NFL Prospects: Running Backs

2007 draft class short on stars, long on depth

April 18, 2007

By Rob Rang

Special to CSTV.com from The Sports Xchange

 

While this year's running back class isn't defined by star power, it does feature versatility and depth.

 

Oklahoma junior Adrian Peterson remains the lone true star attraction at the position. Even Peterson, because of durability concerns, isn't a lock to be selected in the top 10. California's Marshawn Lynch, also viewed as a first-round cinch, has his own detractors.

 

While the quality of this class might be questionable, the quantity is not. Big or small, powerful or fast, NFL teams looking for help at running back have plenty of options. Of concern, however, is that most of the backs are only that -- help, and not long-term saviors. Few running backs in this class appear capable of becoming true franchise ballcarriers.

 

An in-depth look at best running backs and fullbacks available in the 2007 draft:

 

RUNNING BACKS:

 

1. Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma, 6-2, 218, JR:

 

Peterson prominently stands out in a draft many say lacks marquee talent. The first consensus All-American as a freshman in the storied history of OU, Peterson broke Billy Sims' Sooner record -- as well as Ron Dayne's national freshman record -- in 2004 with 1,925 rushing yards. In reaching the 1,000-yard mark in only seven games as a freshman, Peterson tied two runners you've heard of -- Emmitt Smith, who accomplished the feat for the Florida Gators in 1987 and Marshall Faulk (San Diego State, 1991). Durability is the only true concern with Peterson. He is a perfect blend of size, speed and power, and deserves a ranking on par with Reggie Bush and Ronnie Brown, the No. 2 overall picks in the past two drafts.

 

The concern, however, is that since a dominant freshman season, Peterson's numbers have dropped. While he rushed for more than 1,000 yards as a sophomore (1,108) and again as a junior (1,012), Peterson has struggled to remain healthy. In fact, even during Peterson's fabulous freshman season, he played through a dislocated left shoulder that required off-season surgery. Over the past two seasons, Peterson started (and finished healthy) only 12 games. He missed eight games and left five others with injuries.

 

2. Marshawn Lynch, California, 5-11, 217, JR:

 

Lynch is a classic combination of size, speed and receiving skills. As a true freshman, Lynch ranked ninth in the Pac-10 with an average of 95.58 all-purpose yards per game despite not starting a single contest while backing up J.J. Arrington. As the Bears' starter, he was voted the Pac-10's Offensive Player of the Year in 2006. Lynch has legitimate power as an interior runner and the sudden acceleration to make big plays. His vision, patience and agility help him rack up yards in chunks -- and those same qualities lead to consistent first-round grades from NFL scouts. Lynch also possesses soft hands and an understanding of the passing game, as evidenced by his 68 career receptions (for 600 yards and six touchdowns).

 

3. Brian Leonard, Rutgers, 6-2, 226, SR:

 

Relegated to a more traditional fullback role as a senior because of the emergence of sensational tailback Ray Rice, Leonard is among the draft's most underrated running backs. He hasn't been used as a traditional running back since 2003. That year, as a redshirt freshman, Leonard exploded onto the scene to earn Big East Freshman of the Year honors after producing an average of 114 all-purpose yards per game and scoring 14 touchdowns. Though Leonard was moved to fullback as a sophomore and junior, he was a fullback in name only, earning an average of 116 all-purpose yards per game. In 2006, Leonard was forced to take a back seat to Rice, and his statistics plummeted in a reduced role. He had a career-low 131 combined touches as a runner and receiver, and his 717 all-purpose yards and five touchdowns have led some to miscast him as a NFL fullback.

 

Leonard has the athleticism and vision to be successful as an NFL running back, especially if placed in a one-back set or offset in the same backfield with a speed threat. The 6-foot-2, 226-pounder may have proven his potential as a primary running back with a 4.52-second 40-yard dash at the Scouting Combine.

 

4. Antonio Pittman, Ohio State, 5-11, 207, JR:

 

Shaded by the considerable shadows of high-profile teammates, Pittman finally had a chance to distinguish himself at the Scouting Combine -- and did just that. Scouts were surprised not only by Pittman's size (he had been listed by Ohio State at 190 pounds), but also his 4.4 speed. An underrated inside runner, Pittman, despite his size, is among the draft's toughest runners. He lost only two fumbles in 557 career rushing attempts.

 

Pittman is blessed with good speed and the agility to make the first defender miss. His underrated combination of inside-outside running and reliable hands has scouts expecting the veteran of 25 starts to develop into a significant contributor early in his pro career.

 

5. Tony Hunt, Penn State, 6-0, 230, SR:

 

Hunt may lack the sizzling 40 time, but his size and bullish style make him the draft's elite interior runner. He started 32 games at Penn State, led the team in rushing yards each of the past three seasons and was the fifth player in the program's storied history to accumulate more than 3,000 career rushing yards. Hunt racked up a career-high 1,228 yards and 11 scores on the ground as a senior.

 

Though he rarely is credited with "good" hands, Hunt had 87 career receptions for 792 yards and three touchdowns. Like Leonard, Hunt may be at his best either in a one-back offense that allows him to pound at the defense, or as a power threat lined up alongside a speed back.

 

6. Kenny Irons, Auburn, 5-11, 203, SR:

 

The loss of Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown left a huge hole in the Auburn backfield following the 2004 season. The emergence of Irons, a South Carolina transfer, immediately closed the void. In 2005, Irons solidified the starting spot, leading the SEC with an average of 107.75 rushing yards per game with a total of 1,293 yards and 13 scores. His senior season was marred by injuries, which caused Irons to slip down the draft board, opening up the possibility that a team will land a bona fide steal on draft day.

 

Irons appeared in 10 games last season, missing two full games and portions of several others while battling turf toe, a groin pull, a high ankle sprain and a bruised fibula. He rushed for only 821 yards and four touchdowns, but was still voted first-team All-SEC.

 

When healthy, Irons is a formidable combination of speed, elusiveness and power. At only 203 pounds, he is a surprisingly physical back at times. But his physicality remains a concern, as his struggles with durability as a senior is a red flag. Irons needs work as a receiver, having caught only 29 passes for one score during his career.

 

7. Lorenzo Booker, Florida State, 5-11, 191, SR:

 

A dazzling natural athlete whose speed and creativity in the open field make him a favorite among teams looking for a change of pace back, Booker is accustomed to the attention. He was one of the nation's elite recruits when he signed with Florida State, but never developed into a true lead back for the Seminoles.

 

While he looks great in practice, Booker's production decreased each of the past three seasons. His sophomore season was his most productive, as Booker came through with 887 yards and four rushing touchdowns, most of which came after the incumbent starter, Leon Washington, went down with a separated shoulder. Unable to win the starting job either of the next two seasons, Booker finished with 552 yards and four touchdowns in 2005 and 525-2 in 2006.

 

At only 191 pounds, Booker lacks the size to hold up as a featured back. Too often he is tackled by the first defender. If he doesn't take a square hit, Booker has the athleticism to make many would-be tacklers look foolish. He has soft hands, but looks very uncomfortable catching passes over his shoulder and is only a marginal route-runner.

 

8. Michael Bush, Louisville, 6-3, 253, JR:

 

Will NFL fans ever see the Michael Bush that dominated college football and appeared poised to give Louisville its first Heisman Trophy? A difference-maker since taking the field as a true freshman in 2003, when he finished with 743 combined yards, Bush seemed on the verge of a breakout campaign in 2006 before a broken right leg sidelined him for the rest of the season after the first half of the season opener ... but what a half. Against rival Kentucky, Bush had already accumulated 128 rushing yards and three touchdowns before his season ended.

 

Despite only eight starts in 2005, Bush finished second in the Big East and 23rd in Division I-A with an average of 139.6 all-purpose yards per game. His 23 touchdowns were a school record and his scoring average of 14.4 points per game led the nation. Unlike some of the other productive big backs to leave college in recent years only to struggle at the NFL level, Bush is more than just a physical brute. He has enough agility and speed and the soft hands to be one of the more intriguing backs in the 2007 draft.

 

Bush started only 17 games for Louisville, but left the school with 2,508 yards and 39 touchdowns in his career. He also caught 50 passes for 651 yards and, having played quarterback in high school, also completed five of 14 passes for 315 yards and three scores.

Another reason Bush will be an intriguing name on draft day: It was discovered at the Scouting Combine that the titanium rod inserted in his right leg to promote healing hadn't been completely effective. A second surgery on March 20 meant Bush would not be healthy enough to work out for scouts before the draft. He is expected to be medically cleared for the 2007 NFL season.

 

9. DeShawn Wynn, Florida, 5-11, 232, SR:

 

Character concerns and a history of minor injuries could force Wynn down the draft board. He started only 16 games for the Gators, but he left as only the 13th player in the school history to amass more than 2,000 career rushing yards (2,008) and scored 27 total touchdowns. Wynn's forte as a power back made him a bit of a misfit in coach Urban Meyer's spread offense, leading to Wynn's lack of eye-popping statistics. On film, however, Wynn's blend of size, strength, vision and cutting ability make him an intriguing option for NFL teams. Many scouts feel he could eventually prove to be a better NFL player than he was in college.

 

Wynn has been fortunate not to have any major injuries over his career, but he has a tendency to get nicked up, missing action over the past two seasons with a shoulder contusion, knee sprain and groin strain.

 

10. Brandon Jackson, Nebraska, 5-10, 210, JR:

 

Jackson is another talented player who has a history of injuries that could cloud his draft status. Signed as a highly touted prep prospect, Jackson wasn't able to help the Cornhuskers much in 2004 and 2005, rushing for a combined 442 yards and six touchdowns. After shoulder surgeries following both seasons, coach Bill Callahan's staff was understandably hesitant to use Jackson as a featured back in 2006.

 

Entering the 2006 season, Jackson was part of a four-man committee at running back -- along with Marlon Lucky, Cody Glenn and Kenny Wilson -- and he carried the ball just 27 times for 154 yards through the first five games. Jackson emerged as the featured runner down the stretch, however, earning starts in the final nine games while gaining 835 of his 989 yards. He was voted second-team All-Big 12 by the league's coaches, as Jackson finished with 1,459 all-purpose yards and scored 10 touchdowns.

 

Despite solid size, questions about Jackson's durability make him more of a change-of-pace option at the next level. He has the wiggle, speed and receiving ability (34 career receptions) to perform well in this capacity.

 

Other Potential Impact Running Backs:

 

-- Kolby Smith, Louisville, 5-11, 220, SR: Shared the running back duties with Michael Bush for much of his career, but responded with 780 rushing yards and 183 receiving yards in nine starts as a senior after Bush went down with a broken leg.

-- Darius Walker, Notre Dame, 5-10, 212, JR: A better athlete than he's often given credit for, Walker relies more on quickness and vision than speed and power.

-- Garrett Wolfe, Northern Illinois, 5-8, 186, SR: Lacks size, but you can't argue with his production -- Wolfe led the MAC in rushing, all-purpose yards and touchdowns each of the past three seasons.

-- Jackie Battle, Houston, 6-2, 235, SR: Considered a late-round prospect after playing fullback at Houston, Battle is moving up draft boards quickly after running a 4.42-second 40-yard dash at his Pro Day.

-- Chris Henry, Arizona, 5-11, 230, JR: Workout warrior was early talk of the Scouting Combine, running a 4.4 to tie for the best time among running backs tested at the Indianapolis event.

-- Dwayne Wright, Fresno State, 6-0, 228, JR: Lacks the speed to be successful in every system, but he's a powerful, downhill back capable of gaining tough yards running inside.

-- Nate Ilaoa, Hawai'i, 5-9, 245, SR: Despite his size, Ilaoa is a rare athlete. His 10-yard split (of the 40-yard dash) of 1.63 is the same as 6-foot-5 Southern California wide receiver Dwayne Jarrett.

 

 

FULLBACKS:

 

1. Cory Anderson, Tennessee, 6-2, 247, SR:

 

A former defensive end, Anderson is among the draft's best drive blockers and is better than advertised as a runner and receiver. Critics will point out that Anderson only started six of the 12 games in which he played as a senior. He was the Volunteers' top fullback, but the team started in a two-tight end set in half of its games last season.

 

Anderson wasn't often asked to carry the ball at Tennessee, though his average of 5.7 yards per carry speaks to his agility, power and vision. Anderson is best prepared to step in as a human sledgehammer and occasional receiving outlet. He caught 34 passes for 315 yards and two touchdowns over 26 career starts at Tennessee. A strong all-around performance in the Inta Juice All-Star game drew attention.

 

2. Jason Snelling, Virginia, 5-11, 232, SR:

 

He may lack the prototypical size of the traditional NFL lead blocker, but his ability as a true three-tier fullback could lead to Snelling being drafted higher than other bigger names at the position.

 

Snelling, who lined up at fullback for the Cavaliers for 19 games during the 2004 and 2005 seasons, was moved to tailback in 2006 and continued Virginia's recent tradition of successful runners. More than half (772) of his career rushing yards (1,324) and seven of his 10 career touchdowns came as a tailback during his senior season.

 

Snelling lacks the breakaway speed and open-field agility to fit the needs of most NFL teams as a running back. As a fullback, however, he displays not only intriguing running ability, but surprisingly powerful blocking and sure hands as a receiver out of the backfield (84 career receptions for 775 yards and four TDs). Snelling is also a standout wedge-buster on special teams.

 

Other Potential Impact Fullbacks:

 

-- Derek Schouman, Boise State, 6-2, 247, SR: A collegiate tight end, Schouman's best chance is either at fullback or latching on with one of the few teams utilizing an H-back.

-- Deon Anderson, Connecticut, 5-11, 243, SR: A good lead blocker, but special-teams skills separate him from others.

-- Le'Ron McClain, Alabama, 6-0, 256, SR: A human pile driver, McClain toiled in Kenneth Darby's shadow for much of his Tide career, but McClain might have a better NFL career.