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Backfield workhorses

8/21/2013
Matt Hawthorne for ESPN

Redskins RB Alfred Morris (5-feet-10, 218) and Ravens RB Bernard Pierce (6-0, 225) are a pair of bigger running backs who started their careers with productive rookie seasons. In 2012, Morris was a sixth-round selection and was a perfect fit within Mike Shanahan’s offense. Last season, his 1,613 rushing yards placed him second in the league behind only Minnesota's Adrian Peterson. Baltimore took Pierce in the third round and saw strong return late in the year when the first-year running back accounted for 414 of his 532 rushing yards in the final six games, including playoffs. He played a significant role in their Super Bowl run.

This year, Green Bay’s Eddie Lacy (5-11, 230) and Seattle’s Christine Michael (5-10, 220) are rookie running backs similar to Morris and Pierce in terms of size and they have created some recent buzz. Now grading or projecting any first-year player two weeks into the preseason would be ridiculous, but these two have shown promise early in their respective careers.

During his time at Alabama, Lacy had a laundry list of injuries including a broken left hand that required surgery to insert a metal plate and seven screws. These durability concerns appear to have played a big role in Lacy falling to pick No. 61 in the second round. While Lacy has been hampered by a hamstring injury that forced him to miss the preseason opener against Arizona, reports are he has been impressive in practices. Lacy confirmed those good reviews with a solid debut against St. Louis as he rushed for 40 yards on eight carries Saturday. Green Bay hopes Lacy can be the workhorse the Packers have been looking for to find balance, to take pressure off of an injury-battered offensive line and, in turn, help keep QB Aaron Rogers upright.

As for Michael, he was selected with the next pick after Lacy even though Michael may have been the group's most talented back from a size and skill-set standpoint. Like Lacy, Michael's durability issues along with character concerns -- he was in coach Kevin Sumlin's doghouse last season as the two did not see eye-to-eye -- likely caused him to drop to late in the second round. However, with a combination of explosiveness and power against San Diego in the Seahawks' preseason opener, Michael opened eyes as he rushed for 89 yards on 16 carries. And despite back spasms that kept him out against Denver on Aug. 17, Michael’s arrow appears to be pointing north providing he can stay healthy.

With these big backs in mind, we've noticed the 2014 running back class is loaded with smaller change-of-pace runners, especially those near the top of our rankings with Oregon’s De'Anthony Thomas and Arizona’s Ka'Deem Carey. However, there still are the workhorse-type runners to be found.

Here are three to monitor this fall. As usual, draft-eligible non-seniors are noted with an asterisk.

Baylor RB Lache Seastrunk* (5-10, 210)

Seastrunk started his career at Oregon, where a poor relationship with the coaching staff combined with home sickness resulted in him transferring to Baylor where he could be closer to where he grew up in Temple, Texas.

On tape he is one of the more frustrating player evaluations I’ve ever done. On one hand, he is one of the most physically gifted runners in this class. Seastrunk is a determined rusher who has powerful legs and runs with natural pad level. In addition, he possesses a low center of gravity, above-average balance and lateral agility to maneuver in and out of traffic. What stands out on tape, though, is his home run hitting ability with his acceleration out of cuts. He has a rare fifth gear that has allowed him to split safeties and ruin pursuit angles on at least four occasions throughout the five coaches' copy tapes I watched.

As talented as he is, Seastrunk has some glaring flaws that prevent him from getting an elite grade. First, he lacks natural instincts and vision. He has too much east and west to his game and looks to bounce runs to the outside, which resulted in several negative runs. Second, Seastrunk brings very little as a pass-catcher out of the backfield. He is a raw route runner and does not have natural hands. Seastrunk appears to fight the ball and had several drops on routine catches during my film study.

Finally, and most important, Seastrunk must improve his ball security. He is loose with ball carriage when making cuts in traffic and laid the ball on the carpet three times. This is the quickest way for a running back to find himself on the street at the next level. He must do a better job of protecting the football entering the 2013 season.

Oklahoma RB Damian Williams (6-0¼, 214)

Williams is a junior college transfer who has just one year of production at FBS level of competition. The 214-pound back is a highly competitive runner who finishes strong. He also has adequate vision and instincts as a rusher. Williams consistently presses the hole and has a natural feel for the cutback lanes. While he has average lateral agility, he does display a quick short-area burst out of cuts.

Where Williams brings added value is in the passing game. He has a natural feel as a route runner both in terms of setting of defenders against man coverage and locating soft spots in underneath zone coverage. Williams also has above-average ball skills and quickly transitions up the field to maximize yards after the catch.

On tape, the biggest concern for Williams is his lack of lateral quickness and ability to string together multiple cuts. This brings up questions about his ability to create yards on his own. He currently holds a fourth-round grade but if he can turn in another productive season he has a chance to sneak his way into the back end of Day 2.

Ohio State RB Carlos Hyde (5-11¾, 238)

Hyde is built like a tank with an extremely thick and powerful lower half. He brings a no-nonsense attitude as runner and quickly sets his pads vertically once finding a crease. Hyde also can be a load to bring down when he catches a head of steam. In what teams often call the four-minute drill, Hyde has also shown the ability to close out games where the Buckeyes have a lead. While he lacks elite lateral quickness, Hyde has agile feet for his size and possesses enough top-end speed to turn the corner as an outside runner. He also is an underrated receiver for his size, where he displays natural hands and body control catching the football.

Similar to Michael, Hyde has recently dealt with some off-the-field issues. He's suspended for the first three games of the 2013 season for a July incident at a Columbus, Ohio bar. Teams will do their own investigation, and it is not yet known how much this altercation will affect his draft grade. Hyde currently holds a Day 3 grade. But if he can get back to form after serving his suspension, don’t be surprised if Hyde is one of the bigger risers out of the running back group this fall.