Thursday, April 16, 2009

Draft Spotlight: Running Back

Who Are the Potential Feature Backs?

“Donald Brown
(Connecticut), what can you say about that guy? LeSean McCoy (Pittsburgh), holy cow! You talk about great backs, I mean, they are great backs,” West Virginia head coach Bill Stewart said of the two Big East backs in a College Football Insiders radio interview. Joining the UConn and Pitt products as potential feature backs are Beanie Wells (Ohio St.) and Knowshon Moreno (Georgia), who are pretty much the consensus top two.

Before we get to Beanie the Buckeye, the NFL Draft Bible’s top two backs are a pair of Jersey Boys in Moreno and Brown. Moreno was a star for the Dawgs the past two seasons running the football, and no one in college football played with as much fire or energy. He has excellent vision and knows how to make people miss. Moreno lacks prototypical size and speed, but is such an instinctive runner. In addition, he had the second best 3-Cone time at the NFL Scouting Combine, displaying his ability to change directions and accelerate. Similarly, Brown may not possess eye-popping measurables, but the kid can play, as evidenced by his 2,000 yards in 2008 for the Huskies. Brown is a strong runner, who sees the field well with the necessary patience to allow holes to develop.

Wells is bigger and faster, but has question marks regarding his durability and desire. Does he have a passion the game? Is he willing to play hurt? Very few NFL running backs are 100 percent by the time crunch time rolls around. He has the most upside of any back and comes with great potential value, but is not as safe a pick as Moreno or Brown—Beanie could boom or bust.

Finally, we come to McCoy, who not everyone views as potential feature back. Don’t count former teammate linebacker Scott McKillop among the doubters.

“He helped me become a better linebacker this year,” McKillop said of McCoy. “I thought I was pretty fortunate to go out and practice against one of the top running backs in college football. I think he helped me become a better tackler this year than I was last. He’s a great kid, I’m pulling for him.”

McCoy, a red-shirt sophomore like Moreno, had only two years of college experience; he lacks ideal size and did not get the opportunity to strut his stuff at the Combine due to an injury. Nevertheless, one cannot ignore what he can do on the field. McCoy has good vision, great balance and even better elusiveness—he’ll make ya miss.

Who Are the Next Tier of Runners?

More than any other back at the Combine, Andre Brown (North Carolina St.) displayed his potential with 4.4-speed and an NFL frame at over 220 pounds.

“His potential is unlimited,” his former head coach Tom O’Brien said in a CFI interview. “We’ve only been here two years and actually he missed the last six games of our first year with an injury. He’s certainly made tremendous strides this year. He can play whether it’s first, second or third down—he can be that back. He has size and he has speed to take that pounding at the next level. So I think he would be a great addition to someone’s team.”

What will likely keep Brown from becoming a feature back is his lack of durability. Brown has struggled to stay on the field, which limited his production as a collegian. He possesses good vision, patience and can be a factor in the passing game.

Glenn Coffee also must overcome durability concerns. He doesn’t have standout skills, but is tough, physical runner who always seems to find a way to fall forward and pick up an extra yard or two. He possesses the ability to cut, change direction and not lose speed.

Who is the Best Between the Tackles?

Shonn Greene (Iowa) doesn’t offer much in terms of breakaway speed, elusiveness or explosiveness, but he is a downhill runner who maximizes the available yards in traffic—he pushes the pile. One has to love his consistency as well; no other back ran for 100 yards in each and every game this past season.

Another north-south runner is Gartrell Johnson (Colorado St.), who had a dominant bowl game and was very impressive at the East-West Shrine game. Originally viewed by some as fullback, it appears Johnson has solidified himself as a runner. However, he may very well be the slowest running back in this class and doesn’t have the type of elusiveness to make defenders miss in the open field, but he does possess very quick feet.

The best big back may very well be small school product Rashad Jennings (Liberty) who packs a punch at 231 pounds. In both the All-Star game process and the Combine Jennings proved he belonged among the Bowl Subdivision backs. He has good vision and can change directions very well for a big back. He surprised quite a few observers with his 3-Cone time of 6.86 (fourth at the Combine).

Are There Any Home Run Threats?

With only four backs running sub-4.5s at the Combine, there are not as many breakaway threats as NFL scouts would like. One reason for the poor Combine numbers was that the NFL did not see fit to invite little man Devin Moore (Wyoming) to Indianapolis. Moore shined at his own private workout in his hometown and teams looking for a breakaway threat should not underestimate this Wyoming product. He is elusive, possesses long speed, and is stronger than you might think.

Mike Goodson
(Texas A&M) wasn’t as productive as expected when he arrived at College Station, but he could end being the big play back the Aggies expected at the NFL level. He is explosive, has good balance in the open field and the long speed to hit the home run.

Two backs that surprised a few people at the Combine with their straight-line speed were Cedric Peerman (Virginia) and Kory Sheets (Purdue). Peerman ran a 4.5 in Indianapolis and he possesses good vision, but isn’t necessarily at his best in the open field. Sheets ran a 4.47 and excels outside the tackles, with the wiggle to make people miss. The former Boilermaker is also quite willing to get physical with defensive backs and when he wins those confrontations, he is more than able to break free for a big run.

“I think he could help a team in a lot of ways,” says Purdue head coach Danny Hope. “He’s a good kick return man, he has legitimate speed, and good size, not great. But I’m not surprised he ran as fast as he did. I think he ran somewhere in the mid, low 4.4’s. He was an excellent sprinter in high school. He was a track man in high school and had documented track times. He was fortunate this season to get the bulk of the work at the running back spot. We had an injury to one of our top running backs, Jason Taylor. We relied a lot on Kory Sheets and he rose to the occasion and really did a great job. He rushed for over 1,200 yards and was a good receiver out of the backfield, but I think the fact that he played in the spread offense and knows how to catch the football will separate him from some other guys at his position. If he can prove himself to be a physical player, I think he can do very well in National Football League. He is very talented and I think he has the desire to do well.”

Rounding out this group is Marcus Thigpen (Indiana), who may or may not get drafted, but leaves little doubt in terms of his pure speed. The man with sub-4.4 speed also has the potential to be a special return man.

Who Are the Best of the Rest?

There are still some talented backs remaining, led by the 5’9 duo of Jeremiah Johnson (Oregon) and Jevon Ringer (Michigan St.). What hurts this pair is that in addition to lacking ideal size, neither brings top end speed to the table. Ringer is very quick though, with the ability to change direction. He has good vision, is very tough, and better between the tackles than one might assume. Johnson is a little more explosive and more elusive in the open field, a very dangerous runner once he can get outside the tackles. The former Duck also seems to be able to break off long runs, he’s rarely caught from behind.

We also can’t forget Ian Johnson (Boise St.), Bernard Scott (Abilene-Christian), Arian Foster (Tennessee), James Davis (Clemson) and Aaron Brown (TCU). Johnson really proved the doubters wrong with his speed, quickness and strength at the Combine. He improved his draft stock by a round or two. Scott will get drafted beneath his talent level because of character question marks, but the kid can play ball.

The two senior sinkers since the start of the season are Davis and Foster. The former Vol has superb hands, prototypical size, and he is very smooth runner. However, he has serious questions when it comes to his ability to stay on the field. Davis has enough size and speed to play at the next level, but has tight hips, durability issues and he was not much of factor in the Tigers’ passing attack when it came to blocking or receiving.

Brown never put up big numbers as a Horned Frog and also had trouble staying healthy, but he has very good vision and burst, with the hands and ability to run after the catch. He could certainly be a solid third-down back.

Who Are the Potential PFA Gems?

A pair of backs who are not physically imposing or going to make you double check your stop-watch, but possess the quick feet and ability to change direction are Tyrell Sutton (Northwestern) and Kahlil Bell (UCLA). Brad Lester (Auburn) did not receive an invitation to the Combine because he barely contributed as a senior and struggled his entire career at Auburn to stay on the field. If healthy, Lester could be a real find.

Which Fullbacks Could Get Draft?

Tony Fiammetta
(Syracuse) is the odds-on favorite to be the first fullback off the board. He has good size and speed, is an above average blocker and can catch the ball out of the backfield. Other fullbacks who could hear their name called are Quinn Johnson (LSU), Brannan Southerland (Georgia), Conredge Collins (Pittsburgh) and Jason Cook (Mississippi St.). Cook has prototypical size, Johnson is an excellent lead blocker, injury issues hurt Southerland, while Collins is athletic, but undersized.

Who Are the Stars of Tomorrow?

The top senior back for 2009 will be C.J. Spiller (Clemson), who possesses breakaway speed and is a true weapon coming out of the backfield. Even though Davis is gone, Spiller figures to share some carries. LeGarrette Blount (Oregon) and Charles Scott (LSU) are bruising backs that tip the scales at over 230 pounds. Stafon Johnson (USC) is an intriguing talent, but has never had the opportunity to get consistent carries as a Trojan.

Junior Jonathan Dwyer (Georgia Tech) is a powerful runner, with Jahvid Best (California) and Noel Devine (West Virginia) true game-breakers for the Class of 2011. The players with the most potential remain DeMarco Murray (Oklahoma) and Joe McKnight (USC), with the red-shirt junior out of Norman the more proven talent. Also out of the Big XII, Kendall Hunter (Oklahoma St.) is a sleeper who has been very productive.

Photo Credit: College Press Box (Michigan St., Pittsburgh, NC State), SEC Sports Media, University of Wyoming Photo Service