In the 2008 NFL Draft, there were five running backs taken in the first round and Chris Johnson was the fifth one selected. The 2011 draft will not look anything like that draft, and we will be lucky to see one back go in Round 1.
With so many teams using a two- or three-back system, it gets harder and harder to justify using a first-round pick on a runner unless he is a true "bell-cow" back. There is a growing sentiment that if Mark Ingram isn't selected by the Dolphins at the No. 15 spot, then we might see a draft with no running backs in the first round. That hasn't happened since the first AFL-NFL draft in 1967.
That being said, there is quality depth in this class and there might be some real value picks in the second through fifth rounds. There are a number of undersized runner with good receiving skills, and when you see a back with more than 100 receptions in college you see a guy that NFL teams want for the matchup game they like to play. Keep an eye out for the "big" backs with at least a dozen runners in the 220-plus weight class. As for "speed" backs, only Maryland's Da'Rel Scott and Auburn's Mario Fannin posted a sub-4.4 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine. If you do your homework in this draft, you will find a solid back in a middle round.
Players with most upside
Two backs come to mind when thinking upside: Virginia Tech's Ryan Williams and Connecticut's Jordan Todman. Both guys have suddenness and burst to get outside. Each has good receiving skills to stay on the field in third-down situations. Both backs also left school early and didn't leave their best seasons on a college field.
Biggest boom-or-bust prospect
Oklahoma's DeMarco Murray has all the production you would want from a running back: 3,685 yards, 50 rushing touchdowns, 157 receptions and 13 receiving touchdowns. Yet, there is some doubt that he can duplicate his college production in the pro game. There are issues about his ability to stay out of the trainer's room, and his running style could lead to lots of body shots. I liked what I saw at the Senior Bowl in the practices, but he was rarely used in the game. In the right system, he could put up some big numbers as a runner, receiver and returner, or he could simply disappear on the bench.
My favorite sleeper
Penn State's Evan Royster is considered a fourth- or fifth-round selection. No one is talking about this guy, but after watching a number of his game tapes (vs. Michigan State and Michigan), there's a chance he can fit a role as a third back on a roster. He has good hands and rushed for 5.7 yards per carry over his college career. In my interview with him, he described himself as a Matt Forte-type player.
Derrick Locke, a former track star at the University of Kentucky, caught my eye during the Senior Bowl. I didn't like what I saw from him during the week of practice, but he demonstrated an explosive jump-cut style during the game. When I interviewed him, he pointed me toward the Mississippi game to see his top end. In that game, he had 27 touches for 173 yards and two touchdowns. Locke could be a late-round pick with speed and hands.
Player with most to prove
2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram is been labeled as the "top" back in this draft. Some compare him to Emmitt Smith, which is a bit premature to say the least. He is a good, solid back who does everything well. However, he might not have a dominant trait that gives him an edge on Sundays. First-round backs are expected to play right away and they are expected to run for 1,000 yards as rookies. He had one game all year with 20-plus carries and five contests where he didn't even average 4.0 yards per carry. I like him as an NFL back, but I like him even more in the second round.
Small-school prospect with a chance
I interviewed Eastern Washington's Taiwan Jones and he has a chance to be a solid back. He was preparing for a number of NFL team visits and his pro day on April 14. His personal workout was postponed because of foot surgery, but he told me he expects to run 4.3 or maybe even 4.2 in the 40. Health is a big question, but production isn't an issue. He had 100-plus yards rushing in nine games last season and averaged more than eight yards a carry on five occasions.
Debunking a myth
Rookie backs struggle most with pass protection. Some do get run over by blitzing linebackers and there are runners who simply miss where the pressure call is coming from. However, the truth is that more college running backs understand pass protection and where slides and overloads are than ever before.
Teams with the greatest need
The old adage in NFL personnel work is "you never have enough running backs," and there are many cases where that is true. Look at the New Orleans Saints last year. When Pierre Thomas and Reggie Bush went down with injuries, Chris Ivory had to carry the ball. Keep in mind, running back is really a position for the young. By the time a back turns 29, contract extensions are scarce. The Dolphins will need a back. The same goes for the Redskins, Bears, Lions, Rams and 49ers. The Bengals, Saints and Giants might also be in the hunt. In fact, any team that wants a fifth running back for the roster will consider taking one. The trick, at least this year, is how long can teams wait to select a back?