This is my breakdown of the 2013 running back class after viewing at least three games apiece of 15 draft-eligible backs.
1. Eddie Lacy, Alabama
Lacy is a violent, punishing run finisher who refuses to leave yards on the field. I charted 59 of his carries and he "fell forward" on 52, good for an 88.1-percent clip. Lacy displayed highly impressive vision and smarts on stretch-zone plays and is an angry yet intelligent runner. I also charted him with 16 "wins" among 20 one-on-one open-field opportunities across four games. Blessed with exceptionally light feet at 5-foot-11, 231, Lacy forced missed tackles with power, lateral shake, and quick-twitch spin moves. He can create space for himself in the run game. Lacy's first step is not quite explosive, but he runs downhill behind his pads and attacks with relentlessness and competitiveness. He is a naturally physical player who loves to hit. Lacy is a work in progress in the passing game, but flashed the ability to stonewall blitzers and caught 22 passes last season.
2. Johnathan Franklin, UCLA
Franklin's foot quickness immediately jumps off the tape. At 5-foot-10, 205, he is built low to the ground and has a darting element to his game, with a deceptively powerful lower body to finish runs. An every-down back, Franklin topped 6.0 yards per carry behind what I found to be a porous Bruins offensive line. Franklin got physical between the tackles and exploded through tight spaces with impressive acceleration. Franklin is smooth in the passing game, turning wheel and screen routes into open-field foot races. He is a versatile, highly competitive back with similarities to Ray Rice. Franklin is not quite as talented as Giovani Bernard, but I prefer the former due to Franklin's more relentless mentality and consistent toughness when operating in heavy-traffic situations.
3. Giovani Bernard, North Carolina
Built compactly at 5-foot-8, 202, Bernard offers minimal strike zone and runs low to the ground with ideal pad level. His acceleration, speed, and elusiveness jump off the screen. Bernard can rip off multiple lightning-quick cuts while sacrificing little to no forward momentum. He is a naturally explosive player. Also a skilled receiver, Bernard has some Brian Westbrook to his game and could thrive in a pass-first offense. Bernard's physicality is disappointing, however, and he is not a tough runner through contact. He lacks power and does not max out runs. For all of his talent, Bernard lost too many one-on-one opportunities in the open field. Bernard still possesses plenty of playmaking ability to be worth a top-40 pick. I do question whether he'll be a true franchise back if drafted by a balanced, power-running team. Bernard is not a pile pusher or chain mover.
4. Christine Michael, Texas A&M
Michael averaged 6.03 yards per carry as a junior before tearing his left ACL on November 5. He returned in 2012 as a committee back and his average dipped to 4.74. I watched two of Michael's junior games and two senior-year appearances. The production and usage were different, but the tape was similar. A muscle-bound 5-foot-10, 220, Michael is an explosive runner with lateral agility and flashes of hammer-dropping power. Impressive balance and pad level allow him to absorb contact, bounce off defenders, and shed arm tackles with ease. Michael played in a zone-running, pro-style offense as a junior under Mike Sherman and looked comparable to Ben Tate. Kevin Sumlin brought the spread to A&M for Michael's senior season, and he was shuttled in and out of the doghouse as the coach and player clashed. Knucklehead factor is a big concern, but talent isn't. Michael is a classic boom-or-bust prospect, but he is brimming with upside.
5. Andre Ellington, Clemson
Ellington ran a 4.61 in Indy, but I'd be surprised if he didn't time much faster at Clemson's Pro Day. He plays a lot faster on the field. A dangerous perimeter back with exciting acceleration, Ellington's quick cuts and smooth, sometimes rapid-fire foot movement allow him to elude would-be tacklers both near the line of scrimmage and out in the open. Ellington could afford to be more decisive at times on inside runs, but has surprising pop on contact. For 5-foot-9, 199 pounds, he's not afraid to get physical. I thought Ellington gave good effort and was effective in pass protection. He is comfortable and explosive in the pass game, and should offer immediate playmaking ability on passing downs. If the 4.61 forty drops Ellington to the third round, he could be a draft-day steal.
6. Montee Ball, Wisconsin
A one-cut-and-go back who plays downhill, Ball ran with purpose inside the tackles and displayed better initial burst than I expected. He attacked with aggression, mixing it up in traffic and flashing power to push piles. Ball is a high-effort, efficient runner who maximizes opportunities by churning his feet through contact. I didn't once see him dance in the backfield. Ball has just enough speed to beat bigger linebackers and safeties to the corner. Still not a truly "special" talent, Ball is straight-linish and lacks explosive lateral moves. He is not an elusive runner. Ball only caught ten passes in 14 games as a senior and must improve his awareness in pass protection. If he gets better in the passing game, I could see Ball as a quality feature back in a zone-blocking scheme.
7. Mike Gillislee, Florida
At 5-foot-11, 208, Gillislee is a decisive, athletic runner with an air of physicality to his game. He carried Florida's offense on his back last season, despite playing behind a porous offensive line. Gillislee is a fluid mover, displaying some ability to elude defenders and consistently finishing runs with purpose. Though not quite an elite tackle breaker, Gillislee accelerates through contact and maxes out runs with toughness. Gillislee managed only 23 career receptions, but I found him to be potent in the passing game with a mean streak when blocking oncoming blitzers. Gillislee was a true feature back for just one year in college, and is likely to get better. His vision and tendency to attack a bit too urgently from behind blocks are areas in which Gillislee must improve. Gillislee looks like a third- or fourth-round prospect with enough talent to grow into a solid NFL starter.
8. Cierre Wood, Notre Dame
Wood played second fiddle to Theo Riddick in the Irish backfield, but the former is a superior pro prospect. Shifty and laterally elusive with quick feet, Wood is a creative runner with impressive short-area burst. There is some LeSean McCoy to Wood's game. At 5-foot-11 1/4, 213, Wood runs smaller than his size indicates, however, and struggles in short yardage. He has a tendency to dance in the backfield. Wood was also used sparingly in the pass game last season, catching five passes for 25 yards in 11 games. Wood did have 47 receptions combined in his previous two seasons. Because he is a naturally gifted ball carrier, Wood could be a mid- to late-round value pick with potential to be an adequate starter. He possesses explosive running ability and shake.
9. Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State
I came away from three games of Bell with mixed feelings. He's a sluggish mover behind and around the line of scrimmage, with heavy feet and average burst. Bell was too often buried at the line or tackled in the backfield for lost yards. Bell showed much better quicks and shake when sprung into the open field, but required effective blocking. He was a surprisingly mediocre tackle breaker, frequently leaning into contact instead of running through or around it. Bell plays too upright and does not run behind his pads. I did find Bell to be a talented athlete with plus passing-game tools. At 6-foot-1 3/8 and 230 pounds, he consistently stood up blitzing linebackers and defensive ends in pass protection. There is definitely a place for Bell in the pros, but I worry he'll be exposed as a good college player who lacks quick-twitch explosion to be a quality NFL starter.
10. Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State
Randle was a productive workhorse the past two years, scoring 39 touchdowns and handling 482 carries. He was used often as a receiver. At 6-foot, 204, Randle is a high-cut, upright runner with plus vision and some power. Stiff and straight-linish, however, Randle was not one of the more naturally athletic runners I viewed on tape. He benefited from wide-open spaces in OSU's spread offense. I did think he ran with strong effort and got slightly more than what was blocked. Randle often became a lunger at the end of runs. His pass blocking was worrisome, as Randle frequently whiffed. In terms of sheer run talent, Randle reminded me of a poor man's DeMarco Murray. He doesn't possess particularly quick feet or great burst and lost more one-on-one situations than he won. Randle may be overdrafted because of great stats. He has fourth- or fifth-round game tape.
11. Kenjon Barner, Oregon
I liked Barner more than I thought I would. Billed as purely a scatback at 5-foot-9, 196, Barner handled 278 carries as a senior workhorse, averaging over 6.0 yards per attempt. I found Barner to be a surprisingly efficient run finisher with a natural propensity to fall forward. A good decision maker, Barner exhibited smarts and patience behind blocks and rarely left yardage on the field. Explosive vertically but not as much laterally, Barner is more straight-ahead speedster than ankle-breaker in the open field. I still liked his inside running ability considering his size, and he flashed an ability to run through arm tackles. He does opt for the sideline regularly on perimeter runs and is not a true after-contact back. I still believe Barner could surprise as a multi-game NFL spot starter, even if he'll be drafted as a change-of-pace back. He'd fit best in a one-cut, zone scheme.
12. Zac Stacy, Vanderbilt
The more I watched Stacy, the more I didn't love him. His vision and balance immediately stood out -- Stacy is a poised and decisive back -- but he doesn't have enough juice. Stacy's initial burst around the line of scrimmage is adequate, but he doesn't run by or around anyone at the second level and will require effective blocking to be a plus NFL contributor. Stacy does run with forward lean, and his feet are quick enough to escape some contact. He also looked very comfortable in pass protection. He compares favorably to Vick Ballard as a middling talent with some versatility. On tape, Stacy's long speed is below average. I think he will be drafted in the fifth or sixth round.
13. Knile Davis, Arkansas
After a prolific 2010 season, Davis missed all of 2011 with a fractured ankle. He returned in 2012 to manage 377 rushing yards and two touchdowns across ten games. I watched two of his 2010 games and two from 2012 in the interest of fairness. I came away thoroughly unimpressed. Even before the injury, Davis was a stiff plodder with average burst and little or no lateral movement. He was a grinding, volume-dependent back lacking explosive run talent. Davis has clumsy, choppy feet and poor vision. He left a ton of yardage on the field. Perhaps most startlingly for a 227-pound runner, Davis did not overpower defenders and ran significantly smaller than his size might indicate. I'd compare Davis to a poor man's Shonn Greene. He is not a quick-twitch or physical football player, and I am fascinated to see how overdrafted he'll be after his farce of a Combine.
14. Stepfan Taylor, Stanford
Taylor's best asset is pass-blocking ability. He is a physical blitz-pickup specialist, or at least he'll probably have to be in the NFL because his run talent is underwhelming. Taylor has a maddening tendency to run into the backs of blockers, missing cutback lanes and costing his team yards. In the three games I viewed, Taylor ran with a frenetic, choppy style and was brought down easily by arm tackles. Taylor has more burst than his 4.76 forty time suggests, but generally only gained yards blocked open by his offensive line at Stanford. His one elusive move is a jump cut, which worked occasionally in the Pac 12 and will be less successful in the pros. I did like Taylor in the screen game and think he has a shot to be a third-down back in the Brandon Jackson mold. But the 4.76 at 5-foot-9 and 214 pounds likely seals Taylor's fate as a sixth- or seventh-round pick.
15. Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina
I felt obligated to include Lattimore in this running back snapshot because he's such a big name. Truth is, I have no idea whether he'll make any NFL impact, nor does anyone else. Not even Dr. James Andrews. I can say confidently that Lattimore looked like an explosive bulldozing power back with first-round traits in 2010 and 2011 games. He tore his left ACL on October 15 of 2011 and returned as a shell of his former self in 2012. Lattimore was still an effective, chain-moving college back, but a third- or fourth-round talent from an NFL projection standpoint. He'd lost his elusiveness and burst, running stiff. On October 27 of 2012, Lattimore tore his right ACL, PCL, and LCL, and dislocated his kneecap. Frankly, the odds seem very remote that he'll rediscover pre-injuries form.