With the NFL Draft quickly approaching, we’ll be evaluating all the prospects in the class, starting today with the running backs. The St. Louis Rams should not have a major need at the position, considering that 2013 fifth-rounder Zac Stacy emerged as a workhorse last season and came near 1,000 yards despite only starting 12 games. In addition, undrafted free agent Benny Cunningham showed potential as a backup, and the team still has some hope that 2012 draft picks Isaiah Pead and Daryl Richardson can turn it around and contribute. Finally, the roster also includes special teamer Chase Reynolds, who could be part of the team once again in 2014.
Here are my rankings of the running backs in the 2014 class, paired with how each of them could potentially fit into the Rams’ plans.
1. Ka’Deem Carey, Arizona: Carey is very reminiscent of San Francisco 49ers back Frank Gore. He relies on elusiveness more than elite speed, but he breaks away once he gets past the line of scrimmage and has a real penchant for getting to the end zone. In terms of weaknesses, Carey needs improvement in his pass protection, and he has some rather significant character concerns. With all the backs at the top of this class being so close, Carey could end up falling to the middle rounds.
Rams Role: Carey is rather similar to Stacy and Cunningham style-wise and would be rather redundant on the Rams’ roster. With that said, he is a very good receiver out of the backfield, so the Rams could certainly find a role for him if he ended up on their roster.
2. Bishop Sankey, Washington: Sankey is a real pleasure to watch, as he has a great burst to the line of scrimmage, has fantastic breakaway speed once getting into the open field, and is very elusive. His main weaknesses come with breaking tackles and spending too much time in one spot while trying to fake out defenders. With his outstanding character, Sankey may be the most desirable back in this draft, even if Carey is more talented.
Rams Role: Sankey is also pretty similar to Stacy, and the Rams don’t have a strong enough need for a running back to spend a second or third-rounder on him.
3. Carlos Hyde, Ohio State: Hyde is a big, powerful back who will run through defenders and fight to pick up extra yards. He’s somewhat of a one-year wonder, as he didn’t pick up 1,000 yards until his senior season. He carries character issues after being arrested for assault this past offseason.
Rams Role: Hyde would become the most legitimate power back on the Rams’ roster and could probably fit in immediately as a goal line specialist. However, he’ll be at worst a Day 2 pick and wouldn’t be a sensible investment for the Rams.
4. Tre Mason, Auburn: Mason provides a nice combination of speed and power and probably is the best “speed back” of any of the players in this class. Mason is effective running to the outside, and he can also be a legitimate contributor as a kick returner. He’s a bit less established than some of the other top backs in the class, as he came out after a dominant junior season but didn’t even become a starter until the latter half of his sophomore year.
Rams Role: Mason would be a nice change of pace in the Rams’ offense, and he would occupy the kick returner role that the team has struggled to fill for the majority of their time in St. Louis. He’ll likely be selected too soon for the Rams to justify spending a pick on a running back.
5. Charles Sims, West Virginia: Sims is a big yet elusive back who is a very solid all-around contributor, serving as a good receiver out of the backfield, a quality pass protector, and a kick returner. He only spent one year at West Virginia after transferring from Houston.
Rams Role: Sims would be a solid contributor to virtually any team because of his diverse skill set. There is a large variance of opinions on him from scouts, so it’s difficult to tell where he’ll be selected. He might be an interesting Day 3 pick for the Rams should he still be on the board.
6. David Fluellen, Toledo: Fluellen could end up being one of the better steals in the 2014 draft, as he was held back by injuries in college but has a big, muscular build and ample all-around skills that will enable him to succeed in the NFL if healthy. He’s elusive but also has good breakaway speed, and he can be a solid receiver out of the backfield.
Rams Role: There are varying opinions on Fluellen, and he theoretically could go as high as the third round or not even be drafted at all. He’s kind of similar to Stacy and Cunningham, but if he’s available in the late rounds or as an undrafted free agent, he’d be a quality addition.
7. Marion Grice, Arizona State: Grice is probably the best receiver of any back in this year’s class. He has a nice power element to his game, but his speed is not elite and he can be too slow at times when hitting the hole, making cuts and getting to the outside. He can return kicks as well. His draft status has been compromised by an injury that ended his season early and has held him back for the entire pre-draft process.
Rams Role: Grice would be a nice receiving specialist and role-playing back for the Rams, and he could also serve as a kick returner. He could be an especially intriguing option if he ends up falling to the late rounds or going undrafted.
8. Lache Seastrunk, Baylor: Seastrunk is the definition of a role-playing back, but he’s capable of being a very good one. He has tons of big play ability and has a spectacular burst if he gets into open space. He’s also a very good pass protector. With that said, Seastrunk has very little experience catching the ball out of the backfield, and he struggles to make plays develop properly. He really cooled down during the second half of the year and has probably turned into a mid-to-late round pick after being many draftniks’ top-ranked running back prior to 2013.
Rams Role: Seastrunk could be an interesting role player and may end up in realistic range for the Rams to select him. However, he is similar enough to players like Pead and Richardson that the Rams might not want to add even more uncertainty to the back half of their running back group.
9. Jeremy Hill, LSU: Hill is a very talented back and would be ranked higher up this list were it not for significant character concerns. He’s a very good downhill runner who specializes in getting to the outside, and he’s also a reliable pass catcher. However, he’s been arrested twice during his college career, once for a bar fight and the other time for oral sexual battery. He also did a disservice to LSU by telling the coaching staff he would return, only to turn around and declare for the draft following his redshirt sophomore year.
Rams Role: Hill is capable of being an every-down back in the NFL if he stays out of trouble. Either way, it doesn’t make much sense for the Rams to take him, as he would be redundant on their roster.
10. Storm Johnson, UCF: Johnson is a big power back who displays good physicality and has a good amount of breakaway speed. He struggles to get past the line of scrimmage at times, but once he gets into open space he’s virtually unstoppable. He’s also a solid receiver out of the backfield.
Rams Role: Johnson would be an interesting addition to the Rams’ backfield because of his quality size and pass catching ability. His stock is quickly rising though, and if he ends up being a Day 2 pick he’s not worth the investment for the Rams.
11. Terrance West, Towson: West, an FCS prospect who declared after his junior year, is a favorite of many in the scouting community and turned heads with a strong combine performance. He’s elusive and has quality breakaway speed, but he is a much better runner inside the tackles than he is on the edges.
Rams Role: West is rather similar to Stacy and wouldn’t really fit in the Rams plans. He could end up being an earlier pick than initially thought, which would make him even less desirable for St. Louis.
12. Damien Williams, Oklahoma: Williams is a very good all-around back who has good power and is not afraid to put his shoulder into people. He’s a good pass protector and receiver, even lining up on the line of scrimmage. He’s more of a between-the-tackles runner, and he has some character concerns stemming from reported failed drug tests that got him kicked off the team at Oklahoma.
Rams Role: Williams might fit the Rams as good as any back in this draft due to his diverse skill set and lack of premium status. If they got him, he could push Daryl Richardson for a spot as a pass-catching change of pace back.
13. Kapri Bibbs, Colorado State: Bibbs had a breakout junior season at CSU which saw him declare early for the draft. He has quality breakaway speed, and many feel that he can develop into one of the better backs in this draft class with good coaching.
Rams Role: Bibbs might be a decent fit with the Rams as an outside-the-numbers speed back, but if he goes in the earlier middle rounds the Rams probably won’t go after him.
14. Andre Williams, Boston College: Williams had a statistically dominant senior season, leading the nation in rushing yards. He’s a physical runner between the tackles, but is not very explosive, struggles when running to the outside, and has minuscule experience as a receiver. There’s lots of varying opinions on him, and it’s anyone’s guess where he lands in the draft.
Rams Role: Williams is too similar style-wise to Stacy or Cunningham, though his lead blocking ability might make him desirable as a fullback convert in the mold of Michael Robinson or Anthony Dixon. If he ends up falling far enough in the draft, he might be an intriguing project.
15. Isaiah Crowell, Alabama State: Crowell is another talented back who is undoubtedly going to fall due to character concerns. The former Georgia Bulldog was kicked off the team due to weapons charges, but he re-emerged at Alabama State and did a good job of showing his ability to hit the hole hard, maintain a low center of gravity, and display good quickness. He’d be an intriguing speed back if he can stay out of trouble.
Rams Role: Crowell is very similar to current Rams back Daryl Richardson. It’s possible that his off-the-field issues could enable him to go undrafted, in which case it’d be fine for the Rams to bring him in to compete, but otherwise he’d be pretty redundant.
16. Devonta Freeman, Florida State: Freeman, who declared for the draft following his junior year, has some glaring question marks, namely his lack of size and the fact that he’s never carried a full workload. However, he’s got a nice burst and gets through the point of attack quickly, and he has a low center of gravity. He’s also a quality pass catcher. Freeman is very raw right now, but his build and skill set could allow him to turn into a Michael Turner-like back before things are said and done.
Rams Role: Freeman is very similar to Stacy and Cunningham and would be very redundant in the Rams’ offense. It would be very surprising if St. Louis had any real interest.
17. Tyler Gaffney, Stanford: Gaffney didn’t have an exceptionally productive college career, and his senior season was really his only notable one. However, his size and athleticism have led some evaluators to believe that he can be developed into an effective back at the next level.
Rams Role: Gaffney’s potential fit as a Ram depends on how aggressively personnel people overreact to his strong combine performance. If he lasts until Day 3, he would be a pretty good fit as a core special teamer and a developmental back. It’s certainly possible, though, that his offseason success will vault him into Day 2.
18. Tim Flanders, Sam Houston State: Flanders has very quick feet and makes crisp cuts. He has a strong power element to his game. The biggest intrigue Flanders provides, though, is as a core special teamer, and he could very well end up being the best kick coverage guy of any back in this class.
Rams Role: Flanders would be interesting as a special teamer, particularly if he can be acquired as an undrafted free agent. With that said, he’s rather comparable to Chase Reynolds and probably would not overpass him enough to make the roster.
19. Henry Josey, Missouri: Josey, an undersized back who has incredible speed, would be more intriguing if he didn’t have so many questions surrounding him. First of all, he suffered a massive knee injury as a sophomore which caused him to miss over a year and nearly ended his college career. He’s never carried a full workload, he has rarely caught passes out of the backfield, and he doesn’t have experience as a return man or special teamer. His quickness is his most desirable quality, but he will really struggle to make a roster unless he can use it to establish himself as a change-of-pace back.
Rams Role: If Josey goes undrafted, it would make sense for the Rams to bring him in, both because of the local tie-in with Mizzou and the fact that they don’t have another back like him on the roster. They’d need to see what he offers as a returner or special teamer, but if he impresses in those areas he’d be a nice player to add to the team.
20. Lorenzo Taliaferro, Coastal Carolina: Taliaferro is a big back who is reminiscent of former 49er Anthony Dixon. He’s a solid receiver in the backfield and will power into people to gain yards. He could also be intriguing as a core special teamer.
Rams Role: Taliaferro, like Flanders, could offer value as a special teamer. Other than that, there’s not much that he could contribute to the Rams from scrimmage.
21. James White, Wisconsin: White is a high effort pass protector, and that skill could enable him to make a roster as a third down back. When he can get outside into open space, he is very effective, but other than that, he doesn’t offer much. He could also be an impact special teamer.
Rams Role: White offers value as a protection specialist, but with the array of backs the Rams already have there’s no reason for them to bring him in. It’s difficult to see him being a fit.
22. James Wilder, Jr., Florida State: Wilder Jr. is an athletic, well-built back who has some nice skills but needs to develop his technique. He’s pretty solid all-around, however, and if character issues stemming from a recent arrest aren’t too much of a problem, he’d be a rather attractive late-round pick.
Rams Role: Wilder Jr. might be an interesting addition, but he’s probably only a realistic possibility to be drafted by the Rams if they are confident that either Pead or Richardson will not be in their plans for 2014.
23. George Atkinson, Notre Dame: Atkinson, like Wilder, is a bigger back who didn’t really put it all together in college but ended up leaving after his junior year. He’s very athletic, though, and he also returns kicks. There are some concerns about his work ethic after the circumstances under which he left Notre Dame.
Rams Role: Atkinson could theoretically fit as a kick returner and developmental back. However, he wouldn’t seem to be an improvement over anyone the Rams already have on their roster.
24. Adam Muema, San Diego State: Muema is a sad story, because he really is a talented back, possessing great size and athleticism as well as quick feet and a great burst of quickness. However, it’s apparent that he has some mental issues, and he’s stated that the only team he wants to play for is the Seattle Seahawks. If Muema can straighten things out, he could be effective, but that doesn’t look overly likely at this point.
Rams Role: Muema’s not really a player who is a great fit in the Rams’ offense to begin with, but his significant off-the-field concerns make him a near impossibility to end up in St. Louis.
25. Alfred Blue, LSU: Blue is a big back who was banged up for a good chunk of his college career and ended up playing second fiddle to Jeremy Hill. He’s a high runner who is not overly quick but does a good job getting to the outside. Unfortunately, despite his size, he doesn’t really use his power to his advantage.
Rams Role: Blue is not really a player who would be intriguing as a Ram, as his style doesn’t match up well with the offensive philosophy.
26. Silas Redd, USC: Redd, who was once hailed as one of the top backs in the country, never put things together following his transfer to USC and now is very unlikely to be drafted. He has some good skills, particularly his elusiveness and receiving ability, but he’s not a very productive back overall. He’ll need to learn to play special teams if he wants to stick in the NFL.
Rams Role: Redd is a very poor man’s version of Stacy and Cunningham, which might make him an interesting player to bring to camp, but his ceiling for this year would probably be that of a practice squad player.
27. Jerome Smith, Syracuse: Smith is a nice goal line back, but other than that he doesn’t really offer much. If he works on things like special teams and blocking enough, he could develop into a Anthony Dixon/Michael Robinson-like utility back.
Rams Role: There’s really no use for Smith on the Rams roster. He would not offer an upgrade over any back that’s currently with the team.
28. Zach Bauman, Northern Arizona: Bauman is undersized but has some good skills. He’s an OK pass catcher, is a plus pass protector, and has good elusiveness. He’d be a prime candidate to serve as a core special teamer as well. If he played against better competition than what he did at Northern Arizona he would be further up this list
Rams Role: Bauman is the kind of back the Rams might be inclined to take a chance on, as a player who is very sound fundamentally and has the potential to contribute on special teams. Don’t look for him to provide any impact from scrimmage, however.
29. Antonio Andrews, Western Kentucky: Andrews turns corners well and is a decent receiver, but doesn’t provide much as a back overall. He’s another player who will need to make his living on special teams if he wants to survive in the league.
Rams Role: Andrews would need to establish himself as a special teamer and try to beat out Reynolds for a position. With Reynolds’ experience, he seems unlikely to be unseated by a rookie who isn’t clearly better than him.