2008 NFL draft/positional analysis: RB

With Frank Gore, DeShaun Foster and Michael Robinson at halfback and Moran Norris as a lead-blocking fullback, the 49ers pretty much appear set at running back for 2008 and are unlikely to consider a running back on the first day of the draft. But here's an in-depth look at the top 10 possibilities in this year's draft with statistics, analysis, measurables and projections.

POSITION ANALYSIS: The 49ers drafted Thomas Clayton in the sixth round last year, and he ended up as the NFL's leading rusher during the preseason before spending the season on San Francisco's practice squad. With a year of development, Clayton will challenge for a roster spot this year, so drafting another running back hardly is essential for the 49ers, though it's a position that they constantly like to have fresh talent flowing in. The Niners very well could select another prospect on the second day if a talent they like falls to them and is just too good to pass up. But the position is low on the team's list of draft needs and priorities. The good news is that by the time the 49ers make their second-round pick, there likely will be five running backs off the board. Darren McFadden is the biggest name in the draft, drawing comparisons to Minnesota's Adrian Peterson, but there is a lot of positive buzz surrounding potential first-rounders Rashard Mendenhall, Jonathan Stewart and Felix Jones. This will be a very interesting year for running backs in the draft, because almost all of the NFL's top 20 rushers last year weigh 225 pounds or more. It's an occupational hazard that requires players to be bigger and stronger. But the only RBs at the top of this year's class that fit that description are Mendenhall and Stewart, which could make for some difficult choices for teams looking for a potential franchise back. From the 49ers' perspective, any running backs going early can be viewed as "free picks" – getting them closer to their own selection with players coming off that they have no strong need or interest in selecting.


THE CREAM OF THE CROP

Darren McFadden, Arkansas, 6-1¼, 215: Third-year junior … Parade All-American as a high school senior and one of the most highly recruited high school players in the country … Three-year starter who started 35 of the 38 games he played … Finished his career with 785 rushes for 4,791 yards (a 6.1-yard average) and 41 touchdowns … Named Freshman of the Year by Associated Press and First-Team All-Southeastern Conference pick as a freshman … Only the second freshman in SEC history to rush for more than 1,000 yards, joining former Viking Herschel Walker … Became the first sophomore to win the Doak Walker Award, given annually to the best running back in the college game … Finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting as a sophomore, behind only Ohio State QB Troy Smith … Finished his career as the school's all-time leading rusher after his junior season and second all-time in the SEC behind only Walker … A first-team All-America selection as a junior, he won the Doak Walker Award for a second time, as well as winning the Walter Camp Player of the Year Award, given to the top player in college football … Finished second in the Heisman voting for a second straight year in 2007 … Has incredible speed and can take the ball the distance at any time from any place on the field … Surprisingly strong running between the tackles … Became more of a workhorse each season at Arkansas, with rushing attempts climbing from 176 to 284 to 325 in his three seasons … Has extremely good cutback ability … An on-field leader who wants the ball … Doesn't go down easily and has the strength to absorb big hits without going down … Doesn't mind lowering his shoulder and delivering blows instead of absorbing them … A threat to pass out of the backfield, having thrown seven TD passes in his career … Has very little experience as a receiver (46 catches in three years) or as a blocker – his blocking attempts are often half-hearted … His 23 fumbles in three years were more than any running back during that span … Has an upright running style that opens him up to big hits … Has skinny legs that some scouts think will make him more susceptible to injury … Has a checkered off-field history that has included multiple arrests … Ran a 4.33 40 at the Combine (second-best among RBs), did 13 reps with 225 pounds (tied for third-worst) with a 35½-inch vertical jump and 10-8 broad jump.
Projection: Has been the subject of comparisons to 2007 NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year Adrian Peterson – whether fair or not – but is smaller and has much more off-field concerns than A.D. had coming out of Oklahoma. To see him on film is to see a true game-breaker that can make an immediate impact wherever he lands and turn a bad team into a much better one quickly. Has the ability to be the first overall pick, but likely will go at No. 4 to the Raiders or No. 6 to the Jets. If he remains on the board after the fifth pick, don't be shocked to see someone trade into the spot to get him.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Rashard Mendenhall, Illinois, 5-10¼, 225:
Third-year junior … Only a one-year starter who had 262 carries for 1,681 yards and 17 touchdowns in 2007 … Led the Big Ten in rushing last year, as well as in yards per carry (6.6) … Set records at IU for single-season rushing yards, rushing touchdowns and all-purpose yards (1,999) … Very muscular and looks more like a linebacker than a running back … Strong lower body to drive through the line and brush off arm tacklers … Always seems to fall forward after contact to gain additional yardage … Doesn't take long to get to full speed in the open field and makes a lot of big plays out of nothing … A good receiver with soft hands who doesn't wait for the ball to get into his body to make catches … Doesn't have experience running a pro-style offense and was used in a spread-option scheme that gave him a lot more chances to find cutback lanes … Relatively inexperienced as a blocker … Tends to run in a straight line and doesn't make a lot of fancy moves to pop runs inside or outside … Goes down easier at times than a man of his size should, often getting tripped or stumbling in traffic … Has a history of fumbling … Showed off his strength at the Combine with 28 reps – second-best among RBs that tested – to go with a 4.45 40, a 33½-inch vertical jump and a 9-10 broad jump.
Projection: One of the most physically gifted running backs in the draft, he has the size, speed and power to be a Herschel Walker type multi-threat. But with just one year of full-time experience, some teams might be tempted to pass on him. Even so, he likely will be off the board by the time the Vikings are on clock – with the Lions and Cardinals directly in front of the Vikes both being viable options.

Jonathan Stewart, Oregon, 5-10½, 234: Third-year junior … Won a ton of awards as a high school senior, including being named All-American by Parade and USA Today and being named Gatorade Player of the Year after rushing 204 times for 2,301 yards (more than 10 yards a carry) and 32 touchdowns his senior year … The all-time leading rusher in Washington high school history with 7,755 yards and 95 touchdowns … A state champion sprinter who anchored his team's 4x100 relay team … A two-year starter who ran 463 times for 2,827 yards and 21 touchdowns in that span … As a freshman, he led the country in kick return average with 33.7 yards per return … Led the Pac-10 in rushing last year with 1,798 yards … Very muscular and has strong legs that move tacklers backward and absorb hits … Is quick into and out of his cuts and runs decisively … While not used much in the passing game, looks like a natural catching passes and heading upfield … A good kickoff returner, but might not be risked in that capacity for long in the NFL … A strong and willing blocker that will take on defenders head-up … Doesn't always run with the aggression a man of his size should … Played in a spread-option offense that didn't require him to be overly creative or use too much field vision … Has an injury history that cut his first two college seasons short … Had toe surgery last month that will have him on the shelf until July … Showed his power at the Combine with a position-best 29 reps of 225 pounds to go with a 4.48 40, a 36½-inch vertical jump and a 10-8 broad jump.
Projection: One of the hardest RBs on the board to project. He has an injury history with his feet and ankles that have dogged him since high school. Some teams will lower his draft stock as a result, but, in the right situation, he could be a big-time talent. His stock may drop to the bottom of the first round or even the second round due to his latest injury, but as the biggest back in the draft, somebody will make a move to get him – whether waiting for him to fall to them or trading up to get him.

Felix Jones, Arkansas, 5-10¼, 210: Third-year junior … Never a full-time starter playing alongside Darren McFadden, in his three years at Arkansas he rushed 386 times for 3,086 yards (a whopping 8.0-yard average) with 20 touchdowns, while catching 39 passes for 383 yards and three more TDs … As a junior, he averaged nine yards a carry, rushing 133 times for 1,199 yards and 11 TDs … In each of his last two seasons, he led the NCAA Division I in yards per carry for players with 100 or more rushing attempts … Set a school career record with 1,749 kick return yards and tied the Southeastern Conference record for kick return touchdowns with four – tying the mark set by Willie Gault more than 20 years earlier … Extremely fast and agile, he has the ability to make big plays any time he touches the ball … Has excellent field vision and can cut on a dime … Can reach top speed in only a couple of strides in the open field … Has excellent juke moves to make the first tackler miss and dips his shoulders to not often give defenders a clean shot at him … Never got to prove his durability because he played his career in the shadow of McFadden … Barely averaged 10 carries a game during his college career … Needs to do a lot of work on his blocking if he will ever be a full-time back in the NFL … Has very little experience as a receiver coming out of the backfield … Ran a 4.47 40 at the Combine with just 13 reps (tied with McFadden for third-worst among RBs) with a 34½-inch vertical jump and a 10-2 broad jump.
Projection: A dynamic player who posted some eye-popping numbers, but was never a full-time player in college and likely won't be on the radar of teams looking for an every-down workhorse. He could be the ideal complement in a "thunder-and-lightning" backfield, which is why many draft prognosticators have him going to Dallas with one of their picks in the first round, where he can be an ideal change of pace to the bruising run style of Marion Barber.

Ray Rice, Rutgers, 5-8, 199: Third-year junior … Started all 38 games of his college career, rushing 910 times for 5,053 yards and 49 touchdowns … A true workhorse his final two seasons, carrying the ball 715 times for 3,900 yards and 44 touchdowns … As a sophomore, he finished third in the voting for the Maxwell Award, given to college football's player of the year … Finished second in the nation in rushing yards (1,831) as a sophomore and third (2,069) as a junior … First player in Big East Conference history to lead the conference in rushing in consecutive seasons … Second Team All-America in 2007 … Plays bigger than he looks and has surprising strength running between the tackles … Runs low to the ground and makes it difficult for tacklers to wrap him up … Has very good burst and will spring through a small seam in a defense and make tacklers miss … Is a willing blocker … Is more quick than explosively fast … Doesn't have the burst to beat defenders to the corner consistently … Has difficulty getting separation in the open field … Viewed as too small to be an effective blocker at the NFL level … Was not used much as a receiver … Has a history of shoulder injuries … Put in a strong performance at the Combine, running a 4.48 40 with 24 reps of 225 pounds, a position-best 39½-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump.
Projection: An undersized back with a little man's complex, Rice runs with a purpose at all times and plays much bigger than his measurable size would indicate. Because of his lack of ideal height and bulk, he will probably slip into the second round and be taken by a team that already has a featured running back, but could turn out to be one of the steals of the draft if he gets in a system that takes advantage of his strengths.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Chris Johnson, East Carolina, 5-11¼, 199:
Fourth-year senior who was recruited as a wide receiver but moved to running back early in his true freshman season … Started 36 of the 47 games he played in college – finishing his career with 624 carries for 3,189 yards and 32 touchdowns, while catching 125 passes for 1,296 yards and 10 TDs … Missed significant time his junior year after having two discs in his neck surgically fused together … Led the nation in all-purpose yards as a senior (2,960) and set the all-time NCAA bowl game record for all-purpose yards with 408 against Boise State in the Hawaii Bowl (223 rushing, 153 on returns and 32 receiving) … Had five games last year in which he rushed for 200 or more yards … A very good kickoff returner … Has unbelievably good speed and quick acceleration (see Combine numbers below) … Is very efficient running between the tackles even though he isn't viewed as a power runner … A converted wide receiver, he is the best pass-catching back in the draft … Lined up in the slot on some passing downs … His cutback ability is outstanding and he is a threat to go the distance on any play … Didn't play elite competition, which some will contend negates some of his gaudy numbers … Is undersized for the NFL and doesn't look to have the body type that could add a lot of bulk … Is not a good blocker and tends to simply get in the way of defenders rather than attacking them … Has missed time in two of his four seasons with injuries and, because his lack of size, may be viewed as a durability risk … Didn't lift at the Combine, but ran a Combine-best 4.24 40 with a 35-inch vertical jump and a 10-10 broad jump (third best among running backs).
Projection: Compared to small runners like Brian Westbrook, Warrick Dunn and Jerrious Norwood, Johnson has a chance to be an explosive player who can make the big play when given the chance. His lack of size and inexperience against top competition likely will drop him well into the second round if not farther, but he's going to be a player that will be hard to keep off the field because of the explosiveness he brings to any play that has his number called.

Jamaal Charles, Texas, 5-11¼, 199: Third-year junior … Prep and college track star – as a high school senior in Texas, he had the top times in the country in both the 100-meter hurdles (13.69 seconds) and the 300-meter hurdles (36.03) … He competed for the Longhorns' track team and took second place in the 100-meters (10.32 seconds) at the Big 12 Championships as a freshman before devoting full time to football … Didn't become a full-time starter until 2007, but still finished his three-year career with 533 carries for 3,441 yards and 36 touchdowns … As a full-time starter last year, he rushed 258 times for 1,665 yards and 18 touchdowns – leading the Big 12 in both rushing yards and rushing TDs … First-Team All-Big 12 selection in 2007 … Has exceptional speed and, once in the open field, is almost never caught from behind or even by defenders with an angle on him … Hits top speed almost immediately … Cuts on a dime and doesn't lose speed when doing so, making a lot of defenders look sick and grabbing at air … Has good lateral movement to bounce inside runs to the corner when there is nothing available up the middle … Doesn't gain a lot of yardage after contact and tends to go down a little easier than most elite RBs … Fumbling is a huge concern – he coughed up the ball 11 times last year, which is bench-worthy in the NFL … Doesn't lower his head consistently on inside runs, rather trying to bounce too many plays to the outside for the home run and being strung out for losses … Gets tripped a lot because he doesn't pick up his feet when running in the middle … Needs a lot of work as a blocker … Didn't lift at the Combine, but tied for the third-best 40 time (4.38), had a lackluster 31-inch vertical jump (tied for second-worst among running backs) and a 10-2 broad jump.
Projection: His speed will turn heads in some war rooms because of his big-play ability, but his lack of size, inability as a consistent blocker and penchant for fumbling will likely have a lot of teams considering him as a very talented third-down or complementary-type back. That alone should push him late in the second round or into the third. But if paired with a big back like Cedric Benson of the Bears or Jamal Lewis of the Browns, he could be a big-time threat in a supporting role.

Kevin Smith, Central Florida, 6-1¼, 216: Third-year junior … Became a starter in his third game at CFU and started his final 34 collegiate contests … Finished his career with 905 carries for 4,679 yards and 45 touchdowns … Set a school record for freshman rushing yards (1,178) … Exploded in his senior season, rushing 450 times for 2,567 yards and 29 touchdowns, as well as catching 24 passes for 242 yards and one TD … Led the country is rushing yards and touchdowns in 2007 and was named Conference USA Offensive Player of the Year … His 450 carries last year set a new NCAA record and his 2,567 yards were just 65 short of the all-time record set in 1988 by Hall of Famer Barry Sanders … Has excellent feel for inside running and makes confident cuts into and out of the hole … A runner who picks up yards in a hurry because he never takes choppy steps … Gains a lot of yardage after the initial contact by defenders … A natural pass-catcher … A willing blocker who takes on blitzers head-up … Isn't a true power runner and has thin build … Has an upright running style that opens him up to big hits … Has good timed speed, but doesn't take many carries the distance in game situations … Some general managers may be concerned with the mileage he put on his body his last two seasons of college … For a big back, he doesn't have a mean streak and will wear down somewhat late in games … Doesn't have great lower body strength to move the pile … Ran a 4.47 40 at the Combine, didn't lift, had a 33½-inch vertical jump and a 11-0 broad jump (second-best among RBs).
Projection Has a lot of wear from his brief college career and isn't the most physical back in the draft, which should drop him into the second or third round. But he does a lot things well and, with the proper coaching and a solid offensive line, could become a very productive NFL back.

Matt Forte, Tulane, 6-1¼, 221: Fourth-year senior … Finished his career with 833 carries for 4,275 yards and 39 touchdowns, while catching 103 passes for 985 yards and five TDs … Tore his left meniscus and PCL in his junior season … Came back strong as a senior, rushing 367 times for 2,127 yards and 23 touchdowns … His rushing total was second in the country to Kevin Smith last year and represents the seventh-highest single-season total in NCAA Division I history … Had four games with 200 yards or more last year … Has good strength and is a strong inside runner … Has deceptive speed in traffic and can make very quick cuts … Gains a lot of yardage after initial contact … Is a solid pass catcher who had 20 or more receptions in each of his four seasons … Is an aggressive blocker … Doesn't hit full speed immediately and doesn't have a second gear in the open field … Is more of a one-cut runner that doesn't have a lot of elusiveness … Can get caught from behind … Viewed by some scouts as a running back ‘tweener – not aggressive enough to be a big-time NFL power back or fast enough to be a top-notch third-down or change-of-pace runner … Didn't work out at the Combine.
Projection: Forte isn't a flashy runner, but he is a great worker and extremely coachable. He would be an ideal fit with a team like Denver that uses a one-cut, decisive running system. He could develop into a very good NFL runner, but could end up being a player that remains on the board well into the third round or beyond because he doesn't excel at any aspect that would translate to the NFL.

Tashard Choice, Georgia Tech, 5-10½, 208: Fifth-year senior who initially enrolled at Oklahoma in 2003 but left after his redshirt freshman season in 2004 when it was apparent he would be stuck behind Adrian Peterson on the depth chart … Because of family circumstances, he wasn't required to sit out the 2005 season after transferring … A two-year starter at GT that rushed 558 times for 2,852 yards and 22 touchdowns in that span … Just the sixth running back in the history of the Atlantic Coast Conference to lead the league in rushing in back-to-back seasons … A good student, he graduated last December … An excellent cut-back runner who has great field vision and sees holes as they develop … Plays with passion and wants the ball all the time … Doesn't run around tacklers, preferring to lower his shoulder and deliver blows himself instead of absorbing them … Excellent character and leadership skills … Although not used much in the passing game, he has natural pass-catching ability … Is neither big nor overly fast … Has a history of getting banged up and missing time within games due to minor nagging injuries … Is not blessed with the speed to make defenders miss and doesn't break off a lot of long runs … Doesn't have a second gear in the open field and will get caught from the side or behind … Ran an unimpressive 4.55 40 at the Combine, didn't lift, had a 37½-inch vertical jump and a 10-3 broad jump.
Projection: If you drafted players based on character and heart, Choice would be a first-rounder. Unfortunately, he doesn't have the intangibles that make coaches and general managers drool and he could easily fall into the fourth round – where a lot of very productive running backs have come from in recent years on draft weekend. Whoever takes him is going to get everything he has – in games and during practice. He has been compared to a poor man's Curtis Martin, but he doesn't have the elite type of skills that make you believe he will be an NFL starter for years to come.

OTHERS TO WATCH
Thomas Brown, Georgia, 5-8½, 201
Justin Forsett, California, 5-8¼, 191
Mike Hart, Michigan, 5-9, 209
Dantrell Savage, Oklahoma State, 5-8½, 186
Steve Slaton, West Virginia, 5-9½, 199
Marcus Thomas, UTEP, 6-0¼, 214


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