Positional Analysis: Running Backs

While there is a divide between the "Big Three" running backs and the rest of the draft class at the position this year, there are many decent options throughout the draft. A good back exists for each specialty and as many as 10 could be selected on the first day. We examine the strength and weaknesses of the top 11 projections.

Vikings' Running Backs — Michael Bennett, Onterrio Smith, Mewelde Moore, Moe Williams.

Vikings' Needs — The Vikings don't necessarily need a running back, but there are two scenarios that would make sense. One would be to either draft a full-time feature running back and trade one of their top three backs. Or they could draft a developmental running back later in the draft who could compete for a starting punt and/or kick return job. They likely will need one more back on their regular-season 53-man roster and might hold a practice-squad spot open for another addition.

Class of 2005 — The 2005 draft is likely to be remembered as one of the top running back classes in 15 years, with the distinct possibility of three running backs going as high as the top five picks and the near-certainty of three being off the board in the top eight picks. But, as teams like the Vikings have learned, you can get talented running backs in the later rounds and this year's crop has more than its share of RB oddities. There are big backs like Eric Shelton and Kay-Jay Harris, a monster like 264-pound Brandon Jacobs, mighty mites like Darren Sproles and Anthony Davis, both of whom are just 5-6, and the always-enigmatic Maurice Clarett. While the Vikings have a crowded backfield as it is, they might take a leap of faith if a between-the-tackles bruiser like Benson remains on the board at No. 7. The team has opted to wait until in Day 2 the last two drafts and have come away with part-time starters Onterrio Smith and Mewelde Moore for their troubles — not too shabby. This is a deep class that has a lot of specialists, which means about a dozen or so could go on the first day and several more in the middle to late rounds.


Ronnie Brown, Auburn, 6-0, 233 —
Fifth-year senior ... Never been a full-time starter, starting five games in 2001, six in 2002, three in 2003 and six last year ... Ran 175 times for 1,056 yards and 13 TDs in his sophomore season, but never eclipsed those numbers ... As a senior he posted 153-928-8 numbers rushing and 34-313-1 as a receiver ... Has a great combination of speed, size and strength ... Very good receiver with soft hands ... Rarely drops passes ... Rarely brought down by arm tackles or by the first man who hits him ... Has the speed to take any carry the distance ... Is willing to run between the tackles and pick up the tough yards ... Hits the corner at full speed and has a second gear in the open field ... Is the best pass blocker of any running back in the Class of '05 ... Doesn't have the shifty moves that make defenders miss ... Runs a little upright and takes a lot of big hits ... Has missed playing time with injuries ranging from turf toe to shoulder to ankle problems to hamstring issues ... Has never been a full-time back ... His detractors ask why he never supplanted Cadillac Williams as the go-to RB in his final two years ... Wowed scouts at the Combine with a 4.43 40, 18 reps with 225 pounds, a 34-inch vertical jump, a 9-9 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 23.

PROJECTION: Before the Combine, Cedric Benson was the clear No. 1 RB, but Brown proved at the Combine that he is the complete package — bigger and a better receiver than his teammate Williams. He could go as early as No. 2 to Miami and there's almost no chance he will make past No. 8 in Arizona — even if he was the third RB taken. All odds point to him going first in the draft.

Cedric Benson, Texas, 5-10, 222 — Fourth-year senior and four-year starter ... A fantasy football dream, he ran for 8,400 yards and 127 TDs in four years in high school and 5,723 yards and 64 TDs at Texas ... In his final two years with the Longhorns, he rushed 584 times for 3,288 yards and 40 touchdowns ... Two-time All-Big 12 and was a Heisman Trophy finalist ... Had 25 career 100-yard games with Texas and the team never lost any of those games ... Set an NCAA record for running backs by scoring a touchdown in 37 games ... Spent two summers playing in the Dodgers organization after being given a $125,000 signing bonus ... A true go-to running back who has been durable and played through injuries ... Brutal runner between the tackles who rarely gets stuffed ... Can pop runs outside with a good initial pop ... Patient runner who finds lanes and waits for his line to set up blocks ... Good balance ... First defender rarely brings him down ... Had some fumbling problems last year, losing seven fumbles in three games during the middle of the season ... Will be more one-dimensional in the NFL like former Longhorn Ricky Williams — running more between the tackles because he doesn't have the breakaway speed to get to the outside consistently ... Doesn't always give the same effort from one game to the next ... Has a couple of off-field incidents (including marijuana possession) that may throw up a red flag for some organizations ... Ran a 4.6 40 at the Combine, along with a 33-inch vertical jump, a 9-8 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 19.

PROJECTION: No running back in this draft is a more proven commodity than Benson. To this point in his career, he has rushed for more than 14,000 yards and scored 184 touchdowns. Yet, much like former UT running back Ricky Williams, he isn't viewed as a versatile runner. In 1999, that led to Williams falling behind Edgerrin James on draft day and history may repeat itself. If he's still on the board at No. 7, the Vikings will take a long look, but seeing as one of his former coaches is on Lovie Smith's staff, he could well end up in the NFC North, but as a member of the Bears.

Carnell Williams, Auburn, 5-11, 217 — Fourth-year senior who was High School All-American and Mr. Football in the state of Alabama ... Split time with Ronnie Brown each of his four seasons, but dominated the carries in the final two years — carrying 480 times as opposed to just 248 for Brown ... In his final two seasons, he rushed 480 times for 2,624 yards and 29 touchdowns ... Two-time All-SEC selection ... His 45 rushing touchdowns broke the school record held by Bo Jackson ... Very elusive and can jump in and out of cutback lanes to break off runs ... Can stop and change directions the closest thing this side of Barry Sanders ... He isn't big, but is very tough and doesn't try to avoid contact or go down easy ... Keeps his pads squared up and is rarely caught out of position at the point of attack ... Excellent burst through the hole ... A solid blocker, but needs help on adjusting to blitz pickups ... Wasn't much of a receiving threat at Auburn, but showed very good hands at the Combine ... Durability is a question because of numerous nagging type injuries that affected him in college (a broken collarbone in 2001 and a broken leg in 2002) ... Will have much more difficulty running consistently up the middle in the NFL ... Like Brown, was never asked to be a full-time running back in college, but will be in the NFL ... Ran a 4.43 40 at the Combine with a 35-1/2 inch vertical jump, a 9-10 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 22.

PROJECTION: His durability questions and perceived problems with handling the pounding an NFL back must endure could drop him on some lists. But, his performances at the Combine and the Senior Bowl have shown him to be perhaps the most complete back in the draft. At the Senior Bowl he was coached by the Bucs coaching staff and head coach Jon Gruden raved about his performance. Don't be stunned if he ends up in Tampa, even if one of the other top three backs is still on the board.


Ciatrick Fason, Florida, 6-0, 209 — Fourth-year junior ... Only a full-time starter for one season, but made the most of it — rushing 222 times for 1,326 yards (a 6-yard average) and 10 touchdown, while adding 35-266-2 in the receiving game ... First-team All-SEC in 2004 ... Married with two children ... Good initial burst off the snap and redirection skills ... Has the speed to make the corner and take any run to the house ... A polished receiver in the passing game ... Durability isn't a question, while he only started 15 games, he played in all 37 games of his college career ... Isn't an effective blocker ... While he has good strength, some scouts question his ability to consistently run inside at the next level ... In the last 10 years the only Florida RB to go higher than Fason projects was Fred Taylor in 1998 ... Gets taken down too easily in the open field ... Runs a little too upright and opens himself to big hits ... Ran a 4.57 40 at the Combine with a 36-inch vertical jump, a 9-10 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 16.

PROJECTION: After the Big Three running backs are gone, it's something of a crapshoot as to who will be No. 4, but it likely won't be until the second round. But once into the second, guys like Fason shouldn't last long.

Marion Barber III, Minnesota, 5-11, 221 — Fourth-year junior who was a medical redshirt early in the 2002 season ... A two-year starter who was part of a time-share that saw both backs go over 1,000 yards in the last two years ... In his two seasons as a starter, Barber ran 438 times for 2,583 yards and 28 touchdowns ... Was the MVP of the Music City Bowl in January, dominating the game with 37 carries for 187 yards and a touchdown ... Hits the hole in a hurry and brings people along for the ride ... Excellent lower body strength ... Makes big plays ... Team player who never griped about a time share ... Lined up a fullback/lead blocker in many situations ... Isn't a threat to break any carry for a touchdown ... Doesn't have top-end burst at the snap ... Isn't patient when waiting for holes to develop ... Ran a 4.5 40 at the Combine with 18 reps of 225 pounds, a 35-inch vertical jump (he's been measured as high as 40 on the vertical), a 10-7 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 16.

PROJECTION: Many think he would have been better served staying at Minnesota one more season, but when he petitioned the NFL for his prospects if he entered early, he was told by the league experts that he could expect to go somewhere in the second round. If they think so, why shouldn't we? He'll never be a game-breaking RB that routinely shows up in NFL highlight films, but he could be a productive back who could push a veteran RB for playing time.

J.J. Arrington, California, 5-9, 214 — Fourth-year senior ... Transferred to Cal after two years at College of the Canyons (Calif.) Junior College ... One-year starter who completely blew up in 2004, rushing 289 times for a Division I-leading 2,056 yards and 15 touchdowns ... He averaged more than seven yards a carry in 2004 ... The only RB in the country to rush for 100 or more yards in every game ... All-American in '04 and first-team All-Pac 10 ... Squatty, fireplug who hits the hole hard and has surprising speed for his build ... Improved a lot last year in hitting the cutback lanes for big gains ... Was the fastest of all the running backs at the Combine ... Doesn't have the size a lot of scouts look for and doesn't make any moves that make defenders miss ... Caught 42 passes in the last two seasons, but isn't viewed as much of a receiving threat ... Is sometimes a liability when assigned to pick up blitzers ... Has had some fumbling issues ... Ran a 4.4 40 at the Combine with 18 reps, a 35-inch vertical jump, a 10-1 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 14.

PROJECTION: If you went purely on straight-line speed, Arrington would be gone in the first round. But he has a lot of check marks that go in his negative column and could slide in favor of similar backs that have experience on special teams. Even so, he could be a diamond that gets selected somewhere at the middle or end of the second round.

Eric Shelton, Louisville, 6-1, 245 — Fourth-year junior who was a consensus High School All-American ... Also a high school track champion ... Spent freshman year at Florida State before transferring to Louisville ... Was never a full-time starter, but in two years rushed 312 times for 1,784 yards and 20 touchdowns ... Scored 20 TDs in 2004 alone ... Is a north-south runner, but has the speed to break carries for long gains ... Very adept at reading his blocks ... Isn't often brought down by just one player ... Does a nice job of bouncing plays outside for gains, but isn't viewed as a threat on the perimeter in the NFL ... Had to play in a three-back rotation that diminished his individual effectiveness ... Had one of the best vertical jumps at the Combine with 38 inches ... Is more a 4-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust runner ... Has never been asked to be a go-to back ... Doesn't have much experience in pass blocking and blitz pickup ... Not a threat as a receiver, he caught just seven passes in two years with the Cardinals ... Ran a 4.56 40 at the Combine, with 18 reps of 225 pounds, the aforementioned vertical, a 10-4 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 23.

PROJECTION: Shelton has the size to be a similar back to Jerome Bettis, to whom he is most often compared. He has a great size/speed combination and that could outweigh his deficiencies in blocking and pass catching and see him leave the board somewhere near the end of the second round.


Vernand Morancy, Oklahoma State, 5-9, 212 —
Third-year junior who spent three years after high school playing baseball in the Colorado Rockies organization ... Backed up Tatum Bell in 2003 and still managed to rush 134 times for 918 yards and six touchdowns ... As a full-time starter in '04, he had 258-1,520-12 rushing stats ... Has very good initial burst through the hole ... Dangerous runner when he hits the corner and has the speed to go the distance ... Can out-run most defenders when he gets into his second gear ... Seems to enjoy contact and likes to lower shoulder on potential tacklers and deliver the blow instead of absorb it ... Biggest drawback is his age — if he signs a five-year rookie contract, he will be 30 when it expires ... Had a poor performance at his Pro Day in March ... Isn't an effective blocker ... Seldom used in the passing game ... Ran a 4.67 40 at the Combine, did 19 reps, had a 33-1/2 inch vertical jump, a 9-0 broad jump and a woeful Wonderlic score of 11.

PROJECTION: Has been compared go some of the better power backs in the NFL like T.J. Duckett and Jamal Lewis, so he could be a short-yardage back at first with a chance to develop into a starter. He should go on the first day and maybe sneak into the second round.

Kevin "Kay-Jay" Harris, West Virginia, 6-0, 241 — Fourth-year senior who transferred to WVU after two years at Garden City (Kan.) Community College ... Four-time high school long jump champion ... Played baseball in the Texas Rangers organization ... Started just five games last year, but rushed 165 times for 1,000 yards and 10 TDs ... Second-team All-Big East last year ... Has good combination of size and speed ... Lets plays develop and doesn't force the action for short gains ... Has big-play potential and a second gear in the open field ... Impressed scouts at the Combine with a solid workout ... Solid blocker ... Doesn't run with a mean streak ... Needs to improve his technique, because he is very raw with just a half-season of Division I starting to his credit ... Ran a 4.56 40 at the Combine with 10 reps of 225 pounds, an impressive 40-inch vertical jump, a 10-2 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 12.

PROJECTION: He has the tools to be a player in the mold of LaMont Jordan, who is getting his chance to finally be a go-to guy. He will need some time to improve his toughness and refine his game but could be a value in the late-second or early-third rounds.

Ryan Moats, Louisiana Tech, 5-8, 210 — Third-year junior and two-year starter ... In two seasons as a starter, he rushed 487 times for 3,228 yards and 28 touchdowns — averaging 6.7 yards per rush in that span ... Two-time All-WAC First Team and conference Player of the Year in 2004 ... Topped 200 yards rushing five times in 2004 ... Very agile, he has great cutback skills and gets to and through the hole very quickly ... Patient runner who sets up blocks when needed ... Plays with a lot of intensity ... Has decent hands as a receiver, catching 42 passes for 367 yards and two TDs the last two years ... Does a decent job of picking up blitzes ... A little smaller than most scouts like ... Has good speed, but rarely a threat to break off a 80-yard TD ... He never been asked to carry the full load as a go-to RB ... Had several minor injuries that throw up some red flags concerning his durability ... Ran an impressive 4.46 40 at the Combine, with 19 reps, a 36-inch vertical jump, a 9-9 broad jump and a Wonderlic score of 18.

PROJECTION: Moats is a player that has a few drawbacks working against him, but nobody questions his work ethic and he could immediately step in to be a third-down or change of pace back. He will likely go off the board in the third round.

Frank Gore, Miami, 5-9, 208 — Fourth-year junior who has never been a full-time starter ... Played behind Clinton Portis in 2001 and average a whopping 9.3 yards a carry (62-575) ... Was picked to start ahead of Willis McGahee by the U's coaches, but tore his meniscus and right ACL and missed all of the 2002 season ... Started off strong in 2003 but tore his left ACL in the fifth game of the season ... Came back last year to rush 197 times for 999 yards and eight TDs ... Would have stayed for fifth year, but entered the draft because his mother needs a kidney transplant and he needs to cash in on NFL money to help support her ... Good upper-body strength ... Always keeps his legs churning and picks up extra yards, feet and inches on almost every run ... Has the initial quickness to turn the corner ... Although used sparingly as a receiver, he showed very good hands at the Combine ... Seemed to get stronger as the 2004 season went on ... Injuries are an enormous Mr. Yuck sticker on his NFL folder ... While he still has a decent first few steps, he is no longer viewed as a breakaway threat ... Shed 25 pounds to impress scouts at the Combine, but still had a sub-par running performance. He ran a 4.65 40 at the Combine, did 15 reps with 225 pounds, had a 32-inch vertical jump, a 9-1 broad jump and a horrendous score of 6 on the Wonderlic Test — one of the worst scores in the history of the league-administered test.

PROJECTION: Before his injuries, Gore was ticketed to have the draft status of the Big Three running backs this year. Many teams won't take a chance on a player who has already had two knee reconstructions — one on each. He could easily slip into the second day because of medical concerns, but could be the RB sleeper of the 2005 draft.

Darren Sproles, Kansas State, 5-6, 187
T.A. McLendon, North Carolina State, 5-10, 230
Anthony Davis, Wisconsin, 5-6, 200
Maurice Clarett, Ohio State, 5-10, 236
Walter Reyes, Syracuse, 5-10, 209
Brandon Jacobs, Southern Illinois, 6-4, 264

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