GREEN BAY – Spend a few seconds scanning the NFL’s top 50 rushers from 2012, and it becomes obvious. Yes, there are plenty of first-round picks – starting with Minnesota’s Adrian Peterson, who came within nine yards of the single-season rushing record – on the list.
But there are also more than a handful of unheralded but productive runners, including the guy who was on Peterson’s heels – or as close as a mere mortal could come, anyway – last season: Washington’s Alfred Morris, who came in as a sixth-round pick from Florida Atlantic (No. 173 overall) and finished with 1,613 yards and 13 touchdowns on the season.
A year after only one running back made the first-round cut, all three first-round picks had relatively productive seasons for their teams. Tampa Bay’s Doug Martin, the 31st overall pick, finished fifth with 1,454 yards; Cleveland’s Trent Richardson, the No. 3 overall pick, finished 18th with 950 yards; and the New York Giants’ David Wilson, the 32nd pick, rushed for 358 yards (5.0-yard average) in a reserve role behind Ahmad Bradshaw. The Giants cut Bradshaw during the offseason and expect Wilson, who came on strong late in the year, to take over as the starter.
But also on the list are a few names – in addition to Morris’ – that were nowhere near those first-round mock drafts that everyone loves to do: Indianapolis’ Vick Ballard, Baltimore’s Bernard Pierce and Seattle’s Robert Turbin. Ballard, a fifth-round pick (No. 170 overall) from Mississippi State, ran 211 times for 814 yards; Pierce, a third-round pick (No. 84) out of Temple, ran 108 times for 532 yards for the Super Bowl-champion Ravens; and Turbin, in a limited role behind Marshawn Lynch, chipped in with 354 yards on 80 carries.
“I've been saying it for 35 years -- you can find running backs at any point in the draft. I would never draft a running back in the first round,” ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr. said. “And when you see what Bernard Pierce did, you see what Robert Turbin did, you see what Ballard did at Indianapolis, obviously what Alfred Morris did with the Redskins, it's another statement as to why and a validation as to why that philosophy has worked over the years.
“It's the one position where you can be as good as a rookie as you'll ever be at any point down the road in your career, even if you come out as a junior.”
That’s something the University of Wisconsin’s Montee Ball could have done last year, but he opted to return to Madison for his senior year. He knew he was taking a chance by playing another college season, and although his draft stock didn’t change much – he’s projected as a likely third-round pick, just as he was a year ago – he did add 356 carries to his body. Given the popular theory that running backs only have so many hits in their bodies before they break down, that’s a lot of wear and tear pre-NFL.
“Of course, I took a huge gamble. (But) I believe I benefitted,” Ball said. “I feel that any play you can go down (with an injury). A player with zero carries. It only takes one play. I do believe that I’m a better player. I do a lot of things better without the football — blocking, chipping ends and being there for my team.”
That wear-and-tear issue certainly factored in Alabama’s Eddie Lacy, widely considered the top back in the draft, to come out as a junior. Having sat behind back-to-back first-round picks the previous two years – Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram, the New Orleans Saints’ 2011 first-round pick, and Richardson – and with promising youngster T.J. Yeldon coming up behind him, Lacy knew it was time to go.
“It wasn’t too hard (of a decision). I was there for four years,” Lacy said. “After a while, you can’t take as many licks because as a running back you don’t have that many years. At a school like Alabama, you get talent year in and year out so even when one leaves, the next person right behind him is going to be just as good if not better.”
Asked if his relative lack of mileage will benefit him in the NFL, Lacy replied, “That’s always an advantage because you didn’t get banged up as a lot of guys who did take all those carries early.”
That’s not to say that Lacy doesn’t have things to prove. Having played behind an NFL-caliber offensive line in front of him – three linemen are expected to be high picks, including two first-rounders – there could be some skepticism about whether his blockers made him as productive as he was.
“It all depends on how you look at it. I mean, I feel as though we complement each other,” Lacy said. “You have a great offensive line and you have a great backfield as well, so I don’t feel as if one position is doing well because of the other. It’s just that we complement each other.”
NFL DRAFT 2013: RUNNING BACKS
BEST OF THE BEST
1. Eddie Lacy, Alabama (5-foot-11, 231 pounds, 4.55 seconds in the 40-yard dash): Rushed 204 times for 1,322 yards and 17 touchdowns while also catching 22 passes for 189 yards last year as a junior. … Waited his turn until finally getting starting nod last season while also sharing time with freshman T.J. Yeldon. … Well-built, powerful runner with some limitations as a pass-catcher.
BEST OF THE REST
2. Montee Ball, Wisconsin (5-10 1/2, 214, 4.48): Carried 356 times for 1,830 yards with 22 TDs last season. … Also caught 10 passes for 72 yards. … Chose to stay in Madison for his senior season and after a difficult start – he was a victim of an assault and also played behind a struggling offensive line – he came on to win the Doak Walker award as the nation’s best running back. … Rushed for 8,222 yards in his career and an NCAA record 83 touchdowns, but also has some high mileage with 924 career carries.
3. Johnathan Franklin, UCLA (5-10, 205, 4.49): Carried 282 times for 1,734 yards and 13 TDs last season. … Also caught 33 passes for 323 yards. … Bruins’ all-time leading rusher with 4,403 yards in four seasons. … Competitive, tough team leader who proved durable (846 touches). … Undersized and not the fastest back in the draft but undeniably talented.
4. Giovani Bernard, North Carolina (5-10 3/4, 212, 4.36): Rushed 184 times for 1,228 yards with 12 TDs last season as a redshirt sophomore. … Caught 47 passes for another 490 yards. … Was set to play as a true freshman but took medical redshirt in 2010 after suffering torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee during training camp. … Also returned 16 punts for 263 yards (including a 70-yard touchdown) last season. … Strong, well-built runner who was effective between the tackles but might not be an every-down back in the NFL.
5. Mike Gillislee, Florida (5-11 1/8, 208, 4.517): Ran 244 times for 1,152 yards and 10 TDs last season. … Also caught 16 passes for 159 yards. … Instinctive runner with good balance but lacking ideal size and experience, having only started one year.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Andre Ellington, Clemson; Le’Veon Bell, Michigan State; Kenjon Barner, Oregon; Kerwynn Williams, Utah State; Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State; Stepfan Taylor, Stanford, Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina.
“I’d like that, but wherever I go, I’d like that, too. That wouldn’t be too bad. I feel as though they wouldn’t just be able to spread the field out. They’d have to actually have to defend the run as well. If Aaron Rodgers is the quarterback, you’re not going to put nine guys in the box. So it’ll kind of balance out.”.” – Lacy, on the possibility of going to the Packers.
Position analysis: The hard truth about the pass-first Packers’ approach to the running back position under general manager Ted Thompson is this: With the exception of taking Nebraska’s Brandon Jackson in the second round of the 2007 NFL Draft, they’ve always tried to fill the position on the cheap. And in many cases, it’s worked out OK: Trading a sixth-round pick for Ryan Grant just before the 2007 opener was brilliant; sixth-round pick James Starks delivered in a big way during the 2010 playoff run to Super Bowl XLV; signing Cedric Benson for the league minimum last August was starting to look like a savvy move until he went down with a season-ending foot injury Oct. 7; and late last season, street free agent and former practice-squadder DuJuan Harris flashed serious potential.
After his promotion to the 53-man roster from the practice squad in December, the 5-foot-8 Harris carried 34 times for 157 yards and two touchdowns in the regular season, then added 28 carries for 100 yards and two more TDs in the playoffs. He also caught two passes for 17 yards in the regular season and seven passes for 64 yards in the playoffs.
At the NFL Meetings in Arizona last month, coach Mike McCarthy intimated that Harris will get every opportunity to be the team’s starting running back this summer in training camp, saying, “I wish we would have had DuJuan earlier. He was a young man that we were just getting ready to try to put in the game. Everybody’s like, ‘Just put him in there!’ Well, hell, you put him in there, there aren’t too many runs in our offense where we can’t go to a pass. (And if the play is changed), now he’s protecting for Aaron Rodgers. That’s why there’s a lot of stress schematically and responsibility-wise on our running backs, and that’s not going to change because of our quarterback. (But) once he got ready, I felt great about the way DuJuan finished the season. (I’m) looking forward to having him for an offseason and look for good things for him.”
The Packers could still bring back Benson, apparently haven’t given up on Starks, should get Green back at closer to 100 percent after his 2011 knee injury, and reportedly had expressed some interest in ex-New York Giants running back Ahmad Bradshaw.
Draft strategy: In his eight drafts in Green Bay, Thompson has selected a not-so-grand total of six running backs or fullbacks: Jackson (second round), fullback Korey Hall (sixth round) and halfback DeShawn Wynn (seventh) in 2007; fullback Quinn Johnson (fifth) in 2009; Starks (sixth) in 2010; and Green (third) in 2011. That track record would seem to make drafting Alabama’s Lacy, a darling of a number of mock drafts, unlikely at No. 26 overall. Nevertheless, it seems safe to assume that Thompson will use one of his second- or third-day picks on the position. The Packers have eight overall picks, with one in every round except the fifth, where they have two. And while they feel good about Harris, the 30-year-old Benson may not be worth bringing back, even inexpensively; there’s no guarantee that Starks, plagued by injuries all throughout his career, will ever be able to stay healthy; and Green, whose surgically repaired knee started acting up on him late in the year, may not be the answer even when healthy. While the position may have been devalued on draft day, even a quarterback-driven offense like the Packers’ could benefit from an explosive player in the backfield, and if Thompson sees a difference maker, he may very well nab him.
Listen to Jason Wilde every weekday from 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. on “Green & Gold Today” on 540 ESPN, and follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/jasonjwilde.