This is no longer a tailback-oriented society.
With the passing game taking on ever more importance in the NFL, ball carriers seem to have fallen by the wayside. For the second year in a row, no running backs were selected in the first round of the draft. Teams simply are not using high-value selections on the position -- even last season's Offensive Rookie of the Year, Green Bay Packers running back Eddie Lacy, was picked in the second round in 2013, and toward the end of the round, at that.
Not that there's necessarily another Lacy in this year's crop waiting to rise from the shadows. When I attempted to rank the rookie backs heading into the regular season, I realized I don't have very high hopes for this group. Sure, these guys will be able to produce in the NFL, but I don't see any transcendent talents.
Here are the 11 rookie RBs who have the best chance to make an impact this season:
Draft position: Round 2, No. 54 overall
Sankey, who recorded 26 reps on the bench press at the NFL Scouting Combine, is very strong. He also has outstanding quickness, which is probably as important as any other characteristic at this position. Sankey has his doubters, especially in the wake of some fumbling issues in the preseason, but I saw him in person when Tennessee scrimmaged against Atlanta, and I thought he looked pretty good. He also racked up 1,870 rushing yards in his final season at Washington, which is nothing to sneeze at in the Pac-12. Though Sankey did not see first-team reps in any of the first three preseason games, I expect him to eventually get a lot of carries behind a good Titans offensive line. Ultimately, I think he has a chance to break the 1,000-yard mark this fall.
Draft position: Round 4, No. 113
Williams looks quicker and faster in person than he does on tape. He's also quite strong and smart as all heck; plus, he's a great, great character guy. He really looked good running the ball in the preseason opener against the Steelers (seven carries for 35 yards) and had 11 carries for 49 yards and a score against the Jets last week. Williams is not a great receiver, and it looks like he'll start the season backing up or splitting time with current No. 1 back Rashad Jennings -- though it wouldn't surprise me to see Williams eventually claim the top job.
Draft position: Round 6, No. 181
I think veteran Arian Foster is going to have a rough season in Houston. While Blue must contend with the presence of third-year back Jonathan Grimes on the Texans' depth chart, I think the rookie has a chance to become the starter or at least rack up carries as a backup. He's a very physical guy with great size who is reminiscent -- in terms of style, if not necessarily talent -- of Adrian Peterson. Blue also has good burst and great hands, and he's fresh, having started just seven games at LSU, where he was part of a rotation.
Draft position: Round 2, No. 55
Hill has size, quickness and very good hands -- plus, he can catch the ball and run with it. I think back to how LSU showcased him at the school's pro day, flanking him out and letting people see what he could do as a receiver. Knowing how the Bengals tend to operate, I expect Hill to alternate carries with last year's standout rookie, Giovani Bernard, more or less splitting time. As for veteran BenJarvus Green-Ellis, I think Cincinnati will eventually move on, either by attempting to trade him or by cutting him.
Draft position: Round 2, No. 57
Hyde is a power runner with good balance and receiving skills who lacks great speed; I remember seeing him caught from behind against Illinois -- of all teams -- last year. I think he'll probably end up landing the backup spot behind veteran Frank Gore, but I'm not as high on Hyde as others seem to be. That's not to say I don't think he's good; I just don't see him as an exceptional back.
Draft position: Round 3, No. 94
The very strong West, who racked up 84 rushing touchdowns over the course of three seasons at Towson, is capable of running inside. And the Browns want to run the ball, so we're definitely going to see what he can do, especially considering the passing game will be without the services of suspended receiver Josh Gordon. I expect both West and veteran Ben Tate to be used extensively in Cleveland's backfield.
Draft position: Round 3, No. 96
The 5-foot-9 McKinnon is on the shorter side, but he's a very interesting guy -- an outstanding athlete with great hands. Of course, I wouldn't expect him to get a ton of carries, given that he'll be sharing the backfield with superstar Adrian Peterson and fellow backup Matt Asiata, but McKinnon has a chance to make some big plays, simply because of his speed and strength.
Draft position: Round 4, No. 103
I've liked Freeman for some time, going back to when he was a freshman at Florida State, but he just didn't impress me with quickness or demonstrate outstanding explosion when I visited Falcons camp, and those are two crucial traits for an NFL running back. He's a better receiver than I thought, and he'll perform well enough when given a chance, but he hasn't wowed me thus far.
Draft position: Round 3, No. 75
Mason figures to be a change-of-pace back with Tony Dorsett-like quickness. Jeff Fisher and the Rams are always looking to run more, but I'd expect them to rely on the ground game to an even greater degree now that quarterback Sam Bradford is out for the year with a torn ACL. Second-year pro Zac Stacy is in line to get the bulk of the carries, but Mason will take on some of the burden -- something like 33 percent seems right. When I visited Rams camp, Mason ran well, though he didn't dominate like he had at Auburn. He's a better inside runner than you'd think, given his size (5-8, 207 pounds).
Draft position: Round 4, No. 124
Stock watch: Rookie quarterbacks
Our resident scouts, Daniel Jeremiah and Bucky Brooks, provide preseason grades for Blake Bortles and his fellow rookie QBs. READ
Thomas, who has the cat-like quickness to pick up some yards off of quick screens, is going to be a matchup problem. He's also a very good kick returner, as evidenced by his 80-yard punt return for a touchdown in the Chiefs' preseason opener. While he's quicker and faster than Dexter McCluster, Thomas still projects as a spot player, as I think he's just too small, and not as strong as the former Chiefs back.
Draft position: Round 3, No. 97
I like speed guys, and Archer -- who ran about as fast as I've ever seen anybody run at the NFL Scouting Combine -- is most definitely a speed guy. He'll be a threat in the passing game, thanks to his catching ability, but I don't think he'll get a ton of carries. He projects more as a one-dimensional player than as a well-rounded back. I like him as a kickoff returner, but he hasn't impressed me catching punts.
BEST OF THE REST:
Here, in alphabetical order, are eight rookie running backs who missed our top-11 list: Ka'Deem Carey, Chicago Bears; Marion Grice, San Diego Chargers; Storm Johnson, Jacksonville Jaguars; Henry Josey, Philadelphia Eagles; Branden Oliver, San Diego Chargers; Lache Seastrunk, Washington Redskins; Juwan Thompson, Denver Broncos; James White, New England Patriots.