Editor's Note: In the weeks leading up to the 2013 NFL Draft, Andrew Mason has evaluated each position group. He has taken a look at the best time to draft prospects at each position and addressed how he believes the Broncos will approach the position groups. Last up: running backs.
IDEAL DRAFT RANGE: The days of elite running backs being top-five picks are largely gone.
The relatively short peak career span of runners is one reason. The ability to find effective runners in the later rounds is another -- all you have to do is compare sixth-rounder Alfred Morris of Washington with No. 3 overall pick Trent Richardson from last year's draft.
Richardson was the first top-five running back in four years (since Darren McFadden in 2008). From 2005 to 2008, five running backs went in the top five selections; from 2000 to 2008, that number was seven.
But while high first-round running backs have vanished, first-round runners haven't. Of the 13 running backs taken in the first round since 2009, six were taken from the 27th pick onward. The results are mixed; that sextet includes standouts like Tampa Bay's Doug Martin, but also disappointments like Indianapolis' Donald Brown, Arizona's Beanie Wells and Detroit's Jahvid Best.
The Broncos are in position to draft a running back at the end of the first round -- but does the value justify it?
RECENT BRONCOS HISTORY:In 2009, the Broncos made Knowshon Moreno their first running back taken in the first round in 24 years, since Steve Sewell was the 26th overall pick in the 1985 draft. (They used a supplemental first-round pick on Bobby Humphrey in 1989.) From 1967 to 1985, five running backs were taken in the first round.
Since 1995, the Broncos have taken 15 running backs in the draft. Just five have come in the first three rounds. Two of those five eventually had 1,000-yard seasons; three of 10 running backs taken from the fourth round onward hit four figures as Broncos.
BRONCOS OUTLOOK:The Broncos don't have to get a running back this year; if they have to ride the complement of Willis McGahee, Knowshon Moreno, Ronnie Hillman and Lance Ball for another year, they'll be fine.
As John Elway noted Monday, Hillman remains a solid "change of pace" option. Moreno proved last year he could capably handle a heavier workload for a few weeks, and as long as the spike in McGahee's fumble ratio was an aberration, he should have one more year in which he averages 4.3 or more yards per carry in him, especially since the knee injury he suffered in Week 11 meant that he missed six weeks of wear and tear.
Still, the attrition rate of running backs means it's never a bad idea to pick one in the later rounds if he happens to be the best player available on your draft board.
RUNNING BACKS OF NOTE IN THE DRAFT CLASS:
Eddie Lacy, Alabama: Lacy averaged 6.4 yards per carry and scored once every 12 carries last year, so his efficiency and production aren't an issue. But injuries have dogged him through the pre-draft process, and reported 40-yard dash times of around 4.60 seconds at his Pro Day were a disappointment. Another concern is whether Lacy's productivity is a result of playing in a running back-friendly offense that has seen its previous two starting running backs (Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson) become first-round picks, to mixed results so far. Alabama's system ensures that Lacy can step into an NFL offense and enjoy a smooth transition, but is his potential production worth a first-round pick, or will he slide into the second round?
Le'Veon Bell, Michigan State: Bell outgained fellow Big 10 back Montee Ball last year, and in spite of his 230-pound frame, is effective catching passes out of the backfield and is an explosive straight-ahead runner. He's also an above-average blocker for his position.
Giovani Bernard, North Carolina: You'd like his 40-yard dash time to be a bit faster than 4.50 seconds given his 202-pound frame, but Bernard has good tape, is steady, runs low to the ground and doesn't lose yardage very often. He's also effective at catching passes out of the backfield and doesn't have any glaring weaknesses to his game.
Montee Ball, Wisconsin: If the film is what matters, Ball's the pick. No one in Division I ever scored more touchdowns in his career, and he racked up 55 in the last two seasons. His per-carry averaged dropped from 6.3 in 2011 to 5.1 in 2012, but much of that can be attributed to seeing eight and nine men in the box last year, since Wisconsin's passing game was often non-existent after Russell Wilson departed for the Seattle Seahawks.
Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina: The team that is willing to be patient with him will be rewarded. His recovery from a horrific knee injury suffered last season against Tennessee means that it might be prudent to place him on injured reserve this year. He's insisted he can be ready for the 2013 season, but the fact that it was his second ligament tear in the knee in 12 months makes caution the watchword. Lattimore is big, fast, aggressive, decisive and effective at catching passes out of the backfield, and has few holes in his game. Were it not for his knee injuries, his skill set would scream, "first round." Not every team can afford to take a chance on a player they potentially wouldn't be able to use in 2013, but teams with a deep pool of running backs would.
Johnathan Franklin, UCLA: In raw rushing yardage, Franklin was incredibly productive, racking up 2,062 yards last year. He holds up well, having not been dogged with injuries, and moves well in the open field. But he's not the best blocker among running backs in this draft class, and his productivity became inconsistent late in his senior season.
Christine Michael, Texas A&M: At 220 pounds and with 4.43 speed, Michael has a nice size/speed blend. But his productivity was never as high as his potential dictated, he had injury troubles and was benched last year. Every measurable dictates that he should succeed in the NFL, but the issues will likely make him a second or third rounder.
Andre Ellington, Clemson: Ellington is sufficiently explosive, but if the Broncos are seeking an every-down back rather than a smaller back who can be a change of pace, the 199-pounder is not the most snug fit.
Mike Gillislee, Florida: One can argue that Gillislee is the best running back in terms of picking up blitzes in this draft, a crucial tenet in playing in a Peyton Manning-led offense. At 207 pounds, he doesn't fit the "big back" template, but he's solid all around and held his own during Senior Bowl week.
Knile Davis, Arkansas: If you go by Bill Barnwell's "Speed Score" metrics, Davis represents the best value, as a 227-pounder who ran a 4.35-second 40-yard dash at the Combine. But he was never the same running back on the field after suffering an ankle injury that cost him the 2011 season; his per-carry average in 2012 was just 3.4 yards -- 3.08 yards below his 2010 pace.
Stephon Jefferson, Nevada: Used frequently last season, Jefferson exploded for 1,883 yards and 24 touchdowns in his first season as a starter. But you'd like to see faster straight-ahead speed considering that he weighs less than 220 pounds.
Others of note: Kenjon Barner, Oregon; Michael Ford, LSU; Ray Graham, Pittsburgh; Jawan Jamison, Rutgers; Dennis Johnson, Arkansas; Onterio McCalebb, Auburn; Latavius Murray, Central Florida; Joseph Randle, Oklahoma State; Theo Riddick, Notre Dame; Robbie Rouse, Fresno State; Zac Stacy, Vanderbilt; Spencer Ware, Rutgers; Cierre Wood, Notre Dame.