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Who should be the first running back taken in the 2014 NFL Draft?

Jeremy Hill

The running back is going the way of the dodo bird. The proliferation of the spread offense and pass-happy systems has all but eliminated the feature back from NFL game plans.

In 2003, 13 NFL players carried the ball more than 300 times and 18 rushed for more than 1,000 yards. Ten years later, only two — LeSean McCoy (314) and Marshawn Lynch (301) — carried the ball more than 300 times and just 13 players had at least 1,000 yards rushing.

This is why the 2013 NFL Draft was the first in history that didn’t feature a running back taken in the first round. And it’s why many are projecting a repeat performance from the 2014 NFL Draft.

Giovani Bernard was the first back taken a year ago. The North Carolina Tar Heel was the 37th overall pick by the Bengals. Bernard is extremely gifted and was hugely productive as just a rookie, but he is anything but a workhorse running back.

He rushed 170 times for 695 yards and caught 56 passes for 514 yards.

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So who will be the top running back taken in the 2014 NFL Draft? Athlon Sports' staff made their pick of who they thought will be the best tailback in the ’14 running back class and where they expected them to be picked.

Nathan Rush: Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
Judging by the recent history of highly drafted "feature" backs — Trent Richardson (No. 3 overall pick in 2012), C.J. Spiller (No. 9, 2010), Ryan Mathews (No. 12, 2010), Knowshon Moreno (No. 12, 2009) — there may not be another running back drafted in the first-half of the first round until... next year, when Georgia's Todd Gurley and Alabama's T.J. Yeldon could steal the spotlight on Thursday night. This year, there is no complete runner, so the first back off the board will be a specialist — third-down scat-back, runner-returner or goal-line sledgehammer. Ohio State's 240-plus-pounder Carlos Hyde is a short-yardage beast with all-around upside. The Florida native found the end zone 18 times during a 1,500-yard senior season, becoming the first running back under Urban Meyer to top the 1,000-yards rushing plateau. Hyde won't be a first-rounder, but he will lower his head and bulldoze his way into the draft sometime between the mid-second and mid-third rounds.

Braden Gall (@BradenGall): Jeremy Hill, LSU
I am looking for the complete package at tailback. I am looking for someone like Eddie Lacy from Alabama. A burly, physical bruiser who is quick enough to catch passes and make people miss in the open field but strong and tough enough to pick up first downs and cross the goal line in short-yardage, between-the-tackles situations. Give me LSU’s Jeremy Hill. The 233-pounder rushed for 1,401 yards — second-best in school history — in the best league in the nation while averaging nearly 7.0 yards per carry (6.9). He scored 16 times and only played in 12 games. He is explosive, gets north and south quickly and isn’t scared of contact. Hill may not last very long in a league that chews up and spits out ball-carriers like sunflower seeds, but in the short term, there is no other back in this class with as little downside as the Bayou Bengal. His body should be fresher than the rest of this class as well since he only got 345 career carries in two seasons at LSU. Ka’Deem Carey, for example (who is excellent), carried 349 times in 2013 alone. Hill has a lot of tread left on the tires, has been facing NFL players for two seasons, played under a pro coordinator in Cam Cameron and is a Mack Truck with the ball in his hands. Not convinced? Just pop in the tape of the Outback Bowl a year ago.

Mark Ross: Tre Mason, Auburn
For whatever reason, running backs have quickly become somewhat devalued in the NFL, and the mindset has definitely been noticeable in the draft. For the second straight year, I anticipate no running backs will hear their name called in the first round and it wouldn’t surprise me if only a few end up being taken in the second round. That said, the first running back off of my board would be Auburn’s Tre Mason, the SEC Offensive Player of the Year who played a big role in the Tigers’ worst-to-first turnaround in the nation’s toughest conference.

Mason was Auburn’s workhorse (317 carries, 43 percent of the team’s total) last season and answered the bell to the tune of 1,816 yards (5.7 ypc) and 23 rushing touchdowns. He may not be the most polished pass-catcher out of the backfield, but he’s gifted with a nice package of strength, speed and athleticism that should translate well to the next level. Again, not a first-rounder, but I fully expect him to be taken somewhere between the middle of the second round and the early part of the third rounds.

Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven): Ka'Deem Carey, Arizona
After back-to-back seasons of 300 carries, it’s understandable some in the NFL would have concerns about Carey’s future at the next level. However, I’d argue he’s one of the top backs in the draft. Over the last two years at Arizona, Carey rushed for 3,814 yards and averaged nearly six yards per carry. He delivered in some of the Wildcats’ biggest games in 2013, gashing Oregon for 206 yards, 149 against UCLA and 157 against Arizona State. He also showcased his versatility by catching more than 20 passes in back-to-back seasons (2012-13). Sure, Carey doesn’t have elite speed, but he has enough to be a 1,000-yard rusher in the NFL. Also, as his workload and stats indicate at Arizona, Carey is a three-down back at the next level. It seems the NFL had a similar debate with Michigan State’s Le’Veon Bell last year. And didn’t that turn out alright for the Steelers? With his vision and cutback ability, combined with durability and a productive track record at Arizona, Carey should be the first running back off the board in the NFL Draft.