(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2016 NFL Draft, set for April 28-30.)
Two running backs were taken in the first round a year ago, Todd Gurley by the Rams at No. 10 overall and Melvin Gordon by the Chargers with the 15th selection. Those two became the first two first-round running backs since 2012, a span of three drafts in which no running backs got chosen in the first round.
There likely will be at least one more this year, but not many more than one at a position where NFL teams consistently have found value in the later rounds.
Here are some of the top running back prospects in the upcoming 2016 NFL Draft according to NFL.com.
About the only blemish on Elliott's junior season was the temper tantrum he threw and the subsequent maturity questions that were raised after he had been held to 33 yards on 12 carries in Ohio State's 17-14 loss to Michigan State in late November. But Elliott is nonetheless a first-round talent. He rushed for 1,821 yards and 23 touchdowns on the way to earning Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year honors in 2015, and Elliott demonstrated a rare combination of size, athleticism, blocking, and pass-catching ability while doing so. He projects as a three-down back in the NFL and he therefore as a Top-20 pick because of his physicality, versatility, and measurables (Elliott ran a 4.47 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine at 6-foot, 225 pounds).
At 6-3, 247, Henry is the biggest back available and by far the most decorated (he won the Heisman Trophy as well as the Doak Walker, Maxwell, and Walter Camp Player of the Year awards in 2015). Henry bulldozed his way to 2,219 rushing yards and 28 rushing touchdowns last season. His exclamation point was a 36-carry, 167-yard, three-touchdown performance against Clemson in the National Championship Game. Henry runs violently, but it takes him a while to get up to speed (4.54), and despite his size he doesn't break a lot of tackles, even as he's punishing/pummeling defenders. Henry also doesn't contribute much in the passing game, which might leave him on the fringe of the first round.
Alabama-Birmingham dropping its program turned out to be Indiana's gain. Jordan (6-0, 230) got it done at both places by rushing for 1,587 yards at UAB in 2014, and then for 1,213 with a 6.2-average per carry for the Hoosiers in 2015. Jordan ran a 4.59 40 at Indiana's pro day, and he's rushed for at least 145 yards in every full game he's played. But he's also been slowed at times by ankle and knee injuries (four missed games, limited in three others). He is said to have great vision in identifying the right angles and creases, but he's not much of a factor in the passing game. Jordan is a one-speed runner whose upright style and taste for contact sometimes make him susceptible to big hits.
Although lacking ideal size at 5-10, 208, Perkins piled up 2,918 yards and 23 rushing touchdowns over the past two seasons for UCLA. He might not be a short-yardage option or the best blitz-pickup alternative for the NFL, but Perkins should find his place in the league as part of a back-by-committee approach. Perkins can make tacklers miss in tight spaces, and he possesses both vision and one-cut/jump-cut ability. He also caught 56 passes the past two seasons, although most of his passing-game production resulted from dump-offs, screens, and wheel routes. More sophisticated route running may be more of a work in progress.
He ran for 1,261 yards and 11 touchdowns in 10 games as a senior in 2015 but also sustained a torn meniscus that prevented him from running for scouts at the combine or at Utah's pro day in March (he was scheduled to run at a subsequent workout in California). Booker, 5-11, 219, was a busy man the past two seasons, having handled 560 carries and made 80 receptions. He's elusive in the open field and has a habit of finishing by lowering his pads and falling forward. Booker has borderline size for a three-down back but he's a willing pass protector and might prove to be a second- or third-round bargain.
THE 2015 DRAFT, RB STATISTICS
Number drafted: 23
Picks by round: 2 in the first; 2 in the second; 4 in the third; 4 in the fourth; 5 in the fifth; 3 in the sixth; 3 in the seventh
Highest pick: Todd Gurley, Georgia, Round 1, 10th overall by the St. Louis Rams
Biggest impact: Even though he still was working his way back from a knee injury sustained in college when his first NFL regular season opened, Gurley still led all rookie backs with 1,106 yards and 10 touchdowns, along with a 4.8 average.