Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson shared a BCS title celebration at Alabama back in 2009. The two running backs might share another memorable distinction after April's NFL draft.
From 1994-2010, every edition of the "NFL Annual Player Selection Meeting" (the league's official name for the draft) had at least two running backs taken in the first round. That's 17 straight drafts. But later this month, Richardson could follow in his former teammate's footsteps by becoming the only back selected in Round 1 for the second consecutive year.
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Richardson is the consensus top back in this year's class because of his rare combination of power, agility and speed. But there is no sure feeling that another will be selected in the first round, partially because of concerns about attrition at the position and also due to the success of rushers picked later in the draft.
There are three top contenders to be the second back off the board: Doug Martin (Boise State), Lamar Miller (Miami) and David Wilson (Virginia Tech). Each player has strengths and weaknesses that will lead some teams to see him as a future starter and others to project him as a complementary piece.
Trying to determine which of these talented running backs will have the best NFL career is no easy task, but breaking down the different aspects of their respective games should provide some clarity -- as well as determine whether any is worth a first-round selection.
None of the three backs mentioned here are pure power backs, striking fear in the heart of NFL linebackers as they come to the second level.
Martin was called a "muscle hamster" by a former teammate due to his compact 5-foot-9, 223-pound frame. He possesses a strong stiff-arm, can lower his pads and keep his legs churning in the open field, and has the balance to bounce off defenders to continue downfield. When it comes to taking on grown men between the tackles, though, his power is not elite, so he might not get many reps as a short-yardage back.
Miller, a 5-11, 212-pound sprinter, is certainly not a prototypical inside runner. He did show toughness by playing through a left shoulder injury late last fall, but he also dealt with a right shoulder issue in 2010, alerting teams to potential problems down the road. He can evade a defender in the hole with quick movement. But his lack of vision and unwillingness to lower the shoulder to take on defenders means he's likely to come off the field when teams require a power game to burn the clock or get the tough yard.
Despite his reputation as a speedster, Wilson (5-9 5/8, 206) is strong enough to churn through tackles, lower his shoulder and extend his arm to keep would-be tacklers at bay. He can bounce off tackle attempts and consistently fall forward for extra yards. However, he did fumble seven times in his first year as a feature back in 2011, leading scouts to have major ball-security questions when watching him hold the ball away from his body in the open field.
Taking it the distance
Miller led all running backs, and was in the top 10 of all combine participants, with a 4.40 40-yard dash. The redshirt sophomore's elite speed is difficult to miss on the field, as his acceleration in the open field takes away most any angle from a defender. He searches out the sideline, where his elite speed can do the most damage. Scouts are concerned, though, that finding a running lane is not always easy for him.
Wilson, the ACC Player of the Year in 2011 with 1,709 rush yards at 5.9 per carry, also clocked in the low 4.4's in his 40. Though Wilson's acceleration is not as stark as Miller's and he takes time to make his cuts, he is perfectly capable of ripping off long runs when running lanes present themselves. Scouts love the way he can cover a lot of ground in a hurry with great strides.
Though Martin's speed is the least-known of this trio, he shows a burst out of his sharp cuts and runs on light feet. He can jump-cut around second-level defenders and will break off chunks of yardage if given room to run. Martin showed all of these attributes while earning MVP honors in this year's Las Vegas Bowl against Arizona State (151 rush yards, returned the opening kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown).
In today's pass-happy NFL, starting running backs must prove themselves capable of catching the ball out of the backfield as well as protecting the quarterback from blitzing linebackers. Providing help on special teams is another feather in their cap.
Wilson flashed potential as a receiving threat in 2010, averaging 15.6 yards per catch with four touchdowns, though his numbers dropped last season (22-129, 1 TD). He can extend away from his frame to adjust to poor throws and avoid tacklers in the open field after the catch. Miller can obviously make big plays as a receiver with his speed, but will hesitate with the ball in his hands in the flat as he does in the backfield, allowing defenders to reach him.
Martin not only has solid hands as a receiver, but also can accelerate after the catch and is capable of running through tackles on the edge. His kickoff-return touchdown in the Las Vegas Bowl showed a potential aptitude for that role at the next level. Wilson also contributed as a returner during his career, scoring twice on kickoffs in 2010, while Miller's lack of experience on special teams might be overlooked by coaches, based on his open-field acceleration.
None of the three second-tier backs are especially sturdy in a pass-protection role, where top back Richardson excels. Martin's experience as a defensive back and special teams ace early in his career (11 tackles in 2009) give him the best tools to succeed. Wilson is willing to take on blitzers, even if he is not consistent. Miller will get in the way, if needed, but his best pass-protection tool is to head into the flat as a receiver.
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Although Miller and Wilson's superior speed and acceleration give them a chance to be home-run hitters in the right role, Martin's overall skill set appears to make him the best overall back among this trio. His speed is more than satisfactory to take advantage of any holes NFL defenses will give, and his pass protection and receiving ability are strong enough to play on any down.
Does that guarantee him a spot in the first round? No. The depth at defensive tackle, the value of pass rushers and wide receivers available and a lack of desperation for a running back among playoff teams might conspire against him.
Given the uncertain future of any player taken in the late first round, however, Martin has just as good a chance as any to have a long, productive NFL career.