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Draft King Analysis

July 4, 2011
Lou Pickney,

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A seismic shift took place in the NFL following Super Bowl XLI (41) in Miami in February 2007, where the Indianapolis Colts beat the Chicago Bears 29-17. Both teams featured a dual running back attack (Joseph Addai and Dominic Rhodes for Indianapolis, Thomas Jones and Cedric Benson for Chicago), eschewing the traditional approach of having a primary running back who handles the bulk of his team's carries. There was even a late push by some in the media for Addai and Rhodes to split the Super Bowl 41 MVP award, which ultimately went to Colts QB Peyton Manning.

The NFL is a copycat league, and almost overnight the value placed on premium running backs appeared to drop considerably. For a truly great talent, a "can't miss" player like Oklahoma's Adrian Peterson, there was still a premium value that warranted the use of a top ten pick. But, overall, running backs are being seen more and more as better utilized when utilized in tandem, thus diluting the perceived value of any one running back.

When it comes to RB prospects for the 2012 NFL Draft, the best of the bunch in the college ranks (in my opinion) isn't even draft eligible until 2013; that man is South Carolina RB Marcus Lattimore. The NFL's rule, which prevents a player (err, I mean student-athlete) from being eligible for entry into the league until three years after his high school class graduates, often helps players from jumping to the pro ranks before they are truly ready. But the rule sometimes prevents superstar talents from joining the league when they are clearly ready for it, such as the case was for Mark Ingram in 2010 coming off a Heisman Trophy win and a BCS Championship at Alabama in his true sophomore year.

The reality is that high-level NCAA football serves as a de facto developmental system for the National Football League, one that the NFL doesn't have to pay to operate. Eventually there will be a professional league, be it the UFL or some other operation to open up on down the line, that will allow top-tier talent to have a place to make money while they further learn their craft before they are NFL-eligible. At that point the NFL might change its rule, but short of that (or a federal court ruling overturning the rule which actually holds up on appeal) the "three years removed" rule will likely stay in place for the foreseeable future.

With all of that in mind, here's a look at the top running back prospects who are draft-eligible for 2012. An asterisk next to a player's name indicates that he has NCAA eligibility for the 2012 college season and a reminder that he is not guaranteed to be part of the 2012 NFL Draft. All 40-yard dash times are approximate and should be viewed as mere estimates.

Trent Richardson, Alabama (5'11", 225 lbs., 4.52 40) *
Part of the best one-two punch in college football for the past two years with Mark Ingram, albeit in a supporting role, the starting job at Alabama belongs to Richardson now with Ingram gone to the New Orleans Saints. When injury sidelined Ingram for the first two games on 2010, Richardson took over admirably. Against Penn State in the second game of the season, Richardson took advantage of his time in the spotlight, rushing 22 times for 144 yards against the Nittany Lions. Richardson finished 2010 with an impressive 6.5 yards per carry average.

But it's not like Richardson will be run into the ground; redshirt sophomore Eddie Lacy, himself a likely future NFL running back, should get plenty of carries as well for the Crimson Tide in 2011.

Along with being a dependable runner, Richardson is also adept at receiving the ball. Of the 10 touchdowns he scored in 2010, four of them came via pass receptions.

Richardson, at this point, is the near-consensus projection as the top running back prospect for the 2012 Draft. He doesn't have Chris Johnson speed or Peyton Hillis size, but he fits the NFL prototype for what teams look for in a primary running back. If he stays healthy and posts stats at least similar to what he's put on the board in his first two seasons in Tuscaloosa, Richardson should maintain his position as the likely first running back to be taken in the 2012 Draft and would likely be a mid-to-late round first round selection.

Knile Davis, Arkansas (6'0", 230, 4.43 40) *
Davis had a breakout season for the Razorbacks in 2010, taking control of the starting running back job on an Arkansas team that has plenty of depth at the position. Much like Trent Richardson, Davis averaged an impressive 6.5 yards per carry in 2010, ultimately rushing for 1,322 yards and 13 TDs. His stretch run was notable, with Davis breaking the 100 yard rushing mark in six of Arkansas' final seven games.

Expectations are high for Davis to post similar stats in 2011, though not everyone thinks that he'll be able to match his 2010 campaign this fall. But even if Davis doesn't have 200+ carries like he did last year, with his size and speed he's shown that he has NFL-caliber ability against some rather stout competition.

LaMichael James, Oregon (5'9", 185, 4.42 40) *
Oregon's football team could be in major trouble based on statements made by Will Lyles in this story by Charles Robinson and Dan Wetzel. In particular, James was mentioned in the article for his association with Lyles, with a picture of a grinning Lyles next to a stoic James included for emphasis.

The good news for James: he could miss the entire 2011 season and still be one of the first few running backs selected in the 2012 NFL Draft. Elite speed is held in high regard in the NFL, and while James isn't the next coming of Chris Johnson, he's shifty, quick, and elusive. His ability isn't in question, not with the stats he put up in 2009 and 2010.

Barring injury, James will be primed to jump to the NFL after this season and could easily end up as a first-round pick. In many ways, the move by the NFL toward dual running back systems benefits smaller RBs like James, guys who have the explosiveness to potentially take it to the house on any given play. Those types of backs shouldn't be asked to carry the ball 25-30 times a game, though James proved against USC last year that he can if necessary, running the ball 36 times for 239 yards and three TDs against the Trojans.

Chris Polk
Don't be surprised if Chris Polk has a big 2011 season. (Icon SMI)
Chris Polk, Washington (5'11", 215, 4.48 40) *
With QB Jake Locker gone to the NFL, this fall Polk will have an opportunity to break out as a big-time national star with the Huskies. I'm extremely bullish on his potential both for Washington and as an NFL prospect. Polk had a superb performance to end 2010 in the Holiday Bowl against Nebraska, rushing 34 times for 177 yards against Nebraska's stout defense.

But Polk is no one-game wonder: he has posted back-to-back 1,000+ yard rushing seasons. When you consider that he didn't exactly have a loaded offensive line to run behind, those numbers look even more impressive. With Locker gone, defenses will be able to key on him this fall, but I'm nevertheless confident that Polk will have another strong season.

Polk fits the NFL running back template, and while he doesn't have the impressive size of Davis or the lightning-flash big play reputation of James, he's the total package when it comes to his skill-set. If James ends up being ruled ineligible for 2011, Polk will be the prohibitive favorite to be the best running back this fall in the all-new Pac-12. The more I learn about Polk, the more I like his chances both for the rest of his college career and also for what awaits him in the NFL.

Cyrus Gray, Texas A&M (5'10" 200, 4.47 40)
The highest-ranked senior on this list, Gray split time with Christine Michael at running back in 2010 until Michael suffered a broken tibia bone in his right leg. Gray became the primary RB for A&M at that point and made the most of his opportunity, finishing the 2010 campaign with seven straight games of at least 100 yards rushing. Gray completed the season with 1,133 yards rushing, and while he might not match that output with Michael (who is a tremendous running back himself) returning from injury, Gray showed that he has what it takes to be a feature running back.

Gray's most impressive performance came in Austin against Texas, where he carried the ball 27 times for a whopping 223 yards. Between Gray and Michael carrying the ball, Ryan Tannehill going into his first full season as A&M's starting quarterback, and Jeff Fuller as a strong receiver, the Aggies should be a fun team to watch this fall in the Big XII.

Dan Herron, Ohio State (5'10" 215, 4.52 40)
There is a notable drop from the Polk/Gray level of running back prospects to the next level of running backs potentially available for the 2012 NFL Draft. Herron is a skilled running back, but he faces several challenges going into the fall, and his placement here above Lamar Miller and Isaiah Pead is somewhat arbitrary.

Because of NCAA rules violations, Herron (along with three teammates) will have to miss the first five games of the 2011 season. Ohio State's head coach, Jim Tressel, resigned earlier this year, and star QB Terrelle Pryor won't be returning for the 2011 season, either. For the first time in a long time, Buckeyes fans don't have much reason to be excited for 2011, save for the opportunity in November to potentially extend their streak of wins over Michigan to eight in a row.

Herron had a good 2010 season, rushing for 1,155 yards on 216 carries and scoring an impressive 16 TDs. Arkansas held him mostly in check in the Sugar Bowl (24 carries for 87 yards and a TD), though the only reason he and Pryor (and others) were allowed to play in it is because of lobbying by Sugar Bowl CEO Paul Hoolahan. Major college football is, in many ways, a horribly broken system.

Lamar Miller
Lamar Miller showed flashes of greatness as a freshman. (Icon SMI)
Lamar Miller, Miami (5'11", 212, 4.42 40) *
Anticipation is high for Miller's redshirt sophomore season with the Hurricanes this fall. As a freshman last fall backing up senior Damien Berry, Miller showed flashes of brilliance at times, such as his 22 carry, 125 yard performance against Maryland and his 15 carry, 163 yard game performance against Virginia Tech.

It wasn't always smooth sailing for Miller; South Florida held him to eight yards on nine carries in the regular season finale, and he had only five carries for 13 yards in Miami's loss to Notre Dame. But, for the season, Miller averaged six yards per carry, and if he can duplicate that this fall he will have the opportunity to climb the running back prospect board.

There are varying reports of Miller's 40 yard dash speed, but he showed both quickness and elusiveness early on last season in returning a punt 88 yards for a touchdown in Columbus against Ohio State. The starting RB job belongs to Miller, and he should be given every opportunity to show his pro potential this fall.

Isaiah Pead, Cincinnati (5'10", 200, 4.42 40)
Perhaps the most explosive senior running back in college football, Pead is coming off a 1,000+ yard rushing season in 2010. He has been a proven performer for the Bearcats. To point, look at his yards per carry average over the past three seasons: 6.5 in 2008, 6.7 in 2009, and 6.6 in 2010. His rushing average has been tops in the Big East in each of the past two seasons.

His most impressive performance of 2010 came against Rutgers, where he carried the ball 31 times for 213 yards and scored four rushing touchdowns. Pead has already proven his ability and consistency to pro scouts, and if he can stay healthy this fall he should have an opportunity to play in the NFL in 2012.

Doug Martin, Boise State (5'9", 210, 4.48 40)
An importance cog of the Broncos offense for the past two seasons, Martin enters 2011 coming off a season where he had 201 carries for 1,260 yards. Martin has been a touchdown machine for Boise State; he ran for 15 TDs in 2009 and, in 2010, scored 12 rushing touchdowns along with two receiving TDs.

The challenge for players like Martin is that there are so many solid running backs in college football that it makes it difficult for teams to justify using a high draft pick on any one of them. Unless a running back stands out as something truly special, it makes more sense for teams to fill other needs early, knowing that there will be plenty of talent at running back available later on in the draft.

Bryce Brown, Kansas State (6', 220, 4.32 40) *
Brown is a huge wild card for the 2011 season. The Wichita native, who initially committed to Miami (FL) but ultimately went to Tennessee, played in Knoxville as a true freshman behind Montario Hardesty but ended up leaving the Vols soon after Lane Kiffin skipped town to take the USC head coaching job. Brown transferred to Kansas State, where he sat out the 2010 season. He's an unproven commodity at this point, but Brown is long on potential and could end up having a breakout season this fall.

Others to watch:

Montel Harris, Boston College (5'9", 200, 4.54 40)
Jeffrey Demps, Florida (5'8", 185, 4.26 40)
Andre Ellington, Clemson (5'10", 190, 4.39 40) *
Montee Ball, Wisconsin (5'11", 220, 4.57 40) *
Bernard Pierce, Temple (6', 220, 4.59 40) *
David Wilson, Virginia Tech (5'10", 200, 4.42 40) *
Johnathan Franklin, UCLA (5'10", 200, 4.44 40) *
Kenjon Barner, Oregon (5'11", 180, 4.39 40) *
Brandon Bolden, Ole Miss (5'11" 220, 4.52 40)
Eddie Lacy, Alabama (5'11", 220, 4.49 40) *
Tauren Poole, Tennessee (5'10" 215 4.56 40)


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