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2011 NFL Draft - Running Back Preview
John Tuvey
March 8, 2011
 

Other Positions:  Quarterbacks  |  Running Backs  |  Wide Receivers  |  Tight Ends  |  Offensive Linemen

This year’s draft class is a bit thin at the top, but when you look at what happened last year—when undrafted LeGarrette Blount led all rookie rushers and only two backs from the 2010 draft class (compared with four undrafted rookies) cracked the top 65 in fantasy scoring for the season—you know there’s a need to familiarize yourself with the incoming crop of runners.

Certainly, when it comes to running backs much depends on situation and opportunity (I think I read that somewhere), and with free agency still up in the air and these backs yet to find an NFL home much can and will change with regards to their fantasy value. But based on where they’re ranked heading into the draft, here’s a look at some of the running backs you’ll want to get acquainted with.

THE UPPER ECHELON

While there’s no gotta-have back in this draft, the general consensus is that Mark Ingram will be the first running back to hear his name called on April 28. The Alabama alum became the first Heisman winner in Crimson Tide history, setting a school rushing record as a sophomore. A knee injury slowed him at the beginning of his junior campaign, but he still finished each of his three collegiate seasons with double-digit touchdowns while averaging better than five yards per carry. There’s no particular physical trait about Ingram that stands out; he’s a shade over 5-9 and 215 pounds, and his 4.62 40 at the Combine is nothing special. But the son of former Giants wideout Mark Ingram has the vision, burst, balance and instincts to turn good physical gifts into greatness. As a willing blocker and adequate receiver, he should be able to stay on the field all three downs—if not right away, then certainly early in his career. He was consistently productive against Alabama’s brutal SEC schedule, averaging better than 150 yards per game against six top 25 opponents during the Tide’s national title run in 2009; there’s little reason to believe he won’t be a successful feature back in the NFL.

Ingram may be the first back off the board, but don’t be surprised if Mikel LeShoure joins him in the first round. Similarly built to Rashard Mendenhall, who preceded LeShoure as the University of Illinois’ featured runner, LeShoure passed Mendenhall and fellow Illini Pierre Thomas on the career rushing list despite not becoming a full-time starter until his final year in Champaign. He also set the school single-season rushing (1,697 yards) and touchdown (20) records, capping his collegiate career as the Texas Bowl MVP. At 227 pounds and a hair under six feet, LeShoure is built to withstand the punishment an NFL back endures. While he doesn’t have top-end speed (a 4.59 40 at the Combine), he has quick feet—especially given his size—and a good burst to and through the hole. He’s not afraid to throw a block and is a decent receiver as well, but NFL teams might look to replace him in passing situations with a smaller, quicker back. LeShoure will have to answer questions about some transgressions from early in his college career—he was suspended at the start of his sophomore season for violating team rules and suffered a broken jaw in a fight with a teammate during his freshman season—but all indications suggest he’s matured sufficiently to warrant Day One attention.

Ryan Williams played only two seasons at Virginia Tech: a wildly successful redshirt freshman year in which he started all 13 games, rushing for 1,655 yards and scoring 22 touchdowns; and an injury-marred sophomore campaign that saw him share carries with Darren Evans, start just half of the 10 games in which he played, and average almost a yard and a half less than the stellar 5.6 ypc he posted as a frosh. You can bet interested teams thoroughly checked out the troublesome hamstring that hampered his 2010 season, as that’s really the only question facing Williams. When healthy he’s an instinctive runner with good burst and surprising inside power for his size (5-9, 212), with a style that’s drawn comparisons to DeAngelo Williams and Clinton Portis. Obviously, durability is a question mark and there are also concerns about ball security. But he has flashed good hands in limited receiving opportunities and is aggressive as a blocker, so if he can manage to stay on the field he projects to be a productive NFL back.

Proof that good things come in small packages, Kendall Hunter posted two impressive seasons at Oklahoma State. The tricky thing, however, is that his 1,555-yard, 17-TD sophomore season and 1,548-yard, 16-TD senior campaign sandwiched a junior year marred by an ankle injury. Hunter still has a plate in his right ankle, and at 5-7 and 199 pounds durability is clearly a concern. But when healthy Hunter plays bigger than his size, running low to the ground a la Ray Rice with natural instincts, good vision, and the moves and burst to eat up yards in a hurry. He has little experience as a receiver and doesn’t block particularly well, so he’ll have to develop those skills to stay on the field on third downs. And since his size doesn’t exactly scream “feature back”, his carries might initially be limited. However, Hunter’s collegiate productivity is undeniable, and in the right situation he could have the same success as a pro.

At the opposite end of the size spectrum is Daniel Thomas, who at 6-0 and 230 pounds is the biggest feature back likely to hear his name called on draft day. Thomas has taken an indirect path to the draft, originally signing with Florida as a quarterback before academic issues sent him to junior college. Eventually Thomas wound up at Kansas State, where he rolled up 2,850 yards and 30 touchdowns in two productive seasons. He played through a shoulder injury and held the respect of the locker room despite being a JUCO transfer, so scouts view his leadership as a plus. Thomas has good feet for a big back, runs hard (though a bit upright for some scouts), and while he isn’t going to run away from too many defensive backs he’ll win his share of open-field battles. His quarterback experience could come into play in Wildcat packages, and while he’s a natural receiver his blocking needs work for teams to trust him on the field in passing situations. Thomas reminds some scouts of Michael Bush, which certainly isn’t a bad thing. In a draft filled with undersized backs, Thomas should have little trouble finding at least some carries as a between-the-tackles thumper—with the potential upside of a larger workload given the right situation.

BE VERY AFRAID

It’s one thing to be small and fast and survive in the NFL; it’s quite another to be really small and not particularly fast. Jacquizz Rodgers carved out a productive career at Oregon State with three 1,000-yard campaigns and 51 touchdowns in 36 games; he’s a more than capable receiver (151-1,056-5 for his career), a willing blocker, and obviously very shifty. But at the combine he checked in under 5-6 and ran a 4.64 40—two great big red flags. Rodgers could carve out a Dexter McCluster-type job in the pros, but it seems unwise to ask him to carry the ball 250-plus times a season like he did in college. And the absence of home run speed could render him just another return guy looking for work.

TAKE A CHANCE ON...

Speed kills in the NFL, so expect two of the faster backs from the Combine to get a shot at filling a Jamaal Charles-like role. Connecticut’s Jordan Todman is a hard runner, especially given that he’s a shade under 5-9 and 203 pounds. His 4.40 Combine 40 demonstrates his straight-line speed, and he has the vision and burst to succeed in a zone-blocking system. While he has limited experience as a receiver, he can contribute right away in the return game and perhaps pick up the pass-catching skills to take advantage of his speed and play on third downs. That facet of the game shouldn’t be a problem for DeMarco Murray, who caught 157 balls for 1,571 yards and 13 touchdowns during his four years at Oklahoma—including 71-594-5 last year alone. Murray was also a productive runner, with two 1,000-yard seasons and three double-digit touchdown campaigns capped by 1,214 and 15 in 2010. The 4.41 40 he ran in Indy ranks him among the faster backs in this draft, but at 5-11 and 213 pounds he also has NFL size. So, what’s keeping him from going off the board earlier? Durability concerns: his resume includes knee, hamstring, and ankle injuries, and he was hampered in some fashion every year of his college career. Murray’s a risk, to be sure, but one with significant upside.

WHO NEEDS ONE?

A combination of the lack of a marquee “gotta have” running back and the league’s trend towards committee backfields should conspire to keep a lid on the number of backs going off the board in the first couple rounds. Depending on what happens in free agency, the Dolphins at 15 and Giants at 19 are the most likely teams to take a shot at Ingram. The Patriots, Colts, Saints and Packers may also be looking at a back at some point in the first three rounds, most likely towards the end of the draft’s second day. And plenty of teams may look to emulate the RBBCs permeating the league by adding either a big banger or a pass-catching scatback to their mix. The Rams have talked about a backup/heir to Steven Jackson, for example, and again depending on what transpires via free agency the Ravens, Bengals, Cardinals, Redskins, and Lions could be looking to upgrade their depth as well.


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