NFL draft season is an exciting time filled with DraftBreakdown cut-ups, egocentric Twitter wars, and ridiculous anonymous “scout” quotes. There are very few things I love more.
It is difficult at times, however, to wade through the oceans of scouting reports to find pearls of useful fantasy information. To that end, I have created this NFL Draft Cheat Sheet to answer every important question about the running backs that will hear their names called this May.
In case you missed it, here is my Quarterback Cheat Sheet.
Who is the best?
From a talent perspective, it is not particularly close. Alabama State RB Isaiah Crowell is the only All-Pro caliber back in this draft.
The most impressive part of Crowell’s game is his vision. He consistently chooses the right hole and has the confidence to utilize even the smallest of creases. Crowell also does a great job of finding cutback lanes at the second level and has the ability to bounce runs outside for big plays when appropriate.
Crowell is one of the fastest accelerators in the class with the ability to explode through holes, and despite his narrowish lower half can run through defenders. He also uses a variety of moves in the open field and has shown the ability to make men miss in the hole.
In short, he pretty much has all the physical tools an NFL team is looking for.
Calling Crowell the best, however, comes with a huge asterisk.
The off-the-field concerns that led to Crowell’s dismissal from Georgia are well documented and concerning enough, but he also showed a lack of toughness at Alabama State, choosing to slip out of bounds on several occasions instead of going after extra yards, and refusing to play through minor leg injuries.
It's clear Crowell was protecting himself for the NFL, but the question remains if he is willing to dog it in college in order to get to the NFL, what will he do when he receives a significant pay day down the road?
Of course for fantasy purposes, that matters little. If Crowell is even in position to take it easy after receiving a big pay day, it will mean his owners had three or four stellar years of fantasy production to show for it. Considering he may be the only back capable of putting together multiple years of stellar fantasy production in this class, it is a risk worth taking.
Who will contribute most as a fantasy player in year one?
Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde and West Virginia RB Charles Sims both have the skills necessary to contribute early if they land in the correct situation.
The most enticing of Hyde’s qualities is his size, but his burst perhaps is a more important yet often overlooked aspect of his game. That ability to accelerate quickly allows Hyde to avoid penetration, reset his feet, and still get to the hole. That ability can separate a big guy from a short-yardage back, and Hyde should excel as a short-yardage player early in his career.
Hyde also has the technique and size to be a plus pass protector, is serviceable as a receiver out of the backfield, and was even successful on the multiple occasions Ohio State utilized him as a lead blocker.
That versatility almost ensures Hyde earns a role in 2014, and he is the early favorite in the rookie touchdown race.
Charles Sims is also a very versatile player that should at very least find work on third down as a rookie.
From a running perspective, Sims is something of a tight athlete that struggles to make sharp cuts, but he has good acceleration and vision. He also has balance and power to run through arm tackles, but will never be a big-time tackle breaker. Put his physical attributes together, and there is certainly NFL feature back potential in Sims.
Sims, however, should do much of his early damage in the passing game. He has soft hands and is a natural catcher of the football. He is also a solid route runner that can make plays underneath and down the field.
The one thing that could prevent Sims from getting early work is his pass protection. He is not awful by any means, but he often sets his feet too early and sits back on his heels instead of engaging the pass rusher. This causes him to either get run by or run through. He also is slow to identify the blitz at times, picking the incorrect blitzer or carrying out fakes instead of picking up the blitz.
All of those things are coachable, and Sims has the ability to pick up the nuances of the blocking game. If he does, expect him to have an immediate impact at the next level.
Who has the most upside?
Crowell is the answer, but since I have already discussed him, I will go with Baylor RB Lache Seastrunk.
The arguments on Seastrunk never revolve around his physical ability. He has great feet, excellent lateral quickness and agility, and the hip flexibility to change direction at high speeds and make moves without breaking his stride.
When Seastrunk has the ball in his hands in the open field, there are few backs in this class more dangerous.
The real questions surrounding Seastrunk concern his vision and constant quest for the home run, but I think each of these concerns is overblown to some extent.
The vision concerns are unwarranted. He ran very successfully in a zone-blocking scheme that required him to pick from a variety of possible running lanes, and he showed the ability to press and cut effectively. Seastrunk displayed good vision at the second level as well, finding cutback lanes and using his physical traits to turn big plays into home runs.
When someone says he has poor vision, then, I think they are mistaking his poor vision for bad decision making. I do not think the problem is with Seastrunk failing to identify the crease. The problem is he is always looking for a bigger one. It is a problem many home-run hitters have struggled with once they get the NFL, and it is one I expect Seastrunk will struggle with as well.
To contribute early, Seastrunk must improve his pass protection so he actually sees the field in passing situations. He looked like a player unhappy and unwilling to block most of the time at Baylor, trying to get in front of pass rushers instead of attacking. He also struggled to identify who to block and often took very poor angles.
Perhaps because of the blocking concerns, Seastrunk has very little experience catching the ball with only nine receptions over two years in college. He has decent enough hands and the ability in the open field to be a threat in the passing game, but that potential will never be realized unless he can become a much better blocker.
Seastrunk is a player with flaws. There is no questioning that. He does, however, possess one of the best pure running skill sets in this draft, and has the chance to turn into something very special at the next level. It just may take some time.
Who is the most overrated?
Before I get too deep, understand that Washington RB Bishop Sankey has a skill set that could be effective in the NFL, but in the scope of this class I believe he is being ranked higher than he should be.
My biggest concern with Sankey is what I would characterize as inconsistent vision. There are times, usually when he has a pulling guard to follow, that Sankey is decisive to the hole and bursts through for big gains. There are other times, however, when Sankey is hesitant and misses cutback lanes of which I would expect a good high school back to take advantage.
Another issue that points to a lack of vision is Sankey’s penchant for taking big hits. There are times in the open field when Sankey looks almost surprised to see a defender bearing down on him. I would expect a player with better vision to see the hit coming and take measures to either avoid it or lessen the blow. I do not see that enough from Sankey.
Perhaps if Sankey was a stunningly superior athlete, these lapses in vision could be forgiven. Unfortunately, he is not that special, and I cannot see a very high ceiling for him in the NFL.
Who is the most underrated?
I worried Arizona RB Ka’Deem Carey would fall victim to his slow 40 time at the Combine, but it is nice to see the scouting community respecting functional speed over track speed and not dinging Carey too much for his poor showing. Unfortunately, it does disqualify him from this list.
The good news is it affords me the opportunity to talk about Tennessee RB Rajion Neal.
Neal is a one-cut runner that likes to get up field in a hurry. He runs with good pad level and knows how to finish runs. He also displays good feet and a smooth running style. There are rumors of Neal possessing exceptional speed, but I only see average speed and burst on tape. He can be caught from behind on occasion, but he certainly has enough juice to take it to the house.
Neal's real strength should come in the passing game. He has natural hands and has shown the ability to catch poorly thrown balls away from his frame. In fact, Neal made a catch against Georgia in 2012 so good I watched it four or five times just to make sure I had not mistaken Neal for a wide receiver.
At 5-11, 220, Neal has the look of a feature back in the NFL and can contribute in a number of ways. I literally have no idea why he is not better regarded by the draft community. He is at least on par with Bishop Sankey, but will cost a fraction of the price on draft day.
What small school prospects have big potential?
Towson RB Terrance West is the most heralded and has the most upside of the small school backs.
The first thing I noticed about West was how light he is on his feet for a big man. He has a pretty good jump cut and can link several moves together. He is not going to make a ton of people miss at the next level, but he should be able to adjust to penetration and take advantage of cutback lanes.
West also has great vision. He does a great job of reading blocks and is able to identify cutback lanes. West also shows patience, pressing the hole before bouncing the run outside.
West does have issues, however. He does not generate the power his size would suggest because of his poor pad level and a lack of leg drive after contact. He will need to work on that at the next level. He also needs to improve as a pass blocker and receiver out of the backfield.
In the right system, it is not outside the realm of possibility West could break out as early as 2014.
Georgia Southern RB Jerick McKinnon is another running back with a chance to make noise.
After playing as a triple-option quarterback as a junior, McKinnon burst onto the national scene with nine-carry, 125-yard performance in Georgia Southern’s upset win over Florida. He showed impressive speed and athleticism in that game, and backed up that tape by running a 4.41 40, posting a 40.5” vertical, and broad jumping 11 feet at the Combine.
McKinnon’s athleticism is not in question, but his ability as a runner still is. He has only been a “running back” for one season, and even then he very rarely lined up seven yards behind the line of scrimmage and took a handoff. Perhaps he will thrive in a more traditional role, but the reality is no one knows.
Either way, his athletic ability enough is worth a flier in Dynasty leagues.
Terrance West is the highest scoring fantasy rookie in 2014.
Fantasy success is much more tied to opportunity than anything else, so making this prediction before the draft is likely daft. Even so, West has the feel of a Zac Stacy or Alfred Morris. Get him in the right system, and he could shine right away.