Positional Analysis: Running Backs

While the Vikings have a number of seemingly capable runners behind starter Chester Taylor, indications are that they are interested in adding to the stable. We review the perceived strengths and weaknesses of the top dozen backs in the draft.

VIKINGS RUNNING BACKS—Chester Taylor, Mewelde Moore, Ciatrick Fason, Tony Richardson, Artose Pinner (tendered offer), Wendell Mathis, Naufahu Tahi

POSITION ANALYSIS—The running back position has become one that many teams have found a way to address via free agency or, in this most recent offseason, via trade. Several big-name running backs have changed teams this year, taking away many team needs for the position. That doesn't mean, however, that there won't be plenty of running backs taken on draft day. Last year, just 14 running backs were taken in the draft—a very low amount for an average draft, but this year should be different. The Vikings have a workhorse in Chester Taylor, but might be interested in a running back in the middle rounds to challenge Mewelde Moore and Ciatrick Fason. The Vikings have ignored running back on the first day in recent drafts, taking a fourth-rounder three years in a row (Onterrio Smith, Moore and Fason). Unless Adrian Peterson falls into their laps with the seventh pick, don't be too stunned to see the Vikings wait until the second day (if at all) to bring in a running back.

THE CREAM OF THE CROP

Adrian Peterson, Oklahoma, 6-1½, 217—Third-year junior…Three-year starter who rushed 747 times for 4,306 yards and 41 touchdowns…Had his best rushing season as a true freshman (339-2,040-15)…Missed time in each of his three years—suffering a shoulder injury in 2004, a high ankle sprain in 2005 and a broken collarbone in 2006…Finished second in the Heisman Trophy balloting as a sophomore…Was a frontrunner for the Heisman before breaking his collarbone last season…Refuses to go down easily and is willing to fight to break tackles…Is rarely straightened up on first contact and usually picks up at least a couple of yards after the first hit…Has very good speed and can bounce runs to the outside, although his bread and butter is up the middle…Has little experience as a pass blocker or receiver because of the system he played in…Injury history has to be a concern, but none of them have been structural injuries to his knees or feet…Has thin lower body that could use more muscle…Takes a lot of hits, many times because he initiates them…Earned his accolades at the Combine, running a 4.40 40 (tied for best among RBs), with a 38½ inch vertical jump (second) and a 10-7 broad jump (tied for first).

PROJECTION: Clearly the best running back in this year's draft and possibly one of the best in recent years. He has all the tools to be a dominating running back and has the desire to be the best. If he makes it past Cleveland, he could stay on the board until the Vikings arrive at No. 7, but somebody will likely trade up to get him if he's still there at pick No. 5.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Marshawn Lynch, California, 5-11¼, 215—Third-year junior…Two-year starter who carried 419 times for 2,702 yards (a sparkling 6.4-yard average) and 21 touchdowns, while catching 49 passes for 453 yards and four more touchdowns…Had a strong junior season despite playing with a pair of ankle injuries and a back injury that would tighten up during games…Only the second player in Cal history to have two 1,000-yard seasons, joining Russell White (1991-92)…Pac 10 Offensive Player of the Year in 2006…Very powerful and built like a brickhouse…Has immediate burst to get into and out of a hole and makes very good cutbacks at and past the line…Doesn't go down with arm tackles…Became a much better receiver as a junior, catching 34 passes for 328 yards and four TDs…Has the speed to turn the corner on sweeps…Willing blocker on passing downs…Doesn't have top-end breakaway speed…Viewed as more of a between-the-tackles back in the NFL because defenders will catch him at the next level when he bounces outside…Has never been asked to pull the wagon every game in college—in his two years full-time he only averaged 16 carries a game…Has a big red flag for a sexual assault charge made by a former girlfriend…Doesn't always keep his head in games…Ran a 4.48 40 at the Combine with 20 reps of 225 pounds, a 35½ inch vertical jump and 10-5 broad jump—the third best broad jump among running backs.

PROJECTION: Lynch has all the tools to be a very good pro and the biggest question aside from the character issue is when will a team in need pull the trigger. It could go as early as Buffalo at No. 12 but more likely the Packers at No. 16.

Kenny Irons, Auburn, 5-10¾, 203—Fifth-year senior who played as a true freshman at South Carolina in 2002-03 before transferring to Auburn and redshirting in 2004…Burst on the scene as a replacement for Ronnie Brown and Cadillac Williams and had a great junior season, rushing 256 times for 1,337 yards and 13 touchdowns…As a senior, he was slowed by a high ankle sprain and turf toe—two running back killers—and his numbers dropped to 198-941-4…Has a nice burst and will string out runs until a hole opens and blast through it…Goes from coasting to top speed in two steps…Has slashing cutback moves…Never takes a play off or gives up on a play…Injuries are a primary concern, especially because he has skinny legs that some aren't sure can take the pounding in the NFL…At 203 pounds, he's about 10 to 15 undersized to take regular NFL abuse…An overly intense player who can be a pain when things are going wrong…Has an awkward running style that allows himself to get knocked sideways instead of gaining an extra yard or two…Ran a 4.47 40 at the Combine with 17 reps, a 38-inch vertical jump and a 10-3 broad jump.

PROJECTION: Irons is a guy who could slide farther on the list than we have him projected. But on a team with an established inside runner, like the Vikings, Giants, Browns, Bears, etc., Irons could be a poor man's version of Reggie Bush as a change-of-pace guy. That alone should get him off the board when RBs start going in the second round.

Antonio Pittman, Ohio State, 5-10¾, 210—Third-year junior…A two-year starter who was a workhorse who put up very similar rushing numbers—243-1,360-7 as a sophomore and 242-1,275-14 last year…In just two years as a full-time starter, managed to reach fifth all-time in the OSU rushing yardage career list and the fifth player to have back-to-back 1,000-yard rushing seasons…Hits the hole with authority and gets yardage fast…Waits for holes to open on sweeps and has the speed to bounce inside runs to the corner…A solid receiver who was underused in that respect at OSU…Always seems to fall forward when a tackler brings him down…Is undersized despite weighing 210…Is willing to block on pass plays, but struggled at college to get slowdown chips on blitzers…Is not comfortable as a receiver because he was used so rarely in that capacity…Has problems shedding blockers when running screens and dump-off routes…Ran the third-best 40 time among RBs at the Combine (4.41) and had 16 reps, a 35½ inch vertical jump and a 10-3 broad jump.

PROJECTION: If not for a thin frame that can only get so big, Pittman would likely be a late first-round pick. As it stands, he'll still go off in the second round and some team might get one of the steals of the draft.

Brian Leonard, Rutgers, 6-1½, 226—A fifth-year senior…A touchdown machine in high school who still holds the all-time scoring record for the state of New York with 696 points…A pure fullback who went from being a Mike Alstott type rusher/fullback hybrid to a more pure form of the player as a senior…Finished his career with 678 carries for 2,866 yards and 32 touchdowns, and 207 receptions for 1,868 yards and 13 more touchdowns…Left Rutgers as a winner of the Offensive MVP, a team captain, the all-time leading scorer at the school (272 points) and holding the record for all-purpose yards (5,961)…a throwback player who can rush like a big tailback, catch passes and block…Is not just a bulldozer, he is a patient runner who has the feet to quickly cut upfield and lower his shoulder before contact…Was an ironman who played almost every down in college…Solid in short-yardage and goal line situations…Excellent lead blocker on sweeps…Dropped about 10 pounds prior to the Senior Bowl and looked faster…Is still learning the pure fullback position and has trouble neutralizing blitzers with an initial hit…Will never be a Tony Richardson or Lorenzo Neal type lead blocker and could be more of a Mike Alstott type who would be a fullback in name only…Needs to refine his technique in blocking on pass downs…Had the most reps of any running back at the Combine with 28 times benching 225 pounds, to go with a 4.55 40, a 34½-inch vertical jump and a 10-2 broad jump.

PROJECTION: Some team is going to fall in love with the position flexibility (sound familiar?) that Leonard brings to the table. Because he'll never have breakaway speed or never be a top-end blocking fullback, his toughness, desire to win and willingness to do what's best for the team—he gave up most of his carries last year when running back Ray Rice came on as the next big thing—someone will bite. If he's still on the board late in the second round, someone will trade up to get him.

Tony Hunt, Penn State, 6-1¾, 234—Fourth-year senior…A three-year starter who had 620 carries for 3,358 yards and 24 touchdowns in that span, while also catching 86 passes for 799 yards and three TDs…Named Most Valuable Player at the Senior Bowl, rushing eight times for 39 yards and a touchdown and catching two passes for 13 yards…One of the strongest rushers to come into the draft in some time…Picks up a lot of yardage after the initial hit…Hard to bring down one on one…Has shown the speed to bounce plays outside, but not consistently…Sees blocks developing and will take his time on off-tackle runs…Questions about his speed got more pronounced at the Combine when he ran the 40 in 4.68 seconds—the third worst time of any running back who ran…Consistently from game to game and quarter to quarter isn't there—he'll look great one series and gassed out the next…Has upright style that lends himself to getting the atomic hit from a linebacker or safety…Will never be a home-run threat…Aside from his poor 40 time, he did pretty well at the Combine with 24 reps, a 31½-inch vertical jump and a 9-2 long jump.

PROJECTION: Viewed much like a young version of Jamal Lewis, Hunt seems destined to be a bruiser who earns his money between the tackles. In the era of big play, more passing than running and spreading out defenses with speed backs, Hunt may be arriving to the NFL five years too late or five years too early. Right now, his style of running likely won't be valued until the third round or later.

Chris Henry, Arizona, 5-11¼, 230—Fourth-year junior…A track star who won three state 100-meter titles as a high schooler in Stockton, Calif…Got a redshirt in 2003 with a leg injury, but over the next three years, he carried just 254 times for 994 yards and nine touchdowns…Showed what he could do against a solid Oregon team in 2006 in his only game as a workhorse, rushing 29 times for 191 yards and two touchdowns…Is huge and well-muscled and can drive through traffic…Made more money that any non-lottery pick at the Combine (see below)…Rarely gets knocked down by the first player who hits him…Good footwork to hit cut lanes for a man his size…Proved himself as a solid receiver who could make good catches of bad passes…Biggest question mark is whether he can handle a full-time workload because he never got the chance at Arizona…Has a big chip on his shoulder that will turn off some teams—he left AU because he was vocally upset with how he was used…Is going to take more time than most backs because his learning curve has been slow…Put his name on the map at the Combine, tying for the best 40 time among RBs (4.40 with Adrian Peterson), tied for second with 26 reps of 225 pounds (behind only fullback Brian Leonard) and tied for first with a 10-7 broad jump, as well as a 36-inch vertical jump.

PROJECTION: He got a lot of attention from scouts and coaches at the Combine, but that will have to be weighed against his complete lack of use (269 carries spread over four years), which should be enough to make him a plum pick early to mid-third round.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Michael Bush, Louisville, 6-1½, 243—Fourth-year junior…Made a splash as a freshman in part-time duty and made the Conference USA All-Freshman Team…Had his breakout season as a sophomore, rushing 205 times for 1,176 yards and a school-record 23 touchdowns in '05…Has missed significant time each of the last three seasons—had a broken foot in 2004, a sprained foot in 2005 and surgery in 2006 following the season opener in which two broken bones in his lower leg were repaired with a titanium rod inserted in his tibia (the upper leg)…Is a huge back who can take big hits and keep moving forward and pushing the pile…Adept in short-yardage situations (23 TDs in 2005) and is rarely brought down by one player…Stiff arm makes defenders fold up like a tent…Has soft hands and was used fairly often in the passing game as a weapon and not a dumpoff to avoid a sack…Injuries are as big a red flag as any player in the draft, so much so that his family took out a $2 million insurance policy that, if he doesn't properly heal from his most recent injury, they can cash it in instead of a NFL career…Is not a weightroom guy and, when he's not playing, has been known to gain weight…Tends to toe-dance his feet instead of hitting holes with full authority consistently…Doesn't have the speed to break off 50-yard runs—is more of a move-the-chains guy…Did not work out at the Combine due to rehabbing his injuries.

PROJECTION: Make no mistake, if Bush can ever get healthy and stay healthy, he could be a dangerous back. But his medical red flags should keep him out of Day One unless some team is willing to take the gamble Mike Shanahan took on Maurice Clarett—and pray for better results than Li'l Iron Mike got.

Lorenzo Booker, Florida State, 5-10¼, 189—Fifth-year senior…The California state record holder for rushing yards in a career (8,502) and touchdowns (137)…Did not become a starter until 2006, when he carried 143 times for 709 yards and four TDs and caught 33 passes for 420 yards…Started only 17 of 38 games his final three years, but still posted impressive numbers in that span—435-2,253-12 rushing and 95-909-2 receiving…Can change directions as fast as anyone in the draft and has very good acceleration to top speed…Never averaged under five yards a carry in any of his four seasons…Excellent receiver who caught 71 passes for the last two years and averaged almost 13 yards a catch in 2006…Was durable, missing just one game in three years despite suffering a separated shoulder in 2004…Can take sweeps around the corner and has unreal cut moves…Very strong (see below)…At 5-10, 189 pounds, is viewed as much too small to ever be a full-time featured back…While upper body is chiseled, lower body is thin and can't hold up to chip block blitzers…Seems not to like keeping designed runs up the middle, trying to bounce too many carries outside, which turns off a lot of scouts…Runs a little too upright and, in this league, that will knock you out fast…Made a solid showing at the Combine—he ran a 4.47 40, had a 35½ inch vertical jump and a 9-7 broad jump to go with 26 reps of 225 pounds (second best among all running backs).

PROJECTION: His lack of size will be his biggest hindrance as will durability—or at least durability questions because he only missed one game in three years. He can be a mini-Bush type running back that, while he won't have the breakout skills of Reggie Bush, could be a great third-down, passing-down, change-of-pace back for a lot of teams—including the Vikings—and will be a guy that will be a solid third-down contributor that might be on the board to start the second day.

Brandon Jackson, Nebraska, 5-10, 206—Third-year junior…Standout football player and track athlete in high school…Didn't get to play much until last year, and even then it was part of a three-headed backfield, rushing 188 times for 1,023 yards (5.4 yard average) and eight touchdowns while catching 33 passes for 313 yards and two TDs…Used as a part-time kick returner each of his three years…Has good feet and makes decisive cuts…Compact body that can take initial hits and, if they're not dead center, will bounce off them…Made a lot of noise at the Combine (see below)…Has the speed to turn the corner and get upfield in a hurry…Seems natural as a receiver out of the backfield…Durability has never been a question—he's never missed time—but playing time is…Doesn't have the game film or numbers that make you take notice…That inexperience will have some coaches leery if he can handle the strain and rigors of the next level…Has good short-distance speed, but didn't show the ability to take sweeps to the house—even in the open field…Sometime tentative on hitting the hole inside…Not adept at pass blocking…Came out as a junior because he didn't want to risk injury in his senior season…Improved his stock a ton at the Combine…His 40-yard dash time of 4.41 seconds was the third-best time for all running backs and he added 21 reps, a 37-inch vertical jump and 10-2 broad jump.

PROJECTION: While he thought it was wise to leave early, we don't agree. Having shown he could be a 1,000-yard rusher in a platoon system and a good receiver, he could have worked his way close to or into the first round had he stayed another year. As it stands, if not for his Combine performance, he could have lasted until Day 2. As it is, some team will likely jump on him somewhere in the third round because of his upside and lack of wear and tear.

Dwayne Wright, Fresno State, 5-11½, 228—Fifth-year senior who, due to academic problems, spent his 2002 freshman season at West Hills College in California and rushed 186 times for 1,068 yards and 11 touchdowns…Became a starter midway through his first year at FSU and finished with 190 carries for 1,076 yards and three TDs…Got a medical redshirt three games into the 2004 season when he tore his left patellar tendon—an injury that required him to miss the remainder of the 2004 season and all of 2005 (for which he got a second redshirt season granted)…Came back strong in 2006, rushing 261 times for 1,525 yards (a whopping 5.8-yard average) and 11 touchdowns while catching 29 passes…Third all-time on FSU rushing list…Is married with two children…Has very good size and strength…At his best between the tackles, where he pounds the ball and always keeps pushing forward for additional yards, feet or inches…Doesn't mind dropping his head and delivering the big hit instead of taking it…Excels in goal-line and short-yardage plays…Has the size to be a lead blocker in two-back sets…Has improved a lot as a receiver…Doesn't have good speed and showed that at the Combine (see below)…Doesn't have age on his side—he turns 24 in June—which is why he turned down his second redshirt season to enter the NFL now…Is something of a liability when asked to take runs outside…Didn't help his stock at the Combine with the third-worst 40 time (4.67 seconds), one of the worst performances with benching 225 pounds (14 reps) and had a 34-inch vertical jump and 9-7 broad jump.

PROJECTION: The clock is already ticking on a 24-year-old running back, but off of his 2006 performance, he proved he belongs at the next level. He would be an ideal fit for a team like Denver or Green Bay, who like big runners who are asked to make one cut and hit a hole. But because so few teams (Houston being a third) employ that kind of running scheme consistently, he will likely be on the board late into the third round or possibly the second day.

Kolby Smith. Louisville, 5-11¼, 215—Fourth-year senior…His cousin is Bears safety Mike Brown…Was not a full-time starter until his senior season, when he rushed 154 times for 891 yards and seven touchdowns and caught 24 passes for 217 yards…Missed time in each of his first three seasons with hamstring, knee and ankle injuries…Really looks the part with the strength to gain extra yards and the agility to make tacklers miss…Has been used as both a halfback and a fullback…Is a patient runner who follows his blockers until a hole develops and he turns it up fast…Is a willing blocker who takes on defenders in multi-RB sets…Has soft hands in the receiving game…Has a long learning curve because he's never been a featured back and played his career in a shotgun offense that doesn't translate well to the NFL game for fullbacks or running backs…Does not have breakaway speed and won't bust off the long run…Tends to take runs into the gap he first hits and rarely changes direction after going through a hole…Needs a lot of improvement in blitz pickup and pass protection…Ran a 4.51 40 at the Combine with 18 reps of 225 pounds, a 38-inch vertical jump and a 9-6 broad jump.

PROJECTION: Considering that he has never been a featured back and, while he has a lot of talents, he's the master of none. He reminds a lot of scouts of Wali Lundy, who was taken in the fifth round of last year's draft. It wouldn't be a surprise to see him last until the second day and be asked to fill a similar role.

OTHERS TO WATCH
Kenneth Darby, Alabama, 5-10½, 211
DeShawn Wynn, Florida, 5-10½, 218
Darius Walker, Notre Dame, 5-10, 206
Tyrone Moss, Miami, 5-9¼, 227
Le'Ron McClain, Alabama, 6-0¼, 247
Selvin Young, Texas, 5-11, 207
Alonzo Coleman, Hampton, 5-10, 206


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