Draft 2010: The Running Backs fair analysis;

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    cowboyjoe Well-Known Member

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    Draft 2010: The Running Backs
    by Evan Silva

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    The 2010 running back class will produce two first-round picks at most, and no member is likely to be drafted in the top ten. However, the group is deep, jam-packed with versatility, and will especially appeal to power-running teams once C.J. Spiller is off the board.

    Our 2009 draft-eligible tailback analysis went pretty well, although we should've had Iowa's Shonn Greene higher than No. 6. His history of weight fluctuation and startlingly slow 4.72 forty time scared us too much. Our No. 5-ranked back, Rashad Jennings out of Liberty, does look like he'll be a good pro for a long time. Greene, though, arguably has the brightest future of any back drafted last April. At least from a fantasy perspective.

    Like last year, let's take an in-depth look at the top 15 prospects at the tailback position.

    1. Ryan Mathews, Fresno State

    Height/Weight: 6'0/218
    College Experience: Third-year junior
    Combine #s: 4.45 forty, 19 x 225, 36" vertical, 10'1" long jump, 4.33ss
    Style Comparison: Terrell Davis
    2009 Stats: 276 - 1,808 (6.6) - 19 Tds, 11 - 122 (11.1) - 0 Tds

    Positives: The NCAA's leading rusher in 2009, Mathews beat out Lonyae Miller -- a legit pro prospect -- to be Fresno State's clear lead back for his final two years. A one-cut runner with breakaway buildup speed and a brutal stiff arm, Mathews was virtually unstoppable in Bulldogs coach Pat Hill's zone-blocking heavy, pro-style offense. Mathews is powerful and instinctive running to the inside, and offers NFL-caliber strength in the lower and upper body. He is ready to break tackles in the pros, rarely loses his balance, and fumbled just three times in college.

    Negatives: Durability is a concern. Mathews suffered a concussion as a junior, and missed five games as well as parts of three others as a sophomore due to nerve damage in his knee. He has enough shake to make defenders miss, but runs with a high, upright style that leaves him susceptible to hits. Mathews caught just 19 passes in three college seasons (11 receptions in '09 was his career high) and projects as only a two-down back initially.

    Outlook: Mathews will be an immediate NFL starter with the potential to make a major impact in year one. He showed smooth receiving ability in position drills at the Combine and possesses the physicality to improve as a blitz protector. Mathews does not lack upside to someday be a three-down asset. He has a higher ceiling than any draft-eligible back, and appears to be a surefire first-round pick after an outstanding offseason.

    2. C.J. Spiller, Clemson

    Height/Weight: 5'11/196
    College Experience: Fourth-year senior
    Combine #s: 4.37 forty, 18 x 225
    Style Comparison: Jamaal Charles
    2009 Stats: 216 - 1,212 (5.6) - 12 Tds, 36 - 503 (14.0) - 4 Tds

    Positives: Exceptionally quick footed with ideal speed, Spiller scored 21 of his 52 college touchdowns from 50+ yards out. As a senior, Spiller operated as an every-down back and impressively kept track star teammate Jacoby Ford on the bench for returns. An instant impact player in the latter area, Spiller is fearless in the kicking game. He wastes no steps after hauling in kicks or punts, and accounted for nine career return TDs, including five as a senior. Tigers coach Dabo Swinney did a terrific job of getting Spiller the ball in space, but he is plenty effective on inside runs with a low, angular running style, willingness to lower his shoulder, and consistent tendency to fall forward. Spiller is a silky smooth pass receiver, possesses outstanding vision and moves, and has some of the draft's biggest hands (10 1/8"). He fumbled just twice in four years.

    Negatives: Spiller had 20+ carries only five times in his college career. Though he played in 52-of-53 games at Clemson, durability is an unavoidable concern due to his size. Spiller spent just one season as a full-time player, sharing duty with Browns 2009 sixth-round pick James Davis in his first three. Rarely asked to pass protect by Swinney, Spiller is not an overly physical back. He will struggle to pick up blitzers in the pros -- at least initially -- and prefers to make defenders miss rather than run through them. Spiller is also unlikely to be an effective short-yardage runner. He suffered from turf toe as a senior, although Spiller showed toughness by playing through it.

    Outlook: Not a great bet to ever be a 300-carry workhorse, Spiller's best fit would be on a team capable of pairing him with a bigger, more powerful "change of pace" complement. Still, game-breaking ability like Spiller's doesn't come around often. He won't fall out of round one.

    3. Anthony Dixon, Mississippi State

    Height/Weight: 6'1/233
    College Experience: Fourth-year senior
    Combine #s: 4.65 forty, 15 x 225, 10'1" long jump
    Style Comparison: Michael Bush
    2009 Stats: 257 - 1,391 (5.4) - 12 Tds, 18 - 123 (6.8) - 0 Tds

    Positives: The SEC's No. 2 rusher in 2009 (behind Heisman winner Mark Ingram), Dixon finished his career as State's all-time leader in rushing, yards from scrimmage, and scoring. He never missed a game due to injury, starting 40-of-48 appearances despite a punishing running style. Dixon's most impressive trait may be his versatility. Most power backs are not adept receivers, but Dixon caught 56 passes in college. Though not a burner, Dixon squirts through the hole with plenty of burst and possesses more than enough leg drive to carry a pile. Outstanding in short-yardage/goal-line situations, Dixon scored 46 career touchdowns.

    Negatives: Dixon was suspended for the 2009 season opener after an offseason DUI arrest, so character is a concern. He never averaged better than 4.4 yards per carry until his senior year, though that was most likely the result of Mississippi State's underwhelming offensive line being outmatched in the SEC. Dixon possesses little wiggle, and was often caught from behind in college. He was tried at fullback during January's Senior Bowl after reporting at 245 pounds, although Dixon got down to 233 by the Scouting Combine in late February.

    Outlook: Dixon's DUI is an isolated incident, and shouldn't keep him out of round two. Shonn Greene ran 4.72 at 5'11/229 during last year's Combine and still went with the first pick in the third, so Dixon's 4.65 at 6'1/233 doesn't figure to be a deterrent. With every-down back skills, Dixon will be hard for tailback-needy teams to pass up once Spiller and Mathews are gone.

    4. Jonathan Dwyer, Georgia Tech

    Height/Weight: 5'11/229
    College Experience: Third-year junior
    Combine #s: 4.59 forty, 15 x 225, 8'11" long jump
    Style Comparison: Michael Turner
    2009 Stats: 235 - 1,395 (5.9) - 14 Tds, 5 - 37 (7.4) - 0 Tds

    Positives: The 2008 ACC Offensive Player of the Year (he lost out to Spiller in '09), Dwyer is a power back with exceptional tackle-breaking ability. While his 4.5-4.6 forty seems pedestrian, it is adequate at his size. Dwyer also often ran away from defensive backs in college, indicating he plays faster than his stopwatch speed. Dwyer consistently keeps his feet moving in the hole, is no match for arm tackles, and runs with impressive balance at a 45-degree angle. While he could afford to get stronger in the upper torso, Dwyer's lower half is built for destruction. Still just 20 years old, Dwyer is the youngest running back on this list. He was durable throughout college.

    Negatives: Transitioning from the "B-back" in Tech's triple option, Dwyer may need time to adjust to a pro system. His vision and instincts are especially hard to gauge because Dwyer lined up just three yards off the line of scrimmage under Paul Johnson. He'll setup seven yards off in the pros. Dwyer also has a history of weight fluctuation. He reported for the Yellow Jackets' 2009 offseason 15 pounds overweight, which may explain his sizable drop in yards-per-carry average between his sophomore and junior seasons (7.0 to 5.9). Dwyer caught just 15 passes in 40 career games and was never asked to pick up blitzes. He won't make anyone miss in the pros, and has abnormally small hands at 8 5/8".

    Outlook: Recent reports have Dwyer potentially lasting until the third round because he offers no versatility and carries some red flags. While he may never be more than a two-down thumper, Dwyer would be a steal in round three for a power-based rushing attack.

    5. Jahvid Best, California

    Height/Weight: 5'10/199
    College Experience: Third-year junior
    Combine #s: 4.35 forty, 18 x 225, 9'3" long jump, 4.17ss
    Style Comparison: Felix Jones
    2009 Stats: 141 - 867 (6.1) - 12 Tds, 22 - 213 (9.7) - 4 Tds

    Positives: This draft's purest homerun hitter, Best left college as Cal's all-time leader in yards-per-carry average (7.3), and set the single-season school record with a scintillating 8.1 YPC in his career-best sophomore year. A true track champ, Best won the 100-meter dash in the state of California as a prep senior and gold medaled in the 200 at the '05 Junior Olympics. At Cal, Best generated 50 plays from scrimmage of 20+ yards, finished second nationally in all-purpose yardage behind only Jeremy Maclin in 2008, and exhibited ideal one-cut ability in the Bears' zone-blocking scheme. Best's combination of acceleration, premier top-end speed, ankle-breaking moves, and quick feet is sensational. He caught 62 passes in college and lost just one fumble in 2009.

    Negatives: Best is considered an injury risk due to the concussion that cost him the final four games of his college career, but he's been brittle dating back much further. The 21-year-old underwent hip surgery during the offseason following his freshman year, elbow and foot surgeries after his sophomore season, and suffered a back sprain on the same November 7 play that he was concussed as a junior. In other words, this is the only offseason in which Best hasn't needed an operation of some sort since high school. Best also rarely played on passing downs for Cal coach Jeff Tedford and has no experience picking up the blitz. Nor is he a tackle breaker.

    Outlook: After leaving school early, Best received mixed feedback from the NFL Draft Advisory Committee, which projected him anywhere from the first to third round. Regardless, Best projects as no more than the lesser, if more explosive half of a committee with return potential. The early- to mid-second round is Best's most likely landing spot.

    6. Toby Gerhart, Stanford

    Height/Weight: 6'0/231
    College Experience: Fourth-year senior
    Combine #s: 4.53 forty, 22 x 225, 38" vertical, 9'10" long jump, 4.25ss
    Style Comparison: Cedric Benson
    2009 Stats: 343 - 1,871 (5.5) - 28 Tds, 11 - 157 (14.3) - 0 Tds

    Positives/Negatives: Gerhart's "athleticism" has been criticized in some circles, and the notion is perplexing. Our sense of reality is out truly of whack if we're questioning the athletic ability of a 105-game starting outfielder for College World Series-qualifying Stanford baseball and the 2009 Pac Ten Player of the Year in football. The real "question mark" for Gerhart is whether he can make NFL defenders miss. He probably can't, but that isn't his game anyway. Gerhart is a hard-charging, no-frills runner with experience in a pro-style system. He will be able to run through and away from most NFL linebackers. Gerhart was rarely used in coach Jim Harbaugh's passing game (11 catches in '09) and tore his ACL in 2007, but exhibited soft hands in Combine drills and is clearly recovered from the knee injury. Gerhart finished second nationally in rushing last season.

    Outlook: Craig James, in 1985, was the last white running back to rush for 1,000 yards. Assuming he stays healthy, Gerhart will be next. While he may only be a two-down player initially, Gerhart is worthy of a second-round pick and has the potential to be a long-term franchise back.

    7. Joe McKnight, USC

    Height/Weight: 5'11/198
    College Experience: Third-year junior
    Combine #s: 4.47 forty, 18 x 225, 36.5" vertical, 10'8" long jump
    Style Comparison: Jerious Norwood
    2009 Stats: 164 - 1,014 (6.2) - 8 Tds, 22 - 146 (6.6) - 0 Tds

    Positives/Negatives: Billed as USC's "next Reggie Bush" and the nation's No. 1 overall recruit in 2007, McKnight didn't meet expectations until his final year in college. As a junior, he took over as Pete Carroll's featured back and went on to lead an extremely talented RB corps in all rushing categories. Versatility being his most appealing trait, McKnight finished his three-year career with 65 receptions. He has run-to-daylight speed, terrific quickness, missed just two games due to injury in college, and learned to pass block in USC's pro-style scheme. However, McKnight runs with little power, won't push the pile, and has a history of ball security issues.

    Outlook: His profile is eerily similar to Lorenzo Booker's coming out, but McKnight has upside to grow into one of the game's top third-down backs because of his value in the passing game. He'd be an excellent fit for a team like the Vikings, Steelers, or Rams in round three.

    8. Montario Hardesty, Tennessee

    Height/Weight: 6'0/225
    College Experience: Fifth-year senior
    Combine #s: 4.49 forty, 21 x 225, 41" vertical, 10'4" long jump
    Style Comparison: Matt Forte
    2008 Stats*: 282 - 1,345 (4.8) - 13 Tds, 25 - 302 (12.1) - 1 Td

    Positives/Negatives: Hardesty was a late bloomer at UT. After tearing his ACL as a true freshman, he battled nagging injuries throughout his sophomore and junior years before exploding in Lane Kiffin's zone-blocking scheme. Holding off monster recruit Bryce Brown to be the Vols' every-down back, Hardesty posted career highs in all categories en route to second-team All-SEC honors. A one-cut runner with surprising quickness for 225 pounds, Hardesty isn't a bruiser like Dixon or Dwyer, but is a better bet to make defenders miss, offers top-notch versatility, and has shown the ability to carry a full load in a pro-style system. He possesses excellent vision, and runs behind his pads. Hardesty never lost a fumble in college and is a high-character person.

    Outlook: Hardesty is polished enough to start right away for a team desperate at the position, and likely could prove serviceable in a productive offense. He isn't a difference-making talent, however, and possesses one of the lower "ceilings" among this year's top 8-10 backs. Long term, he'll likely settle in as a No. 2 or the lesser half of a two-man committee.

    9. Dexter McCluster, Ole Miss

    Height/Weight: 5'9/172
    College Experience: Fourth-year senior
    Combine #s: 4.58 forty, 20 x 225, 37.5" vertical, 9'10" long jump, 4.06ss
    Style Comparison: Leon Washington
    2009 Stats: 181 - 1,169 (6.5) - 8 Tds, 44 - 520 (11.8) - 3 Tds

    Positives/Negatives: Second in Ole Miss history to only Deuce McAllister in all-purpose yards, McCluster was arguably the nation's most versatile non-gimmick skill player a year ago. McCluster lined up frequently in the slot in passing situations, and carried the load from the Rebels' I-back position on early downs. For his career, McCluster amassed 130 receptions (the most on this list) to go with a 6.4 yards-per-carry average. He is an intelligent, versatile back with the obvious will to get better. However, McCluster is extremely undersized, was highly injury prone early in his college career, and has kicker-sized hands at 8 3/8", creating concern about his ball security. McCluster has ideal quickness in a short area, but has lost speed since adding weight to his frame since season's end.

    Outlook: At 5-foot-9 and less than 175 pounds, McCluster seems to have already "maxed out" as a running back/slot receiver, and has little history of helping in the return game. McCluster was a dynamic college playmaker, but is he Amp Lee or Warrick Dunn? More than any back here, McCluster's NFL value will be determined by the creativity his team shows in using him. He could struggle to get on the field in a conservative offense.

    10. James Starks, Buffalo

    Height/Weight: 6'2/218
    College Experience: Fifth-year senior
    Combine #s: 4.50 forty, 15 x 225, 36" vertical, 9'11" long jump, 4.23ss
    Style Comparison: Fred Jackson
    2008 Stats*: 272 - 1,333 (4.9) - 16 Tds, 52 - 361 (6.9) - 1 Td

    Positives/Negatives: Starks missed his entire senior season due to surgery on both shoulders. He also never averaged over 5.0 yards per carry in a college season, although the Bulls aren't exactly an NFL factory for offensive linemen. Still leaving school as Buffalo's all-time leading rusher, Starks served as the every-down back in Turner Gill's hybrid spread/I-formation offense, finishing his career with an impressive 127 catches and 39 touchdowns in three seasons. Starks is a long-striding runner, but has the speed to take it the distance, is naturally an outstanding athlete, and proved at the Combine that he is 100 percent. Though he is not overly physical, Starks is quick enough to make defenders miss, and was clearly a player on the rise before his injuries.

    Outlook: Starks, who played high school basketball with NBA lottery pick Jonny Flynn, presents boom-or-bust risk because of his surgically repaired shoulders, inexperience in a pro-style offense, and lack of bulldozing power at 6'2/218. However, he is a competitive, fun-to-watch back with difference-making physical tools. He may need a few years to fully develop, but should be available in the mid to late rounds and could pay long-term dividends for a patient franchise.

    11. LeGarrette Blount, Oregon - 6'0/241 with 4.62 speed ... 17 Tds and 1,002 yards (7.3 YPC) as a junior before being suspended for most of 2009 due to "The Punch" ... Just 4 career receptions at Oregon ... Two-down banger willing to deliver a blow -- during the game, too.

    12. Deji Karim, Southern Illinois - Missed all of 2008 due to torn patellar tendon in knee ... Returned in '09 to earn Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year, averaging 7.1 YPC with 19 all-purpose touchdowns ... 5'9/210-pounder ran sub-4.4 at his Pro Day.

    13. Ben Tate, Auburn - 4.43 forty time, though doesn't play as fast ... SEC's No. 3 rusher in 2009, behind only Heisman winner Mark Ingram and Montario Hardesty ... May get overdrafted based on huge Combine ... Considered one of draft's best in blitz pickup.

    14. Dimitri Nance, Arizona State - Bowling ball-built 5'9/225-pounder caught 63 passes in college ... Physical, between-the-tackles type without homerun speed ... Played behind Ryan Torain early in his career ... Career yards-per-carry average of just 4.0.

    15. Joique Bell, Wayne State - 2009 Harlon Hill Trophy winner scored 100 Tds in 44 career games ... Lacks speed (4.68), quicks to be more than a long-term NFL No. 2 back ... Failed to impress at Senior Bowl ... Over 1,000 college carries, so lots of wear on his tires.

    Other RBs on the NFL Draft radar - LaMarcus Coker (Hampton), Charles Scott and Keiland Williams (LSU), Stafon Johnson (USC), Shawnbrey McNeal (SMU), Darius Marshall (Marshall), Pat Paschall (North Dakota State), Brandon Minor (Michigan), Javarris James (Miami), Michael Smith (Arkansas), Andre Dixon (UConn), Roy Upchurch (Alabama), Keith Toston (Oklahoma State), Chris Brown (Oklahoma), Andre Anderson (Tulane), Brandon James (Florida)

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