Influx of juniors adds depth to otherwise questionable RB crop

INDIANAPOLIS -- The first time Ozzie Newsome looked at the list of running backs available in this year's draft, he was far from impressed.

"There was a void there," the Baltimore Ravens' general manager recalled. "Then all the junior running backs came out. Now it's one of the strengths of the draft."

By "all the junior running backs," Newsome primarily is speaking about Chris "Beanie" Wells from Ohio State, Knowshon Moreno from Georgia, Donald Brown from Connecticut, Shonn Greene from Iowa, Glen Coffee from Alabama and LeSean McCoy from Pittsburgh.

At least two, Wells and Moreno, and possibly a third junior running back figure to be first-round picks on April 25. Most of the others should be selected within the first few rounds.

It is, to a large extent, a repeat of what happened last year, when an influx of underclassmen helped improve the position's quality and depth.

"Overall, it's a good group," San Francisco 49ers GM Scot McCloughan said. "It's a deep group. This year, you can get a good back down the line. They're there."

The majority of the focus during the NFL Scouting Combine has been on Wells and Moreno.

Both are explosive, but at 6-foot-1 and 235 pounds, Wells has greater size than the 5-11, 217-pound Moreno, and that allows him to rely a bit more on power. Moreno's attributes are highlighted by his ability to avoid tacklers and catch passes.

"I want to be that back who can take it the distance like a scatback or a back who can get the tough yards like a hard-nosed short-yardage back," Wells said.

Moreno is known for his highly aggressive, reckless style of running. He consistently tears through would-be tacklers, looking to deliver as much punishment to them as they try to deliver to him. The approach, he said, comes from "the love of the game, loving being out there with my teammates, enjoying the game and just the moments out there on the field."

Unlike the eye-popping speed that the top members of last year's running back class displayed, neither Wells nor Moreno registered particularly fast times in the 40-yard dash at the combine. Wells was clocked at 4.59 seconds. Moreno was timed at 4.62, although some scouts reportedly had him as low as 4.53.

Still, their speed is considered more than sufficient, and the majority of league talent-evaluators like what they've seen while watching videotape of their college game performances.

Wells and Moreno certainly have passed McCloughan's eyeball test.

Of Wells, the 49ers' GM said: "He's a bigger kid that has made some big plays and has some speed and is a big-play guy. It wasn't too big for him to step into the Big Ten as a freshman and prove that he belonged. That says a lot (about him) physically and mentally."

Asked how much he liked Moreno, McCloughan said: "A lot. He's got excellent balance. I think any back that has success for more than one year in the SEC stands out because they're playing against good defenders who are going to play again in the (NFL). And it shows you've got some natural ability, that's for sure. The guys around him help, but he's a good football player."

Teams have been particularly thorough in their medical examinations of Wells, who has a history of injuries, including one to his foot that shortened his final season with the Buckeyes. He has passed all of the tests.

"(Doctors examined) everything you can think of, every injury you had dating back to Muny league," Wells said with a smile. "Ankle, wrist, hand, toe, hamstring … everything."

NFL scouts marvel at Brown's production at Connecticut. Last season, he led the nation by rushing for 2,083 yards, averaging 5.7 yards per carry, and 18 touchdowns. Scouts also believe the fact that Brown shared carries at one point in his college career makes him better able to handle becoming part of a growing league-wide trend of running backs who split the rushing load.

There is a downside to assessing juniors -- their limited body of work and the shorter time available to research their background.

"That's always my biggest worry, among many big worries," said Tom Modrak, the Buffalo Bills' vice president of college scouting. "You don't get the background information on those guys because it's a league mandate that we don't start with (scouting the) underclassmen until they've declared (for the draft). Now we're trying to play catch-up."

One senior who could make a significant impact is Gartrell Johnson of Colorado State. At least one NFL team has targeted him as one of its top "sleeper" picks.

Other intriguing prospects who are somewhat under the radar are Ian Johnson of Boise State and Tyrell Sutton of Northwestern.

"There are some dynamic runners in this group," Houston Texans GM Rick Smith said. "There are some bigger backs, some undersized guys. You've got quite a variety at the position.

"It's the flavor of the month. It's whatever it is you're looking for."

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