The Underclassmen: The Running Backs

With the Scouting Combine a month away, and the Senior Bowl just around the corner, it's time for Seahawks.NET to ramp up our acclaimed draft coverage once again! We begin with Draft Editor Scott Eklund's multi-part series about those underclassmen who have declared for the draft. Scott starts the series by profiling the running backs.

Texas RB Jamaal Charles If he had returned to Austin for his senior season, Charles could have been a front-runner for the Heisman Trophy in 2008. He’s about as talented as you can get at the running back position. He’s got tremendous top-end speed, he possesses excellent vision and he’s a great receiver out of the backfield. His only issue will be his size (6-1, 200) and answering the question of whether he can take the every-down pounding an NFL back absorbs. He’s most likely a late first, early second-round back.

NFL Comparison: New Orleans RB Reggie Bush

Central Florida RB Kevin Smith –
Even though he led the country in rushing with 2,567 yards and 29 touchdowns, it was expected that Smith would stay for at least one more season, especially when you consider that other top underclassmen running backs had already declared as well. Smith doesn’t have breakaway speed which will probably make him a value pick in the second or third round, but he’s got incredible vision and he's very quick with deceptive moves in the open field and he’s always running down hill.

NFL Comparison: Green Bay RB Ryan Grant

Running back Rashard Mendenhall #5 of the Illinois Fighting Illini runs for the Illini's first touchdown in the third quarter over the USC Trojans in the 'Rose Bowl presented by Citi' at the Rose Bowl on January 1, 2008 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

Illinois RB Rashard Mendenhall – One of the hardest-running players in the country, Mendenhall was the player that consistently moved the chains for an up-and-coming Illini team. Mendenhall has good, not great, speed and he’s a tough inside runner that can lower his head and get you the extra yardage when you need it. He’s also an above-average receiver out of the backfield. Because of the dynamic players that are also populating the running back prospect list for the 2007 draft, Mendenhall could be a great value pick in the second round if he falls that far, but many expect him to be gone in the first round.

NFL Comparison: Indianapolis RB Joseph Addai

Rutgers RB Ray Rice – For his size (5-9, 200), Rice is a very physical runner who can make yardage both inside and outside. His problem will be staying healthy when asked to carry the load for a team. Rice can cut on a dime and he runs with power while also possessing great hands out of the backfield. Most project Rice to go somewhere in the late second or early third round.

NFL Comparison: San Diego RB Darren Sproles

Arkansas RB Darren McFaddenMcFadden was by far the best player in the country in both 2006 and 2007, but turmoil within the Arkansas program caused him to go overlooked for the Heisman. However, there’s no denying that McFadden is one of the most dynamic runners to come out of college in several years. He can do it all. He’s great at finding creases and he runs well with power. He’s got the speed to take it the distance on every play and he’s super-tough. Honestly, it’s tough to find a weakness anywhere in his game, but if you had to nit-pick, because no prospect is perfect, he could be a better blocker and he’s good, but not great, at catching the ball out of the backfield. He should be one of the first five players selected in the draft and, depending on which teams move up or down, he could end up being be the top overall selection.

NFL Comparison – Minnesota RB Adrian Peterson

Clemson RB James DavisOne of the top backs in the ACC the past two years, Davis came out so he could be the feature-back in a system for the first time since high school. Davis shared time with the electrifying C.J. Spiller the past two seasons and he was the ultimate team player helping the youngster adjust to the speed of college football, but he was ready to strike out on his own. Davis runs hard and has deceptive speed able to run away from corners and safeties once he gets into the secondary. He’s an adept receiver out of the backfield and he’s also a solid pass-blocker as well. He’s projected as a late second or third round selection and any team that decides to take him will be happy they did.

NFL Comparison – Buffalo RB Marshawn Lynch

Running back Jonathan Stewart #28 of the Oregon Ducks rushes against Josh Barrett #19 of the Arizona State Sun Devils at Autzen Stadium on November 3, 2007 in Eugene, Oregon. The Ducks defeated the Sun Devils 35-23. (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)

Oregon RB Jonathan Stewart – It wasn’t a surprise to see Stewart leave early and he’s a player that has had an NFL body since the day he graduated from high school. Stewart’s size (5-11, 235) and speed (4.45) combo are outstanding and he’s a tough runner inside while possessing the elusiveness in the hole to make defenders miss when he needs to. Stewart’s biggest bugaboo has been his ability to stay healthy. He’s had hamstring and ankle problems since he arrived on campus and while he stayed relatively healthy this past season, he still needs to show teams he can remain healthy for the long term. He’s projected as a mid to late first round selection at this point.

NFL Comparison – Washington RB Clinton Portis

Arkansas RB Felix JonesIf there was ever a back I thought should come back for his senior season, it’s Jones. Not because I don’t think he will be a good pro, but because he’s played in McFadden’s shadow, it’s hard to imagine he’s fully maximized his draft status. Jones is a tough runner with outstanding speed (4.35) and he’s got good hands so he could be a nice third-down back to start off his pro career. It would be nice if he could add about 10 to 15 pounds of weight, but at this point it looks like he’s stuck around the 200 pound range. Had he come back, I think you would have seen him be at or near the top of the national rushing leader board and probably been a first or second round selection. With the overloaded running back position already having a lot of players with his abilities and better production, it looks like Jones could fall until the third round and if that happens he would be a minor steal for whichever team selects him.

NFL Comparison – Dallas RB Julius Jones

West Virginia RB Steve Slaton Slaton is a dynamic running back who makes his living playing on the edge and using his tremendous speed and quickness in space to make defenses pay. Some think QB Patrick White was the reason for Slaton’s success as teams had to account for both playmakers, so it’s unclear what type of a player he’ll be at the next level. Slaton’s best bet may be to make the switch to wideout, keeping the pounding his body takes to a minimum. He could actually end up being a lot like Steve Smith from the Carolina Panthers with his open-field skills and his strength. As it is, if he stays at running back, he’s likely to end up falling a bit because of his relatively slight frame (5-10, 195).

NFL Comparison – Atlanta RB Warrick Dunn

Tomorrow: The wide receivers. Top Stories