A sixth round draft and relative unknown named Alfred Morris took the NFL by storm in 2012, in the process setting a new precedent for college running backs making the professional leap.
The Washington Redskin rookie would have led the league in rushing yards, were it not for Adrian Peterson making the greatest comeback since Harry Truman in the 1948 presidential election.
Morris’ Rookie of the Year candidacy was largely nonexistent, in a microcosm of the role of the running back in modern football. Grantland Rice once wrote, “it’s the big blooie that makes all the talk” in reference to baseball’s home run; the same principle can applied to the gridiron now, but with the quarterback.
Morris is essentially the perfect, 21st Century running back prospect. The position as it exists in this era of free-wheeling offenses is less about star power and more about value. Think Prius over Ferrari.
The redefined role of the running back changed what constitutes a star at the position. The traditional feature back still exists — first round draft pick and 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist Trent Richardson ranked third among rookie rushers at 950 yards and with 11 touchdowns, was one of the league’s more prolific scoring backs.
Fellow first round pick Doug Martin was a top five ball carrier, but his selection fits the Morris mold more than the Richardson. Martin was productive but hardly a star in Boise State’s offense, playing a second fiddle to quarterback Kellen Moore. Martin as a first rounder might have been a reach — a gamble, even — but Tampa Bay got a sizable return on its investment.
Washington’s return-on-investment with Morris was astronomical. As mentioned, he was selected in the sixth round out of Florida Atlantic, a product of Howard Schnellenberger’s final Owl team. Morris was a stud in his last collegiate year: 1186 yards on 235 carries with nine touchdowns. Those aren’t eye-popping numbers on their own, but considering FAU No. 111 and 119 passing and scoring offenses, Morris accounted for a ridiculous percentage of his 1-11 team’s production.
Morris is the gold standard, but there are other examples of the payoff on bargain back shopping. Division II product Daryl Richardson gave St. Louis a reliable option behind the oft-injured Steven Jackson. Richardson was taken with the next-to-last pick. The Eagles got quality play from Kansas State’s Bryce Brown, a seventh rounder not even invited to the Combine.
Value, value, value. There’s plenty to be had in the 2013 crop, but the question is where? No running back is projected for the first round. The highest rated prospect, according to CBS Sports, is Alabama’s Eddie Lacy. Ironically, Lacy took something of a backseat to true freshman T.J. Yeldon. Such is the landscape for modern running backs.
Now, Alabama backs are something of an exception. Nick Saban has built his Crimson Tide dynasty on a foundation of NFL-ready running backs, so Lacy’s skill set should translate to the pros. But the qualities that make Lacy an intriguing prospect apply to other draftees, like Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell. The nation’s No. 3 leading ball carrier in 2012 goes 6-foot-2, 240 pounds and has a proven ability to take a lickin’ and keep on tickin’. Bell carried an incredible 382 times for the Spartans. But is the workload more detriment than selling point?
The increasingly narrow window running backs have for peak productivity puts a high premium on carries. But in that same regard, value can be gleaned in prospects with some dents that might scare off others.
South Carolina’s Marcus Lattimore made the bold decision to pursue the NFL Draft despite suffering his second major knee injury in as many years. The Gamecock star has undeniable NFL potential — he may have been a first round pick after his freshman season, had he been able to declare. Battling back from a pair of knee injuries is a tall order, and certainly impacts Lattimore’s stock. If he’s able to rebound at the same level he produced while wearing garnet-and-black, Lattimore is a mid-round star-in-waiting.
Looking later into draft weekend is where the real bargains can be found, though. A sixth or seventh round prize awaits the particularly astute GM. Walter Payton Award finalist Miguel Maysonet powered Stony Brook to its second FCS Playoffs in as many years with 1964 yards and 21 touchdowns. He shined in a backfield that also featured former Iowa Hawkeye and top 10 FBS rusher Marcus Coker.
Michael Hill, the Division II Offensive Player of the Year at Missouri Western, was the star of last week’s Raycom Classic. Hill is flown below most draft projection radars, but could emerge as a late round steal.
Replicating Morris’ rookie campaign is unlikely from even the highest value prospects of the 2013 class, but his production sets a new precedent for college-to-pro running back stardom.