2016 NFL Draft Combine Preview: Running Backs
Dom Murtha takes a detailed look at this year's running back class heading into the 2016 NFL Combine.
While last year's class was loaded with running back talent top to bottom, this year’s crop of backs enter the Combine on Tuesday with much less pomp and circumstance. At the least, there is still one clear-cut lead dog, to go along with the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, however the rest of the field remains in obscurity to much of the football following community. Having said all of this, don’t be fooled, there is still plenty of talent out there at the running back position for the 2016 NFL Draft, this time just a bit more shrouded in mystery than last year’s hype train.
Cream of the Crop
Ezekiel Elliott (Jr) – Ohio State
Height: 6-foot-0 Weight: 225 lbs.
Entering the 2015 college football season, there was no secret that Zeke Elliott of Ohio State was the best running back in the country. He was coming off of a national title run in which the Buckeye underdog playoff winning streak was carried almost entirely on his back. While the 2015 season came and went without a repeat title, the constant still remains – Elliott is the jewel of this running back class.
What the tape says…
Right off the bat, evidenced on film is Elliott’s relentless motor. He runs with excellent pad level and always seems to be headed downhill with malice. Upon impact, Elliott always seems to deliver the blow. He always falls forward and will never be a liability in short-yardage situations. Considering all of his power and urgency as a runner, his vision is second to none in this class. Elliott practices patience, allowing the hole to fully develop instead of running into clutter. Once things open up, he explodes through the hole and makes it a track meet to the end zone.
At the second level, Elliott is feared. He wields a devastating stiff arm and a high-quality hop-cut when needed. Lastly on his long list of positive traits, Elliott is one of the most accomplished blockers in this class. Always willing to mix it up with edge defenders and linebackers, he almost never allows anyone to best him in protection. He seems to welcome the idea of even serving as a lead blocker on select plays, proving that his physicality and toughness should never be questioned.
While there are very few downsides to Elliott’s game, he might be better served with a little more patience in the backfield. It’s not that he ever misses the designed hole, but if he were to be a little more patient, he would more often see when the home run back cut lanes open up. He also needs a slightly better understanding on pass protection concepts. He will never lose the pass blocking battle by being out-physicaled, but when stunts are sent his way, he has the tendency to get confused conceptually.
Ultimately, as you can see, Elliott is one of the safest picks in this entire draft. His game is virtually unblemished, and while I may be in the minority here, I feel that he is an even more polished prospect entering the NFL than Todd Gurley was last year.
Derrick Henry (Jr) – Alabama
Height: 6-foot-3 Weight: 242 lbs.
Your reigning Heisman Trophy winner – Derrick Henry – posted some ridiculous numbers in 2015-16, as he rushed for 2,219 yards and 28 touchdowns. He’s one of the most polarizing prospects in the draft this season, as his size and production alone would warrant him a first round selection, however his unorthodox running style raises question marks about his NFL transition.
What the tape says…
It is impossible to watch film on Henry without being blown away by his sheer size. At 6-foot-3, 242 lbs., Henry is built very similarly to Brandon Jacobs. Also like Jacobs, he’s a very patient runner with a solid forward lean. At the second level he is a load to take down and punishes people with his powerful stiff arm. For his size, he is deceivingly fast at top gear, and might end up running one of the fastest 40’s at the Combine for his position. Through the hole, he surprisingly gets skinny, yet maintains his power in order to shed arm tackles.
His most glowing quality is his work as a pass protector. He is second to none at his position in protecting quarterbacks, as he uses his size to dominate ends and linebackers, while he also has a strong grasp of protection concepts.
The polarization of Henry’s game appears in his running style. Although he’s massive, he tends to prefer running outside. His lower half is built a bit frail; similarly to that of Darren McFadden coming out of college, which gave him many injury issues at the next level. You look at him on tape and expect a bit more physicality. He doesn’t shy away from contact, but he should be harder to take down than he is. My other issue with Henry is his work in the backfield. For someone so big, he is one of the more indecisive runners in the class, oftentimes seen dancing in the backfield, rather than hitting the hole with conviction. Also unsurprisingly, the hoss struggles to get into second gear. He starts out slowly and takes a while to get to breakaway speed. His 40-time may deceive some talent evaluators, as he will likely run fast, but his splits will be less than favorable.
As you can see, Henry is likely the most polarizing back – if not overall player – in the class. He does plenty of things well and possesses unteachable natural physical gifts. With nearly 400 carries in 2015-16, some worry that Henry might already be used goods. At the next level, Henry will be successful if he gets on the right team with the proper supporting cast around him. Consider his draft stock to range anywhere from the late first round to the end of the third.
Paul Perkins (Jr) – UCLA
Height: 5-foot-11 Weight: 210 lbs.
While this may not be the most popular opinion, Perkins is my second rated running back in this class behind only Elliott. Call him my pet cat in this draft if you want, but the things I see on tape from him are rare. He finished 2015-16 with 1,343 rushing yards and 14 touchdowns, while he caught 30 passes for 242 yards and another score.
What the tape says…
First and foremost, Perkins is an instinctive runner with incredible field vision and overall agility. He is very fast, with at times breakaway speed. The dominance of his juke move is something that very few have seen in sports before. The only comparable weapon to his jump-cut is Mariano Rivera’s unhittable cut-fastball. Evidenced in this play against Stanford, you can see why Perkins is considered one of the most elusive backs since Shady McCoy.
Another positive on Perkins’s side is that although he’s a bit slight, he seems to be very good in short yardage situations. He’s got a solid leg drive and rarely is taken down without falling forward.
The concern for Perkins is his stamina and durability. He seemed to slow down as games went on (See: Stanford 2015), raising questions about his ability to be a lead back on an NFL roster. He also looks very unnatural in pass protection. Oftentimes, Perkins is seen lunging at edge rushers rather than making a solid base and delivering a punch. Conceptually he can get lost as a blocker, leading many to be concerned about his transition to even a third down back at the next level.
With proper coaching early on, Perkins’s shortcomings as a pass blocker can be corrected to at least the point that he will become serviceable in that area. Aside from struggling as a blocker, Perkins has all of the natural gifts to be an exceptional running back at the next level. Anyone running a zone blocking scheme should be dreaming about Perkins falling into their laps on draft day. Consider his draft stock somewhere from the second to third round range.
Kenneth Dixon (Sr) – Louisiana Tech
Height: 5-foot-10 Weight 215 lbs.
In his four years at Louisiana Tech, Dixon had one of the most decorated careers in the history of collegiate football. He compiled 4,480 yards and 72 touchdowns on 801 carries. His 72 touchdowns leave him tied for fourth all-time with Ricky Williams on the NCAA rushing touchdown list. He enters the Draft a bit shrouded in mystery to the average football fan, but his tape will catch the eyes of many talent evaluators come draft day.
What the tape says…
He’s not the biggest, he’s not the strongest, he’s not the fastest, and he has a fumbling problem. Considering these indictments, why should we care about Dixon? Simply put, he's well rounded. Dixon finds a way to combine power, patience, vision, and elusiveness to give him the look of a quality every-down NFL back. He’s got a devastating hop-cut, yet features a mean streak that allows him to deliver the blow to defenders at the point of attack.
His acceleration is on par, if not better, than any of the other backs in this class, making him a threat to get to the second level at any moment. He’s a solid pass protector and is a high-quality receiver out of the backfield, giving him a great chance of becoming a feature back at the next level.
As stated before, Dixon has limited top end speed, a less than ideal frame, and a noted fumbling issue. All of these things will likely negatively affect how scouts rank him on their big boards, however I expect that his positives will end up trumping all. More optimistic evaluators think that Dixon will have his name called on day two, but realistically you can expect Dixon to be taken sometime during the third round.
Boom or Bust
C.J. Prosise (Sr) – Notre Dame
Height: 6-foot-0 Weight: 220 lbs.
Prosise caught many talent evaluators off guard this past college football season, as his summer camp experiment paid off in spades. A career slot receiver, Prosise was gifted an opportunity by the Notre Dame coaching staff headed into his senior season to fill the vacant running back position. It began with a few touches out of the backfield during summer practice, but eventually developed into a workhorse position that allowed him to, in a way, take the country by storm. He finished 2015 with 1,032 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns on only 156 attempts – good enough for a 6.6 yards per carry average – in his first year at the running back position. He also caught 26 passes for 308 yards and a touchdown, proving to still possess the skills needed to be a serviceable receiving option.
What the tape says…
His work out of the slot in seasons past certainly shows up in his game as a running back, both for the good and the bad. He features plenty of wiggle in his style, running with excellent finesse for his larger size. This trait is evident at two levels, both through the hole and down the field in space. Prosise possesses threatening top-end speed, showing off his breakaway gear in a 91-yard touchdown against Georgia Tech this past season.
His footwork is very clean, oftentimes devastating for defenders to follow, as he makes people miss with ease, while without wasting any movements. This is definitely one of his positive carryovers from his history in the slot, as his juke moves and stutter-steps can at times resemble that of John Travolta in "Saturday Night Fever." Prosise, also surprisingly, is one of the more patient runners in this class, always allowing blocks to develop, while attempting to maintain north and south integrity. I say that this comes as a surprise because patience as a runner is something that usually develops over years of experience at the running back discipline, rather than showing up early on in year one.
With all of the impressive qualities that Prosise possesses, he is still very raw, and quite flawed as an every down running back. The worst of his maladies show up in pass protection, as he is at times lost in positioning and can be physically abused with pressure coming full tilt at his base. He can, and has been, exploited by defenders and is a liability when asked to protect the quarterback. Also when running on sweep plays, Prosise has the tendency to appear aloof. He fails to hit a cut with conviction to turn up field, lacking urgency at times on outside designed runs.
Regardless of his pitfalls, the raw running senior seems to be loaded with potential. His legs have very few miles on them, and with an evolving build, he appears to be sturdy enough to last in the NFL. If he blows up the combine with good short spurt times and a sub 4.5 40 time, Prosise could have his number called as early as the end of day two.
Off the Radar
DeAndre Washington (Sr) – Texas Tech
Height: 5-foot-7 Weight: 198 lbs.
While the other prospects discussed before him are destined for the earlier rounds of the draft, Washington has a lot of things working against him, including lack of size and minimal exposure in the Red Raiders' “Air Raid Offense”. He rushed for a Christopher Columbus-like 1,492 yards and 14 touchdowns, while he caught 41 passes for 385 yards and two more scores.
What the tape says…
While Paul Perkins may have the best hop-cut in recent memory, Washington has the most electric feet out of any player in the draft. His juke combinations are devastating and combined with his bowling ball build, he is very difficult to corral in the open field.
He’s tough as nails, willing to take on anyone physically, giving him better than expected ability in pass protection. He is an experienced, tried and true, receiver out of the backfield and at the worst will have a role on third downs at the next level. His leadership is evident on the field in his relentless motor and never say die attitude. If he can find a way to contribute on special teams early on in his career, Washington should secure a roster spot and eventually make his way up to relevant in the running back depth chart. A true underdog story, I am one of the few believers in Washington at the next level. Expect most scouts to have a fifth-to-seventh round grade on him come draft day.
Rest of the Pack
*** Bleow is the complete list of running back prospects headed to Indy on Tuesday… Other notables include Devontae Booker of Utah, Alex Collins of Arkansas, Jordan Howard of Indiana, and Jonathan Williams of Arkansas ***
Peyton Barber, Auburn
Devontae Booker, Utah
Tra Carson, Texas A&M
Alex Collins, Arkansas
Marshaun Coprich, Illinois State
Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech
Kenyan Drake, Alabama
Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State
Tyler Ervin, San Jose State
Josh Ferguson, Illinois
Glenn Gronkowski (FB), Kansas State
Derrick Henry, Alabama
Quayvon Hicks (FB), Georgia
Jordan Howard, Indiana
Andy Janovich (FB), Nebraska
Devon Johnson, Marshall
Daniel Lasco, Cal
Tre Madden, USC
Keith Marshall, Georgia
Paul Perkins, UCLA
C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame
Wendell Smallwood, West Virginia
Kelvin Taylor, Florida
Shad Thornton, NC State
Soma Vainuku (FB), USC
Dan Vitale (FB), Northwestern
DeAndre Washington, Texas Tech
Brandon Wilds, South Carolina
Jonathan Williams, Arkansas