By Zack Levine
Every NFL season features several running backs that quickly become household names either during their rookie season or after a year or two of development.
Last season, there was rookie Alfred Morris of the Washington Redskins who recorded over 1,600 yards and 13 touchdowns.
Trent Richardson also had a great season for the Cleveland Browns by rushing for 950 yards and making 11 end zone appearances.
There are three scenarios that stimulate the possibility of a running back having a breakout season.
The first is if it is the rookie season of the player. Rookie tailbacks have a high chance of being breakout candidates because despite all the scouting and film-watching, coaches don’t really know what they’re getting until he gets on the field.
A fresh start could also indicate that a player will have a breakout season. Sometimes, a new place and a new look can create an entirely new opportunity. An example of this would be how Michael Turner became of the NFL's most valuable running backs for the Atlanta Falcons immediately after leaving the San Diego Chargers and the shadow of LaDainian Tomlinson.
The third place to look for a breakout candidate is in training camp when there is a battle at the running back position. The player that steps up and wins the starting job should be able to continue that momentum going into the season.
Here are several 2013 breakout candidates at the running back position:
Chris Ivory, New York Jets
Ivory is one of those backs that has been given chances due to the players ahead of him getting injured. Whenever the Saints gave Ivory carries, he always ran like he was finally getting his big break. The Saints never made him their feature back, however, and now he has a chance to be one with the Jets.
The Jets' offense currently is filled with uncertainty, with no solid starter at quarterback or running back. Ivory will certainly have the opportunity to earn the starting job, and if he runs like he did when he got his opportunities with New Orleans, there’s a good chance he has an excellent year.
Giovanni Bernard, Cincinnati Bengals
Bernard is a dynamic player out of North Carolina who was the first running back taken in the 2013 NFL Draft. You’ll have trouble finding a more patient runner who waits for blocks to develop before he attacks the hole. In the open field, Bernard is shifty and his low center of gravity makes him difficult to bring down. He has the ability to score every time he touches the ball and is even a dangerous weapon in the return game.
The Bengals currently have BenJarvus Green-Ellis plugged in as their starter, but he was inconsistent last season and uncharacteristically struggled to hold onto the football. If that trend continues, don’t be surprised to see Bernard get substantial playing time early in the season. He certainly has the skills to be a breakout performer for the Bengals.
Lamar Miller, Miami Dolphins
This is scenario number three, where there will be a battle during training camp and throughout the preseason that will determine the week one starter. The Dolphins let Reggie Bush walk this offseason and picked up rookie Mike Gillislee from Florida in the draft. That means that Gillislee, Daniel Thomas and Lamar Miller will be competing for the starting running back job this summer.
Miller should be able to beat out the rookie and the injury-plagued and inconsistent Thomas. When he does, he will be able to truly showcase his talent and expand on the good things he did last season. Although he only carried the ball 51 times in 2012, Miller averaged an excellent 4.9 yards per carry. If he becomes the Dolphins’ starter and keeps his yards per carry average that high, he will be a tough problem for defenses to deal with throughout the season.
Le’Veon Bell, Pittsburgh Steelers
Pittsburgh finally gave up on the Rashard Mendenhal and decided to look for a running back in the draft. They found former Michigan State standout Le’Veon Bell. A physical yet athletic runner, Bell should fit perfectly into what the Steelers try to do with their running game.
Another reason Bell could be primed for a breakout season is that Pittsburgh doesn’t seem to be too thrilled with any of the backs currently on its roster. Isaac Redman, Jonathan Dwyer and Chris Rainey have all been effective at times, but never consistently. If Mike Tomlin gives Bell significant carries, the rookie could have a season similar to the one Alfred Morris enjoyed last year.
Honorable Mentions: Jeff Demps, Tampa Bay; Ryan Williams, Arizona; Daryl Richardson, St. Louis.
Pittsburgh Steelers, Cincinnati Bengals, Miami Dolphins, New York Jets
By Jeff Risdon
I already broke down the first round action, so this focuses more on the rest of the weekend and overall impressions.
$.01--The biggest winner of the draft? A lot of teams did well, but the Cincinnati Bengals did the most to advance themselves from their current status quo for my money. Their offense lacked playmakers outside of A.J. Green, so with their first two picks Cincinnati lapped up TE Tyler Eifert and RB Giovani Bernard. Both were the first players taken at their respective positions and both figure to play prominent roles right away. The Bengals clearly stuck to their board instead of reaching out for a need early on. Margus Hunt at the bottom of the second is a much better risk than at 37, where I suspected they’d have to take him if they wanted The Eastern Block.
Their two seventh round picks, OT Reid Fragel and C TJ Johnson, both have legit starting potential down the line, and sixth round pick Cobi Hamilton has a chance to play for a long time as a reserve wideout. I thought both Shawn Williams and Sean Porter were taken a round too soon, but Williams fits Mike Zimmer’s defense very nicely and could push for early playing time. Cincinnati is a good team, having made the playoffs two years in a row. I think their moves over the weekend give them a better shot to secure that elusive playoff victory…or two. This team has incredible depth across the board and marquee performers like Green and Geno Atkins, plus strong bookend pass rushers ahead of Hunt. The excuses are gone for Andy Dalton and Marvin Lewis. They will be my pick to win the AFC North.
$.02--I know I’m in the minority, but I love Geno Smith going to the New York Jets. New York presents him with the best chance for immediate success to quiet his critics, but it also presents Smith the chance to learn behind a mentor like David Garrard and take his time. Jets' fans seem resigned to the prospect of facing a truly bleak 2013 with a lame duck Rex Ryan at coach, but also not-so-quietly happy about flushing away anything that ever reminds them of 2012. Smith gives them a legit shot at having the franchise quarterback that Mark Sanchez can never become. They didn’t splurge to acquire him, either, patiently waiting for Smith to fall into their laps at No. 39 overall. They used the two first round picks to rebuild the defense with Dee Milliner and Sheldon Richardson, both of whom are immediate starters.
The Milliner pick actually impacts how Smith will be treated. Milliner has the daunting task of filling the shoes of Darrelle Revis, who was traded to Tampa Bay for the pick that became Richardson. Revis Island was beloved by Jets fans, and it will be almost impossible for Milliner to ever step out of that shadow. Smith simply has to suck less than The Sanchize or Tim Tebow. He’s better than both already, even if David Garrard is the starter for the first half of the season.
$.03--Two players plummeted well beyond any expected drop over the weekend. Alabama DT Jesse Williams, often mocked in the 30-45 overall range, ultimately wound up being the 137th overall pick to Seattle. Louisiana Tech WR Quinton Patton, also widely projected to go in the second round, dropped to the bottom of the fourth round before San Francisco tagged him with the 128th overall selection. These two fell for very different reasons. Williams was somewhat overhyped from the get-go, as there is not a great high-pick demand for defensive lineman that aren’t pass rushing threats (just don’t tell that to Scott Pioli!). He also suffered from a knee injury that wiped out his workout season and is worrisome for a player who absorbs such a beating. Seattle is a very good landing spot for him, as Pete Carroll’s college-style environment should play to Williams’ YOLO mentality, which he proudly wears as a tattoo on his face.
Patton dropped out of the first two days of the draft for one reason: Titus Young. You might recall the ex-Lions wideout proclaiming that he was better than Calvin Johnson and deliberately sabotaging the offense when he felt like he wasn’t getting the ball enough. His ego wrote checks his talent couldn’t cash. Patton has a similar mentality, and teams grew increasingly concerned that he would not be able to handle not being The Man like he was in college. I heard this from at least three different NFL teams, one directly from an area scout who knows him well and told me to not mock Patton in the first two rounds. Consider it a fear factor, and probably an irrational one. It’s irresponsible to project anyone possibly behaving like Titus Young, who had far more issues than not being able to accept a complementary role. Apparently, the comparisons came a little too easy: prolific wideout from a non-BCS league school noted, very impressive at the Senior Bowl week, not shy about expressing their perceived self-greatness on and off the field. Patton has the game to better assimilate into the NFL than Young did, as he is more physical on shorter routes and more economical with his body movement. The Niners landed someone who could very well be their leading receiver by 2014 in terms of catches, and they did so in the late fourth round.
$.04--The team whose draft I liked least is the Chicago Bears. After reaching at least a round for greenhorn guard Kyle Long with the No. 20 overall pick, the Bears followed that with Florida LB Jon Bostic in the second round. That too is a reach, albeit less of one. A credible argument could be made that Long wouldn’t have lasted to that 50th pick, just as Bostic was unlikely to last to their next pick, No. 117 in the fourth round. So if they truly wanted those players and felt they were the best value on the board at that pick, that’s understandable. What is inconceivable is that Long was the 20th best player on the Chicago draft board, or that Bostic was 50th. I actually graded out Long lower than the team’s fifth round pick, Louisiana Tech RT Jordan Mills. In apple-to-apple comparison between Mills and Long during Senior Bowl practices, it would be hard for anyone to say Long was the better player, and sure as heck not four rounds better. Instead of a project right guard and a maxed out inside linebacker, the Bears could have added any number of very talented defensive linemen or bolstered a very thin secondary.
The rest of the Bears draft featured three players I felt very strongly against: Rutgers LB Khaseem Greene, Georgia DE Cornelius Washington, and ex-Washington State WR Marquess Wilson. Greene probably fits in Chicago better than anywhere else, so I’m okay with the Bears taking him in the fourth round; he aggressively pursues turnovers and has a rare knack for forcing fumbles, which makes him fit right in with the organizational philosophy of the old regime. However, the Bears selected Greene over two backers I rated higher that went in the next three picks, Gerald Hodges and Sean Porter. Washington is a very impressive physical specimen but plays very passively and had no production at all in college despite playing opposite Jarvis Jones. Wilson either quit on Washington State or was dismissed angrily from the program after accusing Coach Mike Leach of abuse, depending on which side of the story you believe. There is decent potential with Wilson if he can handle the physical and mental rigors of the next level, but “quit on team” is a bigger red flag than the one flying over Tianamen Square.
$.05--The biggest story on Saturday was the first pick of that day, when the Philadelphia Eagles traded up a couple of spots to draft Matt Barkley. This development very nearly caused heads to explode, as analysis everywhere scrambled to reconcile the rationale that led to the pick. Surely Chip Kelly has to know Barkley is a very limited athlete! No way Barkley can possibly fit the frantic style of offense that Kelly ran at Oregon! They already have Michael Vick and Nick Foles, both of whom have better arms than Barkley! How in the world could this happen?!
While I’m not a big Barkley fan, I think this is a very strong pick for Philadelphia. Barkley might not ever amount to anything more than a functional backup, but for a fourth round pick that’s probably worth the gamble for a team with Vick and his 11-game-a-season max style of play. I believe this is a larger indicator that Chip Kelly is not going to be predictable in the NFL. If there’s one thing NFL coaches hate, it’s unpredictable opponents. Nearly everyone assumes that because Kelly ran a fast break offense at Oregon, he will do the same in the NFL. Maybe he will, but with Barkley he has given himself the ability to use more West Coast offensive schemes. I see this as a sign that Kelly might be embracing my long-held assertion that when a starting quarterback is struggling, it’s better to yank him and try something different than to go down with a clearly listing ship. Only a rare group of QBs ever achieve the “can’t yank” status, and Mike Vick sure isn’t one of those. Let’s say the Eagles are sputtering, Vick fumbles and throws an INT, and Philly trails 20-7 at halftime. Instead of hoping Vick magically improves, why not have a vastly divergent Plan B to fall on? Switching schemes mid-game can be tremendously effective…remember the genesis of the Wildcat, or the 2-man DL in Green Bay? Catching opponents off guard is a tremendous recipe for success, and Matt Barkley provides the Eagles with the chance to do that. I’m not sure he has the talent to do so, but nobody in the NFL knows Barkley better than Kelly and I have to trust his instincts here.
I thought the Eagles rallied to finish strongly in the draft after a very shaky first two days. I found Lane Johnson overrated and overhyped as the fourth pick, and Zach Ertz was a major reach at No. 35 for a team that already has a better version of him in Brent Celek. Bennie Logan in the third is a solid fit, but he very well could have been there for the Barkley pick. Interestingly, the players the Jaguars selected with the bounty from the Barkley trade are also strong choices. Ace Sanders brings an athletic dynamic to the slot and return games, while Demetrius McCray is a good late-round sleeper to stick as a press-man corner after a year on the practice squad. I love it when trades seem to work out for both teams.
Cincinnati Bengals, New York Jets, Philadelphia Eagles, Chicago Bears
By Jeff Risdon
The first round of the 2013 NFL Draft on Thursday will be remembered as the Year of the Lineman, as nine of the 32 picks were offensive linemen. Other intriguing developments caught my eye as well, some positive and some negative.
-- To the wild unpredictability of this year’s draft. I’ve said it many times but it bears repeating: I have better contacts with more teams than ever before, yet this is the year I knew what fewer teams were going to do than ever before. Once I got past the professional humiliation of having a wildly inaccurate mock draft, I thoroughly enjoyed it. Not knowing what was going to happen was titillating, like riding a roller coaster with a blindfold. I run a Detroit Lions' draft website and I honestly had very little idea who the team was going to pick until about 15 minutes before they were on the clock. Beat writers for just about every team fumbled and balked on answering direct draft questions because they had no clue either. It made for the most exciting first night of the draft I can remember.
-- To the Kansas City Chiefs for opting on Eric Fisher as the #1 overall pick. I like Luke Joeckel and I think he’ll be a very good tackle for a long time, but Fisher offers the chance of Joe Thomas-esque greatness. When you have the #1 pick, you have to go for greatness. The Chiefs made the correct choice, even if it scuttled what my team (the Lions) had planned.
-- To only having one quarterback in the first round. Never mind that it was E.J. Manuel, a player I graded out as a fifth round prospect. The bellyaching over the relative lousiness of this quarterback class led everyone to histrionics about how big of a mistake some teams were going to make in selecting Geno Smith, Matt Barkley, and Ryan Nassib in the first round. Guess what…it didn’t happen. Either the teams listened or they knew it on their own. Either way, it’s a positive for both the teams and the quarterbacks themselves, who are now in a much more favorable position to succeed with a lot less pressure to do so off the bat.
-- To the Carolina Panthers, who made what I believe to be the best pick of the first round by taking Star Lotulelei at No. 14 overall. Star fills what is by far the biggest need on the team, and he was a top 3 overall talent before the pesky heart issue at the Combine. He’s also an outstanding foil to Mark Ingram, Steven Jackson, and Doug Martin within the division.
Other picks I liked: Cleveland Browns/Keke Mingo, Cincinnati Bengals/Tyler Eifert, the Dolphins trading up for Dion Jordan, Lions/Ziggy Ansah, San Diego Chargers/D.J. Fluker and the St. Louis Rams trading up for Tavon Austin and down for Alec Ogletree.
-- To the early run on interior offensive linemen. I’m actually okay with the Cardinals taking Jonathan Cooper at 7, because the North Carolina guard is an immediate above-average starter and it fills what is unquestionably the weakest position on the team. I would like him a lot better at 14 instead of seven, but the Cards did what they had to do. Chance Warmack is one of the few guards worthy of top 10 consideration as well, but he goes to the Titans, who broke the bank to import free agent Andy Levitre. Now Tennessee has a massive investment at the guard position, traditionally the one spot on the field where teams skimp to save money for the skill position players. They have what should be the best guard tandem in the AFC, but they still don’t have a passing game that scares anyone but their own fan base or the ability to stop any other team’s passing game with a pass rush. But what really points the thumb down is the later picks. Justin Pugh, Travis Frederick and especially Kyle long (more on him below) are all horrible value picks in the first round in descending order. Yes, the teams who took them (the Giants, Cowboys, and Bears respectively) absolutely needed help at the positions. But first round interior linemen are supposed to be players with such overwhelming and obvious talent. None of these guys fits the bill, and none really help their teams as much as other players available could have in the long run.
Other picks I didn’t like: I really like DJ Hayden, No. 12 overall is too high for the Oakland Raiders. The Atlanta Falcons traded up for the wrong cornerback, taking overrated Desmond Trufant instead of Jamar Taylor or either Mississippi State player, Johnthan Banks or Darius Slay.
-- To the Minnesota Vikings, who made three picks in the twenties. Holding onto their original selections at 23 and 25, they took Florida DT Sharrif Floyd and Florida State CB Xavier Rhodes. Not content to call it a day, GM Rick Speilman engineered a trade with the (who else?) New England Patriots to move back into the first round. Every single person covering the draft presumed the move was made to acquire Manti Te’o, including the team’s own beat writers, who Tweeted out that Te’o was the pick. Except the Vikings took Tennessee WR Cordarrelle Pattterson instead. Believe it or not I actually like the picks in inverse order; Patterson has game-changing potential at should have gone at 23, while Rhodes is one of the more overhyped players in this draft. Rhodes benefitted from fitting the physical profile of the big corners in Seattle, never mind that he is a holding machine with iffy instincts. Floyd is an intriguing player who will be widely seen as one of the perceived “fallers” in this draft, though 23rd is about where he belonged. However, they selected Floyd over Sylvester Williams, a better player and a better scheme fit. And they passed on Te’o, who for all the criticism he’s taken would have been an excellent fit for the Vikings as well. This is a “chips all in” move for the Vikings to try and win with Adrian Peterson still in his prime, and it made them a better team for sure. I’m just not sold that they couldn’t have made themselves even better with some savvier choices.
-- To the pick “spoilers”. I applaud both the NFL Network and ESPN for refraining from revealing the selections before Roger Goodell announces them at the podium, eliminating the cutaway shots of players on the phone. The vast majority of viewers didn’t want to see that, and the networks responded. Good for them. But at the same time I admit to harboring curiosity about who really knew what was about to go down. I also get Jay Glazer’s point about wanting a 100 percent accurate mock draft but then complaining about having to wait an extra minute to find out if it’s really correct. Guys like Jason LaCanfora are just doing their jobs by tweeting out the names before they are delivered to the podium. I like that both options are available, but if you are someone who must know the pick before the tension and suspense are broken by the Commissioner, well, I just don’t understand why you want to eat the dessert before the steak.
-- To the Chicago Bears, for taking Oregon guard Kyle Long with the 20th overall pick. This pick is the second-biggest reach in terms of value that I have ever seen. The biggest also happens this ear with EJ Manuel, a fifth round talent, but at least he’s a quarterback and even his harshest critics acknowledge that if the light bulb ever turns on, he could be very good. Plus he plays a premium position where reaches are not uncommon.
If Manuel is a 100 watt bulb, Long is the 40 watt soft white light. Long wound up with the 114th highest grade of the nearly 200 players we graded out at detroitlionsdraft.com, a solid 4th round value at what is arguably the least-coveted position on any football team. The Bears got caught up in the run on offensive linemen and name value (he’s Howie Long’s son and Chris Long’s brother) and executed a ridiculous reach. Even if Long becomes a serviceable starting guard, which he probably will, there is no value at all in taking him at 20. Teams cannot panic for an interior lineman.
The Dallas Cowboys did the same with Wisconsin center Travis Frederick, but they at least traded back to do so and I also had Frederick rated a lot higher (63rd) than Long. A team with a decrepitly aging defense ignores some excellent talent (Bjoern Werner was a perfect fit, Sylvester Williams or Datone Jones also made great value sense there) and makes a huge reach for a guard who started less than 10 games at the BCS level and was not real impressive during Senior Bowl week. That is a horrible fail by GM Phil Emery and the Bears staff.
Minnesota Vikings, New England Patriots, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, New York Jets, Oakland Raiders, Philadelphia Eagles, Pittsburgh Steelers, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks, St. Louis Rams, Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Tennessee Titans, Washington Redskins, Baltimore Ravens, Buffalo Bills, Carolina Panthers, Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, Cleveland Browns, Dallas Cowboys, Denver Broncos, Detroit Lions, Green Bay Packers, Houston Texans, Indianapolis Colts, Jacksonville Jaguars, Kansas City Chiefs, Miami Dolphins, Arizona Cardinals, Atlanta Falcons
This is one of the strangest drafts ever. It's two days before the draft and we still don't know who will be the No. 1 pick. Enjoy the unexpected twists and turns and embrace the fact that nobody knows what is going to happen!
On Chance Warmack, Falcons moving up, Arthur Brown's potential drop, identifying first round surprises, D.J. Hayden and more.
Some of these have basis in legitimate info gathered. Some are reading between some lines that may or may not exist. Some are wild figments of imaginary vision of the draft.
Dion Jordan, Eric Fisher, Tavon Austin, Shariff Floyd, Jonathan Cooper, Keenan Allen, Robert Woods, Gavin Escobar and Ryan Swope make this year's list.
People are always seeking out Jeff Risdon with their draft questions. In this edition, he answers several of the more intriguing ones.
Luke Joeckel at the top of the draft, Ezekiel Anash at No. 2, two quarterbacks in the top-10 and more in an uncertain draft.