By Russ Lande
It has become a common occurrence for NFL quarterbacks to throw for over 4,000 yards in a season, and as free agency has shown this year, the value of running backs is on the decline. However, that could change if teams like Seattle and San Francisco continue to win so consistently. While I believe that Russell Wilson and Colin Kaepernick are likely to become top passers, right now neither would qualify as an elite pocket passer and their teams have won because of great defense, strong rushing attacks and smart, efficient quarterback play. Keeping that in mind, let's take a look at the five best big backs in the 2014 draft to determine if any can fill the role that Marshawn Lynch has filled for the Seahawks.
1. Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
Projection: Second Round
Entering 2013, a number of NFL scouts told me that Hyde reminded them of former NFL star Jerome Bettis. While I see some similarities, no big back in this year's draft comes into the league with Bettis' talent and college production. Lacking quick twitch athleticism, Hyde needs a few steps to get going, which leaves him vulnerable to defenders who can get behind the line before he gets started. However, once he gets going, he is both a patient and aggressive runner. He follows blocks well, can make the cut to get to the hole, has deceptive quickness through it and does an excellent job of getting his pad level down to take hits and run through contact. Not a back that is going to make tacklers miss, Hyde has the balance and agility to keep his feet while moving through traffic and against low tackle attempts.
In 2012 he lined up in a variety of spots, including halfback, fullback and even wingback, and showed a willingness to block from anywhere. He was effective blocking from a wing/motion alignment, both in pass protection and on running plays. Hyde is not a player you are going to build your passing attack around, but he can catch the ball well enough to handle dump-off passes, and when he stays over his feet and uses good technique he can be a good pass blocker. Hyde will likely be a second round pick and if used correctly, I feel he could be a productive power back who gains over 1,000 yards a season regularly.
2. Jeremy Hill, LSU
Projection: Second Round
Despite his production this year at LSU, many were surprised when Hill declared for the draft. No one is ever going to confuse him with a speed back, but he is a good athlete with the foot quickness and agility to make sharp cuts. With his size and natural strength, he should be a better inside runner than he has been, and that is because he tends to be an upright runner who does not get his pad level down to make himself a smaller target and to deliver a blow to the tackler. Additionally, for a back who flashes such good balance, he does not pick his feet up high off the ground and often gets tripped up by low, grab tackles. He must improve in these areas, as big backs must gain yards after contact if they want to last in the NFL.
His route running must improve, as he was not used on many different routes at LSU. He displayed good hands reaching out and catching the ball away from his body. If he is going to contribute catching passes in the NFL, he will not only have to improve his routes, but will need to give a better effort and use cleaner technique in pass protection to avoid being jolted and driven backwards. In the end, Hill has the physical talent to be a productive starting three down power back in the NFL, but if he does not learn to run with better pad level, pick his feet up higher to avoid getting tripped up and greatly improve his pass protection, he will struggle to get on the field and will have a short NFL career.
3. Antonio Andrews, Western Kentucky
Projection: Fourth Round
One of my favorite small school players in this year's draft, I believe Andrews is also one of the most underrated. Unlike most backs from small schools, Andrews does an outstanding job of riding a blocker's hip and sets up defenders to open the hole. While he lacks the elite speed to out-run angles, he has the burst through the hole to get behind the defense and makes a lot of big plays once in space because of his open field running skills. It always surprises me when an upright runner, like Andrews, is able to easily run through hits and break tackles to gain yards after contact as most high runners struggle with this. In order to continue his after-contact production in the NFL, he will need to do a better job of running with good pad level because defenders in the NFL are much better than he faced at Western Kentucky.
Especially rare for a big back, Andrews excels at running routes, looking comfortable running every route a back is asked to. Possessing soft, natural hands, he not only makes tough catches seem routine, but gets the ball tucked away quickly so that he holds onto it when he gets "plastered" right after the catch. If my breakdown stopped here, then Andrews would likely be a high second round pick, but his fumbling issues and below-average pass blocking are major concerns.
He carries the ball with one arm, swinging it away from his body while he runs and does not pull it high and tight when facing contact, which leads to too many fumbles (he had fumbles on back to back carries against Tennessee). Often, fumbling is enough to keep a back off the field, but when he gives a questionable effort and uses bad technique in pass protection, it can be nearly impossible to earn playing time. Andrews will need to improve greatly in these areas if he is going to become the quality starting three down back that I believe he has the talent to be.
4. Andre Williams, Boston College
Projection: Fourth Round
Likely the most physical, punishing back in the draft, Williams fits the mold of an old school power back. Not quick getting to full speed and lacking explosiveness through the hole, he produces because he is decisive once he sees a hole, attacks it and tramples through tacklers to gain yards after contact. He did not display the vision and creativity to find open creases if the designed run was not there, but he does an excellent job of carrying out the play as it is drawn up and gets the most out of every run. Not only does he run with good pad level to deliver a blow to defenders, but he has rare lower body thickness and strength which makes it look almost easy for him to run through defenders who try to tackle him below the waist.
Combining his exceptional balance with his strength, Williams is exactly what you want in a strong, between the tackles runner. There are, however, issues that will likely keep Williams from being selected until the third day of the draft. While he could power through holes at Boston College, the holes in the NFL close faster and the defenders are bigger and stronger, which will make it harder for him to maintain his after contact production. Additionally, for a back who makes his living running between the tackles, he does not wrap the ball up consistently and will fumble as evidenced by his three fumbles against North Carolina State.
Quickness and athleticism limitations hinder his ability to get separation when asked to run routes, and when a back catches zero passes his final year of college, you know that he is not regarded as a strong receiving option/threat. Williams will likely be a third day draft pick who excels as a two down power back, but comes off in passing situations. For him to achieve this success, he will need to protect the ball much better in the NFL.
5. Terrance West, Towson
Projection: Fourth Round
A man amongst boys playing at Towson, West had no trouble running over and through defenders and gained most of his yards after contact. Running with good body lean also helped him to consistently fall forward and gain the extra yard or two at the end of every run. A big concern surrounds West's true burst and explosion, as it did not look elite on film, and I believe he will have trouble getting through holes before they close in the NFL. That lack of burst also will limit his ability to be effective getting the corner and making plays on outside runs. He has shown the cutting ability to make the first man miss out in space, but in other situations he did not display the elusiveness to consistently make tacklers miss.
I have real concerns about his ability to contribute in an NFL passing attack for two reasons. First, the fact that he was subbed out on most passing downs at Towson is a real red flag, because at that level he should never come off the field. If he was just adequate catching the ball, he would likely have stayed in the game because of his ability to dominate when he has the ball in his hands. Second, although he has shown good technique and strength in pass protection, he was not a consistently productive pass blocker as he did not always seem to know whom to block. I no doubt would take a chance on West in the fourth round because of his potential as a power back, but I think any earlier than that is a risk because he does not show the elite athleticism and third down production to convince me he can be a starter in the NFL.
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Russ Lande writes about college scouting and the NFL draft for Sports on Earth. He is GM jr. scouting and college scouting director for the CFL's Montreal Alouettes and the Big Ten Network. He is a former scout for the Cleveland Browns and former scouting administrator for the St. Louis Rams. You can follow him @RUSSLANDE.