This year’s running back class lacks an elite prospect, although two players could ultimately crack the end of the first round. Teams in need of backfield help will do most of the digging between the second and fourth rounds, where the value seems to lie for the position.
The player that tops most running back rankings is Alabama junior Mark Ingram, but even he does not carry a premium draft grade. His ability to be a feature back, carry the ball between the tackles, and pick up tough yardage make him a very good fit for an offense looking for ball control out of their running game. Ingram will pick up consistent yardage and fight for extra yardage at the end of his runs. He has quick enough feet, a good initial burst, and decent enough speed to hit the corner, but he is not going to run away from defenders very often. That lack of homerun speed is the main reason he will not hear his name called in the first ten or 12 picks, but he is the type of back you can consistently give the rock to, and watch him pick up consistent yardage and break an occasional big gain. He is a virtual lock to be the first back taken, and may be the only back taken in the first round.
Mark Ingram, Alabama
Mikel LeShoure, Illinois
Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech
Jordan Todman, UConn
Daniel Thomas, Kansas St.
Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma St.
Demarco Murray, Oklahoma
Shane Vereen, California
Taiwan Jones, Eastern Washington
Jacquizz Rogers, Oregon St.
After Ingram, there are a number of running back prospects that could go in any order in the second or third round. Illinois junior Mikel LeShoure has an interesting combination of size and big play ability. He ran for 1,697 yards and reached the end zone 17 times this season. He has surprising feet for a 230lber and can consistently get into open space and pick up big chunks of yardage. He can finish runs, but he isn’t really a bruising type of back despite his bulk. He has an outside chance at landing in the first round but will more likely come off the board in the second round.
Virginia Tech redshirt sophomore Ryan Williams is most likely the second back off the board. He had a fantastic freshman season, rushing for 1,655 yards and 21 scores, displaying a slashing style that led to many big plays. His sophomore season did not go quite as planned, missing substantial time with a hamstring injury and sharing the carries in the Hokie backfield. Williams managed only 477 yards and nine scores on the season. He doesn’t have great size and doesn’t have blazing speed, but Williams does run hard and can pick up tough yardage, while showing the ability make defenders miss and outrun them once in space. Williams has some big play ability, and could be the second back off the board, which should be at some point in the second round.
Kansas State’s Daniel Thomas is most likely the top senior back off the board. Along with LeShoure, his size gives him an advantage for teams looking for a back outside the first round. Thomas packs about 225lbs on his frame, and uses it to be a real factor between the tackles. He is a workhorse type back that will lower his shoulder, and battle for extra yardage at the end of runs. He likes to get outside as well, showing quick feet and the ability to make the first defender miss and get to the corner. Thomas doesn’t have ideal breakaway speed, but its decent for a between the tackles runner. Where he ends up depends on how early LeShoure and Williams go, but he should hear his name called in the first three rounds.
Demarco Murray of Oklahoma is an intriguing prospect. He has good size at 6’1 210lbs, good speed, can run between the tackles, and can catch the football. He sounds like a great all around RB prospect. He’s more of a slashing back, but lacks great elusiveness and won’t create much on his own. The biggest question mark around Murray’s game is his durability. He has consistently been banged up or missed time during his college career, which begs the question about how big of a role he can play in the NFL. Murray’s hands are as good as any back in this draft, and because of his ability in the passing game, he should be a productive pro back. His ability to stay healthy will determine whether he becomes a starting back in the NFL or not.
There are a few backs in the next group that have size question marks going into the draft. Cal junior Shane Vereen goes about 5’9 203 but is quick, has good speed, and can catch the football. He has been a tough runner between the tackles, but lacks the power and bulk to project well as a feature back.
Oklahoma State’s Kendall Hunter is a similar player in build. He approaches 200lbs on a 5’7 frame with good quickness and receiving ability, and is an aggressive runner for his size. Jordan Todman of UConn is another 5’9 200lber that has good speed and big play ability. He runs hard on film, but had a small build. He was jacked up at the combine, showing some added bulk, while maintaining his speed. Any of these guys could slip into the second round before some of the aforementioned backs if teams are sold on them and their ability to play a big role in their offense.
There are a couple sleepers to keep an eye on. USC’s Allen Bradford has great blend of size and speed, arguably the best in the draft. He is 230lbs and can be very difficult to tackle once he gets moving. He runs with a lot of power, and is a load to bring down. He also has the speed to hit a seam or turn the corner and outrun defenders. He surpassed the 200 yard mark twice this season in games. Bradford has had some durability issues in his career, which has slowed him down, but it was a penchant for fumbling this year that slowed him down. If he can hold on to the football, Bradford has all the tools to become a major steal on draft day.
Derrick Locke of Kentucky is an all purpose threat that could provide help in a variety of ways. He lacks the size to be an inside threat as a running back, but he has the quickness and speed to be a factor all over the field. He ran for over 800 yards and ten touchdowns this year, despite missing four games. He’s also a threat as a receiver and dangerous on kick returns. He has a track background and showcases his speed in games, so he’s a guy that may impress in workouts and could rise up, but he probably is on the outside of the top 75 on draft day. He could be one that outperforms people selected ahead of him.
Virginia Tech junior Darren Evans declared for the draft, despite only getting a final day draft grade from the NFL’s advisory committee. He had a great freshman season, rushing for over 1,200 yards and 11 scores. A torn ACL forced him to miss the 2009 season, and opened up an opportunity for Ryan Williams to showcase his talents. Evans bounced back this year, sharing carries and still ran for 850 yards and 11 scores. He tips the scales at around 220lbs, is a very good interior runner, and falls forward at the end of his runs. He also has shown quick feet and the ability to turn the corner on occasion. He was a bit of a surprise as an early entry, but he is married and has a child and is seizing the opportunity to provide for his family. That maturity should help him do whatever it takes to find his role and perform when called upon.