Just because a running back was selected early doesn’t mean they are in the best position to produce immediately. Which rookie running backs should have our attention? Who should have the best opportunity to produce impressive numbers? Let’s take a look:
1) Le’Veon Bell – Pittsburgh Steelers
Rashad Mendenhall now resides in Arizona, leaving a void in the Steelers running game. The replacements the team used last season, like Jonathan Dwyer (4.0 ypc) and Isaac Redman (3.7 ypc), hardly inspired much confidence. That led to the selection of Bell, your typical Steelers bruiser. Listed at 6’2″, 244 lbs., he fits the mold and the system to a T. The question will be if he can protect the quarterback, making him a full-time option, or if he will be more of just an early down back.
2) Montee Ball – Denver Broncos
The release of Willis McGahee has caused some to vault Ball to the top of their rookie rankings. It helps, obviously, but let’s not get too hasty. Between Peyton Manning and their impressive top three receivers, we know this is going to be a pass first offense. Plus, it’s not like the Broncos are void of alternatives should Ball struggle, including Knowshon Moreno and Ronnie Hillman.
Does Ball have the potential? Absolutely, but there’s no guarantee he gets enough touches on any given week.
3) Eddie Lacey – Green Bay Packers
Like with Ball, Lacey finds himself in an offense that is going to be pass first. That said, the Packers have been looking for a running back to help keep defenses honest, something Lacey should easily be able to do.
Of course the Packers complicated things a little bit when they took the Patriots route, drafting Jonathan Franklin in the fourth round. There is more than enough room for both of them, and Lacey should get the first chance at early down duties. With 17 rushing TD last season he also has proven to have a nose for the end zone, likely ticketing him for goal line duties as well.
4) Giovani Bernard – Cincinnati Bengals
Would anyone really be surprised if Bernard ultimately was the best rookie running back this season? The presence of BenJarvus Green-Ellis is the only thing diminishing his value, early on, because those ahead of him on this list have a clearer path to playing time.
Bernard, though, could be the most explosive option. People will call his size a detriment (5’9″), but it didn’t stop him at UNC (1,200+ yards, 12+ TD the past two seasons). He also proved to be a force in the passing game, with 45+ receptions, which should at least give him third down duties initially. Given what is standing in his way, it also wouldn’t be surprising to see him assume early down opportunities before long.
5) Zac Stacy – St. Louis Rams
With Steven Jackson gone to Atlanta, the Rams appear primed to utilize a committee of backs this season. While Isaiah Pead will likely lead the way, Stacy should have as much opportunity as anyone to step up and grab the job. He may not have the breakaway ability of some other backs, but with a developing passing game the Rams may opt to go with someone dependable who can move the chains.
6) Jonathan Franklin – Green Bay Packers
We mentioned him earlier, but here is where he ultimately falls on the list. The presence of Lacey is the only reason Franklin isn’t ranked higher and, for a team designed to win now, you would expect this to be an open competition despite where the two were drafted. He can fly on the football field and has proven to be a capable receiver, something that is going to add to your value in Green Bay. He may start off as the third down back, but he has the potential to surprise.
7) Joseph Randle – Dallas Cowboys
DeMarco Murray is the team’s top running back, but can he actually stay healthy for a full season? He hasn’t proven it yet and, if he goes down, Randle will be there waiting to assume the role.
8) Mike Gillislee – Miami Dolphins
With Reggie Bush in Detroit, Lamar Miller is expected to get the first crack as starting running back. While you would think Daniel Thomas would be next in line, that’s hardly a guarantee after his poor performances the past few seasons. Gillislee exploded last season at Florida, rushing for 1,104 yards and 10 TD.
9) Andre Ellington/Stepfan Taylor – Arizona Cardinals
Either one of these two have e potential to unseat both Rashad Mendenhall and Ryan Williams, even if they can stay healthy (which is no guarantee). These are the future running backs for Arizona, it’s just a question of which one steps up first.
10) Denard Robinson – Jacksonville Jaguars
A college quarterback, Robinson will make the move to running back in the pros. He certainly showed his ability running the football as a QB, rushing for over 4,400 yards in four seasons at Michigan. With Maurice Jones-Drew coming off a serious injury, Robinson is a sleeper that we need to keep our eyes on.
Make sure to check out all of our 2013 Rookie Rankings: