A primary back used to be a guy that can carry the load without wearing down. It has evolved into the lead back in a committee. There aren't bell-cow running backs anymore. Only the elite NFL runners can keep their backups on the sideline. A primary back in the modern NFL doesn't have to be big. He just has to be the best runner. Here are the prospects that are ready to be the starters in the NFL and be the primary ball-carriers.
There isn't an elite running back prospect that's worthy of a top-10 pick in this draft. No Trent Richardson, Darren McFadden, Adrian Peterson or LaDainian Tomlinson. There probably isn't even a Knowshon Moreno, Ryan Matthews, C.J. Spiller or Marshawn Lynch as a top-20 pick. What the 2013 running back class consists of is that next tier; that tier where talent meets draft slot and creates value. This is a very deep class, comparable to 2008 that produced McFadden, Chris Johnson, Ray Rice, Jamaal Charles, Matt Forte; even Johnathan Stewart, Rashard Mendenhall and Peyton Hillis had their respective heydays.
I didn't realize how talented this class was until I finished my evaluations on over 30 prospects, watching games on every players for over 45 hours and began ranking them. With that said, draft season is more fun with respectful debate.
We will go through this year's running back class and breaking them up into four categories: primary running backs, backups with potential, change of pace and late round gems. We start with the primaries.
1. Giovani Bernard - 5'8" 202 lbs. - North Carolina
Strengths: Gio Bernard is blessed with good speed, agility and acceleration to go with an ideal power/balance ratio. His best attribute is everything that makes up the Pre-LOS ability. Think of Arian Foster and his ability to see the hole being created on the backside, yet he strings along the linebacker, presses the hole then violently cuts back into the open field. He's the best running of this class when it comes to that. He will not be dependent on a good offensive line. He's also a great receiver and return man. He's had average success with ball security once every 85 touches.
Weaknesses: Gio's biggest knock is his health/durability. While he's only combined for about 550 touches, Bernard missed all of 2010 with a knee injury. He then missed a handful of games in 2012 with a knee issue. He'll need to pass a physical at the Combine but once he does, I'm not sure I see a major flaw in his game.
Size/Style Comparison: Ray Rice
Draft Projection: Late 1st - Early 2nd
2. Andre Ellington - 5'10" 195 lbs. - Clemson
Strengths: First thing that jumps out has to be Ellington's long speed. If he breaks loose, he doesn't usually get caught. Along with his impressive speed, Ellington shows enough fight and toughness to make you think he's bigger/stronger than he really is. For his size, he's a good pass blocker and he has one of the best hands in this draft class. Ellington fumbled once every 85 touches at Clemson.
Weaknesses: Ellington compiled almost 700 touches in college and his frame would suggest that's about all he could handle. He's on the thinner side for a RB and looks like he can gain 5-10 lbs without losing speed. As far as running, Ellington looks to break that big one too often. When it's there, he rarely misses, but it won't be there as much in the NFL. He'll need to learn to take his three-yards and look towards the next play.
Size/Style Comparison: Jamaal Charles
Draft Projection: 2nd Round
3. Eddie Lacy - 5'10" 231 lbs. - Alabama
Strengths: Lacy got my highest grades in Power, Durability and Post-LOS abilities. He's built perfectly as a big back with thick thighs, strong arms and a bubble butt. That gives him supreme balance, strength and tackle-breaking ability. As for durability, besides his build, he only touched the ball 380 times at Alabama. Lacy's best attribute is his ability to make defenders pay in many ways in the open field/2nd level. Lacy will run you over, jump over or spin off defenders. It makes it hard for the opposition to size him up.
Weaknesses: While he has surprising athleticism, Lacy isn't a burner and he doesn't offer much in the passing game. Lacy has decent hands and won't be a liability as a pass protector. He's also fumbled six times in 380 touches.
Size/Style Comparison: Jamal Lewis (H/T @MoveTheSticks)
Draft Projection: Late 1st - Early 2nd Round
4. Johnathan Franklin - 5'10" 205 lbs. - UCLA
Strengths: I was blown away by Franklin's ability to stop, start and get to full speed (which is very fast) in a flash. He's very good pressing the hole, bursting through and making defenders miss in the second level. I didn't know he was only 195 lbs. until looking it up after reviewing his film; he looks thicker. (Edit: Weighed-in at 205 lbs.) For his size, Franklin can flash power with an ability to break tackles. He plays low and shows low center of gravity and balance; making him a hard target to knock down. His open field elusiveness is the best in this class. An excellent receiving back, Franklin was a consistent weapon for UCLA. He looked like the total package at times.
Weaknesses: Overall bulk could be better distributed, but Franklin looks in better shape than 2011 and it shows in his increased production. His biggest flaws are his pass protection and ball security. He doesn't see the blitzes well, isn't very big, and can get moved easily. Franklin has fumbled 19 times in college, or once in every 45 times. His 850 collegiate touches could be a concern because a guy his size could spell future durability issues.
Size/Style Comparison: LeSean McCoy
Draft Projection: 3rd Round
5. Joseph Randle - 6'1" 203 lbs. - Oklahoma State
Strengths: Even though Randle is a taller back with a longer stride, he has good straight line speed and is a very natural receiver. He surprised me with how strong he is and he's not afraid of contact. He's a patient runner that waits for his opportunity to strike, and when he gets it, he'll break off a long run. Randle is the type of back that'll gain three, five, four, three, twenty-six in a five-play span. I also really like him as a goal line runner; he gets up to speed quickly and that's when his power is most effective. Randle fumbled once every 95 touches, which would be average.
Weaknesses: Randle doesn't seem like a natural running back. He misses holes, cutback lanes, doesn't always follow blocks and isn't cohesive with the offensive line. His higher pad level may hurt him in the NFL also. Randle has almost 700 collegiate touches through his junior year. I would like to see better vision/intelligence on blitz pickups.
Size/Style Comparison: DeMarco Murray
Draft Projection: 3rd Round
6. Montee Ball - 5'11" 216 lbs. - Wisconsin
Notes: Ball is very decorated after two great years at Wisconsin. He's had the luxury of playing behind a NFL caliber offensive line, but he's more than a product of the system. Ball isn't a great athlete. In fact, he's probably as average as they come as an NFL back. Where Ball surprised me was in his creativity in the open field in 2012. He also has started creating extra yards for himself with his work before he hits the line of scrimmage (LOS) this year. He's very good at manipulating the second level before he hits the hole. Because of that, I don't believe he'll need a great offensive line to be successful in the NFL. One big knock that Ball has is his almost 1,000 college carries. He's dealt with nagging injuries as a bell-cow back would and you have to be concerned about his long term durability.
He's a powerful pass protector and OK in the receiving game. Ball fumbles once every 185 carries at Wisconsin, but four of his five in 2012.
Size/Style Comparison: Ahmad Bradshaw
Draft Projection: 4th Round
Any questions will be answered in the comments section or on Twitter: @JoeGooderry