Other Positions: Quarterback | Running Back | Wide Receiver | Tight End
Want even more proof the NFL is becoming a pass-first league? Only twice in the last 19 years has the rookie class failed to produce a single 1,000-yard rusher—and both have occurred in the past three seasons, including last year when Cowboys third-rounder DeMarco Murray paced the class with 897. And after spending three first-round picks on running backs each of the past two seasons, last year only one RB heard his name called on Day One.
Given that history it should come as no surprise that the first round of the 2012 Draft is expected to be light on runners as well. But there are a handful of candidates who would at minimum effectively fill a complementary role who might sneak into the bottom of Round One; if not, they’ll all vie for spots on the second day of the draft. With their varying skill sets, where each player winds up will be the key factor in how much they bring to the fantasy table this August.
THE SURE THING
There is little question Trent Richardson will be the first back taken in the 2012 draft, most likely in the top half of the first round. And what’s not to like about his game? Richardson can run through or around defenders, with the size and strength to bust tackles and the vision to avoid them, and his work ethic is legendary. He won’t win a footrace with Chris Johnson, but Richardson has more than enough speed; even while playing behind Mark Ingram at Alabama he led the Crimson Tide with 36 plays of 15 or more yards. He’s also a decent receiver and has kick return experience, making him a complete back. The NFL player he’s most frequently compared to is Adrian Peterson, and while again Richardson may not win that speed battle he has a similar angry running style. It’s tough to see him not walking into a feature back gig, with teams like the Buccaneers, Bengals, and Browns all having early shots at him—not to mention vacancies in their backfield. Despite what Cam Newton did last year and the raves Andrew Luck and Robert Griffin III are receiving, Richardson is the odds-on favorite to be the top pick in every fantasy rookie/dynasty draft.
THE NEXT TIER
Doug Martin followed up a productive college career with a solid week of practice at the Senior Bowl and a strong showing at the Combine, ranking at or near the top RB marks in the bench press and agility drills. In the process, he elevated his stock from the fringe of Day Two to a potential first-round selection. Despite his short stature Martin is more than capable of banging between the tackles due to his strength and balance, and while he has good speed and burst he’s not a burner. Martin is also an adept receiver and demonstrated pass-blocking competence at the Senior Bowl, so he has all the tools to be an every-down back. Can he hold up to such a workload at his size? It’s worked out okay for Maurice Jones-Drew and Ray Rice, and while Martin may not be in that category just yet he has the upside and potential to get there. Perhaps the safer projection would be something akin to Ahmad Bradshaw: a complementary back who doesn’t have to do all the dirty work inside but still handles the majority of backfield touches. Plenty of teams could use a back with Martin’s skill set—perhaps even one late in Round 1 or early on Day Two—so he should be a bright blip on both dynasty and redraft fantasy radars.
Lamar Miller burst to the fore of the 2012 running back class with 1,272 yards as a redshirt sophomore, third-most in University of Miami history. His best attribute is his speed, with a top gear that could get him clocked in the 4.3s at the Scouting Combine. He attributed his success in 2011 to demonstrating more patience and setting up runs, and he should be a great fit in a zone-blocking, one-cut-and-go system; the most prevalent NFL comparison I’m seeing is “a poor man’s Jamaal Charles”. Miller also has some experience as a receiver, though he’s not particularly effective in pass protection, and has return work on his resume as well. There are concerns about his upright running style and suspect durability (he had shoulder surgery following the 2011 season), but as a low-mileage back with speed he’ll most certainly go off the board in the first two rounds.
There’s a lot of love for Chris Polk among the scouting community, and many have him tagged as the next back off the board after Trent Richardson. Despite a rocky start to his college career—a separated shoulder two games into his freshman season cost him the rest of the year—he put up numbers that rank at or near the top of the Washington record book, alongside the likes of Corey Dillon and Napoleon Kauffman. What the scouts like is an NFL body, a physical back who doesn’t go down on first contact, and a north/south runner with decent speed and excellent vision and patience. Polk also proved to be a willing, capable blocker and improved his receiving skills over the course of his Huskies career. However, he didn’t show much at the Senior Bowl; his backers attributed it to his style requiring more than a week of timing with his blockers to hit his holes correctly. He’ll also need to check out medically, as a physical runner with two shoulder surgeries on his resume raises red flags. After weighing 222 at the Scouting Combine, Polk clocked in at 213 at his Pro Day; he also ran a 4.49 40, shaving almost a tenth of a second off his Combine time. Perhaps most importantly, Polk reportedly looked smooth in pass catching drills, highlighting one of the many skills that make him one of the more complete backs in the draft. I came away unimpressed in the limited action I saw of Polk—not that he’s awful, I just didn’t see anything special. To me it looked like he got you what was blocked and was more plowhorse than thoroughbred—nothing even remotely resembling the Ray Rice comparisons some scouting reports have made. However, I freely admit to having seen a very limited sample size of Polk’s work. Bottom line, though, I can’t help but think that Polk will need the right situation (read: a very good line and 20-plus carries a game, a la Cedric Benson) to be a fantasy factor.
David Wilson has just one year of work as a feature back, having played behind Ryan Williams and Darren Evans at Virginia Tech. However, the NFL may simply see that as low mileage and his relative inexperience as an opportunity to mold him into a pro contributor. The best-case scenario for Wilson might be Jamaal Charles; Wilson reportedly ran in the 4.3s at his Pro Day and has plenty of speed, and his size is a detriment to his ability to run between the tackles. Not that Wilson isn’t a powerful runner; it’s more that he’s still an all-or-nothing kind of guy who will dance around waiting for an opening and prefers to get outside. Wilson would be a work in progress for a stretch or zone blocking team, and he doesn’t have much experience in the passing game as either a blocker or receiver. But that home-run speed is enticing, and the low-mileage/moldable combo should earn him a complementary role right from the get-go.
WORTH PAYING ATTENTION TO
Isaiah Pead quickly became one of my favorite backs in this draft class. I caught his 149 yards and a TD in the Liberty Bowl and was particularly impressed by the way he made his cuts at full speed; it reminded me of the way LeSean McCoy shifts and glides when he runs. Pead’s stock continued to climb with an MVP showing at the Senior Bowl, earned primarily by his success in the return game; you have to believe the Vikings’ coaching staff, which worked with Pead’s North team in Mobile, took note of those return skills. Pead obviously has outstanding speed, but he’ll need to learn not everything can be busted outside at the NFL level. He’s a bit small for an every-down NFL back, but he has plenty of speed and offers both receiving ability and effort in pass protection so at minimum he can be a third-down/return guy. And in today’s NFL more and more frequently speed is trumping size when it comes to making plays. Pead’s late-season surge has pushed his stock into second-day status, but you knew the guy who broke all of Archie Griffin’s high school rushing records in Ohio couldn’t stay completely under the radar.
Some draft analysts have Bernard Pierce competing to be the second back off the board, and a pair of 40s timed in the 4.3s at his Pro Day certainly don’t hurt his cause. However, the consensus amongst scouts is that Pierce doesn’t play at a 4.3 speed; he has what’s known as “build-up speed”, in that it takes him a while to get going. Now if he’s through the line of scrimmage and picking up speed, then that 4.3 might come into play as he goes the distance, but that’s not really Pierce’s game. Typecast as a power back based on his size, Pierce is more of a slasher with excellent vision and patience. His scouting reports all contain the dreaded phrase “upright running style”, but he doesn’t go down on first contact and isn’t afraid to lower his shoulder. The real knock against him is a lack of experience in the passing game, both as a receiver and in pass protection. That skill set (or lack thereof) could position him as a two-down, complementary type of back rather than a feature ballcarrier; think Brandon Jacobs or James Starks, only with less brute power and more vision and finesse. Scout comparisons range from Curtis Martin to Chris Ivory, which is about as broad a range as you can get. Fantasy owners should expect Pierce to be a job share guy to start, most likely in a zone blocking system that takes advantage of his ability to wait for the hole to develop before busting through it.
Increasingly in today’s NFL there’s a place for the little man, especially if he has speed and quickness. LaMichael James does, though it’s more jitterbug quickness than straight-line speed; then again, a low 4.4s clocking at his Pro Day suggests there’s ample speed as well. You can’t deny his productivity in Oregon’s high-octane offense, but he doesn’t have the frame to hold up to the 20-carry-a-game workload he handled for the Ducks. Not that he won’t run between the tackles; he did, but against Pac-12 defenses not NFL ones. And he runs hard, doesn’t necessarily go down on first contact… it’s just that given his size and injury history a steady dose of inside running would shorten James’ career dramatically. As a receiver with return skills and the ability to take a few carries a game—and go the distance any time he touches the ball—he could bring a Darren Sproles element to the right offense. James may sneak into the second day of the draft, with a complementary role as a pass-catching scat back with return bonuses his initial upside.
WHO NEEDS ONE?
The proliferation of backfield committees and the dominance of the passing game in today’s NFL are conspiring to push running backs down the draft board. In past years Trent Richardson to the desperate-for-playmakers Cleveland Browns at No. 4 would be almost a lock; now he could slide to the middle of the round to the Jets or Bengals. While there are still several intriguing backs yet to land in free agency, it would seem that the Browns and Bengals are at the top of the need list—perhaps joined by the Buccaneers after 2010 rookie rushing leader LeGarrette Blount, the only rookie to reach the 1,000-yard mark in the past three seasons, stumbled badly last season. Other teams in the market for a back will be looking for complements to existing pieces or insurance for current feature backs; the Colts, Lions, Steelers, Broncos, Packers, and Giants all fall into the first category while the Rams, Jaguars, and Ravens fit the latter.