(A series looking at the top players at various positions leading up to the 2013 NFL Draft, set for April 25-27.)
According to the draft analysis done at NFL.com, Giovani Bernard of North Carolina is the best running back available in this class, and the comparison made is with the Eagles' LeSean McCoy. That's because Bernard is a back who can run the ball or catch it, and he left North Carolina as the first player to post back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons since Natrone Means. Bernard also returned two punts for touchdowns in 2012, which is certain to add to his value in the NFL.
Only thing as far as the comparisons to McCoy: Bernard probably hopes they don't extend to draft status, because McCoy was the 53rd overall pick in 2009, which means he made it into the league from the bottom third of second round.
And so it is with the running back position in the NFL. There isn't a contending team without a top player at the position, and there isn't an architect of a team who believes he can build a contending one without a top player at the position. That's never been an argument. Where the disagreement seems to come has to do with when it's appropriate for an NFL team to start considering when to pick one.
McCoy was a second-round pick, and even more eye-opening was that the Washington Redskins got their feature back – a guy named Alfred Morris who averaged 4.8 a carry on the way to a rookie season that ended with him gaining 1,613 yards and scoring 13 touchdowns – on the sixth round from a place called Florida Atlantic. And while Philadelphia's Bryce Brown wasn't a starter but instead a backup/complement as a rookie to McCoy last year, he did rush for 564 yards (4.9 average) with a couple of 100-yard games after coming to the team as a seventh-round pick from Kansas State.
With running backs, the pertinent question seems to be: when?
To answer the when, it seems as though Bernard (5-foot-10, 205 pounds) and Alabama's Eddie Lacy (5-10, 220) will be the first two backs to hear their names called once the draft commences. Should Lacy get selected before Bernard, he would be the third straight running back from Alabama to be the first one selected in a particular NFL Draft. It was Mark Ingram in 2011 to the Saints in the first round, and then Trent Richardson in 2012 to the Browns in the first round.
If it ends up being Lacy before Bernard, the BCS Championship Game will be a reason why. Before that game, Lacy had asked the NFL's draft advisory committee for an evaluation of his potential, and he reportedly received a second-round grade in return. But against Notre Dame for the crystal football, Lacy carried 20 times for 140 yards and a touchdown, and it wasn't so much the statistics as it was the dominating manner in which he accumulated them. In that game, Lacy really looked like a big back with some nifty feet, the very combination that could allow him to have a long and productive career as a pro.
After those two, the next tier of eligible backs includes Wisconsin's Montee Ball (5-11, 215), Oklahoma State's Joseph Randle (6-0, 200), Stanford's Stepfan Taylor (5-9, 215), Michigan State's Le'Veon Bell (6-2, 230) and Clemson's Andre Ellington (5-10, 195).
What Ball has been in college is productive, with 3,753 yards and 61 touchdowns in his last two seasons alone, but those numbers come along with a lot of carries. Ball carried the ball 924 times during his college career, and there has to be some concern about the cumulative effect of all of those hits. Did Ball leave too much of himself on the field before even getting to the NFL? The belief is that at the NFL level Ball will be more of a complement than a main guy.
In 2011, Randle became a full-time starter after Kendall Hunter was drafted by the 49ers, and he finished with 1,216 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns, but he didn't have as many as 20 carries in any game after the first month of the season. In 2012, he carried 274 times for 1,417 yards and 14 touchdowns on 274 carries. It must be remembered that Randle did his work in the Big 12, which means he primarily played against defenses deployed to deal with spread offenses.
Both Ellington and Taylor figure to be niche-type players in the NFL, but there are a lot of teams looking for guys to fit into that very niche. Both of them are guys with some speed who also are good in space, and even though neither player should be expected to be stout in pass protection, both have some skills to help an offense in situational football. Ellington posted back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons at Clemson, and Taylor rushed for 1,530 yards and 13 touchdowns on 322 carries last year.
As a junior in 2012, Bell carried 382 times for 1,793 yards and 12 touchdowns, and while he did most of that as a bruising, power back, he also was used in the Wildcat when Michigan State got into the red zone.
THE 2012 NFL DRAFT, RB STATISTICS
Number drafted: 19
Picks by round: 3 in the first; 2 in the second; 2 in the third; 2 in the fourth; 2 in the fifth; 4 in the sixth; 4 in the seventh
Highest pick: Trent Richardson, Alabama, Round 1, 3rd overall, by Cleveland
Biggest impact: Richardson was a starter on opening day, but he wasn't as durable or productive as Alfred Morris, who also was a starter on opening day but didn't miss a game. And Morris finished second in the NFL in rushing, behind Minnesota's Adrian Peterson.