POSITION OVERVIEW: The Class of 2012 is one of the better groups in recent years, but, given the tectonic shift from offenses being dominated by runners to being dominated by quarterbacks, the value of running backs is at an unprecedented low. Few of the game's top running backs get paid beyond a one- or two-year contract once they hit the age of 30 because too many in the past have hit the proverbial wall and have gone from being rushing champions to out of the league within a year or two. The backlash to that is, while veteran running backs are universally disrespected, the NFL has placed a higher emphasis on young running backs in the draft. However, the day of first-round, high-end running backs dotting the draft in the first round are over. If not for Trent Richardson arguably being the most talented running back to come out of the draft since Adrian Peterson five years ago, there may not be a first-round pick coming from this year's RB crop. Last year, Mark Ingram was the first RB off the board and he didn't come off until the 28th pick. Richardson is a blue-chipper who may be the only first-rounder in this class, but expect to see a bunch go off in the second and third rounds. You still need a running game to win and the NFL won't give up on the young guns completely – they just won't pay them what they used to.
VIKINGS' RUNNING BACKS: Adrian Peterson, Toby Gerhart, Jerome Felton, Ryan D'Imperio, Lex Hilliard, Caleb King, Jordan Todman, Matt Asiata.
VIKINGS' NEEDS: Numbers don't mean success. The Vikings have eight running backs on the roster, but only one truly matters. Peterson's torn ACL and MCL are going to be the talker moments of the next six months. If he's back, will he be the "All Day" we remember? If not, change is needed. Of the eight running backs on the roster at the moment, Gerhart is the only one with experience as a bell cow for an offense. He did what he does – grind out yards between the tackles and get caught from behind in the open field. The Vikings may strongly consider drafting a running back in the third or fourth round, finding a speedster that can hit the corner Darren Sproles-style. Thanks to a healthy Peterson, the Vikings have only had to keep three running backs on the roster the last three years. Expect to see that change in 2012. The Vikings won't have a shot at Richardson, but, after that, all bets are off. If a running back they like is on the board in the middle rounds when they pick, they will pull the trigger. Remember that Sproles spent years behind LaDainian Tomlinson before getting his chance to shine in New Orleans. If there is going to be a surprisingly high positional pick made by the Vikings this year, it will be at running back.
THE CREAM OF THE CROP
Trent Richardson, Alabama, 5-9, 228 – Third-year junior…One-year starter who carried 283 times for 1,679 yards and 21 touchdowns, while catching 29 passes and three more scores – winning the Doak Walker Award for college football's top RB and finishing third in the Heisman Trophy balloting…In three years, he averaged 5.8 yards per carry and scored 42 touchdowns…With more than 600 career touches, he lost just one fumble…Spent two years behind Saints first-rounder Mark Ingram…Had some of his best performances in the most important games…Has excellent change of direction skills and rarely gets brought down by the first player who makes contact with him…Physically dominating in the mold of other college greats like Adrian Peterson and Bo Jackson…The only RB in SEC history to run for 20 touchdowns in a season…Extremely tough running between the tackles…Is a freakish weight room competitor, having bench pressed 475 pounds and squatted more than 600 pounds…Patient running behind blockers and attacking when a hole opens up…Sees plays developing in front of him and makes the most out of every run…Has the speed to beat linebackers around the corner and gets upfield quickly…Is a solid receiver but needs to refine his route running, he tends to wait for the ball to get to him and has to re-start too often…Has some character questions…Isn't an efficient blocker, but has the temperament to become a strong blocker if he's willing to commit to doing the extra work…Doesn't have lightning-type breakaway speed…Did not work out at the Combine due to a left knee injury. PROJECTION: For our money, he's the best running back to come out of the draft since Adrian Peterson in 2007. He has many of the same rare qualities – speed, strength and size. He plays with a mean streak and is a throwback to the power backs of years gone by, which is why he likely won't stay on the board beyond the first five or six picks.
THE NEXT LEVEL
Lamar Miller, Miami, 5-11, 212 – Third-year sophomore…One-year starter who rushed 227 times for 1,272 yards and nine touchdowns in 2011, the third-highest rushing total in school history and the first Miami RB to top 1,000 yards since Willis McGahee in 2002…Ran a 10.56-second 100 meters in high school, faster than Adrian Peterson (10.61) and Devin Hester (10.87)…Has a second gear in the open field…Has good field vision and sees cutback lanes well…Has good stop-and-start and change of direction skills…Has the speed to hit the edge and turn plays upfield…Follows his blocks well…Gets up to top speed quickly…Still a bit raw with only 335 career rushing attempts…Wasn't used extensively in the passing game, catching just 28 passes in 23 games and averaging just 6.5 yards per reception…Wasn't used as a blocker to pick up blitzes and will have a long learning curve…Is an upright runner with a narrow build who doesn't break a lot of tackles once he gets wrapped up…Has some durability concerns after struggling with injuries in each of his two seasons…Ran a sparkling 4.34 40 at the Combine with a 33-inch vertical jump (didn't lift due to a left shoulder injury or do the broad jump). PROJECTION: A speed merchant who has the type of body that can add 10 pounds of muscle without sacrificing speed. He's a poor man's Jamaal Charles and could become an ideal speed back in a two-back system. Has the potential to be a first-round pick, but more likely will go early in the second round.
David Wilson, Virginia Tech, 5-10, 206 – Third-year junior…Was behind Cardinals 2011 second-round pick until last year, when he became a full-time starter – rushing 290 times for VT-record 1,709 yards, caught 22 passes and scored 10 touchdowns…Was named the ACC Player of the Year in 2011…Exceptional strength for his size…Makes tacklers miss often…Has a lot of return experience…Consistently gains yardage after contact…Hits the corner quickly and hits top speed in a hurry…Has a second gear in the open field…Ran for the Va-Tech track team, a testament to his speed…Isn't patient running between the tackles and will abandon a hole too early and too often…Is a bit undersized for NFL RBs…Has a history of fumbling because he runs too upright and takes too many big hits that jar the ball loose…Has very limited experience as a blocker…Had a history of butting heads with the coaching staff…Ran a 4.38 40 at the Combine, didn't lift, had a 41-inch vertical jump and an 11-0 broad jump. PROJECTION: A high-energy player who has a wealth of talent and speed. But his red flags are big and bright – fumbling and history of being viewed as hard to coach/immature/pouty. Whoever drafts him will have to weigh his positives and negatives, which could drop him out of the first round despite having first-round talent.
Doug Martin, Boise State, 5-9, 223 – Fifth-year senior…Two-year starter who rushed 463 times for 2,559 yards, caught 56 passes for 593 yards and scored 32 touchdowns…Is a powerful runner who takes on defenders rather than avoiding contact…Despite being undersized, he has incredible strength (see below) and toughness between the tackles…Has good straight-line speed…One of the best receiving backs in the Class of 2012…A willing team player who moved to cornerback as a sophomore when the secondary was beset with injuries…Has short arms and small hands – two RB killers on draft weekend…Isn't always patient and runs into his own linemen too often…Doesn't have elite agility and tends to run north-and-south almost exclusively…Has good speed, but not breakaway speed or a second gear…Didn't play top competition…Ran a 4.46 40 at Combine with a whopping 28 reps of 225 pounds, a 36-inch vertical jump and a 10-0 broad jump. PROJECTION: When you watch him on film, he will remind you of Maurice Jones-Drew, just without the top-end speed. He is undersized, but plays with a chip on his shoulder and consistently gains yards. He had a strong Combine performance, which should vault him into consideration late in the first round, but more likely the second round.
LaMichael James, Oregon, 5-8, 194 – Fourth-year junior…Started 35 of 37 career games, rushing 771 times for 5,082 yards and a whopping 57 total touchdowns…Won the Doak Walker Award (best college RB) in 2010 and was a Walker Award finalist last year…As a sophomore, won the Paul Hornung Award, given to college football's most versatile player…Despite playing just three years, ranked second on the all-time Pac-10 rushing list…Endured a difficult childhood – his father was shot and killed before he was born and his mother abandoned him as a child, forcing his maternal grandmother to raise him until she died his senior year of high school…Has an affinity for big plays, has 34 rushes of 30 yards or more in three years…Averaged a whopping 7.3 yards per carry in 2011 and had a career average of 6.6 yards…A hard-nosed runner who hits holes quickly…Has explosive speed and has the moves to make tacklers miss consistently in the open field…Can stop on a dime and regain top speed in just two or three strides…Is very undersized by NFL standards…Has a history of fumbling…Is not an efficient blocker and too often got rocked backward when asked to pick up blitzers…Doesn't have great upper- or lower-body strength…Has some character concerns that some teams might view as a red flag…Ran a sparkling 4.35 40 at the Combine with 15 reps of 225 pounds, a 35-inch vertical jump and a 10-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: He's smaller than most scouts want in their running backs and is a blocking liability, but has the speed to be a dangerous runner/return man. His limitations, however, will likely drop him into the third round at the earliest on draft weekend.
THE BEST OF THE REST
Chris Polk, Washington, 5-11, 215 – Fourth-year junior who was granted a medical redshirt in his true freshman year after suffering a shoulder injury in the second game of the season…In three years, started all 38 games in which he played, rushing 779 times for 4,016 yards, caught 78 passes for 683 yards and scored 30 touchdowns…A strong inside runner who gains yards after initial contact…Hits the hole hard and gets north-south in a hurry and decisively…Is hard to bring down one-on-one…Has good field vision and sees holes develop and hits them aggressively…An adept receiver who makes plays in the passing game…Doesn't have ideal breakaway speed…Is a poor blocker and can't be counted on to pick up blitzes…Has a history of shoulder and knee injuries that could impact his draft stock…Doesn't have a second gear in the open field and will get caught…Didn't lift at the Combine, but ran a 4.52 40 with a 31½-inch vertical jump and a 9-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: A strong inside runner who has a lot of the attributes of players like Clinton Portis or Ahmad Bradshaw. He was a bell cow for three years in the Washington offense and has the pedigree to be a solid NFL RB. He would be an ideal fit for a West Coast Offense, but will need to work on his blocking to be on the field full time at the next level.
Cyrus Gray, Texas A&M, 5-10, 206 – Fourth-year senior…Never a full-time starter (partly because of the system), but started 29 of 46 career games…Finished his career with 632 carries for 3,298 yards, 103 receptions for 776 yards and 36 touchdowns…A consummate team player, head coach Mike Sherman said he was the kind of man "you would want to marry your daughter"…Takes his training seriously, he works out with Von Miller and Olympic sprinter Michael Johnson…Has excellent initial burst and good footwork…Fights hard for every yard and never goes down easily…Has good field vision and waits for cutback lanes to develop before hitting the hole…A classic one-cut runner…Strong work ethic…Doesn't have top-end speed…Did a lot of things for the Aggies offense, but was never a primary focus – he never had more than 200 rushing attempts in any season…A willing blocker, but needs a lot of work…Slows down when forced to change direction – even minimally…Ran a 4.40 40 at the Combine with 21 reps of 225 pounds, a 32½-inch vertical jump and a 9-6 broad jump. PROJECTION: A role player in college who will likely be asked to do the same thing in the pros – being a part-time/third-down type back and special teams contributor whose biggest early contribution will likely be in the return game. But, in an era of diva players with a sense of self-entitlement, he is a high-character player who will give everything he has, even if it isn't as dynamic as some of the other backs in this year's draft class.
Bernard Pierce, Temple, 6-0, 218 – Third-year junior…Started 24 of 34 career games, rushing 663 times for 3,570 yards and a whopping 53 touchdowns…Had his most productive season in 2011, rushing 273 times for 1,481 yards and 27 TDs…Three-time All-MAC selection…Has very good field vision and picks his holes well…Can't argue his production – he posted 18 100-yard rushing games in just 24 starts…Has a big, muscular frame that could easily add 10 pounds of bulk strength in the NFL…Has explosive first step and plants his foot in the ground to make aggressive cutbacks when he hits the hole…Consistently gains yardage after contact but gets contacted early too often…Runs way too high and opens himself up to big hits…Doesn't have elite power or elusiveness and gets bottled up quickly too often…Is too one-dimensional – caught just 19 passes for 178 yards and one TD in 34 career games…Didn't play top competition and his learning curve will be steeper than most of this year's class…Has a history of missing time in games due to injuries, which is a big problem for some organizations…Ran a 4.45 40 at the Combine with 17 reps, a 36½-inch vertical jump and a 10-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: Temple head coach Steve Addazio compared him to Ryan Grant of the Packers, who Addazio coached at Notre Dame. Anyone familiar with Grant can see the comparisons. He has the ability to be a solid NFL running back, but he is neither fast nor overly athletic and plays with savvy more than natural God-given gifts. He has a chance to go on Day 2, but, if he makes it to Day 3, he could be a solid value pick.
Vick Ballard, Mississippi State, 5-10, 219 – A fourth-year senior who spent two years at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College, where he was named a Junior College All-American…Started 23 of 25 games at MSU, rushing 379 times for 2,157 yards, catching 30 passes for 293 yards and scored 31 touchdowns…A power back who pounds between the tackles…Has excellent lower body strength to push the pile in short yardage and near the goal line…Lets blockers set up plays before hitting the hole…A willing student of the game who works hard in practice and the weight room…Is stronger in the second half than he is early on and wears down defenses…Keeps his pads low and rarely gets stood up or stymied…Is almost exclusively a north-south runner in the Rudi Johnson mold…Does not have great burst, sustaining speed or a second gear in the open field and will get dragged down…Doesn't make defenders miss…Is not a natural pass receiver…His blocking needs work and refinement…Ran a 4.59 40 at the Combine with 23 reps, a 33-inch vertical jump and a 9-7 broad jump. PROJECTION: A between-the-tackles specialist, he is probably the best of the power backs in this year's crop. For a team like Cincinnati, that has employed Corey Dillon, Rudi Johnson and Cedric Benson, or, for that matter, any other team in the AFC North, he would seem to be an ideal pick that will be available on the third day of the draft.
Edwin Baker, Michigan State, 5-8, 204 – Third-year junior…Started 21 of 35 games…In his three years at MSU, he rushed 462 times for 2,293 yards and 19 touchdowns…Turned a lot of heads in 2010 rushing 207 times for 1,201 yards and 13 TDs, but saw his numbers drop in 2011 (170-665-5)…A tightly-built muscle mass that runs low to the ground and gets into holes with power…Rarely brought down on first contact and rips through arm tackles…Has extremely good initial burst and quickness…Patient runner who plants his foot and hits the hole hard…Keeps his feet churning and consistently picks up an extra yard or two after initial contact…Takes on blockers with aggression and is good at picking up blitzers…Is viewed as too small by NFL standards for a power back…Does not have the type of body that can add much more in the way of muscle or bulk – he will always be undersized…Doesn't have a repertoire of moves in the open field and doesn't lose people in space…One-dimensional – he caught just 15 passes in 35 career games…Ran a 4.44 40 at the Combine with 20 reps, a 35-inch vertical jump and a 9-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: An undersized between-the-tackles runner, he could have been a second-rounder in next year's draft had he stayed at Michigan State and posted a big year. As it stands, he is likely a priority pick on Day 3 of the draft, where there will be teams convinced they can get the most out of him. One of them will be right. A Day 3 sleeper that could become a star in the right system…or a trivia answer with the wrong team.
OTHERS TO WATCH
Brandon Bolden, Mississippi, 5-11, 222
Terrance Ganaway, Baylor, 6-0, 239
Dan Herron, Ohio State, 5-10, 213
Ronnie Hillman, San Diego State, 5-9, 200
Isaiah Peade, Cincinnati, 5-10, 197
Tauren Poole, Tennessee, 5-10, 205
Chris Rainey, Florida, 5-8, 180
Darrell Scott, South Florida, 6-0, 231
Robert Turbin, Utah State, 5-10, 222
John Holler has been writing about the Vikings for more than a decade for Viking Update. Follow Viking Update on Twitter and discuss this story on our subscriber message board.
Position analysis: Running backs
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