NFL draft position preview: Running backs

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NFL draft position preview: Running backs

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.

Dont Forget

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.

Eagles' Interest
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 viewfromthehall@comcast.net

Eagles-Bengals 5 things: Season isn't over yet

Eagles-Bengals 5 things: Season isn't over yet

Eagles (5-6) at Bengals (3-7-1)
1 p.m. on FOX

Eagles +1.5

The Eagles' backs may be against the wall, but the season isn't over yet. Five games still remain, beginning with a trip to Cincinnati to take on the Bengals on Sunday.

With a 5-6 record, the Eagles would need some help to reach the playoffs. Of course, it's a moot point if they don't help themselves and end their current two-game skid. Who knows, a win over a 3-7-1 Bengals squad could be the beginning of an improbable run.

1. Unwelcome in the jungle
If the Eagles do manage to defeat the Bengals on Sunday, they would be making history. While it's not exactly a huge sample size, the franchise has never won in Cincinnati, posting a 3-0-1 record in four tries.

They've come close on multiple occasions. In 1994, the Bengals tied the Eagles with three seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, recovered a muffed kickoff, then kicked another field goal to win 33-30 in regulation. And in 2008, the clubs finished in a 13-13 tie when the Eagles committed four turnovers to Cincinnati's one.

Granted, winning at Paul Brown Stadium isn't a problem that's inherent to the Eagles. Since 2013, the Bengals are 21-6-1 at home, and that's even going 2-2-1 this year. "The Jungle" is an underrated difficult place to play — although whether the crowd will be behind a losing team this week remains to be seen.

2. The road to victory
Once again, Eagles coach Doug Pederson faced questions about balance after the offense's run-pass ratio was seriously out of whack in the loss to the Packers on Monday. This week, it would behoove Pederson to listen to critics of his play-calling, because pounding the rock will likely be the blueprint to victory.

That's because Cincinnati's run defense is among the worst in the NFL. The unit ranks 28th in terms of ground yards per game, surrendering 180 or more three times this season while allowing an average of 4.4 per carry.

Furthermore, the Bengals are much stronger defending the ball when it's in the air. They're not dominant or anything, coming into the game ranked 13th against the pass, but it's obvious where the real weakness is.

Given that top receiver Jordan Matthews is battling an ankle injury and rookie quarterback Carson Wentz has struggled to put the entire offense on his shoulders, it's clear what the Eagles should do. Lean heavily on Darren Sproles and Wendell Smallwood, and play the ball-control and field-position angles if they must.

3. Eyes on Eifert
The good news for the Eagles is they are catching the Bengals without All-Pro wide receiver A.J. Green and versatile running back Giovani Bernard — injured players who previously accounted for 60 percent of the team's offense. The bad news is Cincinnati recently got one of their weapons back.

Tyler Eifert has been back in action for five games now, and the fourth-year tight end has picked right up where he left off following a Pro Bowl campaign in 2015. In the Bengals' last four contests, Eifert has 20 receptions for 303 yards and two touchdowns, which would project to 80, 1,212 and eight over a full season.

The Eagles have a few things going for them. They haven't been getting killed by the tight end position this season, and the Bengals currently don't have anybody else the defense really needs to focus in on. That being said, this offense is centered around Eifert right now, who's been targeted 34 times in the last four games. He's an impact player.

4. Better clean up their act
It's no secret that penalties have been a huge problem for the Eagles all season. Officials are flagging the team 8.2 times per game, which is the third-highest rate in the NFL this season. Needless to say, those calls have hurt, costing them an average of 64.3 yards.

That's not going to fly against the Bengals, who believe it or not are one of the cleanest teams in the league, at least as far as the refs are concerned. At only 5.7 penalties per game, Cincinnati boasts the third-lowest rate, while their average of 44.9 yards lost is the best out of all 32 teams.

The Eagles have already proven they have trouble overcoming the officials. Going on the road and facing a team that's the total inverse could be a huge problem. They're not going to get many freebies, nor can they afford to give them away.

This team has no margin for error to begin with. In what is anticipated to be a very tight game, the Eagles better not let flags or lack there of against their opponent influence the outcome.

5. It's not over yet
At this point, the Eagles have minimal roads to the playoffs, but a victory Sunday would at least serve to get them back in the conversation. A division championship is officially off the table. A wild-card berth, on the other hand, is still a possibility.

Washington currently owns the sixth and final spot in the tournament at 6-4-1, although the Eagles would have a chance to make up some ground with their meeting next week. The Buccaneers are 6-5, and the Vikings are 6-6, followed by the Packers and Saints sharing the Eagles' 5-6 record. It's not like anybody is running away with this.

So while postseason play might seem like a long shot, it's not exactly outlandish, either. With a win over the Bengals on Sunday, the Eagles could very well be hosting Washington next week in a battle for their playoff lives. That means it's not quite time to give up just yet.

Eagles-Bengals predictions by our (cough) experts

Eagles-Bengals predictions by our (cough) experts

With their playoff hopes waning, the Eagles (5-6) travel to Cincinnati for a matchup against the struggling Bengals (3-7-1).

The Birds have lost six of their last 8, including two straight. Cincinnati hasn't fared much better, going winless in its last four.

It's time for our (cough) expert predictions for the Week 13 matchup.

Reuben Frank (5-5)
Now that the Eagles' playoff hopes have dwindled down to about a 1-in-12 shot, we'll find out if Doug Pederson can keep this team motivated and sharp for the remaining third of the season. That's a lot of football left to go, and for a team that's lost six of its last eight and five straight on the road, it's not going to be easy. But I do believe the Eagles won't stop playing hard. The effort has been there all along. The Green Bay game got away from them at the end, but for the most part, the losses have been competitive, and the team hasn't shown any signs of quitting. 

Now when you look at the schedule, it's filled with winning teams, division leaders, Hall of Fame quarterbacks and teams coming off byes. Of their last nine opponents, only the Packers currently have a losing record at 5-6. But they have Aaron Rodgers. Which brings us to the Bengals. They're 3-7-1, they're missing their Pro Bowl wide receiver and their starting running back and they've won just two of their last 10 games -- one of them against the Browns. 

Final conclusion: This is a team the Eagles can beat. I see a big game for Wendell Smallwood against the NFL's fifth-worst rush defense and also a big performance from Kenjon Barner with his one weekly carry. The Eagles are 0-3-1 all-time in Cincinnati. But Bobby Hoying beat the Bengals in 1997, and if Bobby Hoying can beat 'em Carson Wentz can. I'm going Eagles 17, Bengals 16 and back to .500 with four games to go.

Eagles 17, Bengals 16

Dave Zangaro (3-8)
The Eagles managed to put up just 13 points against the Packers' swiss cheese defense, so it's hard to imagine they'll suddenly catch fire against a better defense on the road.  

The best chance the Eagles have on offense, is to run the ball early and often, but they're without their top running back Ryan Mathews. That means rookie Wendell Smallwood will become the lead back. 

Oh yeah, did we mention that the Eagles' best receiver, Jordan Matthews, is dealing with an ankle injury that kept him out of practice most of the week? Even if Matthews plays, he might be severely hampered by the ankle. 

No, the Bengals don't pack the same punch as the Packers, but they'll be at home and Andy Dalton is at least a decent quarterback, Jeremy Hill runs hard and Tyler Eifert is a very good tight end. 

The Eagles catch a break with A.J. Green and Giovani Bernard out, but I don't think that's going to be enough. 

Bengals 17, Eagles 15  

Derrick Gunn (4-7)
After their latest two game losing streak where do the Eagles go from here? In their last two outings the Birds have given up 26.5 point per game while scoring just 14 points per game. The offense has lacked big play capability, and the defense hasn't stopped opponents from making key plays (Green Bay was 10 of 14 on 3rd down). Now they take to the road to face a Cincinnati team that is worse off than they are. The Bengals were projected to be serious playoff contenders but have been pretenders with a 3-7-1 record.

To add insult to injury, the Bengals are playing without 40 percent of their offensive production. Their top wideout, A.J. Green, is out with a hamstring injury and RB Giovani Bernard, who's lost for the year with an ACL tear. The Bengals can't score but their defense has been improving over the last three games giving up an average of 18.6 points.

Jordan Matthews' ankle injury could handcuff the Birds' passing attack. Hopefully the defense can get to Dalton who's been sacked 32 times. I can't believe I'm saying this but just call it a hunch: I don't like the Birds in this situation. 

Bengals 16, Eagles 13

Ray Didinger (5-6)
The Cincinnati Bengals have won one game since Sept. 29 and it was against the Cleveland Browns which almost doesn't count. They are currently on an 0-3-1 slide and will miss the playoffs for the first time in six years. Their best receiver, A.J. Green, is hurt and running back Giovani Bernard is lost for the season. Quarterback Andy Dalton fumbled four times in last week's loss to Baltimore. In short, these are not fun times in Cincinnati.

That would seem to bode well for the Eagles but there is that pesky matter of playing on the road (where they have lost five in a row) and the fact they are coming off their worst performance of the season, Monday's home loss to the Packers. The Eagles have scored just 28 points in their last two games while the Bengals have scored 26 so don't look for a lot of offense on Sunday. This could come down to the kickers and if so Caleb Sturgis is a lot better than Mike Nugent who has missed four of his last eight extra-point attempts.
 
Eagles 19, Bengals 13

Andrew Kulp (6-5)
Records aside, these are similar teams right now. The offenses lack weapons, the defenses are OK but flawed and the only way either team can win is ugly.

And ugly this game will likely be. The game comes down to kicks, a battle Caleb Sturgis can win against a struggling Mike Nugent. Bonus prediction: Eagles fans get plenty of chores and projects done around the house during this snoozer.

Eagles 13, Bengals 9

Corey Seidman (5-6)
The over/under is just 42 and I'm not expecting a whole lot of points. 

The Eagles are reeling, the Bengals are reeling, but when it comes down to it the Eagles enter this game healthier and should be able to keep Cincy's offense in check. 

Eifert is the Bengals' most dangerous weapon at the moment and the Eagles have been pretty good defending the seam with Jordan Hicks, Nigel Bradham and the safeties.

Eagles 20, Bengals 16

Andy Schwartz (5-6)
Just when I thought I had this team figured out, just when I’d evened my record at .500, the Eagles laid an egg.

They did so against a Packers team that had lost four straight. I should have seen it coming. Aaron Rodgers wasn’t going to let the Packers lose five in a row. The Eagles’ defense, despite having played well at home, was at his mercy. 

Now the Birds face another reeling team. Cincy hasn’t won in more than a month. The Bengals have lost three straight after tying the Redskins. 

But the Bengals don’t have Aaron Rodgers. They don’t have A.J. Green or Giovani Bernard either. And they’re not the Packers. They’re the Bengals.

After last week, it’s easy to pick the Eagles to lose. After last week, you wonder if the Eagles will win again this season. 

But the Eagles haven’t lost three straight all year. The pass rush wakes up, the special teams makes a big play, and that helps the offense score three touchdowns.

Eagles 24, Bengals 18