Prior to Adrian Peterson's arrival on the NFL scene, the popular sentiment was more in line with the Denver Broncos philosophy that you can find a running back in the later rounds of the draft. Peterson, who rushed for 1,341 yards in 2007 for the Vikings, earned offensive rookie of the year honors and then was named Player of the Game in the Pro Bowl, has a lot to do with NFL executives rethinking the running back position. As one GM said, "A great back can get on the field right away and this draft has a number of ball carriers that could fit the bill."
The underclass running backs apparently heard the same message, because seven of the top nine ball carriers at this point are underclassmen who declared for the draft. One personnel director's early prediction is for 3-5 backs going in the first round, 4-6 in the second round and another 3-5 in the third round. Not all of them have the talent of Peterson, but there should be at least 7-8 teams selecting a back early in the draft. If your favorite team needs a ball carrier or it's time to get younger at the position or it's time for a two-back system like the New York Giants employed to win a Super Bowl, this is a good year.
After the combine and personal workouts, running back coaches around the NFL will sort the list out by early April. But for right now, I feel comfortable breaking the backs up into three groups:
2. Jonathan Stewart, Oregon. He's not as big as McFadden, but Stewart's 42 receptions, 2,703 yards rushing and 22 touchdowns in the last two years make this junior a complete back.
3. Rashard Mendenhall, Illinois. What a junior year he had this season with 1,681 yards on the ground, 34 receptions and 19 trips to the end zone.
1. Jamaal Charles, Texas. This guy has world-class speed and any team looking for a big-play back to complement a power back will spend a lot of time with him.
2. Ray Rice, Rutgers. Rice is another junior, and he carried the Rutgers team on his back. He reminds me of Tiki Barber, and his college coach agrees with me. More power than a guy his size should have and excellent cutback vision.
3. Felix Jones, Arkansas. Jones was the backup to McFadden but had great production in a limited role. His situation reminds me of Ronnie Brown at Auburn behind Cadillac Williams. In 232 carries over the past two seasons, he has 1,788 yards and 17 touchdowns. Another junior who has big-play potential and averaged a run of 20-plus yards every 12 carries.
4. Steve Slaton, West Virginia. Slaton loves the end zone, to say the least. In the last two seasons, he scored 33 touchdowns and averaged more than 1,400 yards on the ground.
1. Chris Johnson, East Carolina. Johnson told me a few weeks ago that a 4.2 40 time is in the plans for this spring. He had 125 receptions in his college career and could be a bigger version of Brian Westbrook. If he lasts until the third round, he will be a steal.
2. Mike Hart, Michigan. A workhorse like DeAngelo Williams was in college, Hart had 1,015 carries for the Wolverines for 5,040 yards and 41 rushing touchdowns. He also caught 67 passes. His stock is a bit down, as one college scouting director is concerned he had too much wear and tear on the college gridiron.
3. Kevin Smith, Central Florida. Smith rushed for 2,567 yards last season and, at 6-foot-1, 210 pounds, he has the body to take a beating. His speed is the big question. If he runs a 4.5, his stock will rise quickly. One NFL scout thought he had a chance for an Edgerrin James-type career -- not a lot of big explosive runs, but steady and effective.
The teams getting excited about the 2008 running back class should include -- but not be restricted to -- Detroit, Houston, Cincinnati, Atlanta, Arizona, Cleveland, Chicago, and the Jets. I asked one offensive coordinator about his running back situation, which is poor to say the least, and he said, "Only one team is going to get Michael Turner from the Chargers in free agency, but the more tape I watch, the less concerned I am if we don't get him."
Teams like the Browns and Jets should still keep their veteran runners -- Jamal Lewis (Cleveland must re-sign him) and Thomas Jones, respectively -- but they can also restock the position. A number of teams don't have to force the issue with an under-achieving back or an injury-prone player if they want to grab a member of the class of 2008.