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Reggie Bush, Todd Gurley among best RB prospects I've scouted


With the thick of the offseason upon us, it's the perfect time for me to dig through my old notes to see if I can learn from my past scouting reports as I begin to evaluate the next wave of top talents in the college game. Last week, I took a look at the top quarterback prospects that I've evaluated throughout my career based on how I graded their college film. This week, I'm taking a deep dive into the running back position to reevaluate how I ranked RBs based on the way I viewed their potential during the pre-draft process.

The value of the position has certainly changed over the past few years, but transcendent talents still command big grades and I think that continues to stand out when I review my notes. Here are my top 10 running back prospects from my time as a scout (since 2001).

Editor's note: Click through the tabs above to see rankings for other positions.

1. Reggie Bush, USC

Drafted: Second overall, 2006, New Orleans Saints

Before you @ me on Twitter for placing Bush at the top of the list, you should check out the highlights from his spectacular 2005 campaign that allowed him to hoist the Heisman Trophy at the end of the season. While he was eventually stripped of the award due to an NCAA investigation that resulted in severe sanctions for the USC football program, the spectacular flashes that he displayed as a triple-threat playmaker (runner, receiver, and returner) made me go all in on his upside and potential.

Bush led the nation in all-purpose yardage per game in 2005 (222.3 yards) and twice finished the Pac-10 Conference leader in that category during his final his two seasons at USC, exhibiting a combination of speed, quickness and start-stop ability that is hard to find in a playmaker at any position. Bush's remarkable skills reminded me of a young Marshall Faulk and I expected him to make a major impact as a pro after totaling 6,541 all-purpose yards (3,169 rushing yards, 1,301 receiving yards, 1,522 kick-return yards and 559 punt-return yards with 42 total touchdowns) in 39 career games.

As a pro, Bush certainly hasn't met expectations as a transcendent star with Hall of Fame production, but he has flashed big-play potential as a multifaceted playmaker throughout his career. Sure, he hasn't earned a Pro Bowl berth in his 11 seasons, but he did post a pair of 1,000-yard seasons (and nearly posted another in 2012 with 986 rushing yards) and finished with at least 40 receptions seven times during his career. That doesn't reflect the production expected from the No. 2 overall pick in a draft, but he's had a decent career even though he appeared to have the potential to do so much more as a pro.

2. Marshawn Lynch, Cal

Drafted: 12th overall, 2007, Buffalo Bills

If you haven't watched old clips of "Beast Mode" during his time at Cal, you have no idea how good the five-time Pro Bowl selectee was as a collegian. Lynch showed all of the traits that coaches desire in a franchise back. From his combination of strength and power as a grind-it-out runner between the tackles to his soft hands and polished receiving skills in the passing game, the 5-foot-11, 215-pound playmaker showed the football world he was more than ready to serve as an RB1 while posting 17 100-yard games in a 35-game collegiate career.

Although the back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons didn't necessarily feature eye-popping numbers, he showcased outstanding versatility as a feature back in an offense loaded with NFL-like concepts.

As a pro, Lynch has more than met the standard as a franchise RB1 with six 1,000-yard seasons and a Super Bowl title (could've been two if the Seahawks handed the ball to Lynch at the one-yard line in Super Bowl XLIX). He also led the league in rushing touchdowns twice with 12 and 13 rushing scores, respectively, in 2013 and 2014. Most impressively, Lynch carried the offense as a rugged runner with a punishing game that featured a hint of finesse. Whereas most observers focus on his epic runs like the "Beast Quake", it's his underrated wiggle and receiving skills that have more scouts searching for big backs with dynamic games like Lynch's. Considering his overall impact on the game, Lynch has more than justified his lofty grade prior to the draft.

3. LaDainian Tomlinson, TCU

Drafted: Fifth overall, 2001, San Diego Chargers

It's easy to tout the two-time NCAA rushing champ as one of the best running back prospects in the modern era when reflecting on his extraordinary talents as a runner-receiver out of the backfield.

Tomlinson impressed scouts with his rare combination of skills as a dynamic runner with explosive speed, quickness and pitter-pat. The Heisman Trophy finalist confirmed his status as a premier playmaker in 2001 when he claimed the Senior Bowl MVP award after a sensational performance during the practice week that showcased his soft hands and polished receiving skills. Although there were some concerns about his ability to carry the load as a franchise back, Tomlinson silenced the doubters when he earned five Pro Bowl berths, an NFL MVP award (2006) and a pair of rushing titles (2006 and 2007) while showcasing unrivaled versatility as a multifaceted playmaker on the perimeter.

Tomlinson achieved the rare 100/1,000 milestone (100 receptions and 1,000 rushing yards) during his third season and emerged as the ultimate scoring machine with a recording-breaking performance (28 touchdowns) in 2006. With few running backs displaying that kind of versatility and explosiveness, Tomlinson is the kind of game changer that every coach and scout desires in an RB1 in a dynamic scheme.

4. Ezekiel Elliott, Ohio State

Drafted: Fourth overall, 2016, Dallas Cowboys

Scouts perk up whenever they see a running back prospect put a championship-caliber team on his back, particularly when that runner displays a pro-ready game on the way to leading his team to the title.

Elliott rushed for more than 1,800 yards and 18 touchdowns while leading the Buckeyes to a national championship in 2014. Most impressively, he tallied three straight 200-yard games during a postseason stretch that showcased his electric running skills as a power runner with speed, quickness and balance.

Elliott's follow-up campaign (1,821 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns in 2015) confirmed scouts' lofty opinions of his game when he opened the season with 10 straight 100-yard games while displaying exceptional power and body control running through arm tackles at the point of attack. In addition, he shows outstanding skills in the passing game as a natural receiver on the perimeter and rugged blocking skills in pass protection. Elliott's versatile game made him a perfect fit as an RB1 for a Dallas Cowboys squad that desperately needed a workhorse to spark the offense. He met expectations as a top-5 talent by claiming a rushing title as a rookie, and he has shown the football world that a marquee runner remains a valuable commodity in today's game.

5. Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma

Drafted: Seventh overall, 2007, Minnesota Vikings

The ballyhooed five-star recruit certainly lived up to his big-play reputation at Oklahoma as a spectacular three-year starter for the Sooners. The ultra-explosive runner finished as the runner-up in the 2004 Heisman Trophy race as a freshman while tallying 1,925 yards and 15 touchdowns in 13 games. With Peterson exhibiting a dynamic running style that mixed speed and explosiveness with a violent finish, scouts expected the young runner to blossom into a game changer at the next level -- if he could avoid the injuries that prematurely ended his sophomore and junior campaigns.

Needless to say, Peterson more than exceeded those expectations when he claimed three rushing titles and joined the exclusive 2,000-yard club (2012) following a season that was prematurely cut short due to a torn ACL. Peterson has shown that a throwback runner can still dominate with a game that's built on speed, power and violence. With the veteran runner also displaying remarkable resiliency and toughness running against nine-man fronts and bouncing back from injuries, the perennial Pro Bowl selectee is arguably the gold standard at the position.

6. Willis McGahee, Miami

Drafted: 23rd overall, 2003, Buffalo Bills

Whenever a top-rated running back prospect puts up big numbers as a one-year wonder, scouts question whether he can replicate the feat at the next level. Those concerns for McGahee were heightened since he was coming off a devastating knee injury (torn ACL, PCL, and MCL) suffered in the 2003 National Championship Game. The unfortunate injury overshadowed McGahee's electric skills as a power runner with shifty hips and light feet prior to the draft, but astute scouts couldn't ignore his 1,753 rushing yards and 28 touchdowns as the RB1 for the Hurricanes during his final season.

As a downhill runner with a crafty running style that blended power with a touch of finesse, McGahee's ability to run effectively between the tackles made him a hot commodity for teams seeking an old-school runner to anchor their ground game. He exhibited those same qualities as a pro when he earned a pair of Pro Bowl berths and an NFL Comeback Player of the Year award (2004) while rushing for 8,474 yards and 65 touchdowns over his 11-year career. Whether it was leading the Buffalo Bills as a young workhorse or sparking the Baltimore Ravens to three straight playoff berths as a punishing lead back or carving out a 1,000-yard season as the Denver Broncos' RB1, McGahee's combination of grit, toughness and physicality made him worthy of his spot on this list.

7. Steven Jackson, Oregon State

Drafted: 24th overall, 2004, St. Louis Rams

It's hard to find a big running back with nimble feet, exceptional balance and explosive power, but scouts venturing through Oregon State in 2001-2003 stumbled upon a future Pro Bowl selectee in Jackson.

The 6-foot-1, 231-pound sledgehammer quickly became one of the favorites on the scouting trail after rushing for 1,500-plus yards in each of his final two seasons. With Jackson also totaling 46 career touchdowns (39 rushing; seven receiving) while displaying soft hands and polished receiving skills (66 catches for 680 receiving yards) as a big back, it was easy to envision him blossoming into an RB1 in a scheme that showcased the talents of a dynamic runner-receiver in the backfield.

As a pro, Jackson thrived as the feature back in a St. Louis Rams offense that fully utilized his skills as a runner between the tackles and as a pass-catcher on the perimeter. He led the NFL in scrimmage yards in his second season as a full-time starter (2,334 yards in 2006) and posted eight straight 1,000-yard seasons as the Rams' RB1. Not bad for a running back who started off his career as an RB2 to Marshall Faulk in St. Louis.

8. Darren McFadden, Arkansas

Drafted: Fourth overall, 2008, Oakland Raiders

The two-time Heisman Trophy runner-up was one of the most prolific running backs in SEC history as the RB1 for the Razorbacks. McFadden posted three straight 1,000-yard seasons, including a 1,829-yard campaign during his junior season that showcased his skills as a multifaceted playmaker.

As the team's "Wildcat" quarterback, he flashed deft ball-handling skills and spectacular running ability on the perimeter. Although his upright, one-cut running style didn't make him a great fit in every scheme, McFadden's speed (clocked a 4.33-second 40-yard dash at the 2008 NFL Scouting Combine), explosiveness and burst excited coaches and scouts searching for a big-play runner to add to the backfield.

As a pro, McFadden teased evaluators with his homerun potential, but injuries prevented him from fully realizing his potential as an RB1. The 6-foot-1, 220-pound runner has only suited up for an entire 16-game season twice during his nine-year career. With only a pair of 1,000-yard seasons to show for his immense talent as a dynamic runner, McFadden's career didn't quite match the hype that accompanied his arrival.

9. Larry Johnson, Penn State

Drafted: 27th overall, 2003, Kansas City Chiefs

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After sitting on the sideline during his first three seasons at Penn State, Johnson piqued the interest of scouts with a spectacular 2,000-yard season during his senior year. The big-bodied playmaker impressed evaluators with his powerful running style, and he excited scouts with his combination of speed and explosiveness as a one-cut runner.

Johnson flashed those same big-play traits as a pro when he rushed for more than 1,700 yards in back-to-back seasons (2005 and 2006) for the Kansas City Chiefs. As a two-time Pro Bowl selectee with a rushing title (2005) and a host of single-game and single-season records, Johnson showed evaluators he could carry a team as a franchise back and was certainly worthy of the big grade that he earned from several decision makers during the pre-draft process.

While some of those same evaluators would point out that Johnson's character issues prevented him from fully reaching his potential as an elite running back, he met expectations as a bottom-of-the-first-round selection (No. 27 overall) in the 2003 draft.

10. Todd Gurley, Georgia

Drafted: 10th overall, 2015, St. Louis Rams

Despite missing four games due to a suspension for violating NCAA rules and suffering a season-ending knee injury during his junior season, Gurley was a blue-chip running back prospect due to his remarkable combination of size, speed and power. The All-SEC RB rushed for more than 3,200 yards in 30 games while exhibiting outstanding balance, body control, and vision. In addition, he dazzled scouts with his explosive athleticism when he clocked the seventh-fastest time in school history in the 60-meter hurdles as a sophomore.

Given his unique movement skills and overall explosiveness, it's no surprise that Gurley hit the ground running as a rookie with 1,106 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns on the way to earning a Pro Bowl berth. Although he hasn't surpassed the 100-yard mark in 24 straight games, Gurley remains a talented runner with the kind of star power that coaches love to build around.

Follow Bucky Brooks on Twitter @BuckyBrooks.



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