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With trend of going young in backfield, combine offers possibilities

INDIANAPOLIS -- Just as the fresh crop of running backs prepare to audition for teams at the NFL Scouting Combine on Sunday, vacancies have been created for them with recent moves around the league.

San Diego opted to part ways with running backs LaDainian Tomlinson and Darren Sproles< and the Eagles' pending release of Brian Westbrook. Tomlinson, Westbrook and Sproles will join a veteran free-agent group of running backs that include Minnesota's Chester Taylor and Pittsburgh's Willie Parker.

That means there are teams that need help at running back and the services of draft prospects will be in demand.

Just how badly, though?

With the immediate and high production of non-first round running backs Shonn Greene, LeSean McCoy, Matt Forte, Ray Rice, Steve Slaton and Tim Hightower -- among others -- over the past two seasons, even teams in huge need of a running back might address other positions before selecting someone to play one of the game's most glamorous positions.

"We had some success in Denver with later-round backs that were productive," said Texans GM Rick Smith, who spent time with the Broncos before coming to Houston, a team that will definitely be in the market for a running back. "What you have to do as an organization is you've got to have some real clarity in what you look for ... to the degree that you can identify those traits and characteristics and define those. You can find help all the way through the draft."

The Texans found Slaton in the third round of the running-back heavy draft in 2008 and he paid immediate dividends. He tailed off in his second season and left the Texans in need of a complement in the backfield, but he is still an effective player. It's highly unlikely Houston will use the 20th overall pick on a running back, in part because of the success of Slaton as a mid-round pick, but also due to the success of other members of that draft class selected after the five backs taken in the first round.

Rice and Forte (second rounders), Jamaal Charles and Slaton (third rounders), Hightower (fifth round) and Justin Forsett (seventh round) have arguably provided as much bang for the buck as 2008 first-round picks Darren McFadden, Jonathan Stewart, Felix Jones, Rashard Mendenhall and Chris Johnson.

Last season, Knowshon Moreno was the first running back selected: 12th overall by Denver. Donald Brown and Beanie Wells were the other running backs taken in the first round. McCoy (second round), Greene (third round), Bernard Scott (sixth round) and LaRod Stephens-Howling (seventh round) provided as much, if not more, production as the more regarded and expensive first-rounders.

The success of McCoy (155 carries, 637 yards, four touchdowns) is one of the reasons why Westbrook is being let go by Philadelphia. Greene (108 carries, 540 yards, two touchdowns in the regular season, 54 carries, 304 yards, two TDs in the playoffs) could supplant highly effective Thomas Jones as the Jets' starter.

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As successful as McCoy and Greene were as rookies, similar projections have been made about the immediate impact of the 2010 running back class. Clemson's C.J. Spiller, Georgia Tech's Jonathan Dwyer, California's Jahvid Best, Fresno State's Ryan Matthews, USC's Joe McKnight and Mississippi's Dexter McCluster are all highly regarded. If Stanford's Toby Gerhart runs an impressive 40-yard dash at the combine Sunday, he could be added to this group.

None are likely to be selected before the draft tally reaches the teens.

As good as these players are, most teams have more pressing needs, like offensive and defensive lines, quarterback, cornerback and wide receiver. Adding a running back will come in time. Even teams like Green Bay, San Diego, Detroit, Philadelphia and New England could pass until the second round, although a complete shut out of running backs in the first round is unlikely.

Spiller is a game-breaker who also is effective as a returner. If he run a sub-4.4 40-yard dash, that home-run potential could be too enticing to pass up. Dwyer and Matthews are bigger, physical backs that seemingly could be perfect for the backfield-vacant Chargers, who pick 28th. They also could provide the muscle that the Patriots, Eagles, Lions and Texans could use.

Both players had more than 15 interviews with teams at the combine, with the Chargers doing due diligence on both. San Diego, should it not re-sign Sproles -- which is a probability -- is in a position where it might have to draft two running backs. Since the Chargers were among the final eight teams in the playoffs, they could be stone-walled in free agency by restrictions that would go in effect should a new labor deal between owners and players not be reached before March 5.

Those final eight teams can't sign free agents until one of their own free agents signs elsewhere. That's why the Chargers will be one of the most aggressive purveyors of running backs leading up to the draft. They'll also explore trades.

"It doesn't matter when you get them or how you get them," Smith said. "The key is to understand what you're looking for and to find those qualities."

One thing that has become clear is that teams are looking for younger, more affordable and more durable running backs -- hence the dispatching of once reliable veterans Tomlinson and Westbrook. There is less wear on the younger players and more explosiveness in their legs. They could struggle some adjusting to the finer points, like blitz pick-ups, but those can be learned.

Worn legs and compounding injuries can't be undone, even though the heart of some veteran running backs is unquestionable. That's why Smith said even though the Texans were doing their homework on Tomlinson, the philosophy was to acquire younger, ascending talent. It's a short-term investment that could pay off just enough until it's time to find the next young crop of ball carriers.

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