When it comes to the NFL Draft, Runningbacks are sort of an enigma and for the 2011 NFL draft that's unlikely to change. There is no position in the draft that is more under valued than Runningback. You only see a handful of players who earn a pick in the first round and for the most part those that do have done so because of some rare physical gifts or ridiculous career numbers. Even then it can be rare to see them drafted very high, despite the difference a great RB can make to a team in the NFL. With more and more NFL teams preferring a platoon situation you're not likely to see 3 guys fly off the board inside the Top 15. With an 18 game season a big possibility as well, the days of the every down RB might be gone forever.
What's so unusual, and this shouldn't be overlooked by fans on draft day, is that Runningbacks are also typically the player who can integrate themselves into an NFL offense the quickest. Because of that, return on investment is typically high. In this draft, I am probably in the minority. I have 4 backs I've given first round grades to. Along with that, I have given 3 more guys 2nd round grades. But for this exercise let's focus on the players who are in that elite class.
First for me is the Alabama Crimson Tide's Mark Ingram. In order to be a first round pick, I have to think about you in terms of being able to be on the field in critical portions of the game. That means being able to handle the rock on short yardage, passing downs, and get the carry when no one thinks you can get the yards. For me, this is Ingram all over. I love his combination of size and speed. The fact he's only 5'10" works for him, because he has a tremendously low center of gravity which makes him really hard to bring down. He's got tremendous patience and ask SEC defenses if he can break away when he's in the open field. I haven't heard as many pundits talk as highly of Ingram as I do, but when I look at the first round backs taken in the past 3 drafts (11 total), I don't see a player I'd take ahead of Ingram coming out of school.
My number two back is Ryan Williams from the Virginia Tech Hokies. He's slightly undersized compared to Ingram, but in a league that covets the ability to break off the long run, Williams is going to be in a lot of NFL execs minds. Go back and watch his 2009 season, you'll see what a workhorse he was and that he can be a 20+ carry a guy in the NFL. He has such quick feet, he can extend the play, and he shows nice power when he finishes. His system isn't ideal for determining NFL potential, but I love watching him play and there's no reason given some work he can't transfer his Saturday success to Sundays.
Next guy on my list is Mikel Leshoure from Illinois. Probably the highest compliment I can pay Leshoure is he's sort of a bigger Mark Ingram without the pedigree. I'm not sure the system LeShoure played in at Illinois, and the defenses he feasted on, gives him the kind of resume' I like when I think of elite players, but no doubt he's big and fast, and is a one cut and go type back who can catch the football out of the backfield. I won't be at all surprised to see LeShoure be the guy to really wow at the Scouting Combine with fabulous triangle numbers and end up the first running back off the board.
My last of the Big 4 is a guy you won't hear much about from anyone else. It's Kansas State Wildcat Daniel Thomas. I give Thomas the nod over some other backs for a couple of reasons. He's got great size measuring up pretty similar to Leshoure, but he's run a ton of his carries out of a pro style offense. Thomas is very tough to bring down, and he's been incredibly productive in a system that was a void of much other talent on offense. Every week, every opposing Defensive Co-ordinator knew Thomas was going to get a ton of touches, teams stacked the box and it didn't matter. He just ran over, around, through, and past everyone. His spin move is like something out of Madden.
So when I break it down, here's the way I look at it:
Immediate Impact - Mikel LeShoure. If he's the first back off the board as most assume, he's probably going to be tossed into a situation where he's going to be on the field early and often, and that should add up to really solid rookie numbers.
Most bust potential - Ryan Williams. If he can't set himself apart in terms of quickness and speed or has a problem staying healthy, he could end up lost in the mix and sort of a career platoon guy.
The Lukewarm Award - Mikel LeShoure. I'm not sure why, but I just don't share the enthusiasm that most do about him. I heard someone say he compares favorably to Steven Jackson but I just don't see it beyond the haircut. That's a mighty big comparison to make.
Best Pro 5 years from now - Mark Ingram. It seems to me, as his game continues to emerge and mature, he's just going to get better and better. And if by chance he can slip a little and be drafted by a good team, he's really going to flourish. I like to think 5 years from now, Ingram will have multiple 1,200 yard rushing seasons/double digit TDs seasons.
Mark Ingram - Alabama
Ryan Williams - Virginia Tech
Mikel Leshoure - Illinois