displayed good hands and solid, if sometimes untested vision. Has never been "the guy" although high carry numbers against top defenses such as USC display he is ready and willing to shoulder the load. Could be a star in the right offense.

#13: Stefphon Jefferson

  • School: Nevada
  • Height: 5-11
  • Weight: 213
  • 40 Time: 4.68
  • Projected Round: 4-5

Almost every running back in this year’s draft is a sleeper and the hyper-consonated Stefphon is no exception. His 40 time is on the slow side of respectable for a back of his stature. You can watch film where he scores 7 TDs against Hawaii. It’s all field–level video, so good luck getting anything out of it but this: His pad level is awful high in the few places where he’s running in traffic (goal line hand-off in 2nd video). This is a risky pick, and I don’t really think he should get a look before Round 5. He had 1,884 yards and 24 touchdowns, but remember he played in Chris Ault’s pistol offense. and 7 of those TDs came vs. Hawaii.

Nick: I know nothing about this guy, but the video I seem to be able to find has people yelling his name a lot. He looks awful slow though.

#14: Jawan Jamison

  • School: Rutgers
  • Height: 5-7
  • Weight: 203
  • 40 Time: 4.68
  • Projected Round (2013): 4-6

Jamison has been compared to Ray Rice, but I don’t necessarily see it. His 40 time was not stellar at the combine and he racked up a lot of yards for Rutgers (1,075 yards and 4 TDs). He is a good mix of power and speed, and shows some elusiveness. But I don’t predict we’ll see him be much more than a 2nd or 3rd option in the NFL. That said, I think he could take carries in our current backfield.


Nick: NOW we’re talking. Vision, power and a little elusiveness? Get at me, Jawan.

#15: Spencer Ware

  • School: LSU
  • Height: 5-10
  • Weight: 228
  • Projected 40 Time: 4.57
  • Projected Round: 4-6

It’s tempting to treat Ware and Ford as the same back at the 15-16 slots here, although LSU had more of a committee backfield than a clear starter and reserve(s). They are similar in build, speed, and style and they both play for LSU. Ware lost the starting job to Ford last year and only had 367 yards on 94 carries for LSU. He didn’t work out at the combine and it’s difficult to say whether he has the skill set to make an NFL roster.

Nick: Pass on all LSU running backs. It’s impressive that they can run when they never have a QB or passing game, but none of them every really standout. As for stats, they all seem to be the beneficiary of some terrific early games against heavyweights like Middle Northeast Valley Engineering-Technical School for Hemophiliacs (or Cal…) before going for 38 carries and 47 yards against Alabama.

#16: Michael Ford

  • School: LSU
  • Height: 5-10
  • Weight: 215
  • 40 Time: 4.50
  • Projected Round: 4-6

392 yards on 71 carries (5.5 average), see Spencer Ware

#17: Cierre Wood

  • School: Notre Dame
  • Height: 5-11
  • Weight: 213
  • 40 Time: 4.56
  • Projected Round: 5-6

Wood was pretty good in 2011, rushing for over 1000 yards and was a focal point of Notre Dame’s offense. He has decent speed and the athleticism to be an NFL caliber running back, but his college career was ho-hum and his performance at the combine was equally "meh". He’s an interesting potential project, but may be a bit of a risk earlier than the 6th round. I might reach for Ray Graham before taking Wood if both are still on the board.

#18: Ray Graham

  • School: Pittsburgh
  • Height: 5-9
  • Weight: 199
  • 40 Time: 4.80
  • Projected Round: 5-6

Graham’s 40 time at the combine sucked. You can’t polish a turd and that is exactly what he brought to Indianapolis this year. If you saw Ray Graham run for Pitt before he hurt his knee against UConn in 2011 you would have described him as slippery, shifty, and fast. Good in traffic and in the open field with a low center of gravity, great vision and patience looking for holes. Maybe his best asset was that he could accelerate to full tilt in the first step after a cut in a way that reminded me a lot of LaDanian Tomlinson, tell me I’m wrong. After rehabbing his knee the coaching staff at Pitt said he was only running on 90% during the early parts of last year, and his production increased as the season progressed. He has a lot of up-side, could be a steal in the 6th round.

Nick: I do not understand how Ray Graham can only muster a 4.8 unless his injury was much, much worse than we ever thought. This guy was AWESOME before he got hurt and would be an excellent late round high upside pick. Also he always makes me think of Archie Moonlight Graham and Field of Dreams. "Ease his Pain!"

#19: Dennis Johnson

  • School: Arkansas
  • Height: 5-9
  • Weight: 213
  • 40 Time: 4.54
  • Projected Round: 5-6

Johnson does not have the athleticism or upside that Knile Davis does, but he got more touches and ended up with 757 yards on 137 carries (5.5 average) and 8 TDs last year. He caught 25 passes for 160 yards. He’s built like a brick sh*thouse, and kind of reminds me of Fred Taylor. He may be a sleeper or he may not make an NFL roster, difficult to tell based on the cluster-f*ck that was Arkansas football, 2012 edition. When your highlight reel is this "meh", I guess you gotta wonder.

#20: Zac Stacy

  • School: Vanderbilt
  • Height: 5-8
  • Weight: 216
  • 40 Time: 4.55
  • Projected Round: 5-7

Stacy ran for 1,141 yards (5.5 average) and 10 TDs in a surprisingly strong year for Vanderbilt in the SEC. His best games were against pretty bad defenses though, like Auburn, and it’s tough to tell how he will perform against NFL competition. His highlights are difficult to watch because the music at the beginning will make you tear up. He has quick feet and accelerates well, could be a good get.

Nick: I don’t know much about Stacy, but I’m all about kids who went to smart schools that look athletic. Vandy is a smart school. He looks athletic. I’m sold.

#21: Theo Riddick

  • School: Notre Dame
  • Height: 5-10
  • Weight: 201
  • 40 Time: 4.68
  • Projected Round: 5-7

Meh.

#22: Robbie Rouse

  • School: Fresno State
  • Height: 5-5
  • Weight: 190
  • 40 Time: 4.80
  • Projected Round: 5-7

Another quick back that laid an egg in the 40 at the combine. I think we are off Fresno State for a while, at least for running backs, don’t you? He is shifty though and has a low center of gravity, if you don’t believe me, watch this.

Nick: My younger brother played against Robbie when he was at Madison. I watched that game. Robbie runs faster than a 4.8 and weighed no more than 190 at the time. He’s also good catching the ball. Interesting pick.

#23: Marcus Lattimore

  • School: South Carolina
  • Height: 6-0
  • Weight: 218
  • 40 Time: 4.57
  • Projected Round: 5-FA

I would love it if Lattimore was still on the board in the 6th or 7th round, but I think he could be the 2nd or 3rd running back drafted. We all know the deal with durability, back to back seasons with knee ligament tears, the last one against Tennessee was horrific and before the Elite 8, I would have said one of the worst sports injuries I’ve seen since Theisman. He’s fast for his size and ran a sub 4.5 40 at his Pro Day recently. The risk is injury but the upside is very good with Lattimore. He’s a dominant runner who’s played as close as possible to professional level football.

Nick: Gimme, gimme, gimme, gimme. The draft is all about getting better players than the slot you draft them. Anything after the 4th round for Lattimore could be a home run.

#24: Rex Burkhead

  • School: Nebraska
  • Height: 5-10
  • Weight: 214
  • 40 Time: 4.73
  • Projected Round: 6-7

As a fan of the Huskers, I love Rex. The guy is all heart and effort. He sprained his MCL last year in the 2nd game of the season and kept trying to come back and help his team, re-aggravating the injury 3 or 4 times. He’s a great locker room guy and great person, but I don’t think has the speed or athleticism to compete in the NFL. Reminds me a lot of Jacob Hester, great kid, great college tailback, but his skill-set probably just does not translate to the next level and I think he’s more likely to end up as dead weight on an NFL roster than a real contributor. This pains me to say, as I love Rex. Did I mention that I sleep on Rex Burkhead sheets and wear a Nebraska 22 jersey as pajamas?

#25: Cameron Marshall

  • School: Arizona State
  • Height: 5-11
  • Weight: 223
  • 40 Time: 4.57 (pro day)
  • Projected Round: 6-FA

Marshall had over 1000 yards in 2011, but his production fell off in 2012 (568) and his touches declined as Arizona State shifted offensive philosophies and to a RB by committee approach. He’s got great speed for a bigger back and can catch passes out of the backfield (55 receptions for 459 yards in 2010). Look at this kid: he’s a beast who can run, but definitely not built for the ZBS. Could be a great change of pace back and will be tough to resist if he’s available in the late rounds. Reminds me of a younger, faster Michael Turner. I think he'd be a good get.

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