Evan Silva

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Draft '08: The Running Backs

Thursday, March 06, 2008

The NFL Scouting Combine can be used as a tool to separate the top draft-eligible players at certain positions. However, none of this year's elite ball carriers pulled a Mario Manningham. Everyone on this list impressed. Here's a look at 2008's best running back prospects.

In case you missed it, here's our QB report.

1. Darren McFadden, Arkansas

Height/Weight: 6'1/211
College Experience: Third-year junior
Combine Results: 4.33 forty, 33" vertical, 10.8' broad jump
Comparison: Marcus Allen
Draft Projection: Top 10
2007 Statistics: 325-1830-5.6-16 Tds, 21-164-7.8-1 Td

Positives: McFadden's size-speed combination is freakish and unrivaled. He has three years of exceptional production in the SEC on his resume. The Razorbacks' offensive line was not elite and regularly faced more talented front sevens. McFadden will be 20 when drafted and has a better shot at a 10-12 year career than most draft-eligible backs. His protections are considered sound and McFadden is relentless in all areas. He is a solid receiver, uses a fierce stiff arm, and has open-field moves that should be highly effective at the next level.

Negatives: McFadden must add leg strength. He carries minor durability concerns after playing his freshman year with torn knee cartilage and needing an offseason scope. McFadden's off-field decision making is suspect; he was involved in a parking lot brawl and PianoBarGate in college. He fumbled 23 times in three seasons, losing nine.

Verdict: McFadden has the passion and talent to be a great NFL player, but is unlikely to be a top-five pick due to off-the-field issues. The Jets at No. 6 appear to be the best landing spot for McFadden. He'd work well as a combo back with Thomas Jones to begin his career.

2. Rashard Mendenhall, Illinois

Height/Weight: 5'10/225
College Experience: Third-year junior
Combine Results: 4.45 forty, 26 X 225 lbs, 33" vertical, 4.18 short shuttle
Comparison: Ronnie Brown
Draft Projection: Top 15
2007 Statistics: 262-1681-6.4-17 Tds, 34-318-9.4-2 Tds

Positives: Mendenhall is thickly built with strong extremities. Despite relatively limited playing time (he had fewer than 130 career carries heading to 2007), Mendenhall hit 16 plays of 25+ yards at Illinois. The 2007 Big Ten Offensive Player of the Year, Mendenhall earned Academic All Conference honors and is an intelligent individual. He has terrific second-gear speed, is versatile, and a dual threat. There are no obvious weaknesses in his game.

Negatives: Mendenhall started only one year at U of I. He played in a spread-option offense that frequently ran plays from the gun. Prospects in that scheme can be harder to evaluate. Mendenhall probably won't get much bigger, and if he does, could lose speed and quickness.

Verdict: Mendenhall was sensational against USC in the Rose Bowl, running by, through, and around defenders that will play against him in the pros. Mendenhall has been especially impressive in pre-draft all star events, demonstrating a herculean build and timing well. He is only 20, but developed physically. Mendenhall is a far better all-around prospect than Marshawn Lynch, the No. 12 pick overall in 2007, and is nipping at McFadden's heels.

3. Jonathan Stewart, Oregon

Height/Weight: 5'10/235
College Experience: Third-year junior
Combine Results: 4.48 forty, 28 X 225 lbs, 36" vertical, 10.8' broad jump
Comparison: Shaun Alexander
Draft Projection: Top 20
2007 Statistics: 280-1722-6.2-11 Tds, 22-145-6.6-2 Tds

Positives: Stewart has remarkable strength and can be a punisher. He has experience on special teams as a kick returner and was extremely productive in that role. Stewart has a quintessential power back body and is a balanced runner. He is a skilled receiver out of the backfield. Stewart is a workout warrior and set several weight room records at Oregon.

Negatives: Stewart can be too shifty. His 2007 touchdown total reflects that he needs to improve his red-zone efficiency. Stewart was actually more productive per touch in that area prior to 2007. He often dealt with minor, nagging injuries in college, but played through them.

Verdict: Among the top three backs in this draft, Stewart is arguably the most prepared to immediately be featured. He doesn't have the long-range upside of McFadden or Mendenhall, but may be the best fit in a power-based running offense. Stewart's work ethic among the draft's elite RBs stands out.

4. Ray Rice, Rutgers

Height/Weight: 5'8/200
College Experience: Third-year junior
Combine Results: 4.44 forty, 23 X 225 lbs, 31" vertical, 4.20 short shuttle
Comparison: Frank Gore
Draft Projection: Second round
2007 Statistics: 380-2012-5.3-24 Tds, 25-239-9.6-1 Td

Positives: Despite his modest build, Rice is fearless in short yardage. He has a nose for the end zone and plays bigger than his size. Rice is a "gamer" who may not impress getting off the bus, but delivers on the field. He is an instinctive, patient runner with ideal experience as a three-year starter. Rice never missed a game in college and showed in 2007 (after Brian Leonard left) that he can handle every-down responsibilities.

Negatives: Rice won't run around or by many NFL defenders. He isn't as versatile as McFadden, Mendenhall, Stewart, or Matt Forte. Rice's offensive line dominated the Big East; as many as three members of the Scarlet Knights' 2007 unit will be drafted in April. He is considered raw as a route runner.

Verdict: Rice isn't necessarily a burner or a bruiser, but runs with heart like Frank Gore and displays a similar "football junkie" mentality. He will begin his NFL career as a backup, but is unlikely to fail when given an opportunity. Rice is a product of The Bronx.

5. Felix Jones, Arkansas

Height/Weight: 5'10/207
College Experience: Third-year junior
Combine Results: 4.47 forty, 8 X 225 lbs, 33" vertical, 10.4' broad jump, 4.19 short shuttle
Comparison: Laurence Maroney
Draft Projection: Late first to early second round
2007 Statistics: 133-1162-8.7-11 Tds, 16-176-11.0-0 Tds

Positives: Jones is a highly elusive outside runner. He scored four times in three years as a kickoff returner and averaged 31.3 yards per KR as a junior. Having playing behind Darren McFadden since 2005, Jones' legs are fresh. He makes one cut and gets vertical in a hurry. Jones flashed soft hands, good route running, and homerun ability after the catch at Arkansas.

Negatives: Jones is inexperienced as an every-down back and is not developed physically. He is small and could be run over by blitzing linebackers and strong safeties in the pros. Jones is a gambler and can be streaky as a ball carrier.

Verdict: Jones measured in at the Combine two inches shorter than his college listing. While there's little means to guage how he might fare as a future starter, his lack of an ideal build to fill out is discouraging. It's not out of the question that he will be something more, but the odds favor Jones having a career as a complementary piece, not a lead back.

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Evan Silva is a senior football editor for Rotoworld.com. He can be found on Twitter .
Email :Evan Silva

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