The NFL is officially in the era of the two- or three-back system. Very few teams are expecting to use a "bell cow" back who stays on the field in every down and distance situation.
We are also in a time when very few running backs get past their 30th birthday with a big contract. Everyone is looking to the draft a situational player who can come in and contribute right away, and they would prefer to take those players in the middle rounds. This year, as usual, there are a few guys attached to the first round, and somewhere around 17 to 20 running backs will be drafted.
The running backs coming out of college are entering the NFL with increasing experience in spread offenses. These players rarely follow a fullback out of the backfield, but many of the ball carriers have receiving skills.
The 2010 class is led by Clemson's do-it-all back, C.J. Spiller, who had 32 rushing touchdowns, 11 receiving touchdowns and 2,000 return yards. After Spiller there is plenty of value, with possibly one or two more backs coming off the board in the first round.
Player with most upside
Spiller compares favorably to Titans running back Chris Johnson, who broke the single-season record for yards from scrimmage with 2,509 last season. Everyone sees Spiller as a 20-touch-per-game player between the "three R's" (rushing, receiving and returns). He doesn't have to take a pounding as an exclusive inside runner and, in the age of matchups, will do plenty of damage lined up in the slot or as an outside runner.
Spiller was clocked at 4.37 seconds in the 40-yard dash at the NFL Scouting Combine and has shown on tape to play at that speed.
Gil Brandt's scouting report
C.J. Spiller, Clemson
Spiller brings a lot to the table. First of all, he runs a sub-4.4 second 40, but compliments that with great quickness. He's a player who can also return kicks. And that's a big thing in today's game, to get field position. He catches the ball well. He shared time at Clemson and still gained more than 1,200 yards. He bench pressed (225 pounds) 18 times, which is pretty good for a running back. He can run fast, is strong, and has quickness. He creates a matchup problem because of his speed.
Biggest boom-or-bust prospect
So, what's the risk?
Well, do you take someone in the first round who comes from a triple-option offensive attack, a player who caught just 15 balls in college and has not been involved in the sort of pass protections found in the NFL?
If Dwyer is selected in the second or third round, then that's not a problem, since he could play as an inside power runner used primarily on early downs. If he goes in the first round, then there is pressure to be on the field and perform on third down, and that's the risk.
I have interviewed Dwyer and was very impressed. I remind everyone that the knock on LaDainian Tomlinson when he came out of TCU was that he played in an option attack. People wondered if he could transition to the pro-style running game.
Beware the wear and tear
Front office executives don't like selecting running backs who left a lot on the college football field. It's the one position where leaving school early makes sense.
Mississippi State's Anthony Dixon stayed in school all four years, started 40 games, rushed 910 times and had 56 receptions. Those 966 touches from a power back is a lot of wear and tear.
Dixon is a tough back who could experience success in the NFL, but how long that lasts is the question teams will have to determine. That reasoning will also dictate where Dixon will be selected.
Player with most to prove
Teams know the ideal height and weight for players at every position, so when they stray too far from those charts there will be people waving a red flag in the draft room.
Mississippi's Dexter McCluster measured at 5-foot-8 and 172 pounds and ran a 4.58 40 at the combine. On top of all that, McCluster hasn't really made his living as a return specialist, which begs the question: How does he make it in the NFL?
Is he Warrick Dunn, Brian Westbrook or even Darren Sproles, or just a guy too small to make it at the next level?
After watching McCluster at the Senior Bowl and on tape, it appears he carries a big chip on his shoulder. McCluster may have what it takes but still has a lot to prove.
Small-school prospect with a chance
Joique Bell of Division II Wayne State is in the mix, but with 1,181 carries and 79 receptions, it's difficult not to wonder if he didn't leave his best at Wayne State.
Other players worthy of consideration include Southern Illinois' Deji Karim and Hampton's LaMarcus Coker.
Debunking a myth
» A player who has an uphill perception issue is Stanford's Toby Gerhart. Some wonder if Gerhart is just a fullback, or the next Tommy Vardell. Gerhart led the nation with 28 rushing touchdowns in 2009, and had 44 in his Cardinal career. Gerhart touched the ball 710 times as a marked man in college for 3,917 yards. I believe that Gerhart can play running back in the NFL.
Teams with the greatest need
The old adage in pro football is that you can never have enough running backs, so in that sense every team could take one in this draft. The teams with the most pressing need for some type of back are the Cleveland Browns, Detroit Lions, Houston Texans, New Orleans Saints, New York Giants, San Diego Chargers, San Francisco 49ers, Seattle Seahawks and St. Louis Rams.