Positional analysis: Running backs

The top 10 running backs this year offer a variety of assets. From between-the-tackles grinders to fleet-footed jukers, the choices are many. Overall, the class at running back isn't great and injury concerns dominate the discussion with many of them. John Holler goes inside the numbers and analysis to break down the top options for the first two days of the draft.

VIKINGS RUNNING BACKS — Adrian Peterson, Albert Young, Ian Johnson, Darius Reynaud, Naufahu Tahi.

VIKINGS NEEDS — With the free-agent loss of Chester Taylor and a failed attempt to sign future Hall of Famer LaDainian Tomlinson, it would seem clear that this is a need area for the Vikings. Aside from Peterson, the Vikings have little to no experience at the position, with Reynaud being switched to the position and, barring a big move, likely having Percy Harvin take on more of a roll in the running game. Look for the Vikings to address this position in the draft. Historically, the Vikings have waited until the fourth round to add a complementary back (Mewelde Moore, Onterrio Smith, Ciatrick Fason, etc.). However, with the need for a running back with pass-catching skills and blocking ability, the Vikings might have to look at using one of their early picks to address what has become a need position for depth.

THE CLASS OF 2010 — This isn't an overly strong draft class and, with the exception of Clemson's C.J. Spiller, nobody is guaranteed to get picked in the first round despite several teams having running back as a mid- to high-level need. However, there are a lot of interesting prospects and, by the time the fourth round is underway, there may be as many as a dozen running backs that have come off the board. Spiller may be the only real game-changer among the group – and he has some red flags of his own – but there are several players who could become solid pros and will be picked apart in the second and third rounds as teams start filling more pressing need and depth areas.

THE CREAM OF THE CROP

C.J. Spiller, Clemson, 5-10¾, 194 — Fourth-year senior…Didn't become a full-time starter until 2009, when he rushed 216 times for 1,271 yards and 12 touchdowns and caught 36 passes for 503 yards and four TDs…For his career, he started just 19 of 52 games, rushing 606 times for 3,708 yards and 32 touchdowns and catching 123 passes for 1,420 yards and 11 touchdowns…An excellent high school athlete, he won the Florida state 100- and 200-meter track championships – running the 100 in 10.42 seconds…In 2009, he was the first player in ACC history to rush for more than 1,000 yards and have 500 yards receiving and broke a 41-year-old conference record for all-purpose yards with 2,680…Already graduated…Has home run ability every time he touches the ball…Shows patience following blockers on outside runs and has a finishing gear that is impressive…Hits top speed very quickly…Is very good at seeing cutback lanes and can slash-cut through them without slowing down…A threat as a runner, receiver, kick returner and punt returner…Has a lot of toughness and will play through injuries…Showed he could be a featured back against top competition…Injuries are always going to be a concern – he has suffered multiple hamstring and toe injuries, which are associated with track athletes…Doesn't have great playing strength and is inconsistent running between the tackles…Wasn't used much as a blocker and was underutilized as a receiver…Has been known to be moody and pout if things don't go his way…Ran a sparkling 4.36 40 at the Combine with 18 reps of 225 pounds and a 10-6 broad jump. PROJECTION: Spiller is the latest in a long line of "can't miss" running backs coming out of college. He has rare explosiveness and has played against top-end competition. What is also enticing is that, unlike a lot of talented college running backs, despite playing four years, he hasn't had a lot of tread come off the tires. While he is compared in many ways to Reggie Bush, there are concerns his career will mirror that of Bush – a gamebreaker, but not the kind of player who can be a 20-carry-a-game bell cow. He will likely go in the top 10 – Seattle looks like a logical landing spot – but could slide if too many teams see him as an expensive role player with mad playmaking skills. Premium draft picks are designed for every-down players, not exciting part-timers.

THE NEXT LEVEL

Ryan Mathews, Fresno State, 5-11¾, 218 — Third-year junior…Didn't become a full-time starter until 2009, when he rushed 276 times for 1,850 yards and 19 touchdowns and caught 11 passes for 122 yards…In his three-year career, he averaged a whopping 6.3 yards a carry – gaining 3,366 yards and scoring 39 touchdowns – a Fresno State school record…Injuries cut short both of his first two seasons, ailments ranging from concussions to a torn chest muscle to nerve damage in his knee to sprained ankles…His 151-yards-a-game rushing average was the best in college football last year…Is very muscular and has a near-prototype build for a power runner…Is very good between the tackles and keeps his feet churning for extra yards…Lets holes develop and rarely runs into the back of his own linemen…Excels at blocking when in pass protection and seems to enjoy making contact with defenders…Although not used much in the passing game, during drills, he looks the part of a solid receiver…Has good lower-body strength…Is NFL-ready coming from a pro-style offense…Had a strong Combine showing…Has a long injury history and has found it difficult to stay healthy for a full season…Doesn't have top-end playing speed with a distinct change of gear and is too much of a north-south runner…Rarely used as a receiver, catching just 19 passes in 31 games…Doesn't make a lot of moves in the open field, and while he's hard to bring down because of his competitiveness and willingness to bang helmets, he doesn't make many defenders miss on tackles…Ran a 4.45 40 at the Combine with 19 reps, a 36-inch vertical jump and a 10-1 broad jump. PROJECTION: Coming off an impressive performance at the Combine, Mathews may have pushed himself into the first round. Because of his ability as a blocker and promise as a pass catcher, he could be used on every down if needed, which is a quality few running backs possess. He could get strong consideration from the Chargers at the end of the first round.

Jonathan Dwyer, Georgia Tech, 5-11¼, 229 — Third-year junior…Two-year starter who had 435 carries for 2,857 yards and 26 touchdowns in that span…A Parade All-American in high school…In his freshman season, backed up Cowboys running back Tashard Choice…ACC Player of the Year in 2008…Averaged 6.2 yards per carry during his college career…A very strong lower body which he uses to bang between the tackles…Can take a big hit and doesn't get stopped cold…Is young – won't turn 21 until the start of training camp…Has surprising quickness for his size and had more than his share of long runs…Never missed a game in three seasons…Is the biggest of the backs expected to come off the board in the first couple of rounds…Used minimally as a receiver, catching just 15 passes…Doesn't have a typical running back body and has a sense of Jerome Bettis-type of being slightly overweight…A straight-line runner who doesn't make many people miss…Wasn't asked to do much pass protecting because he played in an option offense…May have a big learning curve to make the adjustment to the blocking schemes of a pro style offense…Ran a slow 4.69 40 at the Combine with 15 reps of 225 pounds, a 33-inch vertical jump and an 8-11 broad jump. PROJECTION: Like Bettis, he comes out of college with some believing he is better suited to be a fullback because of his role in the GT offense. But anyone who has seen him play knows that he has an aggressive style. As the biggest back in the draft in first- or second-round consideration, it should bump his stock for a team looking for a big, young running option.

Jahvid Best, California, 5-10¼, 199 — Third-year junior…Was never a full-time, every-game starter, but in his final two seasons, he started 18 of 21 games, rushing 335 times for 2,437 yards and 27 touchdowns, while catching 49 passes for 459 yards and five more TDs…A decorated high school athlete who won the California 100-meter state title with a time of 10.31 seconds and was a Parade All-American in football…As a true freshman in 2007, he missed the final three games of the season with a hip injury…Started 10 of 12 games as a sophomore, but missed time with a dislocated elbow and a bruised foot, with the elbow injury requiring surgery after the season…Missed the final four games of 2009 after sustaining a pair of concussions…Has incredible game-breaking sprinter's speed and 17 touchdowns of 20 yards or more and 10 of 50 or more in his final two seasons…Has excellent cut-back ability and can make defenders grab at air…Shows good patience on inside runs and darts for the best opening and gets the most of the carry…Looks natural in the passing game and already has the prerequisite needs to be a third-down back…Hits top speed extremely quickly and rarely gets caught when he gets loose…Has experience as a kick returner…A consistent big-play threat who had big games against top competition...Is thin and somewhat brittle, having missed time with injuries to his hip, elbow, foot, toe, knee and head…Has never played a full season since high school without missing time due to injury…Wasn't asked to block and that in itself will prevent him early from being an every-down type of back…Doesn't have good strength in his legs and gets bowled over too often in blitz pickup…Ran a sparkling 4.35 40 at the Combine with 18 reps, a 35½-inch vertical jump and a 9-5 broad jump. PROJECTION: If Best had put together just one full season without being slowed by injury, there would likely be a debate over whether he or C.J. Spiller should be the first running back off the board. However, his laundry list of injuries is going to be a big red flag for some teams, which will likely allow Best to slide into the second round. If he can ever put it all together and find a niche, he could be an instant-impact player in the NFL. As big a boom-bust candidate as there is in this class.

Dexter McCluster, Mississippi, 5-8¾, 172 — Fourth-year senior…Became a starter five games into his junior season and, in his final two years, he rushed 290 times for 1,899 yards and 14 touchdowns and caught 88 passes for 1,145 yards and four TDs…Started five games as a true freshman at flanker, but his season ended after six games with a serious concussion…Prior to his sophomore season, he suffered a broken shoulder while training for the start of summer camp…Started eight games as a junior at three different receiver positions and got time as the quarterback in the Wild Rebel formation…Missed pre-season practice after being diagnosed with swine flu last August…Has good explosiveness and is mindful of guys like Darren Sproles and Percy Harvin that are threats to break big plays at any time…Despite his small stature, he is hard as nails and doesn't shy away from contact with players much bigger than him…An incredible burst in just the first couple of steps, making defenders look like they are in slow motion…Is a natural pass catcher who is dangerous in the open field on slants and swing passes…A versatile player who has started at three different receiver positions and at running back…Very thin and has small hands, which are usually a precursor to being a fumbler in the NFL…Durability will be a red flag for some teams…Doesn't have the size to run inside or be a blitz pick-up guy…Has the intangibles of a return specialist, but has very limited experience in the return game…Ran a disappointing 4.58 40 at the Combine, but made up for it with 20 reps, a 37½ inch vertical jump and a 9-10 broad jump. PROJECTION: His disappointing 40 time at the Combine would be a death sentence for many backs, but his strong showing as a versatile runner/receiver at the Senior Bowl will win the day on draft weekend. He is a solid second-round selection and could contribute immediately with big-play potential.

THE BEST OF THE REST

Joe McKnight, USC, 5-11½, 198 — Third-year junior…Was the highest-rated running back in the country coming out of high school, being named both Parade and USA Today All-American…A world class sprinter, he ran a 10.4 100 meters in high school…A one-year starter who started 11 of 12 games in 2009, rushing 164 times for 1,054 yards and eight touchdowns…Has a litany of injuries that have short-circuited his career, including a strained ACL, dislocating four toes on his left foot, hyperextending his right elbow, suffering migraines, injuring a thigh and spraining his left ankle…Was benched for the Emerald Bowl while under investigation by the NCAA for using an SUV that was owned by a booster…Has explosive quickness and agility…Can stop, cut and start again in an instant…Averaged 6.7 yards a carry for his career and has the ability to break a run for significant yardage at any time…A natural receiver who is experienced in this area…Played in a pro style offense and can hit the ground running with just about any team…Makes tacklers miss…Is thin by NFL standards and has a long injury history…Goes down much too easily once a defender gets hold of him…Has a fumbling history…Bounces too many runs and looks to avoid head-to-head collisions with defenders to fight for additional yardage…Needs a lot of work in pass blocking, which may never fully come for him…Ran a 4.45 40 at the Combine with 18 reps of 225 pounds, a 36½ inch vertical jump and a 10-0 long jump. PROJECTION: Few players have been has highly touted coming out of high school, but McKnight was the heir to Reggie Bush and has never put together a full season in which he could truly showcase his talents. His injury history and NCAA investigation will hurt his draft stock, but he will be a tantalizing pick because of his home run potential. The question now is whether anyone will be willing to take the risk before the third round?

Montario Hardesty, Tennessee, 5-11¾, 225 — Fifth-year senior…Didn't become a starter until 2009, when he rushed 282 times for 1,413 yards and 13 touchdowns and caught 25 passes for 302 yards and one TD…Granted a medical redshirt as a true freshman after tearing his right ACL…Had surgery on his left knee early in 2006 and had his 2007 season cut short by a right ankle sprain and a stress fracture in his left foot…As a senior, he played through a shoulder and knee injury to start all 13 games…Is very muscular and truly looks the part…Is rarely knocked down by the first defender that makes contact…Looked solid playing in a pro style offense…Hits the hole hard and is a downhill runner…Made himself a lot of money at the Combine…Has shown a lot of progression as a blocker…Showed he could be a decent receiving option…Has some good shiftiness in the hole and making his first cut…Doesn't have the suddenness and burst to break off long touchdowns…Runs too high and sets himself up to take big hits too often…Doesn't make a lot of tacklers miss…Injuries are a big concern…Not a natural hands receiver in the passing game…Ran a 4.49 40 with 21 reps, a position-best 41-inch vertical jump and a 10-4 broad jump. PROJECTION: After never being able to assert himself due to injuries, Hardesty showed he could be a solid prospect as a senior when earning the chance. His injury red flags will keep him on the board until close to the third round, but he has the chance to be a solid NFL contributor.

Charles Scott, LSU, 5-11½, 238 — Fourth-year senior…A two-year starter who exploded on the scene as a junior, rushing 217 times for 1,208 yards and 18 touchdowns…In nine games as a senior, he rushed just 116 times for 550 yards and four TDs…Was Mr. Football in Louisiana as a high school senior…His senior year at LSU ended with a broken collarbone that required surgery…Is very big with good lower-body strength…Gains a lot of yards after contact and is rarely stood up by a defender without forcing him to give up some ground…Shows a lot of patience to let his blockers do their job to spring him…Wasn't used much in blocking situations, but showed the willingness to get dirty when asked…Secures the ball despite taking big hits…Added nothing as a receiver, catching just 16 passes of 22 starts over the last two years…Doesn't have the speed to turn the corner and make big plays with his legs…Despite having good size, isn't overpowering when trying to impose his will at the goal line last year…The slowest of any of the top RB prospects…Didn't lift at the Combine, but ran a 4.71 40, posted a 30½-inch vertical jump and a 9-3 broad jump. PROJECTION: Nothing fancy here, but a player who will give the kind of clock-killing runs that help win games. But his limited experience and significant drop-off as a senior will likely keep him on the board into the third round at the earliest.

LeGarrette Blount, Oregon, 6-0½, 241 — Fourth-year senior…Originally signed to play with Auburn but failed to qualify, spending two years at East Mississippi Community College…Was a NJCAA All-American in 2007 before enrolling at Oregon…In his first season with the Ducks in 2008, he rushed 137 times for 1,038 yards (a 7.6-yard average) and 17 touchdowns…Was suspended in February 2009 for skipping classes and team workouts, but was reinstated two months later…Was suspended after a season-opening loss to Boise State in which he punched an opposing player and knocked him out and then going ballistic with fans and security personnel – he was later reinstated, but didn't play…Has excellent agility for a man his size and is a power runner who is never brought down by arm tackles…Gains a lot of yardage after contact…Makes surprisingly sharp and decisive cuts…An excellent short-yardage back who can help push the pile forward…Has good strength for blitz pickup…Had a very strong week at the Senior Bowl…Has a ton of character red flags with a pair of significant suspensions and failures in the classroom…Not a receiving threat – in 16 career games, he caught just four passes…Runs high and leaves himself open to highlight-film type of hits…Has had problems controlling his weight, which has ballooned over 250 pounds at times…Ran a dismal 4.86 40 at the Combine, with 18 reps, a 35-inch vertical jump and a 9-9 broad jump. PROJECTION: Given his Boise State outburst and the combination of suspensions and clear immaturity, some teams may not even put him on their boards despite his talent. He has made amends and helped his stock at the Senior Bowl. But, with his numerous character red flags, he may be a player who slides into the third or fourth round because his talent will eventually win out over his draft slotting. He has the potential to be a mid-round steal if harnessed right.

Toby Gerhart, Stanford, 6-0, 231 — Fourth-year senior…Two-year starter who had 553 carries for 3,089 yards and 43 touchdowns in that span…Was a multi-sport athlete in high school, which included being named California's Gatorade Player of the Year and a Parade All-American in football, a three-year starter in basketball and one of the top 50 prospects in Baseball America coming out of high school…Played three years with the Stanford baseball team…Lost for the season in the 2007 opener with a torn left PCL…Had a monstrous senior season, rushing 343 times for 1,913 yards and 28 touchdowns, winning the Doak Walker Award for being the best running back in college football and finishing second in the Heisman Trophy balloting…Is an ideal between-the-tackles runner who reminds a lot of scouts of fellow Cardinal and former 49er and Brown Tommy Vardell…Production against solid competition was outstanding in 2009…Attacks the hole with aggression…An adept blocker who seems to seek out contact in lead blocking and pass protection…Reminds some scouts of Michael Turner in the combination of decent speed with the ability to maximize each run…Needs time to pick up speed and allows defenders to close ground on him…Injuries have been numerous during his career…Wore a left knee brace the last two seasons which seemed to limit his cutback ability…Didn't get used much as a receiver…Ran a 4.60 40 at the Combine with 22 reps of 225 pounds, a 38-inch vertical jump and 9-10 broad jump. PROJECTION: A rare running back 'tweener, he has the ability to be a fullback in a West Coast Offense like the Vikings run. If viewed as a fullback, he could be a third-round prospect. But he may never be the kind of 20-carry-a-game back that his numbers might indicate.

OTHERS TO WATCH
Toney Baker, North Carolina State, 5-9½, 229
Chris Brown, Oklahoma, 5-10½, 210
Anthony Dixon, Mississippi State, 6-0¾, 233
Jarvarris James, Miami, 6-0¼, 212
Darius Marshall, Marshall, 5-9¼, 190
Shawnbrey McNeil, SMU, 5-9¼, 194
Lonyae Miller, Fresno State, 5-11, 221
Ben Tate, Auburn, 5-11, 220
Keith Toston, Oklahoma State, 5-11¾, 213
Keiland Williams, LSU, 5-11, 233

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