Draft Outlook: Running Backs

Not as bad as originally thought but still not as strong as hoped; the best way to characterize this April's running back crop. Several multi-dimensional ball handlers yet just as many with major durability questions.

 Not as bad as originally thought but still not as strong as hoped; the best way to characterize this April's running back crop. Several multi-dimensional ball handlers yet just as many with major durability questions. Here's a closer look at the Top 10:

 1 – Larry Johnson, Penn State

 After years of the slippery, elusive running backs, Penn State has settled on the power running of Larry Johnson. And the Lions top rusher from last season is putting together a good campaign in 2002, enhancing his draft status and making NFL scouts take notice of him. So where does he stand at the next level?

 The Good:  Big, strong runner starting to come into his own.  Patient back with nice vision, waits for blocks to develop and uses an effective straight-arm, staying on his feet off initial contact. Powerful lower body which enables him to break tackles and move the pile of defenders trying to bring him down.  Gives effort blocking, breaks down playing with solid techniques and picks up his assignments, squaring into the oncoming defender.  Decent safety valve as a receiver out of the backfield.  

The Bad:  Overall running lacks quickness, speed and avoidability.  Runs with an upright style and not fast through the hole.  

The Skinny:  To his credit, starting to pull the pieces together in 2002, which could result in a first day selection, or at the very least the middle frames, should he run well prior to April.

Projection: First round

 2 – Lee Suggs, Virginia Tech

 Entering the 2001 campaign many considered Lee Suggs the top running back in college football and number one pro-prospect at his position but a major knee injury during the first game of the season quickly put an end to his year. Suggs is back and showing the same skills he displayed as a junior but where does he fit in at the next level.

 The Good:   Quick, shifty back coming off a major knee injury.  Explosive runner with quickness through the hole and a burst of speed in the open field.  Patient, waits for his blocks to develop, then sets-up defenders and makes them miss, side-stepping opponents with his ability to quickly cut it back.  Breaks down well playing with forward lean and gives effort blocking.  Best on the interior and a north-south runner that weaves through the traffic, breaking arm tackles and working his runs.  

The Bad: Only average hands, not effective outside of tackle and loses momentum running in anything other than a straight-line.  Suffered a major knee injury which shelved him for almost all of the 2001 campaign.  Quickly got back to form this season, though he presently has the benefit of sharing the ball with another skilled runner.  

The Skinny:  Instincts and speed make him a quality prospect and high pick next April, assuming test results on his injured knee are negative .

Projection: First round

 3 – Onterio Smith, Oregon

 A highly touted recruit at the University of Tennessee, Onterio Smith was forced off the team after several rules violations but has landed on his feet in Eugene, carrying the ball for the Ducks and helping them to national prominence. Along the way he is establishing himself as on of the best running back prospects in the nation.

 The Good:  Elusive, versatile running back effective carrying the ball or catching it out of the backfield.  Quick footed, displays some wiggle in his runs and leaves defenders grasping for air as he makes them miss at the point of attack.  Somewhat of a slashing style and quickly cuts it back against the grain, avoiding piles or opponents altogether.  Fast with a burst of speed through the hole or the ability to get outside, around tackle and beats opponents to the corners.  Also a patient ball carrier that waits for his blocks to develop.  Runs with balance, works hard and keeps his feet moving up the field.  Though an  elusive runner does more north/south running rather than just trying to dance around opponents.  Excellent receiver with soft, natural hands and the ability to adjust for the errant throw.  

The Bad:  Prefers not to block even in a pinch, lacks the classic size for an every down runner and has had more than his fair share of problems off the field.  Seems to have buckled down and is getting his priorities in order, though there's room for improvement.  

The Skinny:  A big time prospect at the next level as he's a back with a little Marshall Faulk in him, and an impact offensive player at the next level if he keeps his focus, concentration and does the right thing.

Projection: Second round

 4 – Chris Brown, Colorado

 Gary Barnett has had a host of talented running backs in his college coaching career and Chris Brown could be the best. A powerful runner with intellect, Brown runs around opponents with as much ferocity as he runs through them.

 The Good:  Big, powerful runner that carries the load and moves the pile.   Combines strong hips and lower body, keeps his feet moving up the field, easily adjusting off the first hit, picking up a lot of yardage off initial contact and staying off the ground.  Rarely tackled by a single opponent, drags defenders and does not go down without a fight.  More than just a road-grader; sees the field, follows blocks and an intelligent ball carrier.  Displays a short burst through the hole and effective between tackle.  

The Bad: Lacks the great breakaway speed, not an elusive runner and best between tackle.  

The Skinny:  Good size for the next level as an interior runner and completing the equation by proving this year he can handle the duties as an every down ball carrier.  Best if he stays in college but should he leave, pre-draft speed will dictate much.

Projection: Second round

 5 – Musa Smith, Georgia

 Projection: Second round

 6 – Artose Pinner, Kentucky

 Projection: Third round

 7 – Justin Fargas, USC

 Projection: Third round

 8 – Domanick Davis, LSU

 The talent level at Baton Rouge is getting to be enormous, so much so that productive seniors must sit on the bench to make way for up and coming youngsters that may hold more upside. Such is the case with Domanick Davis; a skilled runner and solid pro-prospect who may just slip through the cracks next April.

 The Good:  Quick, versatile skill player overshadowed by the bigger names on his team.  Tremendous footwork with the ability to set up defenders, quickly cut it back and make opponents miss.  Sees the field, finds the hole and displays a burst of speed through it.  Patient, waiting for his blocks to develop and elusive enough to scamper outside around tackle and get to the corners.  Also strings together several moves in one carry.  Plays much faster than his forty time.  Impacts the game as a return specialist and nice receiver out of the backfield, though his stats would not lead you to that conclusion.  

The Bad: Compact build with a strong lower body but does not show the ability to pick up much yardage off initial contact or break tackles.  

The Skinny: A player that will fall through the cracks next April but a prospect that has a definite future at the next level as a third down back, return specialist and an occasional primary ball carrier.

9 – Earnest Graham, Florida

 Known as a school that is pass the ball first, second and sometimes third, Earnest Graham has been an exceptional back for the Gators three years running and displays a lot of skill for the next level.

 The Good:  Productive ball carrier that's been the Gators feature back three years running.  Smart, instinctive and possesses excellent running skills.  Patient back that waits for his blocks to develop, sees the field and finds the open hole in the defense.   Will pick and choose his spots, works to set up defenders and displays a small stutter-step which he uses to avoid opponents or bounce it to the outside.  Runs with forward lean, keeps his feet moving up the field and picks up yardage off initial contact.  Aggressive, uses an effective straight arm and works to finish his runs.  Solid receiver out of the backfield and a reliable safety valve.  Adequate when called upon to block. 

The Bad:  Lacks a burst, open field speed and cannot run to daylight.  Shorter than what one wants in an every down ball carrier.  

The Skinny:  Desire, natural skills and productivity will help him be successful at the next level but unless he turns in a blistering forty-time prior to April, a marginal first day selection.

Projection: Fourth round

 10- -- Cecil Sapp

 Always known as one that had tremendous innate skills, Cecil Sapp's career at Colorado State has been characterized by injury and sharing the ball in the Ram backfield. He's off to a blistering start this season and the 2002 campaign is pushing Sapp into the early reaches of the draft's first day.

 The Good:  Big, powerful ball carrier with terrific overall running skills.  Displays vision, seeing the field and finding the hole, weaves his way through the traffic, getting to the open spot on the field and picking up positive yardage.  Displays wiggle and some shake-n-bake in a small area and sets up defenders, making them miss.  Strong enough to redirect off the initial hit, gain yardage after initial contact and tough to knock off his feet.  Plays a fast game for a bigger back, exploding through the hole, running well in  the open.   

The Bad: Because of injuries and depth at the position has only one complete season under his belt.  Not used much as a receiver out of the backfield.  

The Skinny:  Showed us a lot of skill based on the '00 tape and is off a tremendous campaign in 2002 which, combined with good pre-draft workouts, could catapult him towards the early part of round two.

Projection: Fourth round

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