There was a time when running backs were hot items in the NFL draft. Not any more.
Last year the first running back did not come off the board until the 28th pick when the New Orleans Saints selected Mark Ingram, the Heisman Trophy winner from Alabama. He was the only running back chosen in the first round.
More teams started drafting running backs in the second round (four were selected) and others came off the board in the third (three) and fourth (seven). That is probably how it will go again this year as more NFL teams adopt the interchangeable two (or three) back system and move away from one stud workhorse back.
Also, teams know they dont have to use a first-round pick on a running back. Last season, three of the top four rushers Maurice Jones-Drew (Jaguars), Ray Rice (Ravens) and LeSean McCoy (Eagles) were second round picks. Frank Gore (49ers) was a fifth round pick. Arian Foster (Texans), who led the league in rushing in 2010, wasnt drafted at all.
It would not be a surprise if this years draft unfolded just like last years, that is, with only one running back being selected in the first round and once again it will be a back from Alabama, Trent Richardson. He is the class of the field and should be a top 20 pick.
The Top Five
1. Trent Richardson, Alabama
Red flags went up when it was reported Richardson underwent minor knee surgery after the season, but it doesnt seem to be that much of a worry. He was injured in practice before the BCS championship game and it didnt slow him down (96 yards rushing vs. LSU), so there is no reason to think it will pose a problem going forward. At 5-11, 225 pounds, Richardson combines power, balance and the speed to run away from defenses. He is a complete back who can play in any offense. He set a school record last season with 1,679 yards rushing and 21 touchdowns.
2. Doug Martin, Boise State
Improved his stock with a strong showing at the Senior Bowl. Flashed good speed (he runs the 40 in 4.49), hit the hole hard and displayed some shiftiness on kickoff returns. Also impressed with his blocking as he was solid in pass protection and threw a nice downfield block on a touchdown by Gerrell Robinson. At 5-9 and 215 pounds, Martin runs effectively between the tackles, but he is quicker and more elusive than he looks. He averaged more than 100 yards rushing per game (108.3 to be exact) last season. Could sneak into the bottom of the first round, but it is more likely he goes high in the second.
3. David Wilson, Virginia Tech
Named ACC Player of the Year and second-team All-America. Speedy back that rushed for 1,709 yards last season and averaged almost six yards per carry. At 5-10 and 205 pounds, he isnt as physically strong as either Richardson or Martin, but he has more straight-line speed. He rushed for more than 100 yards in seven consecutive games last season, but he was shut down late in losses to Clemson (11 carries for 32 yards) and Michigan (24 carries for 82 yards). Projects as a second round pick.
4. Lamar Miller, Miami
Lots of physical talent, but still a little raw. Good size at 5-11 and 212 pounds and very good speed (4.4). Only played two college seasons and carried the ball just 335 times, so he doesnt have much wear and tear on his body. He has an explosive first step and gets to top end speed in a hurry. He also has good vision and finds the cutback lane. He really impressed with a 26 carry, 184 yard game against Ohio State. He also had a big day against Virginia Tech, rushing for 166 yards and averaging 9.2 yards per carry. Drawbacks? Needs to improve his blocking but thats true of most backs coming to the NFL. Projects as a second round pick
5. LeMichael James, Oregon
Reminds me of Darren Sproles, who has been a super productive player in the NFL for seven years. He is a little bigger (5-9, 185) but with the same kind of quickness and ability to make defenders miss without slowing down. He has good hands and knows how to execute the screen game. He rushed for more than 200 yards four times last year finishing with 1,805 yards and a 7.3 yard per carry average. Most analysts project him as a third round pick, but I wouldnt be surprised if someone grabbed him in the second.
Bernard Pierce, Temple
Set all kinds of records for the Owls, including most touchdowns (54) and most points (324). He has good size (6-1, 218) and good instincts. The only knock on Pierce is durability. He missed time with injuries throughout his three seasons at Temple, but still finished with 3,570 yards rushing, second only to Paul Palmer in the schools history. Third round pick.
In McCoy, the Eagles have one of the best all-around backs in the game, but they dont have much behind him. Dion Lewis only got a handful of touches last season as a rookie and still is an unknown and a small one (5-8, 195) at that. If the Eagles see a worthwhile prospect on the board they could take him, but not before the middle rounds.
Others to Consider
Chris Polk, Washington; Isiah Pead, Cincinnati; Cyrus Gray, Texas A&M; Ronnie Hillman, San Diego State: Tauren Poole, Tennessee.
E-mail Ray Didinger at email@example.com