The NFL has quietly shifted away from the featured runner to a league that utilizes committee backfields that share the workload.
The use of multiple backs has changed the way that scouts evaluate the position.
Rather than search for the durable workhorse capable of logging 300 or more carries, teams are looking to add complementary pieces. The duties are split evenly among two or more runners, and the production of the group often outweighs rushing titles or 100-yard games for an individual.
Given the dramatic increase in specialization, teams are willing to take smaller backs in the early rounds, provided they bring exceptional skills to the table. Traits like explosiveness, receiving skills and multi-positional flexibility have created more opportunities for diminutive backs.
There are a host of shorter backs that occupy the top of this year's prospect list.
Mark Ingram is the headliner, and he is one of the few runners who has the potential to carry the load on a full-time basis. While his height ranks below typical pro standards, his thick, stocky build allows him to be an effective runner in a power-based offense. He carried the ball 271 times (for 1,658 yards) during the Crimson Tide's national championship run in 2009, which included seven games with 20 or more rush attempts.
Ryan Williams and Kendall Hunter are also diminutive backs, but both have shown big-time ability during their college careers. Williams, who rushed for 1,655 yards in 2009, was limited by injuries during his final season, but his 30 rushing touchdowns in only 23 career games suggest that he has a nose for pay dirt.
Hunter also possesses a nose for the goal line, but his skills truly shine when he gets into the open field. He shows a combination of power and elusiveness when confronting tacklers, and he finds a way to pick up extra yardage after contact.
Mikel Leshoure and Daniel Thomas step to the forefront among the bigger backs. Both are physical runners with outstanding quickness, vision and cutback ability. They have the size to carry the load 20-25 times, and their receiving ability increases their value.
1. Mark Ingram, Alabama: He didn't post sensational numbers as a junior, but is still regarded as the top running back. He is a stocky power runner with outstanding running skills and instincts. He is explosive out of his stance, and flashes a burst getting to the hole. He shows good acceleration while working to the second level, and his patience, vision and cutback talents allow him to gain positive yards when creases close quickly. Ingram uses those same skills to turn the corner on outside runs. He cleverly sets up his blocks on the edge, and uses a sneaky burst to get to the perimeter. He might not possess exceptional speed, but his creativity in the open field leads to big runs and allows him to deliver explosive runs (runs over 20 yards) on a consistent basis. For a team looking for a dependable workhorse with the skills to excel as a pro, Ingram should rank at the top of the list.
2. Mikel Leshoure, Illinois: He is a versatile workhorse with the skills to shine in a pro-style offense. He exhibits outstanding balance, body control and vision. He is nifty getting into creases in traffic, and his nimble feet allow him to slither through to the next level while avoiding contact. Although his explosiveness will lead some to label him as a finesse runner, he is hard-nosed and willing to finish off runs in a physical manner. Leshoure shows good hands and natural receiving skills when incorporated into the passing game. He is capable of running the route tree from the running back spot, but excels most when used on slow screens. His patience and crafty open-field running skills routinely lead to big plays. If Leshoure tests well in workouts, he could earn a late first-round grade by the end of the evaluation process.
3. Daniel Thomas, Kansas State: He is a big, bruising runner with an old-school style that is suited for the pro game. He excels running between the tackles, and flashes outstanding balance, body control and quickness while running downhill. He has a knack for getting skinny in the hole, but also flashes outstanding power and pop on contact. He routinely runs through arm tackles, and finishes his runs with authority. Although his skill set is ideally suited for power football, Thomas also flashes the speed and burst to get to the corner. He gets to the second level quickly on perimeter plays, and shows nimble feet and agility in the open field. Given his size, strength and impressive running skills, Thomas will be a coveted prospect certain to carry high grades on draft boards.
4. Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech: He surprisingly entered the draft after suffering through an injury-plagued year, but scouts are hoping that he regains the sensational form that propelled him to 1,655 rushing yards in 2009. At 5-foot-10, 202 pounds, he shows impressive speed, quickness and running skills. He attacks seams between the tackles, and flashes an explosive burst in the hole. His ability to climb to the second level quickly makes him a threat to score from any distance, and his 30 rushing touchdowns in only 23 games is indicative of his penchant for putting the ball in the paint. Although Williams' explosiveness shines in the open field, it is his ability to get the tough yards between the tackles that makes him most effective. He possesses enough strength and power to run through contact in the hole, and shows an uncanny ability for falling forward at the end of runs. His strength, toughness and tenacity result in positive yardage on most of his attempts, and his overall skills will fit in well at the next level.
5. Kendall Hunter, Oklahoma State: He is slightly undersized at 5-foot-7, 199 pounds, but he plays the position bigger than his physical dimensions. He runs with aggression between the tackles, and shows the balance, vision and body control to slide through creases in traffic. His aggressive running style catches defenders off guard, which leads to a host of broken tackles on the second level. Hunter also shows good quickness and cutback skills while working on the perimeter. He routinely beats defenders to the corner, but has a knack for finding open seams against the pursuit. Although he lacks the home-run speed that scouts covet, his ability to get to the second level is a testament to his quickness and is one of the reasons he is viewed as a dynamic third-down back on the next level.