Analysis of the Tailback Class

A source told Packer Report that the Packers will consider using an early pick on a running back. Alabama's Trent Richardson is a complete back who figures to go in the top five picks. Doug Martin, David Wilson, Robert Turbin, Lamar Miller and Chris Polk make up the second tier.

With more and more emphasis in the passing game, coupled with teams gearing toward a running-back-by-committee approach, the day and age of the franchise ball-carrier is fading away. One look at this year's tailback class and it is easy to see that there is one true franchise running back in the group, and the only player considered to be a certain first-round pick: Alabama's Trent Richardson.

A "complete" back in every sense of the word, Richardson is by far the more polished product than the tailback he had to caddy for prior to the 2011 season: Mark Ingram. What a team will get in Richardson is a ball-carrier who not only possesses impressive strength to break tackles — his best attribute — but one with the valid foot speed (4.48) to beat linebackers to the edge.

Richardson is not like the scatback types that litter the rest of this class, as he attacks the holes with great leg drive running between tackles, utilizing that 475-pound bench press he displays. He runs low in his pads and uses his shoulders to run through arm tackles, as 12 of his touchdown runs last year came near the goal line.

He has the thick frame to drag opponents for extra yardage, but has that second gear and spring in his step, along with excellent vision to weave through traffic. When he has to encounter a defender, he consistently keeps his legs churning upon contact and has a pretty efficient spin move to slide off blocks. Plus, he utilizes his leaping ability to elevate over the pile and prevent his opponents from taking his legs out from under him.

Most experts believe the Browns will use the fourth pick in the draft to grab Richardson, but after trading out of the second slot, the Rams are considering options, as they might put together a package for Cleveland or Minnesota to move up for the tailback, even though they feature a Pro Bowler in their backfield in Steven Jackson. If the Browns pass and the Rams fail to trade up to take the Tide runner, it is certain that he won't be on board after Tampa Bay picks at No. 5.

A month ago, most experts pegged David Wilson of Virginia Tech as the next running back to hear his name called during the draft, but Boise State's Doug Martin has lapped the Hokie. While he's unlikely to go in the first round, he's a similar ball-carrier to Ingram. He has an impressive and muscular frame with above-average instincts and feel for the rushing lanes.

He maintains that low pad level needed to blast through initial tackles and is a nice fit for teams looking for a between-the-tackles runner. He has valid foot speed (4.51), but is a little tight in his hips to be considered for the long haul turning the corner. Still, with his short-area burst, he is capable of getting into the second level and is a scoring machine, producing his third consecutive season with at least a dozen touchdown runs as a senior.

Wilson might have conceded the runner-up title to Martin, but he is regarded as one of the elite ball-carriers in this class, thanks to his superb burst and acceleration through the holes. The Tech track star recently clocked 4.29 in the 40-yard dash and won Iron Hokie Award honors by producing a 445-pound front squat.

A few things concern teams in regards to Wilson's running style. Even though he showed impressive strength with his front squat, he looks thicker in his lower frame than his upper body. He is an explosive runner, but you'd hope he'd be more patient and move the chains rather than trying to go for the home run every time he touches the ball. He has possibly the worst ball-security skills of any tailback in this class. In his first season as a starter in 2011, he fumbled seven times, with the opponent turning four of those into touchdown drives.

Wilson has to be more patient letting blockers set up in front of him. He is a quick-twitch type who has good knee bend and pad level, along with good balance and footwork running around the corners. But for all of his speed, I sense a thought-process issue, as he seems slow to decipher coverages and his vision is just average, as there are too many times he simply will run into a crowd.

One ball-carrier I am very high on is Utah State's Robert Turbin, who showed in 2011 that he's recovered from knee woes that wiped out his 2010 campaign. Turbin has a lot of Arian Foster in his game, running with a low center of gravity and gaining most of his yardage with a powerful leg drive. He has a nice shoulder dip to drive hard into the initial tackler, and with his low pad level and core strength, it took more than one defender to bring him down on more than a quarter of his non-touchdown runs.

For a 220-pounder, don't look at Turbin as just a between-the-tackles runner, as his 4.45 speed allows him to get to the edge in an instant. He is a patient ball-carrier who lets blocks develop and is quick to redirect when the rush lanes are clogged. Those who don't think he can take the ball to the house only need to look at his slew of long touchdown runs since becoming a starter as a junior.

Miami's Lamar Miller might have cost himself a few bucks by declaring for the 2012 draft. With just two seasons of varsity action and only one as a starter, another campaign like 2011 (1,272 yards) could have thrust him into the top-10 picks for the 2013 draft. He is certainly not lacking confidence, recently declaring himself to be the "best back" in this draft class. It's nice to see that he lives in a fantasy world.


Lamar Miller
Robert Mayer/US Presswire
While Miller can get to top speed in an instant and has great acceleration into the second, he will frustrate the hell out of offensive linemen, as he spends too much time running laterally looking for the perfect hole rather than simply tucking the ball and running though the pile. He's not really a power-oriented back and has had shoulder issues that have prevented him from improving his mediocre upper-body strength.

He is a patient ball-carrier, but that patience does lead to trouble, as holes tend to close. That makes him rely on his hip snap and foot speed to escape the oncoming defenders.

Miller also must improve his pad level, as he gets too upright when moving through the holes. It is sometimes laughable at the lack of aggression he displays when asked to move the pile. He also looks like Bambi staring at the truck's headlights when asked to stay in the backfield and block vs. the bull rush and blitz.

When watching film of Oregon's LaMichael James running with the ball, one is quickly reminded of Warrick Dunn in his prime. For a player lacking height, bulk and great power, it is his initial step and low center of gravity that consistently helps him pick up huge chunks of real estate. The thing that he does better than any other back in this class is hit the vertical cuts without losing momentum. He's not going to be a sideline-to-sideline runner, perhaps due to just average lateral agility, but his stop-and-go ability simply freezes defenders in their tracks.

Once James gets past the second level, that 4.33 speed takes over and it is a race to the house, finding the end zone 53 times (second among active NCAA players) in just 37 games. One area of concern is he has operated from a wide spread system, and you have to wonder if he can generate that explosive burst in a pro-style scheme. He might be limited to just two downs, as he is just a marginal receiver who likely will be removed in passing situations.

One ball-carrier rising rapidly on the draft boards is a slimmed-down Chris Polk. The Washington product played at 215 pounds last season, which allowed him to have much better success turning the corner than in previous seasons. He is a versatile back, equally comfortable lining up in a pro-style stance or being utilized from the shot gun, where he has proven to be a valuable short-yardage receiver.

Polk is not the quickest of the bunch, though, as he shows some wear and tear from knee injuries. Teams really put him through the medical ringer because of shoulder problems, but once he alleviated those concerns, his stock has risen from mid-rounds into the Day Two picture.

Polk might lack that initial explosion, but once he picks up a head of steam, he can get into the second level. He's just not going to win any long-distance foot races. He's going to need to work on his blocking skills and learn to run behind his pads better, but he's aggressive attacking the holes. Still, he has to become better at sidestepping low tackles and is never going to fool a defender with his average change-of-direction agility.

Teams looking for change-of-pace backs are keeping tabs on:

— Cincinnati's Isaiah Pead, a 4.39 runner who showed at the Senior Bowl that he can be a dangerous return specialist, in addition to handling the bulk of running duties

— Texas A&M's Cyrus Gray, a 206-pounder with 4.4 speed who produced back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons that included 12 touchdowns runs in each.

— Florida's Chris Rainey, a player who is a bigger version of the Saints' Darren Sproles and could be utilized more as a slot receiver, thanks to his pass-catching skills and 4.36 timing.

Power backs that will get lots of opportunities to run between the tackles who are capturing lots of interest are 220-pounders:

Bernard Pierce of Temple, who piled up 53 touchdowns and 3,570 yards in just 24 games as a starter.

Vick Ballard of Mississippi State, a junior college transfer who might lack foot spee, but scored 29 times on short runs since joining the Bulldogs in 2010.

Terrance Ganaway of Baylor, who not only gained 1,547 yards (6.19 avg) with 21 touchdowns in his first year as a starter last season but posted 54 knockdown blocks protecting Heisman Trophy winner Robert Griffin III from the blitz.

Other likely draft choices at this position should be Edwin Baker of Michigan State, Ronnie Hillman of San Diego State, Tauren Poole of Tennessee, Michael Smith of Utah State, Dan Herron of Ohio State, Brandon Bolden of Mississippi, Adonis Thomas of Toledo, Bobby Rainey of Western Kentucky, Jewel Hampton of Southern Illinois and Darrell Scott of South Florida.


Dave-Te Thomas has more than 40 years of experience scouting for the NFL. With the NFL Draft Report, Thomas handles a staff that evaluates and tests college players before the draft and prepares the NFL's official Draft Packet, which is distributed to all 32 teams prior to the draft.

Bill Huber is publisher of Packer Report magazine and PackerReport.com and has written for Packer Report since 1997. E-mail him at packwriter2002@yahoo.com, or leave him a question in Packer Report's subscribers-only Packers Pro Club forum. Find Bill on Twitter at twitter.com/PackerReport.


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