2013 NFL Draft: And The No. 1 Running Back Is…

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Eddie LacyA player’s best indicator for potential success in the NFL almost always lies in his college game tape. In the case of Eddie Lacy’s 2013 NFL Draft stock, his Alabama resume’ is one of the big reasons teams are so high on him.

On the other hand, his status as the top back in this year’s draft is in jeopardy. Hampered by a nagging hamstring injury that nixed his Combine, Lacy has remained idle throughout the entire offseason. It’s never a good thing when you give NFL scouts time to doubt your ability. And as long as he’s off the field, the nitpicking will continue. Though in a frustrating situation, he’s still the best running back in this draft because of what he brings to the table.

Lacy’s 2012 season with the Crimson Tide showed all the makings of a top NFL prospect. A load of a runner who punished defenders and combined power with deceptive open field speed, Lacy relished his first full year as a starter for Alabama. As a Senior in 2012, he compiled over 1300 yards and 17 touchdowns.

His stats didn’t dip when he faced the better SEC defenses either. Lacy averaged 7.5 yards a carry against a tough LSU squad midway through last season. He also trucked his way to a 181-yard performance against Georgia in the SEC title game.

Lacy also played better as the season went along, showing signs of a durability and mental toughness. In the last three games of the 2012, Lacy totaled nearly 500 rushing yards.

Of course, Lacy can’t get all the credit. Alabama had one of the best offensive lines in the country. They also had a great defense that allowed Lacy to pound away late in games. But it’s safe to say that due to his both his size and speed, Lacy isn’t just a product of Alabama’s run-heavy system and has something to offer at the pro level.

Lacy would prove that once and for all in the BCS National Championship game, where he catapulted his NFL draft stock.

Against a highly-touted Notre Dame defense anchored by Heisman runner-up Manti Te’o, Lacy dismantled the Fighting Irish, rushing for 140 yards and a touchdown on 20 attempts, earning MVP honors. When the smoke cleared, Lacy had proved he could produce on the biggest stage and cemented his status as a top NFL prospect.

What he brings that others don’t

At 5’10, 230 lbs, Lacy is a physical, downhill runner who gains yardage by overpowering defenders with his size. He rarely falls backward, initiates contact well and hits holes with a surprising burst. Though not the fastest or most explosive back in this year’s class, Lacy is nimble and light on his feet.  He also possesses good-but-not-great open field speed and is capable of making defenders miss with his spin move. While there are running backs with better explosiveness and play-making ability in this draft, there’s nobody with Lacy’s combination of size, speed, durability and winning pedigree.

Where he needs work

Lacy wasn’t a prolific receiver out of the backfield at Alabama, only catching 20 passes in all of 2012. While Alabama isn’t known for throwing the ball all over the field, Lacy never displayed a knack for catching the ball, which could hurt him in the pass-happy NFL.

Lacy was also a very weak pass blocker in college. Picking up the blitz is always the toughest challenge for any rookie running back since NFL defenses run a variety of defensive schemes. This could lead to Lacy sitting out a lot of third downs. At least in his first season.

Lastly, Lacy didn’t perform in the NFL Combine due to a tight hamstring and isn’t scheduled for his Pro Day workout until April 11th. We’ll likely know for sure where he stands based on the results of that event.

Where he’d be a good fit

Several factors, beyond a player’s overall skill set, play a big role in whether or not he will be a key component of an offense. Often times, a team’s offensive philosophy can greatly affect a player’s role.

Take a look at Lacy’s former teammate, Mark Ingram, who was drafted in 2011 by the New Orleans Saints at No. 28 overall. Ingram was the first running back taken in that draft, but injuries, a pass-heavy New Orleans offense, and a crowded backfield consisting of scat-back-on-steroids Darren Sproles, aging Pierre Thomas, and the punishing but plodding Christopher Ivory victimized Ingram’s fantasy stock. Ingram has never been given the freedom to spread his wings with the Saints so far in his career.

Then you take a look at Trent Richardson, another former Alabama back drafted in the first round. T-Rich made an immediate impact on the Cleveland Browns last season after breaking the Browns’ franchise record for touchdowns as a rookie. As a true No. 1 back with another rookie behind center, Richardson was given the keys to the offense early, unlike Ingram. While Richardson was clearly more talented than Ingram, it goes to show that the team drafting you can make a difference in the amount of carries you get.

Overall, Lacy has the talent to be a slightly better version of Ingram. He would work best on a balanced team such as the New York Jets or Pittsburgh Steelers.

Who might be better

The only player who has the kind of ‘wow factor’ that could supersede Lacy in the draft is former Tar Heels running back Giovani Bernard

A slightly undersized, highly explosive back, Bernard is a threat to score a touchdown at any spot on the field and has drawn comparisons to Chris Johnson and Reggie Bush. He put together two strong seasons with North Carolina in 2011 and 2012, rushing for around 1200 yards and 13 touchdowns in each season. He was also an excellent receiver and punt returner in college, making him more dynamic than Lacy. However, you could argue his success was due partially to North Carolina’s up-tempo style offense options.

Despite his clear advantages to Lacy, Bernard is still No. 2 because he is a riskier option. At 5’8, 202 lbs, he’s undersized and won’t bull over defenders like Lacy. An even bigger issue is his ACL, which he tore in 2010, meaning he’s operating on one surgically repaired knee before his pro career has begun. Lastly, he only ran a 4.53 40 at the combine, so his straight-line speed isn’t quite at a Chris Johnson level, which makes him less likely to overcome his injury concerns.

Bottom line

Lacy will have to prove to scouts at his pro day on April 11 that he’s still the best back. But unless his workout is a major disappointment, he’s still the running back that will be drafted first in New York come late April.

For more information on this year’s top-5 running back class, make sure to check out Greg Brosh’s Updated Running Back Rankings.

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