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NFL AM: Top Running Backs Impress at Combine

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Over the last several years, running backs have taken a back seat to quarterbacks and wide receivers among offensive skill position players entering the NFL. But the young crop of backs is growing each year and the 2016 Draft class has at least two RB’s ready to make an instant impact.

As position drills officially opened on Friday, Alabama running back Derrick Henry and Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott were two of the few players who impressed the most during Day 3 of the NFL Scouting Combine.

“I saw what I thought I would see from (Elliott and Henry) today,” NFL Network draft analyst Mike Mayock said. “Solid, all-around days from both Elliott and Henry.”

Elliott’s performance was not unexpected. The 6-foot, 225-lb Buckeye product is projected to be the first running back taken in the 2016 NFL Draft and many have him as the lone back to come off the board on the first night of the draft. He backed up his top running back status with a 4.47 40-yard dash, 32.5 inch vertical and 118-inch broad jump, ranking Top 10 among RBs in each drill. Those were the only three drills Elliott participated in, but he also got some field work in and showed off solid ability as a pass catcher, something that we didn’t see much of at Ohio State.

The 20-year-old takes pride in carrying the torch for running backs and hopes to follow in the footsteps of Georgia’s Todd Gurley, who was widely projected, as the top running back in the draft, to go in the mid-to-late first round and wound up being a Top 10 pick.

“I think the guys last year that were first-round picks like Todd Gurley. They set a standard for the younger generation coming up,” Elliott said. “I feel we’re going to bring it back.”

They key to bringing it back might be the rise of Derrick Henry behind Elliott to be the Melvin Gordon to Elliott’s Gurley. Henry is currently projected by most as a second round pick, but he might climb boards after the Friday he had. While Elliott checks in at just a shade over six feet tall and a healthy 225 pounds, a prototype size and shape for a current NFL running back, Henry shatters the mold.

The 2015 Heisman Trophy winner tipped the scales at an enormous 247 lbs, and measured at 6-feet, 3-inches, but that size didn’t slow him down in the least. Henry still ran a 4.54 40-yard dash, incredibly impressive for a player of his build, and posted high marks in the broad jump (130 inches) and vertical leap (37 inches). He also participated in the bench press and timed cone and shuttle drills, showing the full range of what he can do.

That was all part of the plan for Henry, who went into the Combine will little to lose, his impressive college resume solidifying as the likely second running back off the board, and everything to gain. He made significant gains on Friday, and NFL Network’s Marshall Faulk believes he may have done enough to shake that “Alabama running back” reputation that could weigh him down because of the recent NFL performances of the Bama RBs that came before him like Trent Richardson and Eddie Lacy.

“When you’re an Alabama back people question whether or not you’re overworked,” Faulk said. “So today for Derrick Henry, it was about proving that he’s just not another Alabama running back. He ran well for a guy his size, and he caught the ball pretty well today for a guy who didn’t catch a lot of balls at Alabama.”

Henry also wasn’t the only Alabama running back to show off impressively at the Combine on Friday. Kenyan Drake posted the third fastest 40-yard dash time of the day at 4.45, and was Top 5 in the broad jump with a 123-inch leap despite giving away three inches in height and over 30 pounds to his Alabama brethren Henry. Drake became a bit of a forgotten man as Henry took off for the Heisman in 2015, but his lighter workload at Alabama might be a blessing in disguise as the remaining tread on his tires might make him appealing to more teams. His performance at the Combine should go a long way toward doing that as well.

Drake is projected as a middle-round pick, but as we’ve seen in recent years, running backs that go in the middle of the draft often make a big impact as well.

“Kenyan Drake made some money today,” NFL Network’s Maurice Jones-Drew, a Pro Bowl running back in his own right, said of the Alabama product.

It’s hard to say yet if running back is back just yet, but Day 3 at the Combine proved that the Class of 2016 might accelerate the youth movement at the position.

MURRAY WANTS OUT OF PHILLY…OR DOES HE?

Prospective draftees weren’t the only running backs making news on Day 3 of the NFL Scouting Combine, a recent rushing champion was also in the news and appears set to make headlines for the second straight offseason.

One year after leaving his home in Dallas, where he emerged as one of the NFL’s top backs on the way to a rushing crown in 2014 with the Cowboys, DeMarco Murray’s ill-advised marriage with the Philadelphia Eagles is on the rocks. NFL Network’s Ian Rapoport reported Friday that despite a regime change in Philly this offseason, Murray remains unhappy with the franchise and wants out, and the Eagles will attempt to accommodate him by listening to trade offers.

Of course, Murray appeared to refute those reports in a cryptic Twitter posting.

Despite his protests, it wouldn’t be a big surprise that Murray still wants out of Philadelphia. Getting rid of Chip Kelly, as the Eagles did this offseason, didn’t necessarily solve any of his problems. He’s still one of three starting caliber backs in Philly with Darren Sproles and Ryan Mathews and something has to give for all of them to get touches.

But the idea the Eagles could trade Murray right now is pretty laughable. He’s coming off his worst season as a pro, in which he averaged just 3.6 yards per carry. Although he wasn’t utilized properly, and his offensive line in Philly didn’t do him any favors, teams will see his declining numbers as proof that the Cowboys indeed ran the wheels off him during his 392-carry, 1,845-yard 2014 season. That’s the reason the Eagles were essentially the only team to offer him big money in the first place.

That big money is the other big hurdle to a potential deal. Murray signed a five-year, $40 million deal, including $18 million in guaranteed money, with the Eagles last offseason and he’s still owed $13 million guaranteed, a number no right-minded team is going to touch. Philadelphia can’t really cut him either, as they’d have to absorb that $13 million as a dead money cap hit to do that. So, despite his wishes to leave and his reported desire to return to Dallas, it appears Murray is stuck in Philly. That’s the bed he made by chasing the money. Now he has to sleep in it.

FRANCHISE TAG DOMINOES BEGIN TO FALL

Tuesday, March 1 is the deadline for teams to utilize the franchise or transition tag on players to keep them for another high-salaried season, but those pieces have already started falling into place.

The Baltimore Ravens were the first to move, indicating they will be using their tag on kicker Justin Tucker. Then in the middle of the day on Friday, it was the Washington Redskins, with reports saying quarterback Kirk Cousins would get their tag. Late Friday, the Chicago Bears joined the fray by indicating they’d use their tag on wide receiver Alshon Jeffery.

That trio is the first in a group of as many as a dozen players who may get tagged before Tuesday’s deadline. That would be the highest total since 2012 when a whopping 19 of the 32 teams used tags to retain players. Six players were tagged last year.

The most widely used franchise tag, the exclusive tag, guarantees the player a one-year contract at a total equaling the average of the top five salaries at that player’s position. The non-exclusive tag carries similar contract terms, but the player is free to negotiate with other teams, with the tagging team given the option to match the contract or receive a pair of first round picks as compensation.

Then there is the transition tag, which states the player must receive a contract of at least the average of the top 10 salaries at the player’s position. This tag also gives that player freedom to negotiate with other teams, and the tagging team right of first refusal, but no draft pick compensation is awarded.

The Redskins have been toying with the idea of putting the transition tag, not the franchise tag, on Cousins, which would save them some money. But that would give him the opportunity to find a better deal elsewhere. Tight end Charles Clay received the transition tag last year from the Miami Dolphins, but received a contract offer from the Buffalo Bills that Miami refused to match.

Current projections for the 2016 franchise tag averages have it that Tucker will receive a one-year deal of about $4.5 million from the Ravens and Jeffery will get about $14.5 million from Chicago. If the Redskins use the franchise tag on Cousins, he’d receive a one-year offer nearing $20 million.

That’s a big number for a quarterback who was third on the depth chart this time last year, but it’s less of a risk than trying to ink Cousins to a long term deal. It would give the Redskins the opportunity to see if the quarterback can back up his strong 2015 campaign and if he does, return the negotiating table next offseason to hammer out a long-term deal. That’s probably the best move for Washington at this point.


About Devon Jeffreys

Devon Jeffreys