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.
Realistic Landing Spots: Steelers at No. 17, Broncos at No. 28, Falcons at No. 30.
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.
Realistic Landing Spots: Jets at No. 39, Chargers at No. 45, Steelers at No. 48.
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.
Realistic Landing Spots: Packers at No. 26, Lions at No. 36, Bengals at No. 37.
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.
Realistic Landing Spots: Dolphins at No. 77, Cowboys at No. 80, Texans at No. 89.
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.
Realistic Landing Spots: Bengals at No. 53, Jaguars at No. 64, Lions at No. 65.
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.
Realistic Landing Spots: Packers at No. 55, Jaguars at No. 64, Titans at No. 70.
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.
Realistic Landing Spots: Dolphins at No. 82, Colts at No. 86, Broncos at No. 90.