CARSON, Calif. — The call was "Sucker," and it hadn't been in the Washington playbook for more than a week or two before Bishop Sankey made it a signature highlight.
The Huskies trailed eighth-ranked Stanford 13-3. They faced fourth-and-1 from their 39-yard line. They didn't block it correctly, but Sankey burst through the line and made three defenders miss on a 61-yard touchdown run that sparked Washington to a 17-13 upset win Sept. 27, 2012.
Plays like that showed Sankey, who ran for 3,496 yards and scored 38 TDs over three college seasons, could be a difference-maker. But 2½ weeks before the draft, it remains to be seen how highly NFL teams will value his skills at what's becoming the league's most fungible position.
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"Honestly, I wish it was different. I wish it was like how it used to be," Sankey told USA TODAY Sports recently after a workout at Exos training center. "Maybe I'm biased, but I think running back is a very valuable position."
Last year marked the first time since the common draft began in 1967 that no running back was selected in Round 1. The two drafts before that saw one back taken in the first 27 picks: Trent Richardson, whom the Cleveland Browns traded 17 months after taking him third overall.
The trend figures to continue next month, with the backs considered this draft's best — starting with Sankey and Ohio State's Carlos Hyde — considered late-first-round picks at best and more likely to come off the board in the second round.
"I don't really understand why everybody is bringing up this devaluing of the running back position," Hyde told USA TODAY Sports by phone.
The strong rookie seasons of the Cincinnati Bengals' Giovani Bernard (drafted 37th overall last year) and the Green Bay Packers' Eddie Lacy (drafted 61st) should help this year's top backs, said Hyde, who ran for 3,198 yards and scored 41 touchdowns over four college seasons.
Marshawn Lynch's role in the Seattle Seahawks' Super Bowl run can't be underestimated either. It remains possible to build the offense of a championship team around a featured back. But the way the league is trending is obvious even to those who intend to make a career running the ball.
"The league has become way more pass-oriented. I can't change that," Sankey said. "The league values passing the ball. A lot of times, there's not a lot of old-school running plays or old-school formations that they used to run back when they used to run way more."
Teams are figuring out they can stockpile backfield options later in the draft and supplement their draft chart through bargain free agents, including some high draft picks who ran out of opportunities with their old teams for one reason or another.
"They say the NFL is a pass-happy league now. I do a great job of catching, a great job of picking up blitzers, recognizing defenses," Hyde said. "I feel like I'm a complete running back. I definitely feel like I'm a first-round talent."
But possessing the talent might not be enough anymore. The Atlanta Falcons, who worked out Hyde last week and will host him on a visit Wednesday, surely aren't taking him at No. 6 but could be interested with their second-round pick (No. 37).
Sankey wouldn't reveal the two teams he worked out for but said he wasn't concerned about how far he might fall. His goal will be to make any team that passes on him look like a sucker, too.
"Having a running back, especially later on in the season, is very important. Every time I step on the field, I'm just trying to put my best foot forward," he said. "And wherever I end up going, I'll be happy to go."
TEAMS IN NEED
Baltimore Ravens: Ray Rice's diminished play in 2013 — he ran for 660 yards on a paltry 3.1 yards per carry — cast doubt on his future even before an offseason arrest and indictment on aggravated assault charges.
The rest of the depth chart for now: Bernard Pierce, Justin Forsett and Cierre Wood.
Atlanta Falcons: The addition of Steven Jackson was a disappointment last season. His 543rushing yards were the fewest of his 10-year career. Diminutive Jacquizz Rodgers does most of his damage in the passing game. They need a new featured runner sooner than later.
Oakland Raiders: Jackonville Jaguars castoff Maurice Jones-Drew's three-year deal contained just $1.2 million guaranteed. And often-injured Darren McFadden doesn't appear nearly as explosive as he once was. He returned on a one-year pact after managing 3.3 yards a carry for the second consecutive season. Neither projects as the long-term answer.
New York Giants: They signed Rashad Jennings to a four-year, $10 million deal, brought back Peyton Hillis and might have David Wilson, depending on his recovery from neck surgery. But considering how things unraveled in 2013, they can't amass enough options.
New England Patriots: Shane Vereen, Stevan Ridley and Brandon Bolden are entering contract years. Last year's late-season star, LaGarrette Blount, signed with the Pittsburgh Steelers in free agency. Bill Belichick always is thinking ahead.
Minnesota Vikings: Top backup Toby Gerhart left for Jacksonville, leaving a hole behind star Adrian Peterson, who had another offseason surgery and has no guaranteed money left on his contract. They need a new insurance policy in case Peterson starts to show he can't carry the load all day.
CREAM OF THE CROP
Carlos Hyde, Ohio State
Height: 6-0. Weight: 230.
Scouting report: Physical, highly productive back who racked up 3,469 yards from scrimmage and 41 TDs over four college seasons. Played with renewed fire and made a difference last season after returning from a three-game ban for a bar incident that didn't result in charges.
Insider's take: "Excellent after-contact runner – that's where his bread and butter is. He's not going to be a dynamic (receiver), but catches it well enough. I don't think that's a strong suit of his. He's going to be more of a first-, second-down (back) and then obviously in the four-minute drill, that's where he's going to make his money." – NFC area scout
Projected round: Late 1-2.
Bishop Sankey, Washington
Height: 5-8. Weight: 207.
Scouting report: Smart, efficient back who ran for 3,496 yards and scored 38 TDs over three college seasons. Military kid known for his work ethic and football IQ. Among combine's top performers in several tests, including the 20-yard shuttle (4 seconds) and bench press (26 reps).
Insider's take: "Bishop Sankey is built well, but he's a smaller, compact guy who can do a few more things (than the draft's other top backs), maybe catching the football and doing that." – NFL Network analyst Charles Davis
Projected round: 2.
Jeremy Hill, LSU
Height: 6-1. Weight: 233.
Scouting report: Straight-line, downhill runner who rushed for 2,156 yards and 18 TDs on 345 carries (6.2 average) over two college seasons. Drew extra scrutiny from teams during pre-draft process for two arrests, which aren't expected to have a major impact on his stock.
Insider's take: "The only thing I don't like about him is he's not a natural, nifty runner. You better have a clean point of entry. He needs the initial hole blocked well, and he's going to get going. He's not a quick-footed, pick-his-way (back). If that hole's not there, penetration will kill him." — NFC scout
Projected round: 2.
Tre Mason, Auburn
Height: 5-8. Weight: 207.
Scouting report: Quick, though not extremely fast back who ran for 2,979 yards, including a school-record 1,816 and 23 TDs as a true junior in 2013. Heisman Trophy finalist. Excellent athlete with jump-cut ability, elusiveness and knack for seeing things develop at the second level.
Insider's take: "You would like him to be a little bigger to be a three-down back. You do question the top-end speed a little bit. But he is a guy that has very good vision, very good feel for the inside-zone play. He can see the hole well. He is one of the more instinctive backs in this draft." — NFC scout
Projected round: 2.
Henry Josey, Missouri
Height: 5-8. Weight: 194.
Many bring up Darren Sproles when speaking with Josey, who thinks he can be an every-down NFL back. "I can catch out of the backfield just like (Sproles) can, and then I definitely feel like I'm faster," Josey told USA TODAY Sports. He missed the 2012 season after two surgeries to reconstruct his left knee — anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments, patellar tendon and meniscus — but thought he was better than ever in 2013, rushing for 1,166 yards and scoring 17 TDs.
Father to a 3-year-old son, Josey turned pro even though the advisory board projected him as a fourth- to seventh-round pick. In Josey's mind, he controlled his own destiny — and Sproles (5-6, 190) has already shown the impact a fourth-round back can make, size notwithstanding. "You know how everybody pumps it up – 'he's not this big,'" Josey said. "But I'm running like I'm that big. If they watch me on film, I think that says it all."
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