(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2014 NFL Draft, set for May 8-10.)
It wasn't always like this. Once upon a time, a long time ago, they were the stars of every NFL Draft class. The 1957 NFL Draft had Paul Hornung as the first overall pick and Jim Brown as the sixth. That was 57 years ago, and those guys became Hall of Fame players, and a reflection of what it has become for the position is explained by 2013 being the first draft in the last 50 not to have a running back picked on the first round.
Look for the 2014 draft to make it two in a row.
The top four prospects in 2013 generally were identified as Eddie Lacy and Le'Veon Bell as the bigger, workhorse types; Giovani Bernard as the speedy/receiver type; and Montee Ball was the guy with the big statistics from the Big Ten. This year the top four prospects – Carlos Hyde, Tre Mason, Jeremy Hill, Andre Williams – don't jump out as being better than the 2013 group that couldn't crack the first round.
Check out photos of potential draft prospects. (Photos by AP)
Hyde, 6-feet, 230 pounds, saved his best for last by rushing for 1,521 yards and 15 touchdowns on 208 carries in 2013 after being suspended for the first three games of the season. Hyde averaged 156.1 yards rushing per game in conference play; he became the first 1,000-yard back in Urban Meyer's coaching career; and he rushed for 226 yards against Michigan, which is a badge of honor for every Ohio State back. The primary negative on Hyde is his speed, timed at 4.66 over 40 yards in the run-up to the draft. Hyde isn't real elusive, and since he's not going to run away from people he's going to have to rely on power in the NFL. Durability can then become an issue.
Mason, 5-8, 207, began to split time at running back in 2012, and he rushed for 1,002 yards (5.9 average) and eight touchdowns in 12 games. Mason's 2013 season ended as a Heisman Trophy finalist thanks to 1,816 yards rushing (5.7 average) and 23 touchdowns, a yardage total that broke Bo Jackson's single-season Auburn record. Mason (pictured above) followed that by rushing for 195 yards vs. Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game, the most ever for a running back in that game. Mason has been timed at 4.5, which isn't great, but what's worse in the eyes of NFL coaches is that he fumbled eight times over the 2012-13 seasons.
Hill, 6-1, 233, made his LSU debut in 2012 when he played in 11 games with five starts and rushed for 755 yards (5.3 average) and 12 touchdowns. After pleading guilty to a predatory attack for the second time in 15 months, Hill was sentenced to six months in jail, which was suspended, and two years of probation. That probation was terminated early by a judge in March 2013. Once Hill returned to the field, he rushed for 1,401 yards (6.9 average) and 16 touchdowns. In the Outback Bowl Hill carried 28 times for 216 yards and two touchdowns, and in his two college seasons he totaled 2,410 all-purpose yards and no fumbles lost. Character issues must be investigated.
Williams, 5-11, 230, left Boston College with 684 carries on his body, along with separate surgeries to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder and a torn abdominal muscle. In 2013, Williams led the nation in rushing yards with 2,177 and was a Heisman Trophy finalist. Williams had five 200-yard games in 2013, and his 167.5 yard per-game average led all Division I players. While not used much as a receiver at Boston College, Williams did catch the ball well at his Pro Day. A smart and competitive guy, the question about Williams is whether he has the single dynamic skill that all elite NFL backs have.
THE 2013 NFL DRAFT, RB STATISTICS
Number drafted: 27
Picks by round: 0 in the first; 5 in the second; 1 in the third; 3 in the fourth; 6 in the fifth; 8 in the sixth; 4 in the seventh
Highest pick: Giovani Bernard, Round 2, 37th overall, by the Cincinnati Bengals
Biggest impact: Each of the first four guys picked here last year contributed to his team, but Eddie Lacy was the best of them. Lacy started 15 games for the Green Bay Packers during which he carried 284 times for 1,178 yards and 11 touchdowns. Lacy had four 100-yard games.