At the top of this year's running back class are two obvious choices. Ezekiel Elliot is, by all accounts, a tremendously complete running back who is ready to plug and play right now and some (including our own Joey Ickes) have made the case that the Dallas Cowboys could reasonably take him at 4th overall. Derrick Henry won the Heisman and has a beastly size/strength/speed combination similar to Super Bowl MVP Von Miller. Either of these guys would be an awesome addition to the Dallas running back stable.
But Dallas has other needs as well and may want to wait till later to grab a running back. C J Prosise, Devontae Booker, Kenneth Dixon, and Alex Collins are some names I've seen tossed out by fans. But I have a few of my own, and I'll list them here in reverse order of my preference.
Tyler Ervin, San Jose State
Ervin is a small, quick back with terrific explosiveness. He was second in 40-yard dash (4.41), vertical (39.0), and broad jump (130) at the combine. At 5'10", 192 lbs, he's a little undersized, but is a fearless between the tackles runner and has been quite productive in all facets of the run game. In the past two seasons he racked up 452 carries for 2,489 yards and 17 touchdowns to go with 74 receptions for 640 yards and 3 receiving touchdowns. Earlier in his career he saw duty as a kick and punt returner where he was also extremely strong, with 23.5 average kick return yards and a 13.3 yard average on punt returns. All in all, he scored five times on kick and punt returns (3 and 2, respectively). Here's a running play where he shows a nice bit of acceleration. Note how far he moves after his cut while people are still reacting.
Tra Carson, Texas A&M
I actually found out about this guy through one of my students. He's got excellent size for a running back (5'11", 227 lbs) keeping a low center of gravity while possessing excellent power and mass. He's a punishing runner who also has a little wiggle and looks to play quite fast, although he apparently did not run at the combine. He lacks an elite top gear, but other than that looks to be a strong player in all aspects of the game. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any complete game tape of him, so I am going off of highlight reels. That means you must take the above assessment with a grain of salt and know that I have not seen him in blitz pickup at all. But he displays some ability out of the backfield, running patterns as well as typical safety-valve routes. As a junior, he was the offensive MVP of the Liberty Bowl, and he clearly is a capable player, though his relatively low draft stock (Walter Football says 5-7th round) and fairly normal production (242 carries for 1,165 yards, 29 catches for 183 yards as a senior) make him seem less special. I found a nice power run against LSU to be emblematic of what he brings.
Paul Perkins, UCLA
I fail to understand why this guy continues to go under the radar, especially here. He's a very complete back and his uncle is Cowboys great Don Perkins. His combine was solid and affirmed that he is what he is: a very good football player who does not have elite size or speed, but has everything you want. Officially 5'10", 208 lbs, he may be a skosh smaller than you'd like, and there is one place that it shows up -- blitz pickup. He's willing and tenacious but can get overpowered. He'll need to work on that. But everything else about him is nice and fine, with a 4.54 forty and a nice 124" broad jump to show some explosiveness. He's a massive producer, with over 1,500 yards from scrimmage each of the last two seasons and an average of 6.2 yards per touch. For those that do not immediately start doing math in their heads, it means he got top-notch production with a very reasonable workload of less than 275 touches per year. But to really understand what he brings to the table, you have to watch him. He has tremendous vision and balance, two of the most under-appreciated traits in a running back. these give him the ability to pull off runs like this:
And, lest you fear his slightly lower weight be cause for concern regarding his power, he can also do this.
It's worth noting that all three of these runs are from the same game, against Stanford - a fairly strong team. It's not a set of highlights, but a nice snapshot of what his typical play is like. I really like this kid a lot, but I've seen him way down on some boards. CBS has him as their 116th ranked prospect and the 9th best back in the draft. I, personally, like him 3rd behind the top two guys, and Walter Football has him ranked as a more reasonable 2-3rd round prospect. Should Dallas choose to take him in the 3rd, you may hear groans of "reach!" and "we need defensive help!" but I believe that would be a pick well spent.