Richner: 2013 Top RBs

Last Updated: 10/14/2014 10:06 AM ET

Below, NFL Draft expert Matt Richner's analyzes his top five NFL Draft 2013 Running Back prospects as well as five more players to watch at the position. 

2013 Top 5 Running Backs

Last year we saw three running backs selected in the first round, Trent Richardson by the Cleveland Browns, Doug Martin by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and David Wilson by the New York Giants. All of these players had excellent rookie seasons and all look to be skilled enough players to hopefully have long careers. However, there are a number of past examples when teams were able to find quality running backs in the later rounds of the draft. This year’s draft class looks to be very deep and finding a workhorse running back in the mid to later rounds of the draft is possible.

1) Stepfan Taylor (Stanford): A power runner who is more interested in running through tackles than around them, Taylor utilizes his lower half to keep himself balanced and always keeps his legs churning after contact. A three-year starter for the Stanford Cardinals, Taylor rushed for 4,300 yards on 843 carries, a YPC average of 5.1, with 40 rushing TDs.

In addition to being a workhorse running back, Taylor excels in his pass blocking, making him a useful tool as a possible third-down back initially in the NFL. Trusted to protect Andrew Luck two seasons ago, and a rotation of other QBs this season, Taylor shows great awareness and the ability to keep his pad level down and stand his defender up in pass protection. He displays good ball security, rarely having put the ball on the ground throughout his career.

A versatile tool in the passing game, Taylor is a quality receiver who is capable of running shorter route combinations, and he does a good job at catching the ball away from his body. With inexperience from the quarterback position this season, the Cardinal relied on him, and he met the challenge, with 41 receptions for 248 yards.

Taylor has a tendency to want to bounce his runs outside if his first cut isn’t open; he has the speed in college to accomplish this, but he might not be able to hit the corner as frequently in the NFL. With over 940 career touches, 6,928 All-Purpose Yards and 45 career TDs, Taylor averaged a touchdown once every 20.9 touches. Reminds me of former Atlanta Falcon Michael Turner, a runner who provided consistent production and versatility.

2) Montee Ball (Wisconsin, RB): The NCAA’s career leader with 77 touchdowns, Montee Ball tied Barry Sanders’ single-season mark with 39 TDs during the 2011 season. As one of the most consistently productive running backs in college football history with 924 carries for 5,140 rushing yards, Ball has averaged 5.6 yards per carry for his career. Going up against Nebraska in the Big 10 championship game, Ball exploded for 202 yards on 21 carries and three TDs. Showing a tough, physical running style, Ball averaged roughly four yards-after-significant-contact (YASC) this season. He averaged 104.9 rushing yards per game for his career, the second highest amongst all running backs in this year’s draft class.

Last season, Ball received a third-round grade from the NFL Draft advisory board and decided to return to school to improve his draft stock. He is a north-south runner, who has excellent vision to see his hole and run through it at full speed. With 59 receptions for 598 yards and six TDs, Ball shows above-average hands for a running back and is capable of turning a short checkdown into a big gain.

A patient runner who displays good vision, Ball is capable of running in between the tackles, averaging 4.9 yards per rush inside the tackles on the season. He is the most complete, NFL-ready running back in the draft and looks to be a second-round pick come April.

3) Eddie Lacy (Alabama): Lacy isn’t the caliber of a Trent Richardson or a Mark Ingram but isn’t too far behind either one of them. A strong runner with a strong frame, Lacy is more than capable of handling the duties of being a power running back in the NFL.

A backup two years ago to Trent Richardson, Lacy finished with 674 yards and 11 TD. As the lead running back this season, he finished with 204 carries for 1,322 rushing yards, averaging 6.5 yards per attempt; he had 17 TDs. To put this into perspective, in Mark Ingram’s Heisman Trophy season at Alabama in 2009, he finished with 271 carries for 1,658 rushing yards, averaging 6.1 yards per attempt; he also had 17 TDs. With only 390 career touches and 41 TD, Lacy had the best TD per touch ratio of any running back in this year’s draft class. He scored a TD every 9.5 times he touched the football throughout his career.

At 5’11” and 230 lbs, Lacy is a power north-south runner who won’t go down from first contact by a defender, resulting in broken tackles. Showcasing decent hands, Lacy isn’t going to be a featured back on third downs, but he is capable of turning a checkdown into a first down with his speed and power. He is above average in his pass-blocking abilities, but he needs work with technique and timing when attempting cut blocks.

A runner who can take defenders head on, Lacy has a spin move that he tends to use as he is making contact. This does help him pick up a few extra yards after contact, but he also exposes the football, which has led to a few fumbles in his short time as a starter for the Tide. This past season, Lacy fumbled three times; for his career, he has fumbled six times, a fumble rate of once every 65 touches.

4) Giovani Bernard (RB, UNC): Giovani Bernard, coming off a spectacular redshirt freshman campaign, has continued to produce at a high level, vaulting him to the top of most teams’ draft boards and the top running back in this year’s class. While I think he can be a good back down the line, Bernard is a classic boom-or-bust pick.

Listed at 5’8” and 202 lbs., Bernard is elusive and displays excellent vision and patience as a runner. His small frame does, however, beg the question: Is he capable of being an every-down running back, or is he just a third-down back?

Bernard will need to add some more weight to his frame, and he lacks the ability to consistently break through tackles. Against Georgia Tech this year he had 16 carries for 79 yards, with an average of just 1.3 YASC.

Bernard does showcase soft hands and is probably the best receiving back in this draft class. He has 92 career receptions, third most amongst running backs in this year’s draft class. Not only that, his receptions-per-game average is 4.0, which is tops amongst all running backs this year.

Bernard is a highly skilled punt returner, with an average of 16.4 yards per return, which ranks him second in the country. Former UCLA Bruin Maurice Jones-Drew, whom Bernard is often compared to because of their similar size, averaged 23.2 yards per punt return while in college.

Bernard’s career statistics also match up closely with Jones-Drew. Bernard lacks the elite ability to break tackles, but he is a complete running back who will serve as a threat both on offense and on special teams.

5) Johnathan Franklin (RB, UCLA): Johnathan Franklin recently launched himself to the top of the UCLA career record books as the all-time leader in rushing yards. After battling injuries early in his career, Franklin came on strong during his senior season. He is a smaller, more compact runner who is elusive and has the speed to gain separation in the open field. Franklin is willing to run between the tackles and fight for extra yards.

Against Stanford, the nation’s fifth-ranked rush defense, Franklin had 19 carries for 194 yards and two TDs; 15 of his carries were in between the tackle box. He showcased his elusive running skills with a fantastic jump-cut move that allowed him to hit the hole and get upfield. For the game, Franklin averaged 3.4 YASC, the highest for any running back this season against Stanford.

Early in Franklin’s career, ball security was a major issue. He has 18 career fumbles, the highest amongst all the running backs this draft season, so normally I would exclude him from my top five ranks. What helps his cause is that he did not fumble once this season and worked diligently at improving his ball-security issues.

He excelled this past season in a zone-read system, which allowed him to showcase his vision and patience as a runner and his ability to make one cut and get upfield quickly. For his career, Franklin averaged 5.6 yards-per-carry.

Franklin is an exciting tailback who always seems close to breaking into a long run. Current UCLA Bruins head coach, Jim Mora, likens Franklin to former Atlanta Falcons running back Warrick Dunn. From a statistical standpoint, Franklin compares to current Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice.

This year was difficult choosing just the top five running backs. Below is just a quick list of the next five guys that barely missed the top of the draft board.

6. Andre Ellington (Clemson) - A versatile running back who can make the quick cut to find the lane. A smaller frame and a few injuries lead a few teams to worry about his ability to handle pass protection duties.

7. Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina) - If he can get healthy and return to his old form, someone will have found a first round talent in the later rounds. His average yards after significant contact were on par with Trent Richardson before his injury.

8. Joseph Randle (Oklahoma State) - Smaller back who can be a threat in the passing game. Leads all running backs in this year’s draft class with 108 career receptions.

9. Kenjon Barner (Oregon) - His lack of power and strength will really limit his potential in the NFL. He displayed good hands and will most likely be a third-down back as well as a kick returner. He reminds me a little bit of a Leon Washington type of player.

10. Stefphon Jefferson (Nevada) - Second in the country in rushing yards this past season. Teams worry about Jefferson’s ball security with 10 career fumbles in only 448 career carries. 

2013 NFL Draft Content Schedule:

Initial First Round Mock Draft 

February 5

Statistical and Biographical Info on all Prospects

February 19

Update Positional Reports (through 2012)

February 19

2013 QB Rankings/Top 5/Projections

March 5

2013 RB Rankings/Top 5/Projections

March 7

2013 WR/TE Rankings/Top 5/Projections

March 12

2013 OT Rankings/Top 5

March 14

2013 Guard Rankings/Top 5

March 19

2013 Center Rankings/Top 5

March 21

2013 Defensive Tackle Rankings/Top 5/Projections

March 26

2013 Pass Rusher Rankings/Top 5/Projections

March 28

2013 ILB Rankings/Top 5/Projections

April 2

2013 Cornerbacks/Top 5/Projections

April 4

2013 Safeties/Top 5/Projections

April 9

Update Mock Draft (and/or top 100 list)

April 11

Pre-Draft Thoughts and Observations Blog

April 16

Pre-Draft Thoughts and Observations Blog

April 23

Rookie and Class Rankings

May 2

Team Evaluations

May 2