Evan Silva

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Draft 2011: The Running Backs

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The 2011 running back class lacks elite talent. There is no Adrian Peterson. No member possesses a size-speed combination like Darren McFadden or even Jonathan Stewart. (Aside from, perhaps, Roy Helu. More on him in a bit.)

Mark Ingram is considered the only likely first-round back, and even he isn't a lock for the top 32, according to NFL Network's Mike Lombardi. Lombardi and former longtime NFL GM Charley Casserly, however, have praised the depth and quality of running backs projected to go in rounds two and three.

Our latest mock didn't have a single running back in the first round, and it wasn't a mistake. It's not a premium position in the NFL. The league's leading rusher was an undrafted free agent in 2010, and the postseason's top rusher was a sixth-round pick. LeGarrette Blount was the best rookie running back in football. Blount was not drafted last April, and he got cut out of Titans camp.

These backs won't come off the board quickly over the weekend of April 28-30. But they'll continue to be the heart and soul of fantasy football teams.

Let's have a closer look at this year's crop.

1. Mark Ingram, Alabama

Height/Weight: 5'9/215
College Experience: Third-year junior
Combine #s: 4.62 forty, 1.55 10-yd split, 21 x 225, 31.5" vertical, 9'5" broad jump, 4.62 ss
Style Comparison: Ray Rice
2010 Stats: 158 - 875 (5.5) - 13 Tds; 21 - 282 (13.4) - 1 Td
Draft Prediction: Patriots, No. 33 overall.

Positives: Ingram is NFL ready every way you slice it. He played in a pro-style college offense, is versed in blitz pickup, catches the football naturally, and consistently busts through arm tackles. A former four-star recruit, Ingram took over as Alabama's starting tailback after Glen Coffee left for the pros in 2009. Ingram won the Heisman in his first year on the job, setting a single-season school rushing record (1,648). He lost two fumbles on 632 career touches, scored 60 touchdowns, and averaged 5.70 yards per carry in college football's toughest conference. Ingram has the best balance of any running back in the 2011 class. Though he didn't run a top forty time in Indianapolis, Ingram's elite short-area acceleration was evident in his impressive ten-yard split, a full tenth of a second faster than the running back average from last year's Combine.

Negatives: Ingram is not a special athlete. He shed 10-15 pounds following the college season, but his 4.62 forty ranked 20th out of 33 running backs who ran in Indy. Ingram's 31 1/2-inch vertical ranked 27th, bettering only USC's Allen Bradford and four fullback types. Ingram underwent arthroscopic knee surgery in August of 2010, and recent reports indicate NFL teams have concerns about his longevity as well as the possibility of degenerative arthritis in the joint.

Outlook: Ingram projects as a three-down back on day one, and workhorse in the NFL. While the decreasing value of the position Ingram plays may ultimately keep him out of the top-20 picks, he's a safe bet for immediate production. There are few weaknesses in Ingram's game.

2. Mikel Leshoure, Illinois

Height/Weight: 6'0/227
College Experience: Third-year junior
Combine #s: 4.56 forty, 1.53 10-yd split, 21 x 225, 38" vertical, 10'2" broad jump, 4.40 ss
Style Comparison: Rashard Mendenhall
2010 Stats: 281 - 1,697 (6.0) - 17 Tds; 17 - 196 (11.5) - 3 Tds
Draft Prediction: Bengals, No. 35 overall.

Positives: Leshoure is the most powerfully built back in this top five, and has drawn comparisons to Steven Jackson for his running style, size, and speed. Carrying 12 more pounds, Leshoure beat out Ingram in every athletic test at the Combine after a far more productive 2010 campaign. Leshoure set Illini single-season rushing and touchdown records as a junior, and his 6.03 career YPC average is fourth in the class behind only backs from Nevada, Hawaii, and D-IAA Eastern Washington. Really only a one-year starter at Illinois, Leshoure has little wear on his tires and was at his best when given heavy workloads. He flashes exceptional physicality, is rarely caught from behind, and is quick enough to make linebackers and some defensive backs miss.

Negatives: Leshoure only had 424 career carries, all in a spread offense. He'll be fairly difficult for NFL decision makers to evaluate because of the sample size and system. Leshoure caught 37 passes in three years at Illinois and is inexperienced in blitz protection. He probably won't help on any third downs initially. Leshoure is considered raw in terms of vision, how to use his body, and most finer points of the position. Character may be a concern. Leshoure missed three games as a freshman after breaking his jaw in a fight with Illini tight end Jeff Cumberland. As a sophomore, Leshoure was suspended one game for another violation of team rules.

Outlook: Leshoure has a better chance to be a home-run pick than Ingram because of his superior size, speed, and long-term upside. The arrow is pointing skyward for the recently turned 21-year-old. With a skill set suited for all offenses, he projects as a value anywhere in round two.

3. Ryan Williams, Virginia Tech

Height/Weight: 5'9/212
College Experience: Third-year sophomore
Combine #s: 4.59 forty, 1.53 10-yd split, 19 x 225, 40" vertical, 10'3" broad jump, 4.18 ss
Style Comparison: Thomas Jones
2010 Stats: 110 - 477 (4.3) - 9 Tds; 10 - 109 (10.9) - 1 Td
Draft Prediction: Rams, No. 47 overall.

Positives: The nation's No. 4 tailback recruit out of high school, Williams exploded onto the college scene as a redshirt freshman, setting the Hokies' single-season rushing record (1,655 yards) and scoring 22 TDs to garner ACC Rookie of the Year honors. He was also consensus first-team all-conference in 2009. An angry, muscle-bound runner, Williams is a broken tackle waiting to happen with his feet moving. He does not waste steps and consistently finishes runs. Williams plays with suddenness and is considered better in the pass game than his college stats indicate. He fights for every yard, draws high marks for work ethic, and rarely fumbled in college.

Negatives: 2010 was a disaster season for Williams. He tore his right hamstring in the third game of the year, missed a month, and lost his starting job to Darren Evans. Proneness to injury isn't new for Williams. He missed nine games combined as a high school sophomore and senior with various maladies, and also sprained an ankle after tearing the hamstring in 2010. Williams' relentlessly physical run style could be mostly to blame. Williams wasn't asked to pass protect much at Virginia Tech and only caught 26 passes in his college career. Throw out one 84-yard run last year, and he averaged 3.57 yards a carry. Evans' average was 5.66 for the season.

Outlook: Had Williams played a full, healthy 2010 season, we might be talking him up as the top back in the draft. He has dangerous talent. Ultimately, Williams may be another boom-or-bust type of prospect. He needs to overcome his injury history to become a featured NFL back.

4. Roy Helu, Nebraska

Height/Weight: 6'0/219
College Experience: Fourth-year senior
Combine #s: 4.4 forty, 1.51 10-yd split, 11 x 225, 36.5" vertical, 9'11" broad jump, 4.01 ss
Style Comparison: Felix Jones
2010 Stats: 188 - 1,245 (6.6) - 11 Tds; 5 - 46 (9.2) - 0 Tds
Draft Prediction: Colts, No. 119 overall.

Positives: Helu possesses ideal size and speed for the position, and his wheels show up in a 6.62 senior-year YPC average that ranks first among the top seven running backs on this list. His Combine forty time isn't a mirage. Helu is a home-run hitter with the ability to plant, make one cut, and go the distance. A second-team All-Big 12 honoree by the conference's coaches, Helu graduated as one of Nebraska's top-five all-time rushers despite sharing carries throughout his career. Helu also posted the top ten-yard split time by a running back at the Combine. He has big hands (10 1/8 inches) and flashes tackle-breaking power. Helu was a team captain in 2010.

Negatives: Helu needs a lot of weight-room work, and not just because he managed only 11 reps of 225 pounds in Indianapolis. He doesn't maximize his size, too often plays without physicality, and is highly inconsistent. Helu carries a pile six yards upfield on one play, and gets tackled one-on-one by a defensive back on the next. He benefited from a dominant front five in a weak Big 12 North; the Cornhuskers may have three offensive linemen picked in April. Draft analysts question Helu's vision, down-to-down competitiveness, ball security, and blocking.

Outlook: We like Helu because he has a sky-high ceiling. 220-pound tailbacks just don't run 4.4 flat with elite acceleration very often. But Helu is still a project after four years in college. His best fit would be with a team that relies heavily on zone blocking, and less on power plays.

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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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