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Ranking The Running Backs

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If there's one running back who might be worth a first-round pick this year, it's LSU junior Jeremy Hill. Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images.
If there's one running back who might be worth a first-round pick this year, it's LSU junior Jeremy Hill. Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images.

Every week leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft, we will focus on one specific position. This week, the spotlight is on RBs.

In 2013, the unthinkable happened. The first round of the NFL Draft was completed without a running back being selected. It was the first time that had happened since, well, ever.

Oddly, there now is some sort of consensus that you're not supposed to take running backs in the first round. That you can find them anywhere. That a guy you find in the third round (Stevan Ridley, 773 yards in 2013) isn't necessarily better than a guy you find on the street when the draft is done (LeGarrette Blount, 772 yards).

To some degree, it's true. Feature backs can be found in any round. But that's nothing new. 

Just because no backs went in the first round last year does not mean there is any reason not to take one. Arizona and Tennessee didn't miss the chance to take Jonathan Cooper and Chance Warmack in the first round last year because they were guards, and convention wisdom has always held that you don't take a guard that early. 

In truth, it's perfectly acceptable to spend a top-10 pick on a player, as long as they are a top-10 talent, as Cooper and Warmack were considered to be.

Yes, you don't want to reach for a running back in the first round. But you don't want to reach for a guard or a tackle or a quarterback, either. 

Don't forget -- teams still need to be able to run the ball in the NFL. And the ones that do it consistently well tend to do pretty well. Don't overlook the fact that Marshawn Lynch and Knowshon Moreno are vital components of their team's success; and they were both first-round picks, the 12th pick of their respective drafts (Lynch 2007, Moreno 2009).

This is not a talent-rich running back class. So, it should surprise no one if a running back isn't taken in the first round.

But if there is one with a first-round grade -- and in my book, there is one -- then the unthinkable should happen again. A running back should be chosen in the first round.

Top 10 RB Prospects

1. Jeremy Hill, LSU: This guy is the real deal. There isn't a better package of power and speed in this draft. At 6-foot-2, 235 pounds, he's bigger than Le'Veon Bell, and he has a gear that Bell lacks. He didn't always have to break a lot of tackles at the line of scrimmage behind LSU's line. But he has shown an ability to lower his pads when needed -- something atypical of a tall running back. Projection: 1st round

2. Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona: Hill and Carlos Hyde are downhill runners; Carey is the best of the cutback runners in this class. He's a slasher whose elusiveness and acceleration make him exceedingly dangerous in the open field. His production was consistent, as was his big-play ability -- he had at least one run for 20-plus yards in 19 of his 25 games the last two seasons. He was a workhorse in college, making me slightly wary about how much mileage is left in those legs. Projection: 2nd round

3. Carlos Hyde, Ohio State: Hyde can be a physical force, though sometimes he looks more like a collision waiting to happen. He is not easy to bring down, but he doesn't make a lot of guys miss. That concerns me, as I suspect he won't be the physical mismatch at the next level that he was in college. Projection: 2nd round

4. James White, Wisconsin: Confession time. For half the 2013 season, every time I watched Wisconsin, it was with the intent to check out Melvin Gordon. And every time, I came away convinced that White is the better back. Certainly the more complete back, as he is a capable receiver, who will be able to stay on the field in every situation. True, White lacks the ideal size that Gordon possesses, but that's about it. They were indistinguishable at times. White hits the hole with surprising quickness, and is slippery in getting to the second level consistently. Projection: 3rd round

5. Lache Seastrunk, Baylor: We know all about Seastrunk's speed. You don't get recruited to play tailback at Oregon if you don't have an otherworldly gear. And he's not in that LaMichael James/De'Anthony Thomas mold. By comparison, Seastrunk has tree trunk legs that make him as hard to tackle as he is to catch in the first place. Seastrunk has the potential to be a sleeper in this draft, a mid-round pick who brings home-run potential right away. He'd be a surefire second-rounder if he had any value in the passing game, either as a receiver or a blocker. Baylor did him no favors by excluding him from the passing game. Projection: 3rd round

6. Tre Mason, Auburn: I can understand the Ray Rice comparisons; I just don't agree with them. Yes, Mason is a short, compact back with surprising power for a back listed at 5-10 (don't be surprised to find he's shrunk come Combine time). But he doesn't have Rice's agility or quickness, and he lacks a breakaway speed that NFL teams will be looking for. And he sure doesn't match Rice's skills as a receiver. Mason had 19 career catches in college; that's a month's worth of work for Rice. Projection: 3rd round

7. Terrance West, Towson: Let's assume that West would never have approached the numbers he put up in 2013 had he played for an FBS school rather than at the FCS level. Let's go so far as to suggest he'd half been half as productive. Okay, so that means all West would have done would be rush for 1,200 yards on 205 carries and score 20 touchdowns. His actual numbers (413-,2509-41) were unthinkable. I don't care what level you're playing at; you dominate like that, you're going to get a shot. It remains to be seen how his speed will translate. A strong 40 at the Combine and he could become a top-5 running back prospect. Projection: 3rd round

8. Bishop Sankey, Washington: I've seen no shortage of big boards that have Sankey as the top back available. I just don't see it. He strikes me as fast but not explosive, strong but not powerful. He's a good, all-around back with limited upside who will contribute at the next level but not stand out. Projection: 4th round

9. Charles Sims, West Virginia: See Sankey. He does a lot of things well, none of them spectacularly. He'll add depth to someone's backfield but isn't feature back material. Projection: 4th round

10. Antonio Andrews, Western Kentucky: I considered several backs for the 10th and final spot in the rankings: Florida State's Devonta Freeman, Toledo's David Fluellen, Boston College's Andre Williams. But I think Andrews proved himself during the Senior Bowl to be a more polished prospect than anyone expected. Scouts knew all about his productivity (back-to-back seasons of 2,000-plus yards of total offense speaks for itself). I'm not sure they were expecting such mature patience and vision, and they had to come away impressed with his confidence in pass protection. He has NFL size (6-0, 211); a strong Combine in drills and against the stopwatch and Andrews could play himself into the latter stages of Day Two.