Round-by-round ranking of 2016’s best NFL RB prospects
Gordon McGuinness breaks down and ranks every back available in the 2016 NFL draft.
Round-by-round ranking of 2016’s best NFL RB prospects
We’ve already taken a look at quarterbacks and wide receivers, so now it’s our turn to cast our eyes over the ball carriers in this year’s NFL draft. It’s a class that contains a Heisman trophy winner who is probably lower down that many would have expected, and is led by a pro-ready, three-down back.
Here are the top wide running backs in the 2016 NFL draft:
- Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State
We like Elliott enough that we have him at No. 8 on the latest big board released this week. While he’s not the best pure runner in this class — ending 2015 with the fifth-highest running grade amongst draft eligible running backs — he is the most pro ready and has the ability to play on all three downs from day one. He graded positively as a runner, receiver, pass blocker, run blocker and screen blocker in 2015, proving that he can do it all. While there are concerns that he was “just” fifth in terms of his grade as a runner this year, he was second behind only Melvin Gordon in 2014.
- Kenneth Dixon, Louisiana Tech
Dixon is another player who will impress teams in the NFL with his ability to contribute as a runner and as a receiver out of the backfield. Dixon averaged 5.4 yards per carry, with 3.3 of those yards coming after contact. His ability to make things happen beyond the help of his offensive line is a big plus, and he forced 54 missed tackles on 197 carries, and 16 on 34 receptions to finish second in this draft class with an elusive rating of 99.2.
- Paul Perkins, UCLA
Dixon had the second-highest elusive rating in the class, and the only player he trailed was UCLA’s Perkins at 114.7. He led the draft class with a rushing grade of +29.0, averaging 5.6 yards per carry and 3.6 yards after contact. It was a big jump from Perkins, with a rushing grade of +9.9 in 2014 and really the only thing that separates him and Dixon at this point is that he has graded slightly negatively as a receiver in each of the past two seasons.
- Jordan Howard, Indiana
With 196 carries in 2015, just one running back inside our top 10 had a lighter workload, but Howard made the most of his opportunities finishing the year as the fourth-highest graded runner in this draft class. He forced 35 missed tackles on running plays, which isn’t the type of number that wows you, but he did average 3.7 yards per carry after contact, the highest mark in the class. Howard was also a big-play threat in college, with 20 of his 196 carries going for 15 or more yards. One concern with Howard is that he graded at +22.3 in his four best games in 2015, and -0.5 in the other five, but two of those big games did come against Iowa and Michigan, so it’s not like he was just racking up good performances against lesser opponents.
- Alex Collins, Arkansas
Collins saw an increased workload in 2015 and very much made the most of it. His 271 carries were 69 more than he had in 2014, and in turn he averaged 5.8 yards per carry after averaging 5.4 the year before. He forced 58 missed tackles as a runner, and had the ninth-highest rushing grade in the class. What we haven’t seen from Collins is much work as a receiver, with just 13 receptions over the past two seasons.
- Derrick Henry, Alabama
The second-highest rushing grade in the class, 76 missed tackles forced as a runner, almost 1,400 yards after contact. So why is the Heisman trophy winner only the seventh-best running back in this draft class? Well, consider his workload of 395 carries and suddenly those 76 missed tackles are impressive, but not quite as impressive as the number suggests when presented in isolation. To put it into context, he averaged a missed tackle forced once every 5.19 carries, while it was one every 3.2 for Perkins and 3.6 for Dixon. What Henry does offer however, is the ability to be a power runner who could form a potent one-two punch with the right partner. He’s tough to bring down, averaging 3.9 yards after contact per carry, and while he graded negatively as a receiver and in pass protection, he can still have an impact at the next level based purely on his ability as a runner.
- Devontae Booker, Utah
The improvement we saw from Booker between 2014 and 2015 is one of the more interesting find in this draft class. After grading at just +0.1 as a runner in 2014, he exploded to finish 2015 as the third highest graded rusher in this class. His quickness and his ability to cut helped him force 57 missed tackles and averages 3.1 yards after contact in 2015, and he added another 14 missed tackles forced on 37 receptions out of the backfield.
- C.J. Prosise, Notre Dame
Injury really hurt the end of Prosise’s 2015 season, but when healthy over the first seven weeks of the year he was a dynamic playmaker for the Notre Dame offense. He benefited from an offensive line that had four of its five starters earn positive grades, with 3.8 of his 6.6 yards per carry average coming before contact but he did make the most of his opportunities with the seventh best elusive rating in the class at 74.7. He also showed off the ability to make big plays, with 49.7% of his carries going to 15 yards or more, the fourth highest percentage in this class.
- Kenyan Drake, Alabama
The “other” Alabama running back saw just 287 snaps on the field in 2015, but has the kind of big play ability that is going to intrigue a lot of teams. His carries mean the sample size is a little bit too small, but with 22 missed tackles forced on 77 carries, and another 15 on 29 receptions, he had an elusive rating, which would have been good enough to top every other running back in this class outside of Perkins. Add in the fact that he can create big plays on special teams, as evidenced by his kick return for a touchdown against Clemson in the National Championship and it’s easy to see why people are excited about his pro potential.
- Daniel Lasco, California
Just one of the six offensive linemen who played 400 or more snaps for the Cal offensive line finished the season with a positive grade, so it’s no surprise that when you dig into Lasco’s film, you find plenty of plays where he’s faced with defenders in the backfield. Injuries limited his 2015 season, but over the past two years he has produced a +18.4 rushing grade and allowed just three total pressures in pass protection. Add that to his nine missed tackles on 32 receptions in 2014 and I’d expect Lasco to at least be able to contribute as a third-down back early in his career.
- DeAndre Washington, Texas Tech
Texas Tech’s Washington saw 43.1 percent of his carries go for 15 yards or more, the 10th-highest percentage of anyone in this class. He was tied for 12th in the class with a rushing grade of +13.2, averaging 6.5 yards per carry, with 3.5 of those yards coming after contact. A small back at 5-8, Washington’s work after contact, coupled with his 67 missed tackles forced on 230 carries and 41 receptions saw him finish 2015 with the third best elusive rating in this class at 86.1.
- Wendell Smallwood, West Virginia
Just five running backs in this class had a higher rushing grade than West Virginia’s Smallwood at +21.1, with the Mountaineer averaging 6.4 yards per carry in 2015. With a 4.47 forty yard dash time he looks to have average speed for a running back, which fits nicely with the fact that 32.7 percent of his runs in 2015 went for 15 or more yards. That mark put him 27th amongst the 51 running backs in this class with enough qualifying carries, suggesting that he’ll have some big plays, but it won’t be how he makes a name for himself.
Gordon McGuinness | Analyst, Lead Special Teams Analyst
Gordon has worked at PFF since 2011, and now heads up the company’s special teams analysis processes. His work in-season focuses on college football, while he is also heavily involved in PFF’s NFL draft coverage.